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What is bean to bar chocolate and why is it so expensive?

December 15, 2018

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates and a vase

I’ve had an epiphany about chocolate – and it’s probably due to my expectations being so low. If I was banned from eating chocolate ever again I’d be a little sad, but not distraught, whereas if lemon was verboten I’d panic then go into continual mourning. Let’s just say, unlike the rest of the planet, I don’t worship at the altar of chocolate.

When I got an invite to a Pierre Marcolini event I’ll admit that I accepted because my sister-in-law was in town and she more than makes up for my un-sweet tooth and chocolate insouciance. I knew that she’d love it. Want to interview Pierre? Why not? I prepared questions about sustainability, the threat to rain forests and child slavery.

The surfaces of the Gaggenau kitchen showroom were covered with shiny, shapes in serried rows. Most were for tasting but it seemed rather sacrilegious to disturb the symmetry.  Pierre arrived, bounding around like a very tall, enthusiastic school boy with slightly crazy hair and a beaming smile. He apologised again and again for his bad English and asked me not to video the interview “my bad English. It is possible in French?” Sadly ‘non’, as I didn’t do my homework or anything much than daydream during lessons.

We soon sunk into the sofas and nattered about Pierre’s favourite topic in the whole world (in a heavy French accent). I’ve met many slightly maniacal, utterly obsessed people in food over the years (being a food nerd myself makes me drawn to them) and Pierre fitted well into that category.

He says he was always into chocolate and that his life is like a holiday as he still loves it so much.

Bean to bar

Understanding how chocolate is made is key to knowing why Pierre is confident that his is of the highest quality – in fact some of the best in the world.  In the early days of his career he made chocolate like all the other chocolatiers in Belgium who would use couverture (high quality tablets of untempered chocolate that’s high is cocoa solids) made by specialist bean converters to produce their ranges. He realised that although there were different shapes and additions, the chocolates all tasted the same as the makers all began with the same raw ingredient. “I decided that this was ridiculous”. Regulations changed, allowing vegetable fats into couverture, so Pierre started sourcing to ‘bean to bar’ which is the foundation of his dedication to quality.

But what exactly is bean to bar? It means buying the cocoa beans direct from the producer, and over-seeing every process including roasting and grinding the beans right up to making the finished chocolates. But nothing in chocolate is clear-cut and terms aren’t standardised or binding. Many big manufacturers of chocolate source from bean to bar as they buy large quantities or even own chocolate estates. This is not a guarantee of quality even though the phrase is often used in artisanal chocolate making and Pierre is credited with being the first to do this.

roasted cocoa beans

Different beans that have been roasted

Meeting the cocoa growers in person

What sets Pierre Marcolini apart is that he visits the cocoa farmers himself to inspect the quality and choose the right beans which he then ships and roasts himself in Brussels. His 80 ‘artisans’ turn the beans into the finished items. He explains that, like grapes, the cocoa beans develop character and flavours depending on exactly where they are grown. So another chocolate term ‘single origin’ usually means it comes from one country but could be any estate. Pierre seeks out growers who are producing exceptional beans, often in remote areas. He was very excited about a plantation in Madagascar he’s been to recently, right by the river, that takes a small plane to get there.

It’s this direct approach that guarantees the quality that’s his holy grail and his growers are in fourteen countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, Ecuador and Vietnam. Through long-term relationships with the producers he ensures that working conditions and wages are protected. He always offers farmers more than the current trading price (up to seven times the market rate for the right beans). This is unusual in a business where many workers don’t earn a living wage, child labour is rife and deforestation are big issues. “I create the tablet of chocolate so it’s necessary for me to view and see the conditions of the workers. The price you pay for the chocolate environmentally is very important. The relationships are important,” he asserts. This does mean that Pierre’s chocolates are some of the most expensive in the world.

Bean type and terroir

Another element is the type of cocoa bean used. There are four main varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, Nacional and Forastero. He says the best cocoa tree is Criollo, “The quality is wow.”

Again this is not cut and dried. “People in Belgium often rate the quality and taste by the percentage of the different cocoa bean varieties. The flavour is not determined by the percentage of the beans in each mix, the difference is in the quality of the specific cocoa tree and the country it comes from, and the terroir.

We keep coming back to wine when talking about sourcing the cocoa beans. In wine, terroir refers to how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect affect the taste of wine. In somewhere like Burgundy, small vineyards can be right next to each other but have very different flavours due to the nuances in the underlying soil and rock. Pierre says that you might drink a glass of red wine and not know that it comes from a certain vineyard, has a certain percent alcohol or know the grape variety – but you know you are enjoying the flavours. This is the same with chocolate; you might not know the variety of beans or the country of origin but you can taste the difference in quality.

This was my light bulb moment and suddenly chocolate had got a lot more interesting.

