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10 email newsletters that make me eager to check my inbox

September 14, 2018

Pens, paper and notebooks for writing a newsletter plus teapot, tea and muffins

Email. Is it the scourge of our modern world? When did ‘inbox zero’ become that longed for thing that’s as rare as a unicorn?  I spend a  few minutes of every day unsubscribing from lists, resentfully, that have added me without permission or deleting crap that won’t let me escape their self-promoting drivel.

So if I do put down the drawbridge for emails that I want to spend precious time reading, they have to change my life for better; be it some interesting info, resources I didn’t know about or even just putting a smile on my face.

Here are ten newsletters that I subscribe to, that make my heart leap rather than sink when I spot them. I’ll grab a cup of tea and take time out from my ‘to do’ list to immerse myself even for a few minutes. They tend to focus on photography, blogging and creativity and a bit of food (of course) but not exclusively. Hopefully there’s something in here that you’ll feel the same about:

  1. She flourished. The extremely talented and creative Rabya has only sent one newsletter so far but the tone and friendliness felt like a friend chatting and I’m eager to read more. The first one contained a really good tip and a wealth of inspiration.
  2. Me and Orla. I hoover up pretty much everything Sara Tasker writes from her insightful Instagram captions, informative stories, thought-provoking blog posts and I’ve taken two of her Instagram courses. She also sends a monthly email that contains a group of hashtags for Instagram that you can explore. It leads to a rabbit trail of different content often by people you might not have discovered. I store them in a note on my phone and add the ones that are relevant to my content into the Mosaic app. Refreshing your hashtags is important as it differentiates your account from bots or spam plus it allows you to seek out and also be discovered by new audiences. One of my proudest moments was when my hashtag #adoremycupoftea was featured in Sara’s email.
  3. Does my bum look 40 in this?* Until I discovered Kat Farmer I didn’t follow any fashion bloggers and still only limit it to one. She’s prolific, often sending daily emails, so I don’t always read every single one. She’s obsessed with clothes and has a wry and honest sense of humour. She’s made me reassess my wardrobe, which was going down the route of boring. She’s been a catalyst for thinking “yes, I could wear that” and I’ve bought several things that I absolutely love because of her. It’s a quick read, often more of a skim, but a nudge to ensure what I’m wearing puts a spring in my step.
  4. David Lebovitz. An American pastry chef living in Paris who is obsessed with food, has been blogging for over 10 years, the author of cookbooks and a recently published account about the trials and tribulations of renovating his flat in France. He has an easy, open writing voice in a style that makes you feel like he’s writing solely to you. He posts many times a month on his blog (he’s immensely hard-working, in fact I’m not sure that he sleeps) so there are links to the delicious things he’s been cooking but also an account of what he’s been up to. It’s a newsletter in the best sense – compelling to read with lots of tasty nuggets leading you to click on the links he shares. I met him at Food Blogger Connect in London many years ago and he’s exactly the same in real life as he is on the page.
  5. Smitten Kitchen. Deb Perlman is another blogger and cookery writer who has been around since the very early days of sharing recipes online. And for good reason; her writing has a light touch that draws you in from the very start and takes you on a journey in her kitchen. Her recipes always work, probably down to her meticulous testing. Her first cookbook has splattered pages from being used in my kitchen so often. Younger teen loves her recipes even though she’s vegan and Deb is not, and there are some favourite dishes without dairy that she cooks again and again (coincidentally, Deb’s most recent email is titled 9 surprisingly vegan dishes). Her weekly newsletter isn’t self promoting at all, it often starts with links to other things that have entertained her as well as a round-up of her tempting dishes from past and present (her archives are extensive). If you want a sample of her brilliance, read this piece ‘Never cook at home’ that she wrote for The New York Times.Pens, paper and notebooks for writing a newsletter plus teapot, tea and muffins
  6. Dianne Jacobs. The authority on food writing, I’ve met Dianne several times, taken her workshops and even been a guest speaker on a writing day she ran with Emirates Festival of Literature here in Dubai. I get the updates from her blog into my inbox, but her newsletter subscribers get an email bi-monthly that’s full of really useful links about food writing. Dianne’s never shy of being controversial so there’s usually something in there to challenge the status quo. You can read reviews about the ‘Will write for food’ newsletter and a sample of what you’ll receive on her website.
  7. Simple and season. Kayte Ferris is a business coach and mentor who is the antithesis of the ‘make a 6 figure business overnight by doing this’ approach that seems endemic right now. She calls it growing with soul  and her voice is so gentle and soothing, whether on her podcast, on her blog or in her monthly newsletter. She usually starts off with an experience that’s written so honestly that it’s very relatable. She then goes on to useful resources, marketing projects and creative prompts. It’s difficult to convey how wise yet modest Kayte is. If you have a creative business, thinking of starting one or just help with writing your blog, this one is for you.
  8. The Little Plantation. The emails from Kimberly pop into my inbox very regularly, with links to recent blog posts, food photography knowledge, details of her courses, support groups and – my favourite – announcing her seasonal Instagram challenge. If you sign up for the latter you receive advice and inspiration on photography and styling as part of the challenge. She’s at the centre of a creative community who are supportive and I’m really stretched to explore different layouts and subjects on my feed (and blog). Some of my best work has been down to this as a catalyst and I’ve made connections with many new Instagrammers who I admire and relate to.
  9. Her Internest. Barbora is a quirky, creative Norwegian who sends her newsletter twice a month. She’s very open and honest, her English isn’t perfect but that adds to the charm. She’s very candid about her behind the scenes process to create her own incredible Instagram images. Many people use editing tools to make unusual effects but she does it all using every day props e.g. drawing hundreds of little flowers all over her legs or climbing inside a cardboard box. Her emails are chatty and feature her own advice plus a collection of resources from other people. It’s one of those emails that fills your inbox with wonder and joy.
  10. Amy Lynn Andrews. I’ve followed Amy for years as a blogger as she gave really specific, up to date, technical blog advice. Then she made a major change and now the site is static around some core content which she updates to keep it current, rather than writing new blog posts. For nuggets of info she sends a weekly email called ‘The Uselettter’ which links, in the main, to other websites. It always lands in my inbox at exactly 3.00pm  every Saturday, is quick to read and always has something of value about blogging, podcasts, online sales, social etc. in a friendly approachable tone.
  11. The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club* A bonus one that lights up my inbox. “Mother, wino, sometimes in that order. Strictly no insipid wines allowed. Unless too tired to care.” Helen McGinn’s few sentences which lead onto her couple of latest wine recommendations on the blog, are always hilarious.

