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Slow cooked onion tart

January 13, 2018
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The problem with all the cookery shows on TV (and yes I’ll admit to being glued to every season of Masterchef) is the constant striving for reinvention and novelty. In the last series of the aforementioned cookery competition, one chef who had cooked really inviting food that you would be very happy to eat as a customer in his restaurant, was often criticised for not being adventurous or inventive enough. And don’t even get me started on Great British Bake Off (who wants to eat those things?).

What’s wrong with cooking really simple things well? When you have really good ingredients often you hardly need to do much with them anyway.

Rant over and onto the start of the year and comforting food. Even in the desert where our winters aren’t really all that cold (it was 25 C today) there’s a feeling of hunkering down and getting cosy – even if it’s after you’ve just come home from the beach. KP and I have chosen to be vegetarian during January. Actually I chose and as I do most of the cooking, that’s what we’re eating!

This onion tart is all about the simple – in cooking and in taste. Putting a few things that go well together inside a case of buttery pastry.

You’ll note that the onions take a long, long, long time to cook but they don’t need much supervising. I wrote this recipe before I read this rant about onion cooking time by the way!

You can add your own twist – the bitter, melancholy flavours of rosemary or thyme go beautifully with the sweetness of the onions, whereas bright fresh herbs add a different vibe.  Stir, into the uncooked filling, a handful of grated cheddar or a softer milder cheese. Fragments of crisp bacon or spicy chorizo are other head-turners. But honestly, I take a purist line here of savouring the humble onion cooked slowly into sweet, melting submission then married with the best dairy in a crumbly case that reminds you of childhood.

A crisp, green salad is the perfect partner.

  • Servings: 4-6
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A simple, comforting tart made with store cupboard ingredients.

Ingredients

  • 50g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 100g plain flour
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon water (ice cold)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 large onions, peeled
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 300ml double cream
  • sea salt and black pepper

Directions

  1. Make the pastry. Put the flour, salt and butter into a food processor and whizz to the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolks (I actually used 3  yolks as my eggs were very small if you have a very large egg you may only need one) and pulse the processor until the pastry starts to come together. Add the iced water through the tube while it is pulsing and process lightly until the dough starts to come together. Stop the processor and form the pastry into a ball. Wrap (in cling or cover in a bowl) and rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes for the gluten to expand.
  2. Meanwhile, slice the onions finely and sauté very gently in a cast iron (or non stick) frying pan. Start them off on a higher heat and use a spatula to fold them into the oil so they are all coated and start to lose their firmness. Then turn to the lowest heat possible, stirring occasionally and until the onions are transparent and very soft. Do not let them turn darker than a very pale fawn in colour. This can take up to an hour (I often do this ahead of time in two batches).
  3. Grease a deep 20-21cm flan tin. Roll out the pastry very thinly and line the tin, gently folding it into the edge without stretching it. Prick the base with a fork and bake blind in an oven preheated to 180C for 15 minutes (or until lightly cooked through).
  4. Remove from the oven and when the tart shell has cooled a little, spread the cooked onions over the base.
  5. Measure the cream into a jug, add the eggs and beat together with a generous pinch of sea salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Pour the cream mixture over the onions, moving them a little with a fork to enable the liquid to sink right to the bottom.
  6. Cook in the oven for 30-40 minute, protecting the exposed edges of pastry with some strips of silver foil if they start to get too brown. Remove when the filling is lightly set and the top is starting to turn golden brown. Leave to cool a little before slicing. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Onion tart and some onions

Caramelised onion tart

What simple comfort food to you turn to during the Winter?

 

How a photography challenge could improve your Instagram

January 1, 2018

Gingerbread biscuits as part of an Instagram Photography Challenge

Happy New Year. Do your resolutions include ‘improving your photography’ or ‘growing your Instagram’? In fact, the two are linked. Read on for some practical advice that’s helped me this year.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for almost five years. It was a huge change in my life – newly married, quitting a high-powered job in UK, having my first baby, leaving all my friends to be behind the walls of a compound in a place where I couldn’t drive or even eat out with my husband’s colleagues if they were not with their wives and we sat in the ‘family section’.  It wasn’t all bad but I did struggle a bit until I joined a drawing group led by an inspirational teacher. It eventually became an artist’s support group where we would be given a topic or a theme one week and then critique each other’s work at the following session. The focus in knowing someone else would be looking at your work, marvelling everyone else’s very different interpretation, the spur to explore more, stretch yourself, attain greater things creatively was hugely motivating. Just writing this brings back how excited I was each week at the beginning and the end of each session. A couple of the paintings I produced during that time are framed on my wall even now.

Finding creative inspiration

Staring at a blank canvas without purpose is hard. And this can apply across all creative media including when taking photographs. It can be especially tricky for Instagram. The pressures of getting your grid looking right, attracting likes and engagement can leave you like a rabbit in the headlights sometimes.

Sometimes, I’ll be on a roll and then, out of the blue, the feeling that nothing is good enough hits. It doesn’t have a point. It’s just a pretty picture.

This is where joining some sort of group or challenge comes in.  Like the artists support group, it gives you a focus, a germ of idea, interaction with like-minded people who stretch your ideas of what’s possible, encourage you to stretch yourself and, hopefully, appreciate what you do.

Here are a few that have worked for me with suggestions how you can find something that works for you:

Instagram Photography Challenge by A Little Plantation

What is it?

This is a seasonal challenge run by Kimberly of A Little Plantation blog and all the images you see in this post are taken when I took part this Autumn.

How to join

You sign up on Kimberly’s blog and she will email you at the start of each week with a theme and three topics. She gives examples of some of the directions you might think of (both food and non-food).  There are three dates to post on and a hashtag so you can see what everyone else creates. You also need to tag Kimberly on the image to make sure she sees it.