Drinking with chocolate

As we were talking about wine I asked Pierre about a good match with chocolate. He recommends those from the southern Rhone made with intense Syrah and juicy Grenache grapes to drink with dark chocolate. “Chocolate and coffee is very good, or lapsang souchong or green tea.” He recalls a famous tea club in Shanghai where they paired five of his chocolates with five different teas. “Fantastic!”

White chocolate is notoriously looked down upon by chocolatiers. Pierre says “It’s not chocolate in my opinion as it’s sugar, milk powder and cocoa powder, but I combine it with flavours like passion fruit, yuzu and mango. Wow, so amazing.”

The interview is over. We pose for a quick pic and Pierre laughs and shouts “Sally. Look!” as he discovers one of the Gaggenau wine fridges behind a promotional board.

The pleasure of tasting

It’s time to taste.  The filled chocolates are good but, especially after my newly found knowledge about the beans and origin, the chocolate bars (tablets) or ‘Carré Chocolat’ really pique my interest and tastebuds. The smell, texture, mouthfeel, melting point, layers of flavour and finish – it’s just like wine tasting (except there’s definitely no spitting).

There is Conquis – Cocoa Flower, Ensorcelé – from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba,  Fasciné made from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equadorand Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru (details below*).

Boxes of Pierre Marcolini Dubai chocolates

There are milk, white and filled versions and low-sugar recipes (so you can eat them every day apparently) and chocolate containing quinoa and rye.  But the plain, dark squares are the ones that fascinate me and I keep nibbling and comparing – they are incredibly intense and different in taste.

Feeling as though I’ve overdosed completely and craving a week of salad to balance the amount of chocolate I’ve eaten, I take a stroll around the room to view displays of his ‘artistic collaborations’. Pierre has worked with designer Tom Dixon making striking pink boxes stamped ‘London’ swooned over by Wallpaper as much as food reviewers. Pop art, pouty lips, kohl-rimmed eyes and witty phrases made limited edition boxes created with fashion designer Olympia Le Tan into collectors’ items.  Most recently he has created a Victoria Beckham range – chocolate hearts naturally. And there’s a bespoke ‘Dubai’ box that I predict will go down a storm.  There’s definitely clever marketing behind his brand which has made it so successful, but he deserves credit for being at the forefront of a movement to reconnect makers with the origins of their products and understand the value of the whole process.

We stand in front of the Christmas display for ages admiring the chocolate baubles and utterly gorgeous Advent calendar that’s a thing of beauty based on a fairground carousel. We’re absolutely thrilled when presented with one on our way out.

My conversion is complete – I’ve developed a daily bean-to-bar chocolate habit.

A large box with drawers of A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates showing heart-shaped ones

Pierre Marcolini’s new shop opens in The Dubai Mall in December 2018

*Conquis – Cocoa Flower made with Nacional from Equador, Forastero from Cameroon and Trinitario from Cuba (85% cocoa solids), Ensorcelé – made with 100% Trinitario beans from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba (78% cocoa solids)**,  Fasciné made of Nacional beans from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equador (78% cocoa solids) and Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru.

**Judith of Mostly about chocolate describes the taste of Orient de Cuba here.

Other chocolatiers I like: Although not much of a chocolate eater, I’m a chocolate giver and have ordered presents from the Hotel Chocolat website in its very early days and it always goes down a storm. They now grow their cocoa on a plantation they own in St Lucia and are committed to a very detailed and impressive ‘engaged ethics‘ programme.

In Dubai we are lucky to have a small chocolate maker Mirzam who roast their own beans and produce their chocolate from bean to bar. You can actually see them do it through their glass sided production area at their shop in Al Quoz. The flavours are stunning – figs, star anise and cinnamon; rose; white chocolate with saffron to name a few. The bars look beautiful too as they commission artists to design the wrappers.

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates

So did you know there was so much behind chocolate growing, sourcing and making? How far on the chocoholic scale are you?

When a sommelier comes for supper – and Tim Tam truffles recipe

December 12, 2018

Tim Tam Truffles on a baking tray

Until I was given a packet of them, I had no idea of the existence of Tim Tams. Then I started Googling (“are Tim Tams like Penguin biscuits?”) which unleashed a storm of righteous indignation and I realised they are very dear to Australians.  The Tim Tams were part of a small box of goodies from Australian winemaker Jacob’s Creek, which also included melon, mango and Vegemite, for a special menu. Friends were coming over for supper, I was cooking, and Jacob’s Creek’s sommelier Abhinav was bringing the wine.

Wine drinking has changed a lot during my lifetime. When I was growing up, wine was a mysterious and expensive thing that posh people drank. You needed deep pockets, an understanding of French and lots of fancy wine paraphernalia like decanters. Things started to change when some cheap (very dubious) bottles from Europe started to creep onto supermarket shelves (I’m looking at you Liebfraumilch).  Australian producers, such as Jacob’s Creek, really drove the wine revolution. They simplified the language of wine through releasing single varietals (wines labelled by grape varieties like Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot) and making it accessible, consistent and affordable through bulk production.