* These two are technically blog post alerts rather than a newsletter like all the others. I also have a handful of people I really want to read and don’t want to miss who pop up in my inbox (plus more in my Feedly RSS reader which I look at more randomly). But more of that another day…

Did you like this slightly different post from me? It would be great to know. So who do you allow into your inbox? Would love your recommendations.

Pens, paper and notebooks for writing a newsletter plus teapot, tea and muffins

Interesting newsletters – pin for later

Walking in Winchcombe – the mosaic in the undergrowth

September 10, 2018

Reading a walking map of Winchcombe under a tree

I grew up in the Cotswolds so maybe take the area a bit for granted. I’m bemused that people from London fawn over the golden, stone cottages and farming villages that, when I was growing up, were just local communities rather than holiday homes. Places where I dipped my toes in the stream or wandered past in a sun hat are now ubiquitous on Instagram; the town of Stroud – where people and house prices were forgotten – is now described as the ‘Notting HIll of the Cotswolds’, and media people and politicians have colonised some parts of the county.  Still the rugged hills and open farmland of sloping fields edged with Cotswold stone walls, have a down-to-earth feeling that the more manicured countryside of some counties just can’t match in my opinion, and I’m happiest in walking boots drinking in those gentle views.

Winchcombe is a small town in Gloucestershire which you drive through to on your way to Broadway. The name means ‘valley with a bend’.  The streets are narrow, lined with a jumble of dwelling styles, from half-timbered houses, pretty almshouses, Georgian villas, to pastel cottages. We notice that bunting – probably left over from the Royal wedding – unites them as we stroll up North street, and there is an abundance of tea shops. The St Peter’s church clock strikes the hour imposingly.

The town now promotes itself as the walking centre for the Cotswolds and many long-distance paths pass through it including The Cotswold Way, The Gloucestershire Way and The St Kenelm’s Way. My sister is a self-confessed walk geek and has downloaded several from the Winchcombe welcomes walkers site. There are 22 in total and in an ideal world she’d like to tick them off in sequential order. On a very rainy Sunday we set out on walk number one and return the next day, Bank Holiday Monday, to tackle walk number 6. The details of how to navigate these are below. Here are our tales and images from our first two walks which could persuade you why (or why not) to do them.

View over field to the Cotswold hills

Soaked to the skin – Winchcombe to Sudeley Castle

There are two things that seem to crop up again and again when I walk with my sister, so much so that they’ve entered family legend. One is close encounters with cows (more of that another day) and, the other, getting soaked to the skin. A rainy Sunday meant that the latter looked very likely and we couldn’t tempt anyone else to come with us.  A scant 2 mile stroll was perfect for the weather and our mood. Passing pretty cottages and a verdant garden on Vineyard street we were soon walking up towards the drive of Sudeley Castle. There was a bit of excitement as mud splattered, panting runners started to overtake us. We passed Almsbury Lodge, the gate house to the drive, over an elegant bridge, through the grounds, passing the finish line of the run with encouraging supporters, glimpsing the castle over trees. Narrow lanes, viewed from under hooded macs, led us back into the centre of Winchcombe via a charming footpath along the River Isbourne. Even though the rain was casting a misty veil over the fields to one side, we were still able to peer into the back gardens that lead down to the bank, one of my favourite pastimes. More of a wander to get a bit of fresh air into our lungs than a walk but very enjoyable.

Walking boots by a Roman mosaic

The search for a mosaic – Winchcombe to Spoonley villa

As the following day was fine, my sister, aka the walk geek, wanted to return to Winchcombe to tick off another one. Being a Bank Holiday, our trip down Vineyard street and over the fields to the right of Sudeley Castle were flanked by strolling families and dog walkers. Two elderly men asked our advice about their printed off map to Spoonley wood (our planned destination) and as one of them started talking loudly into his mobile phone, we got a spurt on and romped along the first section of the path, mainly over open countryside and along the edge of a wood called ‘No man’s patch’, to leave them behind. Dog walkers and men deserted, it was very peaceful and we paced along until reaching a huddle of ruined buildings with aging brick and peeling paint, called Waterhatch Farm which is just begging to be restored into an ivy clad dwelling. Just then one of the men caught up with us and started bemoaning the length of the walk and how he hoped it was worth it. Again, after politely humouring him, we set off at pace.