How it inspires

You create nine images over three weeks so that you give real consideration to how your Instagram grid looks as a cohesive whole.  Once a week, Kimberly does a live Instagram session and chooses a favourite image for each prompt. She explains in detail why she thinks the image worked so well and what she liked about it. There is definitely an element of trying hard to impress your favourite teacher here! I gave a lot more thought to the planning when taking the images and considered different elements which I might not have before. I always resolved to watch the replay (as my time zone is ahead of UK) but ended up watching live several times as I just couldn’t wait to see which ones were selected. Sadly I didn’t make the hallowed few but will definitely be joining in again this January.

There is no reason why you couldn’t use the prompts if you are not on Instagram, just for general photography although you won’t get the feedback.

Things to consider

This is a free challenge with a really engaged community around it. There are a few spaces to pay for an upgrade for a one to one feedback from Kimberly (I didn’t). I found some beautiful new accounts and Instagram friends who I’ve kept in touch with. Inevitably, as Kimberly has a very definite look, it attracts a certain style of photographer, but not exclusively – and she featured some images which were totally different. You won’t see much architecture or whimsy here, but will see flatlays, dark images and whole and healthy foods.   Find out more on The Little Plantation

Weekend Hashtag Project on Instagram

What is it?

A theme issued every weekend by Instagram using the #WHP hashtag.

How to join

Visit the Instagram account from Friday evening when the new Weekend Hashtag Project theme is announced. Take a photo or video over the weekend linked to the theme and add the particular WHP hashtag. As I’m writing this it is #WHPstripes . Instagram asks that people only tag photos and videos taken over that weekend to keep it original and timely and only submit your own visuals to the project. Any tagged photo or video taken over the weekend is eligible to be featured next week. If this happens you are in for a huge rush of Instagram traffic and new followers.

How it inspires

Having the discipline of coming up with a really original, striking or evocative image each week is a great place to spark new ideas and exercise your brain. Even if I don’t participate every week, I love seeing the other interpretations from people I follow (such as allthatisshe and sarah_louise_ferg) plus those around the world. It’s very interesting to see who Instagram features too as some of the images make you gasp with wonder or tug the heart-strings.

Things to consider

Like all these challenges  it’s important to use the theme as a conduit for your own creativity and not be sucked into a comparison trap. The theme of this challenge gives a framework without limitations and is as much about telling a story as taking a picture.

Alphabet Challenge by Rosie Hardy

What is it?

A challenge that Rosie Hardy –  sets herself by exploring a theme from each letter of the alphabet. Her whimsical images push into the realms of imagination and fantasy.

How to join?

Follow @GeorgiaRoseHardy on Instagram for her latest theme and use #rosiehardychallenge tag to join in.

How it inspires

The images are highly edited using the free software Gimp to manipulate reality. A for Adventure showed her sticking enormous map pins in a larger than life-sized wall map while her cat looked on; B for butterflies was set on a window sill with them flying over her head and perched on her hand.

If you want to learn these techniques yourself she publishes a before and after pic on her website with a detailed tutorial (15 GBP to download) for each image.

Things to consider

It’s not essential to use editing software to join in the challenge but the spirit of the themes is to stretch the imagination.  I became aware of this challenge via @sarah_louise_ferg who used the things she learned from the tutorial to make her own original image to submit to WHP

Bloom and Grow (and Gloom and Glow) by Sara Tasker

What is it?

Bloom and Grow is a paid for Instagram course which lasts for four weeks with a focus on flowers but is a whole lot more. Run by Sara Tasker of meandorla.com who brings her forensic examination of why things work to the appeal of blooms and nature.  She sets projects and homework through the course, and feedback within the walls of a dedicated Facebook community.  She has also launched  a new course called Gloom and Glow to inspire people through the gloomy, light-starved months of winter (not something I wrestle with here in Dubai).

How to join

Information and sign up on Sara’s website. It’s only open at certain times of the year (so that everyone starts the course at the same time).

How it inspires

If the course is good, I always find my commitment is unwavering if I’ve forked out some cash. Sara has a real gift for explaining how an image connects, giving you the tools through detailed information, then setting the spark for you to create your own.  I found I was thinking on a different level while doing this course – and it’s something that has stayed with me.  I’ve witnessed the transformative effect it had on several people’s accounts too.

Things to consider

This is a course with challenges. Don’t assume it’s a clichéd and formulaic prescriptive about flatlays and peonies; instead it’s a catalyst to harness the magic appeal of flowers and nature. As Sara says “whether you’re all-white and minimal, moody and journalistic, entirely travel-based or anything else, we’ll look at ways to weave a little floral magic into your photographs.”  However, you will inevitably find some people on the course who do fall into the flowery flatlay camp. There is plenty of room for additional inspiration though.

How to join

Sign up on Sara’s website. If you want a taste of her style of teaching, you can sign up for her 7 day free course before you commit. Read my review of her ‘tell-all’ course The Insta Retreat

Hashtag challenges and themes

Instagram is awash with these, from a new theme every day to ongoing tags to unite like-minded people. The trick is to find ones that work for you, where you find something to truly inspire among a tribe of people who will root for you. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. itsmyweek A new theme every week and a stunning collection of little scenes from everyday life. This is a new find for me and I love what they are doing here. Four accounts are featured at the end of each week on @itsmyweek
  2. #adoremycupofcoffee Elegantly inspiring for coffee devotees. Simple, restrained and Scandinavian in tone via Britt from @remainsoftheday_ who  features her favourites now and again.
  3. #mybeautifulsimplicity This hashtag is about beautifully simple images which are full of space – it’s not about the subject matter but a certain style. They should feel calm and be free from clutter and detail according to @zoepower who features her favourites every few weeks on her feed and round ups on her blog, Beautiful Simplicity, too.