Their success means that we now take those familiar names for granted. Jacob’s Creek has started a new movement called ‘Our Table‘ seeking to rekindle those simpler days of enjoying a glass of wine and good food with friends, and perhaps finding a few surprises in those ubiquitous wines. Having a sommelier to dinner sounds a bit stuffy but I knew that Abhinav was far from it, having met him at another Our Table event. He received a warm welcome which had nothing to do with bringing wine and being young and handsome (ahem).

I’d set the table in the garden with crumpled white linen, storm lamps, white Bougainvillea snipped from the bushes and some bunches of grapes draped over glass stands and onto napkins. Jacob’s Creek had printed my menu very elegantly and Abhinav chose wines to match the courses. We sipped citrussy Reserve Riesling with chilled bowls of melon gazpacho.  “Steak on the barbie” came from OBE Organic via Prime Gourmet. Grilled Vegemite aubergines, roasted Mediterranean vegetables, sweetcorn (from the Farmers Market), and fluffy baked potatoes came with the steak and was paired with Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an unusual wine as it spends part of its life maturing in whisky barrels adding slight smokiness and vanilla to the deep black fruits and spice..

Then it was showing off time with three layers of meringue, filled with ‘margarita cream’, covered in ripe mango slices. The Tim Tam truffles also made an appearance. Briefly.

A glass of sparkling wine with chocolate made everyone happy – Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir is made using the same method as in Champagne plus two of the same grape varieties . Abhinav told us how well the soft, toasty bubbles and creamy chocolate went together. We agreed by toasting our glasses to a lovely evening round ‘our table’ under the palm trees.

Tim Tam Truffles

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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A delicious treat at the end of a meal or to give as a gift. Meltingly chocolatey with a slight crunch from Australia's favourite biscuit.

Ingredients

  • 1 X 200g packet milk chocolate Tim Tam biscuits or equivalent (Penguins are the most similar in the UK)
  • 140g soft cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
  • 180g milk chocolate
  • 40g melted milk chocolate for drizzling optional

Directions

  1. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor until ground into smallish crumbs.
  2. Add cream cheese and Frangelico*. Whizz briefly until combined.
  3. Place into the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up a bit.
  4. Using a teaspoon, measure out small pieces and roll into truffle-sized balls (or larger if you prefer). Place on a tray lined with baking paper place and put back into the fridge for a further 20 minutes.
  5. Break up the milk chocolate into bowl and microwave on medium for 3-4 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until chocolate is melted. Alternatively, melt in a bowl suspended over a saucepan of simmering water.
  6. Put a few balls at a time into the bowl of melted chocolate and use teaspoons to roll them around until they are completely coated.
  7. Remove balls with teaspoons allowing the excess chocolate to drip back into the bowl. Place onto the baking paper lined tray.
  8. Put back into the fridge to set (about 1 hour).
  9. Melt the dark chocolate until quite liquid. Use a piping bag or teaspoon to make stripes or patterns on the outside. Leave to cool and store in the fridge until ready to serve.

*Alternatives: You can use different types of liqueur such as Baileys Irish Cream, Jack Daniels or even brandy. Instead of rolling in melted chocolate you could dust in cocoa powder.

I made these again for book club this week. Whoever chooses the title hosts the discussion and tries to theme the food to the story. Because my book choice was Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, I cooked Iraqi fish (samak bil tamata) and lentil salad (zalatat addas) from the Iraqi Table by Raghad Al Safi. I’d made the Tim Tam truffles to photograph for this blog post – but then we remembered that Elishva (a central character) was, throughout the tale, being begged to join her daughters in Australia where they had fled during the war. My subconscious must have planned it.plate of Tim Tam Truffles

I bought and cooked the food, Jacob’s Creek supplied the sommelier and the wine for this supper as part of Our Table. I was under no obligation to publish anything but had such good fun decided to share it.

Beetroot and goats’ cheese pies – cooking with Simon Rimmer

December 8, 2018

Simon Rimmer in the kitchen making pies

Look into my suitcase as I haul it from the baggage carousel, delve down under the clothes, unwrap a sturdy cardboard box and, inside, you’ll usually find a selection of crisp golden, pastry-hatted pies that have travelled with me through the skies.

I carry out this covert operation for KP, who lures friends and family into his ring as pie and Cornish pasty mules too.

Do I ever get to taste one? Not a chance. He takes one out of the freezer whenever I have a night out and eats it steaming hot from the oven, resolutely solo, never sharing, ultra-protective.

It’s very rare that I make my own pies. The different steps of pastry preparation and filling, the rolling out and having to be neat puts me off. Given how much we love them, it’s rather sad that I don’t get round to it more often.

So when an invite to pie-making session with Simon Rimmer popped into my inbox, I was keen to go. Simon owns many restaurants and is well-known from appearing on TV in the UK on shows such as Great British Menu, Sunday Brunch and even Strictly Come Dancing. He came to chef fame by setting up Greens, an acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in Manchester, but also claims, as a rather strange contrast, to have invented ‘pulled pork’.