Finally we reached Spoonley Wood but could see no sign of the remains of a Roman Villa or a narrow path to the mosaic and, after a bit of a hike uphill, reached some open fields which were perfect for a picnic. Marching back down the narrow trail through the woods we couldn’t spot a single relic and again paused to look at the map. One more foray and my sister worked out that a negligible clearing could be part of the Roman Villa site and set off into the undergrowth, battling stinging nettles until, with a cry of triumph, she found some low wooden posts covered in a corrugated iron roof heavily camouflaged by ivy and brambles.

A canopy covered in ivy and brambles

Crawling under the canopy, we removed pieces of Cotswold stone from the edge of tarpaulin and revealed the treasure.  Having this secret place to ourselves, brushing away some soil and twigs from the edge of this Roman mosaic with our hands was absolutely thrilling.

After covering this precious find, we threaded our way back to the main path encountering a family who were also baffled to its location, so pointed them in the right direction. To our astonishment, the second elderly man had tagged onto their party and was still talking into his mobile phone. We escaped, thankfully, and started our return journey. Due to early harvests, fields were freshly ploughed and the route led us right across the middle of knobbly, brown furrows until we left via a small road and passed a small reservoir that hosted some happy ducks and moorhens. A stunning view of Sudeley Castle lay ahead beckoning us to the end of our walk.

open fields with a view of Sudeley Castle

The view of Sudeley Castle over the fields

A piece of paper was pinned to a gate post:

“some day we will find what we’re looking for

or maybe not

maybe we’ll find something much greater than that.”

A stretching but manageable 5+ miles with fascinating diversions.

Eating and drinking in Winchcombe

Most places are closed in Winchcombe on a Sunday but Food Fanatics was doing a roaring trade. A generous pot of tea and an excellent toasted cheese and ham sandwich – made with well-sourced ingredients from the deli counter – chased all the rain away.

The sunnier weather of Bank Holiday begged for a drink in a pub garden. The White Hart was very welcoming inside with chalk boards, real ale, wooden trenchers and interesting wines. The tables outside, while not picturesque, gave a view of the distant hills and lowering sunlight on stonework. In more inclement weather I’d be happy to cosy up inside.

We’ve resolved to revisit for Sunday lunch at The Lion after peering in the mullioned windows at its broad wooden tables, sparkling glassware and the pretty garden beyond.

So that was our weekend of walking in Winchcombe. We’ll be back as the walk geek is determined to get through more of them. She sneaked off on her own last week for walk no 2, but was thwarted by a field of frisky cows and bull so had to find a diversion. Business as usual (or just desserts).

More information:

Walk 1: Winchcombe to Sudeley Castle

Walk 6: Winchcombe to Spoonley Villa

Download the 22 walks here on the Winchcombe Welcomes Walkers site

Food Fanatics

The White Hart

The Lion

Hiking the Cotswold Way: Stanton, Winchcombe and Cheltenham by Basic Bon Vivant

a country lane leading to Winchcombe

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Mock pecan pie recipe – a baking challenge with a difference

August 19, 2018
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hands reaching in for slices of mock pecan pie

Can you walk past a second-hand book shop without going in? I certainly can’t, and I generally leave with an ancient, well-thumbed cookbook in hand. These days ‘ancient’ means pre-1980’s and I’m drawn to those with lurid, colour plates of weirdly jellied concoctions or domed things with whipped cream, garnishes of rose radishes, and recipes for ”mock foods (more of this later). They were common place when I was growing up and something I shunned when I started to cook for myself. Both my Mum and my Mother-in-law looked to them for inspiration.

Opening a doorway to another world was not what I expected when I set up this blog over eight years ago but that is what happened. I could never have predicted the joy and experiences it’s brought to my life. At the heart of that are the people I’ve met both on and off life.

What is Pieathalon?

One of the people who I’ve ‘known’ for years is Jenny Hammerton of Silver Screen Suppers. I love her honesty, sense of fun, passion for the past era of silver screen glamour online, and when I met her briefly in real life, at Food Blogger Connect many years ago, she was exactly the same. Jenny also connected me to the Pieathalon gang. Once a year ‘Yinzeralla’ of Dinner is served 1972 blog sets a challenge to a group of people who have to pick a pie recipe from a pre-1990 cookbook. They email it to her then she assigns it randomly to another pieathlete. They bake, they post, and the group shares. I love this kind of group challenge. It gives a focus, takes you out of your comfort zone, you connect with people and there is the element of surprise.

And KP and I love pies. KP loves pies so much that we plan our UK trips around them (no joke). We bring pies home in our suitcases and tuck them into the freezer. Visitors from the UK are given an even more warm welcome if they unwrap a pie or two on arrival.

Many of the blogs involved in the Pieathalon are dedicated to retro cooking – often stuff that we find quite extraordinary these days – stepping stones for our parents and grandparents, that eventually led us to our eclectic ways of cooking today.  I hope you’ll enjoy a little foray into a very different corner of the internet. Meeting people who are obsessed with a different kind of cooking style, bags of enthusiasm and tongue firmly in cheek.

mock pecan pie and a cup of tea with hands

The history of mock foods

Mock foods have become very talked about recently as they are usually substitutes for meat and dairy products such as the Impossible burger.

The motivation for mock foods in the past was very different, usually to replace expensive ingredients or because there was a shortage (especially during war-time). “Cheap eating largely revolved around loading up on carbohydrates to fill you up so you didn’t need too much meat, which was much more expensive,” says food historian Annie Gray. She alludes to dishes such as mock cream, mock goose complete with stuffing, and a chicken-shaped oatmeal pudding called ‘Fitless Cock’. The Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland was named after the popular Victorian recipe for soup. None of this sounds particularly appetising.