Gingerbread biscuits in a leaf shape for an Instagram photography challenge

I hope these may have given you a starting point for the year if you are feeling a bit lacking in direction. Of course there are hundreds of others out there. In fact if you find something you think me and other readers might enjoy please drop me a line by email or in the comments section. Is there anything that you’ve resolved to do in 2018 to take the next step with your photography and Instagram?

What’s in season in the UAE? October guide

November 7, 2017
Whats in season in the UAE in October

My market haul from 13th October 2017 – the first day of the new season

I do most of my weekly shop during the growing season by buying my organic vegetables direct from local farmers. Browsing each stall to see who has what, choosing the best, trying to buy a little from as many farmers as possible, striking up a conversation with the growers and other shoppers, makes the whole process a joy. Then there’s the scent of the vegetables (it’s mainly veg – just a tiny bit of local fruit), buying roots with leaves rather than a trimmed down anonymous looking balls, it’s knowing that everything was picked just a few hours earlier.

Cooking is different too – it’s helped me to be more intuitive, adaptable and adventurous in the kitchen. Cook books are there for inspiration not prescription.

The Farmers’ Market, here in Dubai, started a good six weeks earlier this year. It’s down to an increase in the number of farms growing organic produce, even though the range is a little more limited, the volume was enough to set up stalls (the temperatures were a little steamy to say the least!).

So I’ve put together a monthly guide to what’s available. It will become a memory jogger in the fallow months about what’s up coming and when. Plus I can collect together recipe suggestions to help us all when inspiration gets a little thin – including LOTS of courgette recipes!

Whats in season in the UAE in October

Restrained market shopping due to travel. My basket from 27th October 2017

During the early days of my blog (in 2010 can you believe?) I used to look longingly at people who were doing seasonal round-ups in their part of the world. I never imagined that it would be possible here in the United Arab Emirates.

My research for this guide has been based on the organic, local produce available at The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace in 2017 (and into 2018).  You may also find some additional or different things at Greenheart as they collect seed to grow their own varieties of vegetables. For a preview, you can see what I bought for a whole season during 2014 to 2015 on this post.

Farming in the desert has immense challenges and seasonal often means protecting things from nature as well as working in harmony. Being able to buy organic produce that has been picked a few hours before is a huge privilege. If you are reading this from another part of the world you might be surprised at what is grown and pick up some ideas for your own local produce too.

Vegetables and fruit in season in the UAE during October

Click on an image to enlarge and browse the gallery. All taken during October 2017.

Vegetables in bold link to recipes

  • Amaranth – used throughout Asia and parts of Africa, good for stir frying
  • Aubergine – or eggplant. Not abundant during this month and only purple available.
  • Basil – strongly scented variety with thick stalks
  • Beetroot – the first beetroot of the month has tough skin, not abundant
  • Broccoli – very little broccoli available and fairly dry in texture (wait until November)
  • Butternut squash – beautiful butternut squash with very fragrant, sweet flesh available
  • Chillies – from small, round and green to a few long and red. Chillies are abundant and fiery
  • Chinese red spinach – you may spot this variety of spinach with attractive red splashes on the leaves
  • Coriander – fresh coriander is abundant by the end of the month
  • Courgette – available in small green, long yellow, dark green (probably a variety of summer squash rather than a true courgette) and round yellow and green which are great for stuffing. Also called kousa
  • Cucumber – two different types available, one with a speckled thick peel and juicy pale flesh
  • Dates – dried dates from the farms are on many stalls
  • Dill – bunches of leafy dill are there from the beginning. Good for pickling seasoning
  • Fenugreek – such pretty leaves, good in curries (also known as methi)
  • Kale – starts to become more abundant by the end of the month
  • Limes – small limes are more like lemons in taste. Not overly juicy but very fresh tasting
  • Melon – orange and white fleshed melons available. Not extremely sweet but refreshing. Good with a touch of raw honey (from the Balqees stall)
  • Mint – vigorous and fragrant from the first market. Stems can be tough at this time of year
  • Moringa – leafy branches on some stalls, fresh and green (used in curries)
  • Molokhia – very seasonal, it disappears by November. Used a bit like spinach and adored by many for its slimy quality when cooked.
  • Okra – green okra available
  • Oranges – a few local ones on the stalls, green peel mainly
  • Parsley – local flat leafed variety fairly abundant
  • Peppers – a few green and the odd red one. Not peak season
  • Pumpkin – one or two stalls had green skinned, sizeable pumpkins
  • Radish – good crunchy peppery bunches on several stalls
  • Rocket/ Roka (salad or garden rocket, arugula, rucola, gerger) – the flat-leaved, salad-type is abundant
  • Spinach – very similar in look to the rocket. Make sure you ask the farmer or look for pointy leaves
  • Spring onions – a couple of stalls have nice, fresh crunchy bunches
  • Sweetcorn – a few make an appearance in the last week in October
  • Sweet potato – a few early ones both pink and white on one or two stalls
  • Tarragon – a few stalls have beautiful bunches throughout the month
  • Tomatoes – a scant few with little flavour in October
  • Watermelon – not particularly sweet but refreshing
  • Wild rocket – one or two stalls have this but it’s a bit wiry at this time of year

My Arabian Almanakh

Another thing I brought home from the market was a beautiful gardening resource and planner, My Arabian Almanakh. It acts as a guide to the unique growing conditions in this country and wider region,  and has a wealth of tips and information to help people work with nature to grow a whole range of edible plants. There are spaces for notes and planting records for every month plus a guide to each season. There are delightful illustrations throughout. Whether you have a window box or a large patch this is a resource to treasure and will act as a record for years. The people behind it are Laura Allais Maré who founded Slow Food Dubai, Cherida Fernandez who illustrated the book, Leilani Coughlan and Prachiti Talathi Gandhi. Their ethos is to work with nature, not against it, and they published the book to teach and share knowledge about regenerative gardening.