His restaurant in Dubai, The Scene, is on the 4th floor of Pier 7, which has a curved deck and a fabulous view over Dubai Marina. The doors were flung open so everything was flooded with daylight and fresh air.  Simon greeted us like old friends and we gathered round for instruction. It’s easy to see why he’s such a success on TV, with a very warm manner, good sense of humour while demonstrating very clearly and precisely. Our cooking skill level was quite varied. Hungry Girl Dubai had us all chuckling when she asked if Simon had ‘put a bit of lube’ on the tins, in her warm, Irish accent. By the end we were all very keen to don aprons and make our own pies.

ingredients for beetroot and goats cheese pies

I had never attempted to make hot water crust pastry before thinking it would be too difficult. Like most pastry-making, it has its rules and challenges, but it was not as tricky as I’d thought. The dough is a lot more forgiving than shortcrust.

The beetroot filling would be worth making alone to serve cold as a salad, in a sandwich or into a baked-blind, shortcrust pastry case. The secret is to cook the onions long and slow, so they are soft, yielding and fragrant. Either simmer the beetroot in water until it can be pierced with a knife but is not soggy, or wrap in foil with a little olive oil and fresh thyme and roast in the oven. Use the best goats’ cheese you can find (suggestions below).

The appeal of pies and the lexicon that goes with it is a lengthy subject. As you would expect, I grew up on British pies; American pie traditions are like a foreign language to me (pot pies, hand pies, pumpkin pie – a tart surely?). Simon’s pies live up to tradition of having pastry on top and bottom.

It’s a cold-hearted person who can resist breaking a crisply, golden crust with a fork to unveil the secret within, inhaling the release of fragrant filling and digging in for a mouthful.  Thanks to Simon for expanding my pie-making repertoire and for a very enjoyable afternoon.

Cooking in the kitchen with Simon Rimmer

Simon Rimmer's beetroot and goats cheese pie

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Rustic, individual pies that make a great packed lunch or picnic, as well as a hearty supper.

Recipe instructions adapted slightly.

Ingredients

  • 2 onions
  • 10g butter plus extra for greasing
  • 10ml vegetable oil
  • 300g beetroot, cooked
  • 200g goats’ cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • salt
  • 400g plain flour plus extra for dusting
  • 150g vegetable suet
  • 40ml milk
  • 50ml water
  • 1 egg yolk

Directions

  1. Peel and slice the onions thinly. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and cook the onions gently until they are soft and caramelised but not burnt (about 40 minutes).
  2. Cut the beetroot and goats’ cheese into 1 cm cubes.
  3. Mix the goats’ cheese, beetroot, caramelised onion and thyme leaves in a bowl and season to taste.
  4. Place 400g of flour into a mixing bowl.
  5. Melt the suet by warming with the milk and water in a saucepan over a low to medium heat.
  6. Remove from heat and gently add to the flour, a little at a time, stirring until combined and a smooth consistency. If the dough is not pliable add a little more warm water.
  7. Dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough thinly as you can without it breaking (or flatten it by hand).
  8. Lightly grease 6 deep, individual pie tins with butter and line with the pastry, pressing it up the sides.  Reserve the rest of the pastry.
  9. Spoon the filling into the pastry cases, right to the top.
  10. Gently roll out the remaining pastry, cut into rounds and place the lids on top of the pies. Seal the edges by pressing gently with a fork.
  11. Brush the pie lids with beaten egg yolk.
  12. Bake in an oven preheated to 180C for 25-30 minutes.

Excuse the quality of this video as filmed into the sun and on my iphone. It does explain exactly how to make the pastry (and how friendly Simon was).

Which goats’ cheese to use? Simon used the soft type, with a firm, cream cheese texture and advised against using a Brie-style. I’m a big fan of White Lake goats’ cheese as they have a range of award-winners with different tastes and textures including some that would melt beautifully in this filling. I served Rachel to some friends recently and no one guessed it was made of goats milk.

Are you a pie fan and, if so, what’s your favourite pie filling? Do you ever make your own pies? Have you ever made hot water crust pastry?

Beetroot and goats cheese pies

Thanks to Simon and the Scene for the cooking class. My fellow pie makers were Fathima – Table for Five, Nicole – She Dined in the Sun, Courtney – A to Zaatar and Laura – Hungry Girl Dubai

Eating with your hands – a food tour without cutlery

November 16, 2018

people eating a big platter of Ethiopian food with their hands

“Of course I’m comfortable eating with my hands – I’m Asian!” laughs Ida. Most of our group agree and, as this is Dubai, they are from many different cultures including Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, India, Philippines and the Emirates. Just a couple of us have that shivery feeling about relinquishing cutlery and getting our fingers sticky. But that’s what tonight is all about on a food tour around the back streets of Dubai. Exactly what does it mean to connect so directly with our food?