Why make a mock pecan pie?

My pie challenge came from Sue Jiminez, the world record holder of the largest cookbook collection. KP moans about mine which is just over 100, give or take a few (ahem), but Sue’s currently stands at 6453. It’s a recipe for Mock Pecan Pie from a 1974 called “Chuck Wagon Cookin'” by Stella Hughes.

Pecans have become extremely expensive recently and this recipe uses pinto beans instead. If you don’t use the garnish it would be excellent for people with nut allergies. I converted the recipe from cups to grams, cut down the sugar content a bit, substituted dark brown sugar for white and used maple syrup instead of dark corn syrup. You could cook dried pinto beans but I found unsalted, tinned ones (in Tesco). Three generations were involved in this as I baked in my Mother-in-law’s kitchen. She was on hand to give expert pastry-making advice (ex Domestic Science teacher) and my daughters to be hand models. I tried to think how to make this vegan for them but four eggs were hard to replace. I might try this with even more beans next time.

Did it taste like real pecan pie? As I’ve never eaten this American classic I’m not really sure. It reminded me of a less cloying version of treacle tart with a slightly different texture. The centre is soft and gooey with delicious flavours of nutty caramel and vanilla. A large blob of double or clotted cream would go brilliantly.

Mock Pecan Pie

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A soft but firm filling that tastes of vanilla, caramel and pecans inside a crisp shortcrust pastry case - with a secret ingredient of pinto beans. Serve warm or cold with clotted cream or ice cream.


If you use tinned pinto beans make sure they have no added salt. 


Ingredients

  • 160g dark brown sugar
  • 55g butter (or margarine)
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 60g pinto beans, cooked and mashed
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
  • 23cm pastry case, baked blind (see below)
  • a few whole pecans for decoration (optional – leave out if serving to people with nut allergies)

Directions

  1. Cream the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy in a food processor (or hand mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon and lots of elbow grease).
  2. Add the beaten egg, little by little, beating all the time until all is incorporated.
  3. Beat in the cooked pinto beans, maple syrup and vanilla extract to make a very smooth, quite liquid mixture.
  4. Pour the filling into the tart shell. You can scatter a few pecans on at this stage but they will sink during cooking so add afterwards if you want them to be more prominent. Place in the centre of an oven, preheated to 180 C. Bake for approximately 35 minutes or until cooked. The centre should be just set and will firm up as it cools, the edge puffed up and slightly cracked.

Making a shortcrust pastry case and baking it blind

I always use Tamasin Day-Lewis’ proportions for shortcrust pastry made with 110g flour and 55g unsalted butter. Make sure the butter is very cold (or even frozen) and blitz in a food processor until it resembles bread crumbs. Add ice-cold water, a little at a time, and whizz briefly until the pastry comes together in a ball. Wrap and rest in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Allow to come to room temperature, lightly grease a 22cm loose-bottomed tart tin with butter.  Roll out the pastry evenly with a rolling pin then gently ease into a the tin without stretching it but making sure it fits into the edges. Lightly roll over the top of the tin to remove and excess pastry neatly. If you have time place in the fridge (or freezer) for another 15 minutes. Place on a baking tray. Screw up a piece of baking parchment into a ball then smooth it out and lay over the tart shell. Fill the paper with baking beans (or dried pulses). Bake in a preheated oven at 180 C for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, take out the paper and beans, brush the tart shell lightly with beaten egg white and put back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Continue with the rest of the recipe. 



Pin this mock pecan pie to pinterest

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Here are some of the other Pieathletes and the pie recipes they made (some more successful than others). Do have a browse…

What do you think of foods that pretend to be something else? Have you ever cooked ‘mock’ food? Have you ever been part of baking challenge?

How to tell the story of a hotel – a photo-walk in Notting Hill

August 13, 2018

tea and scones on a striped chair

Emerging from the Underground, my eye caught the front of the Gate Picturehouse, unchanged since the early nineties when I lived, for a short time, in a tiny flat in Notting Hill. We saw Tous les Matins du Monde there, a subtitled French film about a group of viol players, where the audience remained seated at the end to read the credits. I loved it but KP was out of the door like Linford Christie off the starting blocks.

Most people know Notting Hill from the film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, where an ordinary bloke who owns a bookshop meets a mega-star on the street and they eventually fall in love.  In a way it sums up much about the area, home to the wealthy and property with stratospheric price tags, but also a place where anyone can hang out including Portobello Road market and the annual carnival. I pottered down the High Street, popping into Boots and a cup of tea in Polpo then, taking a deep breath, went to meet up with a group of total strangers.

Blogtacular was my reason for being in London – a conference to inspire creative business owners and content creators – and I’d put my hand up for a photo walk at a secret rendezvous led by Supal of Chevrons and Eclairs (who I’d heard on the Blogtacular podcast). We followed her to our destination in a crocodile, like a group of chattering nursery school children, and rounded the corner onto a street of elegant town houses, white on one side and pastel colours on the other.

Other photo-walk groups went to Peckham and North London to photograph colourful scenes, but our bunch were heading for the Portobello Hotel, which immediately caught our attention by the window boxes of vermilion geraniums.

My heart sank a tiny bit. How do you tell the story of a hotel? I’ve struggled myself when I’ve been the guest on a travel trip. I’ve seen endless pics of bland rooms and gleaming bathrooms on blogs – while it’s informative for anyone thinking of staying there it’s as dull as ditchwater to write about and to read. You can find this stuff on a hotel website or brochure. There seems to be an expectation that it’s what the hotel expects in return for an invite, rather than what will appeal to and engage the readers.