Available at the market – more info on My Arabian Almanakh Facebook page

Whats In Season in UAE in October

Delighted to be quoted in The National in their article about markets in Dubai.

Do let me know if you found this useful. If you shopped locally this month, what were the highlights and what did you cook with it?

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Courgette, pistachio and yoghurt loaf with a lemon honey glaze

October 19, 2017

Courgette pistachio and yoghurt loaf with lemon and honey glazeLadles of goodness, with a nod to a lemon drizzle, this green pistachio-flecked, spelt and yoghurt loaf is light, moist, moreish and perfect with a cup of tea. And it’s another idea for using courgettes (enough said).  I’m as susceptible as the next woman for something that’s called bread and stuffed full of vegetables, so you could legitimately eat it for breakfast even though it tastes rather like cake.

Leafing through recipes (aka Googling on my phone) reveals that there are a mind-boggling amount of ‘healthy’ courgette bread ideas out there, from plain spiced to those darkly moist with cocoa and chocolate chips. My beef is the sugar content in a lot of these which seems at odds with the low-fat or dairy-free milk, raw nuts and wholewheat or gluten-free flour that is specified (I also have a beef with ‘free-from’ ingredients being automatically labelled ‘healthy’, but that’s another conversation!).

Reducing your free sugar intake

Make no mistake, it doesn’t matter whether the sweetener is white caster, agave syrup, maple syrup, dark brown unrefined, jaggery, date molasses or coconut blossom lovingly hand-extracted by men in loin cloths from the palm bud stem in remote tropical groves, it’s all added or free sugar (rather than naturally occurring). This is where most of us should cut down – whether combined with hidden veg or not.

I’ve used raw honey in this recipe as it gives a gentle warmth rather than a sugary hit. We’ve all got used to sweeter tastes as sugar is added to savoury foods, and even fruit varieties e.g. Pink Lady apples are bred to appeal to our demand from our sweet-tooths. Dialing it down gradually retrains our palettes – I’m going to try reducing it even further next time I make this recipe or even substituting some of the honey with ripe banana.

How to bake with raw honey

Raw honey is the stuff that is taken straight from the hive – and if you thought all honey was like this you are in for a shock. Most commercial honey is heat-treated, flash-pasteurized and micro-filtered which removes the pollen. This is nothing to do with safety or taste but about appearance and shelf-life. These processes transform it from a substance which is packed with over 200 enzymes and nutrients which are beneficial to our health to little more than a honey-flavoured syrup. Most or all of the goodness is destroyed. Some even have sugar syrups added to bulk them out.  I was aghast when I first heard this a couple of years ago as, like most people, I though that all honey was ‘natural’.

The process of cooking applies heat so will also reduce the amount of healthy goodness in your raw honey, generally removing about two-thirds of the antioxidants for instance. General advice when baking with honey is:

  • Use at least half the amount of honey to replace sugar in your recipe.
  • Reduce the liquid in a recipe, this can be a bit of trial and error so perhaps start with recipes that use an alternative liquid sweetener (e.g. sub honey for maple syrup).
  • Reduce cooking temp by 10-20 C as honey will make your baked goods brown more easily.
  • Add a little extra baking powder (about 1/4 of a teaspoon).

So why have I used raw honey in this recipe? As raw honey is naturally a bit sweeter than sugar it cuts the amount of sugar in half. Also to get some health benefits (rather than none at all) from my sweetener and for the more complex, nuanced, delicious taste.  The glaze at the end adds a little more oomph and real raw honey goodness too.

What to do with all those courgettes?

With the start of Farmers’ Market , courgettes are going to be a constant in my kitchen throughout the season – if you want a bit more inspiration right now, find all my courgette recipes here. I have many more to share over the coming months.

The delicious raw honey I use is available from Balqees at the market, some of the farmers also sell local (quite strong-tasting) raw Sidr honey too.

This recipe looks long but it couldn’t be simpler.

Courgette, pistachio and yoghurt spelt loaf with a lemon, raw honey glaze

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: easy
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A healthy loaf that's moist from the hidden courgettes with a tang from the lemon and yoghurt. Great for breakfast or a snack at any time with a cup of tea

Ingredients

  • 1 large free range egg
  • 80ml coconut oil*
  • 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
  • 120ml full-fat Greek-style yoghurt
  • 100ml raw honey*
  • 100g plain flour
  • 100g spelt flour*
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 small courgettes, washed and grated coarsely (about 160g)
  • zest of 1 lemon, grated finely
  • 100g pistachios, chopped coarsely

For the glaze

  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons raw honey

Directions

  • Bring all the ingredients to room temperature. Slightly warm the coconut oil if it is not already liquid. Lightly grease a 23 x 13 cm loaf tin (9 x 5 inches) and line with baking parchment.
  • In a large measuring jug (or similar) beat the egg lightly and add the coconut oil, vanilla extract, yoghurt and honey, stirring to combine.
  • Put the remaining dry ingredients (flours, baking powders, salt, grated courgette, lemon zest and nuts) into a mixing bowl. Pour in the liquid ingredients and fold in with a spatula until just combined; do not overmix.
  • Scoop the mixture into the loaf tin and put in the centre of an oven preheated to 170C. Check if it’s cooked after 40 minutes by inserting a skewer into the centre, the loaf is done if it comes out clean or with a crumb clinging to the surface. If it needs further baking, return to the oven for up to 10 minutes more, covering the top with baking paper or tin foil if the top is starting to get too dark.
  • When done, remove from the oven. While still warm prepare and apply the glaze (as below).
  • For the glaze: stir the lemon juice and raw honey together in a small bowl to make a runny glaze. If your honey is very thick you can put the bowl in the microwave or over a pan of hot water for a few seconds to change the consistency but do not warm it (to preserve the goodness of the raw honey). Make a few holes in the top of the loaf with a fine skewer or toothpick and use a pastry brush to apply the glaze evenly over the entire upper surface.
  • Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely before slicing. Store in an air-tight tin.