We’re perched round a long table outside a tiny kitchen in Karama. The foul (aka ful aka fava beans aka dried broad beans) arrive; they’ve been slow-cooked for eight hours in an idra (special, domed pot). The fawn-coloured mush, adored by so many in the Middle East (especially in Egypt and Lebanon) is never that alluring to me, but this is different. We’re at a Sudanese restaurant which has just three things on the menu; little beef sausages (soujouk) with spicy, peanut sauce, pickled vegetables, and their version of this beloved pulse. We dig in using chunks of fluffy buns called Khubz Samoon to scoop it up. My indifference about ful evaporates as this is light in texture with a delicious citrus tang. Simmered with tomatoes, onions, garlic and cumin until soft and smooth, then adorned with chopped, fresh tomatoes, onions, a bit of garlic, finely chopped lettuce, crumbled feta cheese, and sprinkled with sesame oil and lemon juice. I make an “illegal manoeuvre” (to quote Arva, the Frying Pan Tour’s Head Honcho) of dunking some of the bread and ful into the dipping sauce (dakwa) of peanut butter, shatta (red fermented chilli paste) and lime. This is our first stop so I’m trying to pace myself , but it’s difficult to resist. I feel most exposed eating the sausages with my fingers; after years of conditioning, I feel naked without small wooden cocktail sticks.

Most of us on the tour haven’t met before and having these central dishes as a focal point means the conversation is more communal. It strikes me that when you eat with a knife and fork from your own plate you tend just to talk to your neighbour. I’ve suffered at dinner parties, feeling isolated when those either side of me are facing in the opposite direction. A common plate breaks the ice straight away.

The restaurant owner comes out to wave us goodbye and we stroll round the corner. A man in an orange shirt can be glimpsed through a small hatch in the steamy window of a shop front. He’s a constant blur of movement, his feet planted but his hands never stopping. The pavement outside is bright with flashing, coloured lights, and music pounds with a rhythmic, Indian beat. We’re at Chaat Bazaar – chaat means lick in Hindi; a term not associated with good table manners but with mouth-watering anticipation. A lady in fuscia pink hovers at the hatch tossing her head back expertly to eat one, two, three and more of the snacks that orange man prepares so expertly.  He makes around 2000 of them per night.

Chaat restaurant in Dubai

We line up to take our turn. The hand of orange man extends a pani puri from the depths and is our connection from inside to outside.  The little sphere with a hole in the top needs to be grasped and consumed immediately or risk disaster.  A very, fine, crispy shell is traditionally filled with something firm (often potato), some sweet chutney and a sharp liquid; it needs to be popped into your mouth whole or it could collapse and dribble down your chin. In some parts of India they’re called puchka after the sound made when you crunch your teeth into the carapace.

These particular pani puri contain ragda – a soft, turmeric-scented, yellow, lentil paste; a sticky, jaggery-laden, tamarind chutney; and a ladle full of theekha pani (spicy water) made with fresh herbs and spices served chilled, adding contrast to the warm ragda.. The explosion of sweet and sour with the jumble of flavours and textures is what makes them so addictive.  We jostle round the window for this ultimate street food; there is no possible alternative to eating it by hand.

In the Ayurvedic tradition, every finger in your hand connects to an element. Each is a conduit: the thumb is space: the index finger is air: the middle finger is fire: the ring finger is water, and the little finger is earth. It’s believed that bringing all the fingers together to touch the food stimulates the five elements and brings forth the digestive juices.  Eating without cutlery takes you to a higher place.

We’re ready for our next adventure and squeeze side by side on slender benches and squat stools around small, table-like baskets (called a mesob).  Within the dusky pink walls of this tiny Ethiopian restaurant there’s a bit of trepidation as a few of our group have had bad experiences of this cuisine. It takes considerable skill to produce Ethiopian food well, but the Frying Pan team has done a lot of research and vouches that this is the best place in town. We can see into the small kitchen, staffed solely by women, some dressed in bright robes others in crisp white and dark aprons. They weave around each other calmly in a way that feels choreographed, chopping, stirring, and assembling large platters.

A flat, round dish or gebeta is placed in front of us and fills the whole of the mesob. Sarah grasps the domed cover by its slender top and whisks it away to reveal an astonishing array of little portions of food. The colours are jewel-like, it looks like inkspot painting, the scents are sharp and heady. The platter is lined with injera and rolls of it are placed around the edge. This is a fermented bread made of the ancient tef grain. The humid climate and temperatures of Dubai are challenging to the fermentation process so Sarah, the owner, ships in the dough every week from Ethiopia.

How on earth do I eat this without a fork? I feel very daunted but luckily there’s expert tuition. Nahla gives an overview about etiquette (stay within a vague triangular shape in front of you, only use your right hand, don’t touch your lips with your fingers), then Arva dives in. Tearing off a triangular piece of injera, she deftly scoops up some of the meat stew and a portion of the hard-boiled egg. Tucking it neatly into a rolled parcel she pops it into her mouth. Spurred on, we all tuck in.  Having eaten rice dishes by hand before, I find it easier using bread as a scoop as is forms a barrier between the meaty gravy and my fingers.  Easier but not easy.