The purpose of our photo-walk was to challenge and stretch our approach to photography (particularly for online channels) and to get to know fellow Blogtacular delegates a bit better.  I’d read Xanthe Berkeley’s 10 Tips for an Awesome Photowalk but I was juggling eagerness with a few butterflies.

Supal is an expert at placing herself at the centre of her images and encouraged us to do so. I know that bringing a bit more of yourself into your online content is a good thing but I’m still breaking down a huge internal reticence. Many of our group, dressed in gorgeous outfits for the occasion and flung themselves into it with abandon (and I loved seeing the end results).

The Portobello Road is a small boutique hotel which feels a lot like walking into a rich but eccentric aunt’s house. It’s the antithesis of a streamlined five-star chain but offers, unobtrusively, a luxurious and comfortable stay – hence its popularity with famous guests (alluded to on our tour but, discreetly, not named).  Legend has it that Johnny Depp and Kate Moss bathed in Champagne here, Alice Cooper let one of his boa constrictors loose, Damon Albarn served behind the bar and Robbie Williams tried to buy one of its circular beds – the staff raised eye-brows but remained tight-lipped.

Our sizeable group inside the small spaces of the hotel made wider scenes impossible to capture without an equally enthusiastic photographer wielding camera or posing in my view-finder.

I strolled through the corridors lined with historic prints and ran my hand over the smooth wooden handrail up the winding staircase, imagining the lives lived between the walls of these two neo-classical mansions during its Victorian hayday.  Negotiating the slight jostling for the perfect aspect turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Focussing on the details told more of the story not less. It’s what makes this a very special bolt hole: the lack of a hotel sign, the hand-painted wallpaper, the freshly baked scones, the views of lush gardens, the heritage paint colours, a hidden courtyard, the eclectic Regency furniture.

Supal and Elliot from Portobello Hotel addressed us while we sipped tea and munched scones (from a beautiful afternoon tea spread arranged by Krystyna the hotel manager).

Supal explained how she approaches collaborations which, unsurprisingly for a management consultant with a blue chip company, is highly organised and professional. She stressed that you need to add value for your reader with your unique perspective. Elliot explained that finding the perfect fit with an audience is most important in deciding who they collaborate with, not necessarily people with large followings. If you can tell a story that truly resonates with the people who follow you (and provide some proof) they are interested.

Given its illustrious visitors, the Portobello Hotel has rooms which definitely cater to a medium-sized budgets (some AirBnB s are more expensive). I can imagine hunkering down for a couple of days with the odd foray out into the neighbourhood, returning to cosy up in an armchair and a book, with endless tea supplied by their friendly staff. It is part of the Curious Hotel group who also own Cowley Manor in Gloucestershire. This has a special place in my heart as I collected firewood on their land when at Guide camp in my early teens.

I strolled back to the tube in the June sunshine, with Sarah from Taming Twins (who I’d ‘known’ online for years) and Vanessa of Simpson Sister who I’d just met (whose Instagram is gorgeous and owns a beautiful barn for hire). My alter ego was a guest popping out to browse the shelves of the Notting Hill bookshop and nipping to Lisboa Delicatessen for a custard tart before returning to the crisp white sheets of my circular bed with its verdant view.

It’s easy to get over-awed by the babble of voices all shouting the same out there in the internet ether.  When looking at the copy-cat content that exists in volume, covering the same topics it’s easy to think ‘why bother?’.  Believing that the story you alone can tell, from your own unique perspective will resonate or be valuable to someone, is so worth clinging onto.

As I signed up for this photo-walk, I had the vague aim of having fun with my camera, looking at things from a slightly different perspective and rubbing shoulders with some new, like-minded people. I came away with was all those things, plus a reminder of something that’s obvious but easy to overlook.

Group of bloggers in front of hotel

Our photowalk gang

If you are researching hotels, have you found any really helpful and interesting reviews? If you’re a blogger or content creator, have you felt duty-bound to cover something in a certain way because it seems the norm? What information do you find really helpful or inspiring?

Surviving the Montreux jazz festival (on a budget)

June 30, 2018

glass of rose wine and lake geneva

The endless swathe of water gleamed gold as the sun dipped into the horizon, slender rays reflected bright spots on the brassy instruments of the jazz band, while my glass of wine sparkled with a rosy glow. This was a ‘pinch me’ moment. Montreux is an elegant town on the edge of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) most famous for its annual jazz festival every summer and I was there for three days of it.

The prospect of going to Montreux for a few days of the legendary Jazz Festival was thrilling, but at the back of my mind there was also a degree of trepidation.  The latter was because I had visited a few years ago for a single day and knew it to be very expensive.

I needn’t have worried though, although Switzerland will never be a bargain destination, with a few tips you can keep costs manageable while soaking up the incredible atmosphere in an exquisite location. Here’s a bit about my experience and a few tips, if you’re going, that may help you to enjoy the festival (whether on a budget or not).

view of lake geneva from a window

The view from my Airbnb in Chernax

Where to stay

Airbnb was an obvious choice as there’s a really good choice of accommodation via this well-known site especially if you book early. I opted for a place in nearby Chernax, a pretty village four stops up a very scenic branch line (with immaculate trains). The view from the sitting room and little garden terrace over Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) was absolutely stunning. Public transport is excellent in the surrounding area so you can opt to stay a little way outside the main town and get a little local train in, which makes it more affordable. Every morning I strolled through the picturesque lanes crammed with geranium pots  to the station housing a charming coffee shop. At night I joined the throng of revellers in Montreaux – listen carefully because platforms can change – and chugged back up the line.