*Alternative ingredients and suggestions. Use melted butter or a different oil instead of the coconut oil (but I like the flavour) – I used a vanilla scented coconut oil from Earth’s Finest. Swap raw honey for another liquid sweetener such a maple syrup (although the taste will be different). Don’t use sugar-free liquid sweeteners though (for taste and dietary reasons). You can use all plain flour instead of part spelt. Goat’s curd can be used instead of yoghurt.

Courgette pistachio and yoghurt loaf with lemon and honey glaze

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If you heard Dubai Eye you’ll know this is great slathered with goats cheese and topped with a bit more raw honey. Trust me. Listen to that Dubai Today episode here.

If you’re interested healthy cakes and desserts which contain veg you might like a new cookbook by UK blogger Katherine Hackworthy of Veggie Desserts. I haven’t got my hands on a copy just yet but it sounds very appealing.

Veg in cakes – all wrong or your favourite thing? And honey – did you know that it’s the fourth most adulterated foodstuff in the world? Shocking eh? Let me know what you think.Save

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How to find the best Instagram course for you

October 6, 2017

The best Instagram course

“Which social platform do you turn to first in the morning?”. I was asked this question on an interview for a podcast recently.

I didn’t pause for thought. “Instagram!”

It’s the very first thing I do as I open my eyes after punching the alarm button off. Do you relate to this?

This little app has gone from a cosy community for sharing images to a platform that has changed lives and shaped businesses such is its power. As the stakes have grown, so has advice proliferated, a lot of it confusing, contradictory or downright shady (to use my daughters’ vocabulary). Add to this the constantly changing nature of Instagram, from the algorithm (boo!) to direct messages, stories, filters, live, location-based tags and much more. Where do you turn for guidance?

My day job is content creation and social media strategy for a handful of fabulous (food-centric) clients so I need to ensure my advice is razor-sharp and accurate, plus I want to do the best for mycustardpie.  I also want to remain inspired by the platform, despite some of its challenging aspects with all these changes. As well as joining Facebook private groups, reading everything current from industry leaders, listening to a range of podcasts and testing my own assumptions and deductions, I’ve signed up for a few Instagram courses along the way. Many people said they’d like to know more about the ones I’ve taken, hence this post.

Here’s my honest opinion of three – with a caveat. When I mentioned I was writing about this among a group of Instagrammers I’m connected with, it sparked a debate. Some people who had done one or more of the same courses had different views of the strengths and weaknesses of each one. So I must stress that this is a very personal view based on my experience, starting points and ultimate goals. However, I have tried to put into context why each course struck a chord (or not) with me so you can make your own decisions whether it’s right for you:

The best Instagram course

Insta with Alex

Alex Tooby has a systematic and analytical brain and was determined to crack Instagram. She studied, and trialed and then came up with a winning concept @menandcoffee , combining two things that are guaranteed to attract an obsessional interest.

The idea was so magnetic, combined with sound implementation strategies, that it took off quickly and was picked up by a major newspaper in the UK which helped to rocket the follower numbers.  She set up ‘Insta with Alex’ to share the knowledge and learning with others so they could replicate her success. You can sign up for her introductory course, Instagram Authority, for free and access other  information from the site.

After the free introduction I subscribed to the Infamous to Influential and the Hashtag to Hero courses (then available as a bundle).

Course style: Alex presents the courses as a series of videos. She is a clear communicator and drills down into a lot of detail with on-screen examples if she’s telling you how to do something online. The action points are in a downloadable pdf plus the course as an mp3 audio. Personally I really like having a range of options. The ‘cheat sheets’ and work sheets guide you through the course and act as an easy to refer to checklist. It is prescriptive in style i.e. do these things exactly to achieve this. There are two Facebook groups you can join for support from other course members and Alex herself.

Course content: The course is very focussed on finding and connecting with your ideal audience to sell your product or service. It does give information about how to get your Instagram account looking right, and being visually strong and consistent,  but I would say the main strength is finding and building your audience. The end goal is not in doubt – it’s to make money and Alex has sections on monetising your account and influencer marketing from the perspective of both influencers and businesses.

She is candid as to how she runs her own businesses and her ongoing learning from this. When her own menandcoffee account was hacked and held to ransom, she shared the whole experience from her first horror at what had happened to the processes to get it back.  She gained support from the community and we learned valuable lessons along with her. When Instagram changes have an impact on the course content she updates it with a new strategy or alternative. There is a bit of strategic following and unfollowing within the instructions but it is not the follow/unfollow method. I did not implement this tactic.

My results: As this was the first course I took the results were the most dramatic and I saw a very steady follower growth after implementing some of Alex’s advice. It really made me think about hashtags in detail and helped me to work out who I was trying to connect with and why.

Best for: Businesses and business owners who want to use Instagram for profit and (online) sales.

The best Instagram course

Instaretreat

Sara Tasker has an unusual combination of skills. She is creative but also analytical – she describes her approach as “‘annoyingly tenacious’ and ponders the reasons behind things until she has worked them out logically. She has a very definite aesthetic and grew her Instagram account me_and_orla to over 168k following with a dedicated ‘tribe’ of loyal and engaged followers.  Her blog of the same name offers Instagram advice among other topics, and her recent podcast series, Hashtag Authentic is already attracting acclaim and a loyal following.

Course style: The Instaretreat is as though someone jumped inside my head and confirmed everything I know or thought about Instagram but put it down in a structured and rational way combined with a huge wealth of practical advice. It’s in written form in chapters with lots of visual examples plus there’s an audio download of most sections plus worksheets and is constantly updated.