It’s not just the method of eating that feels challenging, it’s also the amount. Sarah has put something of everything from the kitchen on each platter.  The meat dishes have been simmered with berbere, a spice mix which includes paprika and chilli, and it gives the stews a rich, dark, purple colour. There is Doro Wat (chicken and caramelised onion stew with a boiled egg), Key Wot (beef), potatoes and meat, carrots and fasoolia (carrots and string beans), carrots and gomane (carrots and cabbage), spinach and meat, Tibs (spicy meat stew), two types of Firfir (a tomato and injera stew, one spicy and one alitcha – which means ‘coward’), salad and aib (cottage cheese). The injera at the bottom is the nicest as it soaks up all the juices into its lacy folds.

wall of Ethiopian restaurant in Dubai

Next we’re introduced to traditional Ethiopian hospitality which is to feed your guests – literally. Arva takes a larger piece of injera and scoops up a hefty portion. This is called a gursha (a mouthful), and should be large enough to be just that, the bigger the more hospitable. It’s not polite to refuse and Negar, who is chosen, says she ‘feels the love’, opens her mouth wide and receives it graciously. Trying to quash my British sense of reserve, I attempt to do the same so my neighbour can feed me; I feel very vulnerable but also honoured. It’s a generous and intimate gesture. I don’t do so well with extending that same hospitality, my nerves overcome me, and my method could be described a quick, clumsy shove. I am so embarrassed and concerned for my poor recipient; Oh the shame, I’ve failed in my hostly duties.

We finish the meal with coffee poured from the slender spout of a traditional jebena (coffee pot) served with a bowl of popcorn. Some itan (Ethiopian incense) is burned alongside it in a girgira (a clay bowl filled with some hot coals), which adds to the whole sensory experience.

Outside on the pavement, before we all head off, Mufaddal whips out a basket of Dadar Gulung. These are thin pancakes, vivid, bright green in colour due to the pandan leaf juice in the batter, rolled around a filling of coconut and palm sugar. After my evening without implements I have no problem picking up one of these with my hands and munching it before heading off home on the metro.

Coffee, popcorn and incense at an Ethiopian coffee ritual

When Arva was a trainee management consultant in New York, she went for dinner at a very smart French restaurant with her boss. He saw her freeze at the prospect of navigating the rows of cutlery and glasses, and joked that he needed his wife there to help him (to put her at ease). While knife and fork etiquette doesn’t phase me one bit, I had started the evening ready for a challenge and was taken way outside my comfort zone.

At the beginning of the tour, we all wrote down something that we felt comfortable eating with our hands. Mine was ‘soldiers’ of toast for dipping into a soft-boiled egg.  By the end of the evening, my journey of discovery had led to a great deal more than sticky fingers.

 

So how do you feel about eating with your hands? Is it comforting or appalling?

Video highlights of the tour here.

Eating with your hands

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Find out more:

Frying Pan Adventures has a range of different food and culture tours in Dubai, in parts of the city that few tourists and newer expats visit. Some of my most memorable experiences have been on with them. This one was part of their special calendar of tours designed for their Sufra membership community who get booking priority and a discounted rate.

The tour was in collaboration with Dubai Design Week looking at the tools we eat with and what happens when deprived of them.

More about an Ethiopian coffee ceremony on their podcast here.

How the Ethiopian tradition of feeding people came about.

A blog dedicated to Sudanese food and recipes.

Arva’s guide to the best pani puri in Dubai.

10 easy ways to use less plastic

November 11, 2018

A range of alternatives to using plastic

My mum was a war baby, as she liked to remind us often. Even though she was a small child at the end of World War II, privations and rationing carried on for many years. From a working class family, she still values everything and throws away nothing. Thrift and make do and mend was second nature in our family. She would wash plastic bags and hang them on the line to dry to reuse; she would wipe tin foil and store it away for next time. At Christmas we would unwrap our presents as carefully as possible so that she could iron the wrapping paper for next year.

After following the rest of the consumer sheep blindly for a while (the 80’s have a lot to answer for), I have now become my mother. I reuse and wash plastic bags. I wipe tin foil and fold it into drawers.

Seeing the clogged seas and mountains of plastic, it’s easy to feel helpless, but many small actions can make an impact. Like with food sourcing, it often involves pausing for thought about your decisions to make a better choice. I know I’m far from the only one talking about this but here are some of the easy ways we’ve changed the daily behaviour in our house which might inspire or remind you. I’d love to hear any ideas you have too …

a teapot with loose tea pouring into a cup

How to use less plastic

1) Use loose tea

Did you know that around 96 per cent of teabags are made with polypropylene? This is a synthetic resin which is added during the sealing process. Plus there are the ones that have a little tag of paper on them often secured with a metal staple.