The other advantage of being away from the main drag is the late night music and revels won’t disturb if you’ve retired early.

If you do fork out for a hotel or private apartment then you qualify for a Montreaux-Vevey Riviera Card free of charge. This gives you free travel on the whole Mobilis Montreux Riviera public transport network, 50% off on the ‘Wonderful Alpine Scenery’ (CGN) boat cruise and alpine transport, plus 50% reduction on tickets in many museums and theme parks. I used this after the festival on my trip up the mountain to Rochers de Naye.

Band on stage at the Montreux jazz festival

The Big Band Dachau

Free jazz

On the edge of a grass circle with picnic tables and a bar under a circle of fairy lights, the ‘Music in the Park’ stage hosts acts starting from mid-afternoon until late. The performers make up for any lack of fame by enthusiasm and energy, buoyed on by a warm audience of all ages. We went to see an all female jazz ensemble who had come from Australia twice and a previous band danced in a row to show their appreciation. The final act on the last night was a big band and the atmosphere was electric.

The Montreux Jazz Festival is in two parts; the paid for acts in the Stravinski Auditorium, the jazz club and jazz lab, and the free fringe in an area outside.  The line up of performers at the Stravinski Auditorium are world-famous but not always jazz performers (2018 programme includes Iggy Pop, the Vaccines, Billy Idol, Queens of the Stone Age and Deep Purple). The ticket prices are steep and per performance, not per entry ticket like other festivals. If you decide to come for the atmosphere as much as the music then ‘Music in the Park’ is perfect. There are over 70 performances here over the duration of the festival.

There are other free venues along the lakeside too, with a variety of different musical genres from club to salsa, which start at various times through the evening with some going on late into the night, probably aimed at a younger audience, but in Montreux anything goes.

Packing a picnic

The corridor of tempting food stalls is part of the Jazz festival experience but it can all add up. The little tables along the water’s edge can be used by anyone or you can wander, as we did, a little further along the path to the ‘beach’ (a small stretch of shingle and a big grass area). My sister-in-law and I visited the nearby Coop supermarket and a boulangerie for provisions. We went in for a dip in Lac Leman too.  If you’ve booked self-catering such as Airbnb (see above) you can even prep ahead. If you do fall for the stalls I recommend the pizza – thin, crisp and cooked to order.

Montreux water fountains

One of the things I love about Switzerland are the water fountains. Not just beautiful to look at, they dispense a continual flow of crystal clear, refreshing drinking water. They are along the edge of the lake at regular intervals including one right next to the festival area. We packed refillable bottles but you can easily drink straight from the source.

Buying wine

Alcohol prices are on the high side at the bar in the free section. It’s fine to BYO for the outdoor venues though. There’s a good selection at the Coop – just remember to take something to drink your wine out of. The local Swiss wine is fabulous and Montreux is adjacent to the beautiful Vaud Vineyard area where walled terraces which monks used to tend, cover the hills down to the edge of the lake. You can book a tour, download an app for a self-guided stroll, or go for a tasting in Lutry.

Remember the refund

If you do buy from the outside bar you’ll be charged a deposit for glasses and glass bottles (e.g. wine) so make sure you return them for a full refund.

sunset over lake geneva with people and fairy lights Spectacular sunset over Lac Leman during the Montreux jazz festival

Other tips

In between the entertainment, the walk along Lac Leman is absolutely stunning. Turn left to Chillon Castle and right to the beach (see above). The pathway is lined with sculptures, the lake full of interest: birdlife, watersports, little boats, elegant paddle steamers, and, of course, a mesmerising view.

On a more practical level, be assured that all the staff seem to speak really good English, take a waterproof jacket as the weather can change very quickly, and pack some tissues for the loos as they seem to run out very quickly.

Jazz band on stage

Final band in the park – Fat Cat

sunset over lake geneva

Worth going for the sunsets as well as the jazz

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Useful links: Montreux Jazz Festival  Montreux Riviera  Lake Geneva Region Tourism (Vaud)  My Switzerland – Vaud The Sweethearts The Big Band Dachau Fat Cat

The Montreux Jazz Festival was one of four festivals I went to in 2017 and one of the best.

Tell me your favourite festivals and why (in the comments) so I can add to my festival wish list.

Dates and health, plus a seed milk recipe

June 8, 2018

Plate of dates, seeds and seed milkAre dates really good for you? Are they a natural aphrodisiac? Can they really protect against cancer? Having a good root around for the truth about dates and health this is what I discovered.

There’s a mass of contradictory information about sweeteners out there. We know that sugar in any form is bad for us so when we do want something sweet what do we choose? If there was heaven and hell for things that taste sweet then refined white sugar would be right down in the fiery flames and the natural stuff in fresh fruit would be floating up on celestial clouds. Others like raw honey, coconut sugar, molasses, agave syrup, maple syrup, stevia and corn syrup would all be jostling for a slot somewhere in between, confessing their sins and bigging up their good works.

Some ‘health websites’ even warn about the natural fructose in whole fruit but this totally ignores that what determines whether sugar is bad for you or not depends on the context. It’s almost impossible to eat enough fruit to consume enough fructose in quantity to do harm. This is because it takes time to eat (chewing resistance) and digest due to the high levels of fibre plus lots of water so the fructose reaches your liver in slow, steady, manageable amounts.