Course content: This is the course that I’d recommend above all others and it sells out in hours once released (sign up here to be notified when The Instaretreat is next released). There’s a private Facebook group where Sara shares regular updates, she used to comment frequently but her assistant in there more often nowadays). Like Makelight (see below) it leans towards makers, creatives and slow-living but Sara also uses examples of others who are making a success of Instagram with a completely different aesthetic and ethos.  The community of Sara’s followers is really nurturing and genuinely pushing the boat of creativity. I’m part of a comment pod through the group and while all the accounts are very different it’s a treat to see what everyone publishes and people are genuinely supportive.

I’ve been stretched creatively and signed up for Sara’s supplementary course Bloom and Grow which has an emphasis on using flowers (even though this is not something I usually focus on). The community spirit and creative inspiration after two weeks had my brain leaping into new territory. I’m stretched to look at things in a new light both in creative terms and with a clear, informed rationale.

Again with Sara you can get a taster of her advice through a free seven-day Instagram course when you sign up to her email list plus there’s a wealth of information on her blog. The Instaretreat is not cheap but there are details of everything that is covered in the course on her website so you can see exactly what you are signing up for.

My results: Some of my most popular Instagram posts have been created since taking this course and for a time I was seeing excellent growth and engagement. The recent algorithm changes have posed real challenges but Sarah’s advice and the close community around her help to stave off panic or succumbing to short-term measures.

Best for: Bloggers, makers and small businesses with a creative and open-minded attitude ‘who like to know why things work, and not just how’ (to quote Sara).

The best Instagram course

Makelight Beautify your Instagram

My first introduction to Emily Quinton was via a friend who recommended an excellent post called One hundred floral images which is about creating 100 images using just one bunch of flowers. Emily and her husband Stef are the team behind the blog and since I first read that post they’ve changed the portal dramatically and launched many different courses and content through their membership site Makelight.

The community around Makelight is very loyal and engaged and they have a lot of fans all around the world. Their subscription site is described as “The positive learning community for makers and entrepreneurs”.

I joined their online food photography course in the past (drop me a line if you want my review of this) and more recently Beautify your Instagram – sold as “Improve your visual storytelling and learn to use Instagram as a way to build an audience around what you do”.

Course style: Most of the lessons are taught via video, mainly with Emily talking to direct to camera, which isn’t my preferred learning style and I wish there was a transcript. It takes people by the hand and very slowly guides them through the basics of Instagram and Emily’s way of doing things. There is a closed Facebook group to share questions, progress and learning plus regular live question and answer sessions with Emily. I would recommend this course for absolute beginners to photography and Instagram, particularly people with accounts dedicated to floral arrangements, wedding photography craft and slow living.

Course Content: This was probably much too basic for me but I always keep and open mind and feel even a different point of view can be helpful. The course covers creativity, making your feed look consistent, using your smartphone to take photographs, explaining how to edit on your phone using PicTapGo, photographing in natural light, very basic composition, hashtags, and how to plan your story telling (using Instagram, Instagram stories, different apps and also touching very briefly on other platforms). When you sign up with Makelight you have access to a monthly report which analyses the colours, hashtags and subjects that you use in your feed. You can sign into the site with Instagram and receive a similar report about the themes and colours that are most popular with your followers.

You can access Makelight as a free trial member if you sign in with Facebook or Instagram but I’m not sure what you are offered once there as most of the courses are paid for. There’s a free five-day Instagram taster course and a hashtag library.

My results: I’ve had some insights from the colour tool which is quite useful and have tested hashtags highlighted in the new tool with inconclusive results.

Best for: Beginners on Instagram with basic photography skills who want a friend to slowly guide them through prescribed steps. Makers and very small business owners who want to connect with other like-minded creatives and crafters. People who wanted to replicate a very specific aesthetic. The drawback with this course is that you cannot refer back to it if you’ve ceased your Makelight membership (unlike the other two).

The best Instagram course

Which was the best course for me?

With Alex, because it was the first course I took, I had the most ‘aha’ moments – and I would recommend it for clear, concise and data driven information. However it’s Sara’s content I refer to most often for inspiration and a level-headed, reasoned view on Instagram changes and challenges. The people I’ve met within her Instaretreat Facebook group, and more recently through Bloom and Grow, are united by creativity but not pigeon-holed. They feel like my tribe. I might have fallen completely out of love with the platform without the artistic exchange. The sound, practical, updated information contributes to the advice I give my clients too.

I’m too impatient for Makelight and feel like a bit of an outsider in their groups, I’ve taken a few ideas away but the Instagram course has been the least useful for me personally (signing up gave me access to six month’s of Makelight membership so I’ve done some of their other courses too). Their approach  clearly resonates with many but didn’t with me.

The combination of the Instaretreat and Bloom and Grow has helped me fight back against the drop in engagement and visibility caused by the algorithm by really drilling down into what my audience relates to and why, what works best and raising the bar on my content. It’s also helps me to focus on the enjoyment of creating and connecting with like-minded people rather than getting too caught up in the numbers.

Finding the right course for you

My recommendation is to have a clear idea of what you ideally want to improve by taking a course, your objectives with Instagram and how much time, energy and funds you are willing to dedicate to achieve them. Write down where you are now and where you’d like to be. Look carefully at the course outlines and see if the things that are important to you are covered.  Sign up for several of the free  taster courses to see if you like the style and approach. Do not get caught up in pure numbers, especially for the courses that claim to grow your following overnight.

Courses I’ve avoided

There are other approaches to gaining a following but they usually involve cheap gimmicks and schemes which aim to ‘trick’ Instagram. While courses that sell these methods sound seductive they are not good for genuine engagement and sustainable results.  Accounts that use them can be vulnerable too.