Once you get into the habit of using a teapot and tea strainer it’s not at all arduous. There are some cleverly designed solutions to make small quantities. I particularly like the Avantcha teapot where you put a couple of spoonfuls of leaf tea into the central column, add the water and put on the lid. When the tea is brewed to your liking you can remove the filter (onto a glass dish). The lid has a rubber edge so that you don’t burn your fingers. I have one that makes two cups which is perfect for KP and me.

To make a single cup I use a really nifty little thing. Again it’s really well designed. You put a spoonful of tea into the small mesh cylinder and press on the top (made from some kind of silicone). Put it in your cup or mug and pour in the hot water. The little lid is a ball so the gadget stays upright by floating. There is a little tag to remove it easily onto a little silicone carrier without burning your fingers.

If you are absolutely wedded to tea bags there are some plastic free ones around which are totally compostable. Don’t confuse them with biodegradable – these contain materials which will eventually break down after a much longer time.

Old tea leaves degrade naturally on the compost heap (or Bokashi) and are great for the garden. You can also do this with some plastic-free teabags, but it takes a lot longer for them to decompose.

Where to find:

Teapot – Avantcha (a UAE company that ships worldwide). Infusion tea strainer from Infusion (I bought mine in Debenhams UK) A clutch of small brands are plastic free right now including Teapigs and  with Clipper about to launch one that uses a material made from bananas. Reports say that PG Tips are switching to fully plant-based, biodegradable tea bags soon. I’m not sure whether this is worldwide or just in the UK.

2) Give up cling film

We’ve become so reliant on plastic wrap that I thought it would be really difficult to give it up, but after a year without it I don’t miss it at all. I use organic cotton covers coated with beeswax and coconut oil that mould beautifully around bowls or over plates with the warmth of your hands. You wash them gently after use. Occasionally I’ll use foil, which is also washed after use. I have a big stack of plastic containers which I inherited after helping someone move. Leftover food often goes in these in the fridge or freezer. None of these things are suitable for microwaving. I usually just put a plate over a bowl or just wipe up the spatters.

I’ve recently discovered  Stasher silicone bags. They are made of natural elements, plastic free, reusable and very versatile. You can use them in a microwave, dishwasher, freezer, in boiling water (or a sous vide machine) and even in the oven. Each bag has a built-in airtight seal. When they do eventually wear out or puncture, the company has a repurpose programme. So useful.

Where to find

Lily Bee Wrap – from New Zealand, available from Elaine Kelly in the UAE. Or you can make your own wax wraps as Celia demonstrates – plus her blog has lots of great advice about reducing waste in the home. Stasher is available from Tavola in Dubai, here worldwide.

Wax coated wraps

Lily Bee wax coated covers

3) Use soap bars

I’ve switched from shower gel and liquid soap to the traditional bars and I’m loving it. The soap feels so luxurious as it foams up. It’s much cheaper and lasts for ages. It’s something that people often as give as gifts and even the handmade craft versions are an affordable luxury.

Where to find:

Most of the bars in supermarkets have a plastic wrapper around them which you avoid if buying from small producers. Markets are good places to start as the ingredients are simple (no palm oil) and mileage minimal: I’m using some from College Green Soaps bought at Stroud Farmers’ Market which have a really beautiful scent.

4) Take your own drink bottle or cup

Get into the habit of filling a reuseable bottle with tap water and taking it with you (see below). Stash a coffee cup in your bag if you use take outs. Even though disposable cups look like cardboard they are reinforced with plastic. Support companies that give incentives to customers who bring their own drinking container.

Where to find:

We love the design of the glass Keep Cup with its tactile cork ribbon. There are also many silicone versions available if you are worried about breakages. If in the UK, South West chain Boston Tea Party sell biodegradable Ecoffee ones at a subsidised rate and have banned all single use plastic cups, straws etc from their cafés – hooray.

5) Drink tap water not bottled

The explosion in bottled water over the last two decades has been a major source of plastic waste. If you don’t like the taste of tap water there are various filters which are effective and simple to use. In the UAE, you can banish the large plastic containers by investing in a filter from Liquid of Life. The advantages are many, including never running out of drinking water and not ingesting chemicals caused by the sun reacting with plastic (which are potentially cancerous). The filter fits neatly under the sink and only needs changing once a year. It could even save you money.

If you like cold water just fill up some glass bottles and keep them in the fridge – much nicer than having an ugly water cooler in your kitchen too (very The Office).

Where to find:

Here’s a recent round-up of the best water filter jugs by the Independent. Liquid of Life in Dubai are really excellent and supply the filter that fit under your sink so you can drink tap water – a small company worth supporting.

a tea tray and a reusable bottle

Take your own water bottle

6) Take your own bags and containers

Keep jute bags in the car, invest in some net bags for fruit and veg and always have a collapsible bag with you. Avoid pre-packed fruit and veg. If you really can’t avoid taking a plastic bag make sure you wash and reuse it as much as possible. Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but a single plastic bag has a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.