So where do dates, which are fruits, fit into the picture?

Are dates good for you?

The date palm and its bounty have been associated with health for centuries. Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar) a Sumerian goddess of love and procreation whose symbol and home was the date palm was thought to protect women in childbirth.  Mary sought the protection of the palm while in labour with Jesus according to the Quran.

The Assyrians and Ancient Egyptians used dates as a cure for coughs, earache and stomach ache, made them into poultices to treat blisters and taken to fight demons (perhaps I should send a load to the US Democrat party). Crushed dried dates were mixed with milk to treat children’s coughs. Children were weaned off their mother’s milk with dates too.

Imagine eating 1/2 kilo of dates on your wedding night. That’s what grooms are advised to do for maximum potency and vigour. Many parts of the palm are thought to be an aphrodisiac including the palm heart and the inflorescence (long cases that contain flower clusters), as well as the fruit itself.

So is there any foundation for these health claims – and is their modern evidence that dates actually good for you?

“As well as tasting so delicious, dates are a brilliant source of soluble fiber, keeping you full and helping lower bad cholesterol. These sticky treats, while calorie-dense, are also great sources of minerals and vitamins, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, B vitamins and vitamin K. Because of the calorie content (nearly 300 calories for 4 fat Medjool dates), moderation is key. Sorry! But their high amounts of fibre, as well as eating them with something like walnuts or cheese, will affect your blood sugar levels much less than many other sweet treats. “. 

Kellie Anderson, Health Educationist and Nutrition Adviser with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, and author of Food to Glow

Despite being high in natural sugar, dates are low on the glycemic index they don’t cause a huge spike in blood glucose after you eat them, and studies have shown that they could be ok for people with type 2 diabetes if eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

Dates as a natural sugar substitute

So dates are much healthier than refined sugars and bundled with other goodness. It’s better to reach for a few dates after exercise than a processed energy bar. They have the edge on other dried fruits as they are naturally dehydrated where they grow, easy to digest and retain a reasonable amount of water, especially in the rutab stage.

Dates have been the mainstay of the increasingly popular, raw, vegan diet and turn up in date caramel, bliss balls and un-cooked brownies. I first became aware of this way of eating in the early 80s from Leslie Kenton, then Health and Beauty Editor of Harpers & Queen UK, who was a huge proponent of a diet of mainly raw vegetables and fruit, mineral water and avoiding processed foods.  She used dates as a natural sweetener in many plant-based milks including this sweet seed milk which is easy to make, highly nutritious and easy to digest.

I find most milk alternatives pretty boring to drink on their own, including this one – you might disagree – but they are an excellent base, packed with goodness, for smoothies or natural flavours (see bottom of recipe).

Sweet seed milk

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A plant-based milk packed with goodness with different delicious flavour variations

Adapted from Raw Energy by Leslie Kenton

Ingredients

  • 30g pumpkin seeds
  • 15g sesame seeds
  • 250ml water
  • 5 dates, stoned
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)

Flavour options

  • 1 frozen ripe banana
  • or 25g raw cocoa or carob powder with a dash of vanilla extract
  • or 30g dried shredded coconut

Directions

  1. Put the seeds, water and dates into your blender and leave to soak overnight.
  2. In the morning blend together well and add the lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.

Flavour options: Blend again with the banana or cocoa/carob plus vanilla until smooth. If using the coconut soak overnight it with the seeds and add a little more water.

Bowl of yoghurt and a plate of dates

Other health benefits of dates

Studies have also shown that there is a lower rate of cancer and longer life among populations where dates are consumed regularly which may account for the longevity of Bedouins.  There are even claims that dates are beneficial in treating alcoholism (although I can’t find any scientific evidence but eating a healthy diet and avoiding refined sugar is recommended) as they minimise the urge for alcohol. You steep dates in water for a couple of hours and drink the liquid twice a day for a month is recommended Let me know if it works!

Main Sources: Kellie Anderson Food to Glow, Dates a Global History by Nawal Nasrallah, Healthline – are dates good for you, Health US News

Plate of dates, seeds and seed milk

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Hope this has been interesting. I’m keen not to add to the wealth of unsubstantiated health claims for ingredients that abound online so have kept this to what I can find evidence for or been honest when I can’t.

You can read more about dates and recipes containing them if interested.

Ramadan breads with dates

June 6, 2018

Ramadan date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

The air is warm and slightly sweet. Beside a very grand mosque, an organic shop and a barber, is a bakery. At its centre is a deep tandoor, like a giant urn with its mouth open wide to swallow the flat rounds of dough which is slapped on its walls. The baker reaches in with a metal rod and flicks the warm bread, corrugated with air bubbles trapped by the searing heat. KP, freshly shorn, hands over 1 dirham in exchange for a thin, plastic bag which is already cloudy with condensation from the steaming contents. Two minutes later he is home and we tear off soft hunks and stuff them into our mouths. Nothing else is needed.

Bread, like in many cuisines and cultures, is an important part of life in the Middle East. Anissa documents in her book (see below) that wheat was first domesticated in Mesopotamia (part of the fertile crescent which stretches from the Syrian desert to the Mediterranean sea, and Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Agriculture encouraged permanent settlements to be formed – the start of civilisation. Over the centuries, as towns and cities were established, each neighbourhood would have had, and often still has, a local baker as there weren’t ovens (or electricity) in houses. You can imagine the daily ritual of collecting it warm from the oven, not once every couple of weeks like KP and I. It was a place to swap news, a place of affordable nourishment, a daily simple, sustaining pleasure.