Links to the courses:

Alex Tooby: Infamous to Influential and the Hashtag to Hero

Sara Tasker on Me and Orla: Instaretreat, Bloom and Grow plus more

Makelight: Honey (current Instagram course offered in Makelight)

Affiliate disclosure: If you sign up to Alex’s courses through the links above I will earn a small fee at no expense to you. 

Finding the best Instagram course for you

Additional resources

I would classify the three courses I’ve taken as business-led (Alex), business with creative (Sara) and creative-led (Makelight). Of course, Instagram doesn’t exist in isolation and is part of a whole mix in the online world. Here are just three additional sources of information you might find useful.

What next?

This is off topic of my usual food and travel posts – I decided to publish my experiences as many people asked me. Let me know if you found this useful and whether you’d be interested in other views or round ups about online topics. If you enjoyed this post please share it (helpful buttons below). Where have you found the best instruction or inspiration?

National Trust and modern art: Andrew Logan at Buckland Abbey

October 3, 2017
Andrew Logan at Buckland Abbey

Vegan teen stretches towards a butterfly – Goldfield by Andrew Logan in the Great Barn, Buckland Abbey

We scuttled out of the Dartmoor rain into the barn, leaving the dark skies for a brilliant scene inside. This simple, solid farm building has remained unchanged since it was constructed in around 1278 and has the grace of a cathedral. A field of golden, quivering, shimmering blades of wheat reached up to the raised-cruck timber roof. Little mice, covered in mosaics of silver mirror, clutched the waving slender stems, a jewelled butterfly hung by a thread from the ceiling, twisting, turning, and catching weak rays from the skylights.

It’s hard to define Andrew Logan‘s work but it often draws on fantasy and the allegorical. He uses many fragments of glass, mirror, shiny surfaces, bright colours and jewels in his creations. When I saw a picture of this exhibition, I knew that I absolutely had to go and visit. How would these works fit within traditional, old buildings? The juxtaposition of ancient and outré was so intriguing.

Andrew Logan at Buckland Abbey

Buckland Abbey

There is an image of the typical National Trust visitor as rather elderly and conservative, and I’ll admit that when strolling round Buckland Abbey on a weekday I was the youngest visitor by far, apart from my teenage daughter. This part Tudor property set in rolling countryside with views to the River Tamar and gorgeous wooded walks is a gem, but we weren’t here for the legacy of the Cistercian monks from the 1200s,  the Elizabethan wood carvings, or the tales of its most famous owner, Sir Francis Drake. Our motivation this time was to see a unique retrospective of a major living artist – a sculptor, jewellery maker and performance artist – with collected works from four decades and new creations.

Leaving the Great Barn, past a man bent double over the herb garden, we ventured off to explore the outdoor installations. Petals of smiling daisies – The Four Flowers of the Apocalypse – reflected the scudding, grey clouds from the inside of a greenhouse, but more dramatic was a fist clutching a sword, thrusting up from the cart pond. It was gothic and a bit menacing in such a bucolic scene until a little robin flew onto the sharp tip of Excalibur.

Almost as captivating as the range and variety of the works was the way they were arranged throughout the house. A lavish fountain pen inside a cabinet with a hand-lettered manuscript, a jewelled cross on the altar of a small chapel, a tiny sculpture hidden inside the bread oven in the Tudor kitchen. Each room was staffed by a volunteer who would usually explain more about the old treasures there, but had been briefed on Andrew Logan’s works too. Most were really enthusiastic but one lady, when quizzed, admitted she wasn’t altogether enamoured but that they were interesting. This definitely reflected the divided views of other visitors – one couple walked into the barn and after a “What’s that doing there?”, left in disgust. Seeking out the 18 major works added a completely different perspective to our afternoon and drew attention to the regular exhibits in a new way. The latest piece, commissioned for the exhibition – a glass portrait of Francis Drake – was one of our favourites.

Organised under the Trust New Art contemporary art programme, ‘The Art of Reflection‘ explored themes ranging from discovery and tranquility to nature and the universe. I’m in favour of this kind of collaboration for many reasons. It adds a new audience and relevance to these beautifully preserved properties, it provokes thought and discussion, and brings major works of modern art to areas of the country where they are usually pretty inaccessible.  I’d visited Croome near Pershore previously for the ‘Vanity of Small Differences‘ – a series of six striking tapestries by the artist Grayson Perry inspired by William Hogarth’s 18th century paintings ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and as meaningful about the modern age as historic tapestries are about earlier times.

I adore the National Trust. At a time when the UK government are deregulating planning laws in favour of big developers giving them carte blanche to sully vast swathes of our green and pleasant land, I am even more grateful that they keep so much of it protected.  It’s not just about old buildings, it is a huge force in looking after the environment for future generations at all levels, from local food initiatives to lobbying MPs about the implications of Brexit on the food, farming and the English countryside.  The National Trust is a charity founded in 1895 by three people who saw the importance of our nation’s heritage and open spaces and wanted to preserve them for everyone to enjoy. I always renew my annual membership even though I’m only in the UK for a few weeks every year and love exploring new places or returning to old favourites.

This collaboration with the beacons of contemporary modern art may attract nay sayers but not me – I’m excited to see what the dear old National Trust comes up with next. And everyone else can go and clear the air on a long walk in glorious surroundings (perfectly way-marked of course!). To quote Andrew Logan “My work is about joy and celebration.” I’m all for that.

Click on any picture in the gallery to see the whole image.

Home-grown and locally-sourced produce plus regional dishes are championed by the National Trust. We bought apples from the orchard when we were walking round the extensive kitchen garden.

Buckland Abbey

The Art of Reflection is at Buckland Abbey until mid February 2018 except Goldfield which is installed until mid October 2017. More details about some of the works here and Andrew Logan here.