Many restaurants will fill your containers for takeaway now. Avoid plastic egg cartons. I reuse the cardboard ones by taking them to the farmers’ market and buying from the stalls with loose eggs.

By buying direct from the producers e.g. a bakery rather than at supermarkets it can be easier to use paper bags or your own packaging. My favourite olive lady will put things into glass jars if you take them to the farmers’ market.

Where to find:

My favourite fold away is a Clipbag (from Inside Out in Tavistock) – which you can find here (trying to support small companies over Amazon). Produce bags are available in the UAE at the Green Ecostore.

7) Say no to straws

Does it drives you mad when plastic straws are given as standard? It does me and as for those plastic stirrers… Things are changing slowly due to people power.  If ruining your lipstick is something that worries you take a metal straw.

Where to find:

Reusable metal straws are widely available (I bought a copper one at Brick Lane market). In the UAE Azraq sell them = support their #stopsucking campaign where they encourage local businesses who ditch plastic straws.

8) Buy loose and in bulk

Seek out food shops that will sell the basics by weight rather than pre-packaged. Otherwise buy in bulk so that your use of packaging is lessened. See if you can buy with a group of friends from a wholesaler. Save your old glass jars and refill with cereal, lentils, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, rice, pasta and spices.

Where to find:

It does take some searching to find food shops who sell loose dried goods. If you are in London, Whole Foods has a good range. In the UAE, Waitrose has dispensers for nuts and Union Coop sells a wide range of nuts and spices loose. Small tea and coffee specialists might sell to you this way. 

a green plastic free container

A Stasher bag

9) Clean up your cleaning up

I adore the new Instagram sensation Mrs Hinch but not what’s in her cupboards (her ‘Narnia’ of cleaning products). We’ve been sold to so effectively that there are chemicals for everything imaginable, especially in the kitchen. Buy cleaning cloths made of natural materials that go in the washing machine rather than plastic-based disposable cloths (J-cloths etc) and cleaning wipes. Buy refillable products or make your own natural cleaning products here and here for ideas.

Where to find:

Ecover does a refill service in the UK . I bought my washable E-cloths in Waitrose here in Dubai – while made of man-made fibres they don’t need chemicals to clean with and last for a very long time. Or make your own. Just heard that plant-based, sulphate-free and cruelty free Common Good products are available in Dubai and are refillable. A refill stations iwill be available Comptoir 102 and in Tavola branches soon.

10) Beauty for the planet

Only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. Putting things into green bins is not effective enough. We have to stem it at source and beauty products are a huge source of plastic into landfill. I’m trying out the Lush shampoo bars right now and soap in the shower (see above). I use wash off cleanser with cotton cloths rather than plastic based make-up wipes.

I’ve changed to Neal’s Yard because as the plastic in their packaging is 100% recycled and they use glass (their deodorant for instance).

Cotton buds are one of the top ten things found on beaches. I’d like to buy organic cotton buds with 100% biodegradable card sticks but can’t find them in the UAE so I’m giving them up for now.

I stopped using scrubs with plastic micro-beads a while back. They are being banned in the UK but are still available in the UAE. Avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon. You can use loofahs or sea salt for a more natural scrub too.

Proof that this does make a difference; Lush calculated that between January 2015 and January 2016, global sales of its shampoo bars meant that 15,890,925 plastic bottles were never created.

Where to find

Lush is a good source of shampoo and conditioning bars and other ‘naked’ products. I like the look of this shampoo bar and this conditioner too. Here’s Neal’s Yard packaging strategy (and their products are gorgeous). Lucy has tips on zero waste including using a metal razor.

a tea tray with an infusion to replace tea bags

What’s next for reducing plastic?

Ask people not to use plastic. I had a supermarket home delivery the other day and put a request on the comments – and they brought it without bags.  Sometimes people will surprise you – and the will for change is starting to happen.

It seems obvious now that a world which churns out a product that doesn’t degrade for 1000 years, or ever, will soon be over run with it. There should be responsibility put on those corporations who make massive profits by selling goods in plastic but leave, often poor, nations to cope with the unmanageable waste that chokes rivers, land and seas.

I guess the bigger picture is that we have to reject the consumer society that we’ve been sold at any price. To consider if every purchase is necessary, to stop shopping as recreation, to value experiences over things, to buy second-hand or from small, environmentally friendly producers.

Changing my own behaviour helps me from feeling despondent or overwhelmed.  We have to leave this planet in a better shape for the next generation. So how do you try to minimise your plastic use? Is there anything you find overwhelming or insurmountable? Any good tips to share?

Easy ways to use less plastic

Other sources of info:

Friends of the Earth

Less plastic

Greenpeace

Naomi has some good suggestions and brings up the whole ‘recycling’ issue.

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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