Annia Ciezadlo describes in Day of Honey how people in Beirut, when the threatened with tanks or a siege during the civil war, would rush first to stock up with bread and often the baker was the only shop to open.

That trip to the baker would have heightened anticipation during Ramadan after a day of fasting, where celebration breads, often stuffed with dates, would be served for that Holy month.

There were no ovens in the desert so bread was cooked in griddles over the fire by the Bedouin tribes. Khameer is a traditional Emirati sweet bread, scented with cardamon and often stuffed with dates.

A variety of date breads and a plate of dates

The dark breads are a test of a variation from Iraq – more about this soon

I turned to Anissa Helou’s ‘Savory Baking from the Mediterranean‘ when researching date bread recipes. It’s a book inscribed to me by Anissa when she spoke at the Emirates Festival of Literature in 2013. While her early career was as an art consultant to the rich and famous, I sat in the front row of her session, along with other food-obsessed friends, drawn by her meticulous research, her in-depth exploration of Middle East food, and vibrant recipes. She took up the baton from Claudia Roden to introduce the Western World to the breadth and variety of Arab and Mediterranean food through her cookbooks, excellent blog, cookery classes, TV and radio appearances.  She looks majestic with her elegant bearing and distinctive hairstyle, but was warm and charming to us all.

Anissa’s instructions are incredibly thorough, from explaining how to take the seeds out of a pomegranate to the step by step guide for Ramadan breads with dates.  My breads emerged puffed up and golden from the oven, the texture fluffy and half way between a brioche and soft roll encasing a melting layer of date purée. As there was no photograph of the finished breads in the book, I was keen to know if they looked as they should so I dropped a quick photo and question to Anissa who replied immediately with an encouraging “nice!”. She advised that they were supposed to be flatter to be authentic “but they look great all the same”.

In the recipe head notes, Anissa says that you’ll find these breads in many different shapes and sizes all over the souks of Tripoli, Damascus and Aleppo.  It’s tragic how these cities have changed since she wrote that. I hope that some date breads are being enjoyed somewhere in that part of the world this Ramadan.

Anissa generously gave me her blessing to reproduce her recipe here. My adaptations have been to convert the ingredients into metric measurements and have added a few of my own words.

They are rewarding to make, with a nice balance of sweetness from the dates, the fluffy soft bread and crunchy sesame seeds. Best eaten with the warmth of the oven still lingering.

Ramadan breads with dates

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Khobz Ramadan are celebratory breads which are fluffy, light and brioche-like with a soft, date filling and crunchy sesame seed topping. They freeze well so can be eaten throughout the year.

Credit: Anissa Helou (with permission), Savory Baking from the Mediterranean

Ingredients

  • 3/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast (instant active yeast)
  • 420g plain flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried milk powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50g caster sugar
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 10g unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 230g pitted dates, preferably Medjool (about 10 Medjool)
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 60g white sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Directions

  1. Dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm water and stir until creamy.
  2. Combine the flour, milk powder, baking powder, caster sugar and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add 10g softened butter and the oil into the well and, with your fingertips, rub them into the flour until well incorporated. Add the yeast and gradually add 240 ml warm water (blood temperature), bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough. You could also do this stage in a food mixer like a Kitchenaid with a paddle.
  3. Remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead for 3 minutes. Place your large bowl upside down over the dough and leave it to rest for 15 minutes. Knead again for 2-3 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Rinse out the bowl, dry it and dust lightly with flour. Shape the dough into a ball, put in the bowl and cover (I use waxed cloth instead of cling film these days or you could cover with a plate). Let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour.  Flatten into a circle, brush any excess flour from the dough and fold the edges in on each side to make a rectangle. Cover and let it rise for 1 hour more. The dough should have doubled in volume.
  4. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the dates in a food processor. Add the 60g butter and process to a fine paste (this is easier with soft dates like Medjool). Shape the paste into a thick cylinder, wrap, and put into the fridge.
  5. Return the dough to the work surface. Divide it into 6 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Cover with a slightly damp tea towel and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  6. Divide the date paste into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. On a lightly floured surface roll out 1 ball of dough, with a rolling pin, to a circle of about 15 cm in diameter. Flatten a ball of date paste, with your fingers, to a thin, slightly smaller, flat circle – about 11 cm in diameter. Place the date circle in the middle of the dough. Fold the edges of the dough over in little pleats so it covers the filling completely. Pinch the edges to seal them, and flatten the bread firmly with your hand to make as even a circle as you can.
  7. Line two baking sheets with baking paper and scatter half the sesame seeds over them (you could also use a non-stick baking sheet or line with a silicone mat). Put the breads, seam side down, onto the sheet, leaving at least a few centimetres space around each. Keep them covered with a slightly damp tea towel while you make the rest. Let them rise, covered, for 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210C 190C fan.*
  8. Brush the breads with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle the remaining sesame seeds over the tops. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown all over. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

*Anissa specifies an oven temperature of 450 F which is about 230 C. My oven is very hot and having tested a similar bread recipe earlier that day which resulted in very dark (almost burnt) bread after 20 minutes, I lowered the temperature and the results were good. Watch the bread as it cooks as ovens do vary. Bread generally needs a hot oven to start with.

A variety of date breads, 2 cups of coffee and a plate of dates

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Do you have memories of date bread for Ramadan? I’d love to hear your stories. Are there any breads you associate with special occasions?