 

 

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Belle Epoque jaunts: old-fashioned boating on Lac Leman

September 24, 2017

Boat ride on Lac Leman

I’ll admit my spirits sank just a little when a boat ride on Lac Léman was suggested. Travel on moving water has always been a bit of a (stomach-churning) challenge. Just ask my family – a certain mackerel fishing voyage has entered the annals of holiday history, to great merriment (from them). I joined the queue with my sister-in-law on a little white, wooden jetty jutting out into the lake in Montreux with fingers firmly crossed behind my back.

Wherever you are the Vaud region of Switzerland, Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva) is omnipresent; a glittering, heaving, rippling companion if you are on its shore, to a misty, shimmering, expanse in shades of blue, green or grey (depending on the weather) as you ascend into the mountains.

It follows, right by your side, on the train journey from Vevey to Montreux and beyond; great hordes of swans bob and stretch on it between inestimable rows of moored boats in Lausanne; lean, leathery, swimming-capped, pensioners move their creaking limbs to glide under its surface on a daily basis, come rain or shine.

So here we were, on a shimmeringly hot day, barely a breeze wafting over its aqua ripples, about to launch ourselves out on its surface. An elegant paddle steamer glided into view, red and white Swiss flag fluttering from its stern.  My enthusiasm for the cruise increased dramatically, memories of mal de mer dismissed,  especially as our tickets were First Class.

Even though our feet flew up the brass-edged wooden stairs to the top-level to secure a spot outside, keener people than us were already lounging in old-fashioned, navy blue deck-chairs at the prow. We were more than content to settle on white-painted slatted benches, especially once in possession of a carafe of chilled local rosé from the bar.

Relaxation was de rigueur and the only movement, apart from stretching out an arm to take another sip from a glass, was the occasional shuffle of reclining bodies at each smooth and fleeting dock to shore. As a lady flexed her bare feet and polished toe nails in contentment, I couldn’t help think of the reaction this would have elicited from passengers of an earlier age. Lacy parasols would have shaded the pale complexions of ladies and frilled hems kept ankles well secluded on the fleet from the Belle Époque era – now immaculately restored to its former glory.  We were being ferried by the SS Vevey, one of the eight paddle steamers that now dart across the lake, built in 1907 by Sulzer Brothers of Winterthur.

In good weather, this deck is perfect for unparalleled views of the pretty towns that hug the coastline, combined with old-fashioned courtesy of the bar staff. There is hardly a word uttered as we surrender to the lull of the engines and splendour of the scenery. Chateau Chillon, a formidable, honey coloured castle, is seen at its best from the water, Montreux rises steeply upwards behind leafy green, even the carved merry-go-round at Vevey looks more romantic from our bird’s eye view.

On a more inclement day or if you’ve succumbed to the exhaustion which comes from an overload of beauty (perfectly possible in Vaud), then a lunch cruise is an alternative way to travel. A few days later I snagged a window seat on La Suisse and spread my napkin on lap in anticipation of the ‘Formule Belle Époque’ – a starter, main, dessert plus some appetisers chosen from a limited menu.

A lady with her young grandson sat at the adjacent table adding the entertainment of watching two very different generations gain such pleasure from each other’s company. She doted in a quiet way while he demonstrated how to play a range of games and activities with her. She ate with relish – an obvious treat – while he struggled with more than a few mouthfuls of anything, cutlery large and unwieldly in his small hands, apart from his dessert. You can hear a little of his reedy voice on the video below!

The food leans to the traditional, with a focus on local provenance and seasonal ingredients: a savoury panna cotta made with Tomme cheese and some good olives went exceptionally well with a glass of local Chasselas as an appetiser; a hunk of Pinot Noir infused Vaudois sausage (an IGP local delicacy) in a casing of pastry and leek gravy was a robust precursor to my fish main course. This local char, one of the species fished from the lake we were traversing, was served as a poached fillet with caraway, grapes and delicate seasonal vegetables as a very pretty plate.  I shunned dessert (although my neighbour’s raspberry macaron looked tempting) for a glass of elegant, local Pinot Noir. Service was brisk but attentive and polite; the whole experience relaxing and rather civilised making me loathe to disembark.

Fortunately there is one last sojourn with a steamer. The Vevey once more… to Vevey. I settle down on the rear lower deck and gaze as we slide past the turn of the century buildings in Montreux, curlicues of plaster bathed in golden late afternoon light. The horn blows throatily as we come into port; I’m a cruising convert.

 

More about Lac Léman: The lake plays a starring role in so much of Vaud’s calendar and eco-system. It forms the most beautiful backdrop to just about everything for visitors and residents alike; it reflects the sunlight so the vines that shelter in meticulous rows on its slopes produce luscious fruit in UNESCO World Heritage vineyards; for leisure there is swimming from small beaches and protected pools, sailing, wind surfing, water skiing, rowing and scuba diving; and provides a means for people to travel quickly to and from various ports along this expanse of water. It’s the largest alpine lake in Europe, straddling both Switzerland and France, with a surface area of 580 km², 73km along its length, and a car journey of around 3 hours to drive around its perimeter.  You can hop on and off the ferry boat as part of a day trip as mentioned in this post by Taste of Savoie

Booking a cruise: I took the Riviera Cruise which visits Vevey Marche, Montreux, Villeneuve, Le Bouveret, St Gingolf and a few other little stops such as Chateau Chillon. Browse a variety of different experiences on the CGN website – it takes a bit of patient navigating – and the schedules change according to season. If you are there in Winter there’s a Fondue Cruise on a Friday night (I fancy that!) and even Oktoberfest.

Thank you to Vaud Tourism for two of my three lovely trips on Lac Leman. Click on an image to see the gallery.

Do you embrace boat travel or are you a bit of a land lubber like me? And are you rather allergic to the word ‘cruise’ or does it excite you?

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