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The best Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary) mix

March 21, 2019

glasses of Bloody Mary and lots of tomatoes

As I’m settling into my seat on a flight and I spot the drinks trolley making its way up the aisle, the urge for a Bloody Mary takes over (and I’m not alone). They say that your taste buds are dampened through the pressurised cabin of a plane and you crave salty, spicy, full flavours. This classic cocktail certainly delivers that – but why do I have it so rarely when my feet are on the ground?

Before a friendly Boules tournament on the beach the other weekend, I stirred up a jugful as we gathered in my kitchen. As I’m never knowingly under-catered there was a lot of the mix left and I drank it ‘sans alcohol’ as a spicy, liquid appetiser through the week. What I’m saying is that this is delicious with or without vodka.

Making the mix in advance allows the flavours to blend and intensify. It cools down in the fridge so that you don’t need ice (I hate that wateriness as it melts) and all you have to do is pour into a glass and add a celery stick – plus a shot of vodka (or gin for a drink variously called a Red Snapper or a Happy Mary).

If you search for a Bloody Mary on Pinterest, the variations of garnish are completely over the top. It’s like mezze in a glass. I wouldn’t be averse to olives, crispy bacon, crudités, cherry tomatoes and gherkins on the side for grazing but who came up with the idea to perch them precariously on the drink? The danger of getting something down your front would completely outweigh any pleasure for me.

So this is a classic. Great before a leisurely Sunday lunch, a welcome to the weekend aperitivo or as a rousing pick you up if you’re feeling slightly jaded. When was the last time you had one?

Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary)

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A classic cocktail that's like a savoury, spicy appetiser in a glass.

It’s quite a long list of ingredients so I’ve given alternatives but if you do use them all then no-one need add any extra seasoning or spices.


  • 2 litres of tomato juice (not from concentrate)*
  • 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce*
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco*
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of tomato ketchup
  • 75ml of fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice*
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt*
  • 1 scant teaspoon of grated fresh horseradish or horseradish sauce*
  • 1 teaspoon of shallot, chopped
  • a generous grind of black pepper
  • 30ml dry or medium sherry*
  • celery sticks
  • Half a bottle of vodka (stored in freezer if you like)


  1. Pour 500ml tomato juice into a power blender (like a Vitamix).
  2. Add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, tomato ketchup, lemon juice, orange juice, celery salt, horseradish, shallot, black pepper and sherry.
  3. Whizz until very smooth and pour into a large jug, add the rest of the tomato juice, stir well and refrigerate overnight. If you do this in an ordinary blender you might have to pour through a sieve before serving, just check that it’s really smooth.  Stir well just before you pour it.
  4. Measure out 30ml vodka into a glass, pour in the mixture, stir and garnish with a celery stick. Ice (and vodka) optional.

*Alternative ingredients: if using blended fresh tomatoes make sure you sieve them; there are vegan versions of Worcestershire sauce if you are avoiding anchovies but do not leave this out; Tabasco is traditional (and purists will say essential) but use the chilli sauce you have in the cupboard if necessary – sriracha could be good; you could leave out the orange juice but this adds to the mellow flavours; do not leave out the celery salt; horseradish gives a fiery heat but could be omitted; vermouth could be used instead of sherry.

glasses of Bloody Mary and lots of tomatoes

Seeing the world through an artist’s eyes

March 11, 2019

the book conscious creativity on a table with a cup of tea, biscuits and other bits and pieces

… about how Conscious Creativity by Philippa Stanton, and sources of inspiration, helped to change my view of everyday life.

I’m surprised at how small the book is as I rip open the padded envelope with excitement. This compact size is just right to fit in my hands, a joy to run my fingers over its soft cover and raise it to my face to breathe in the earthy, new paper and ink smell. I’ve been impatient for it to arrive as I’ve followed Philippa for some time (as 5ftinf on Instagram). Her generosity of spirit, the candid way she shares her creative process, and her perspective on viewing the ordinary has inspired me, and a whole community.

It takes me back to when an aspect of my creative self was first ignited by a very special person.  I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was stuck on a compound, unable to drive myself, reliant on others to do anything, hemmed in by restrictions of the county I lived in and the Mum of two toddlers.  My life was limited and claustrophobic. Looking back I was probably a bit depressed. When the prospect of an art class was mooted, I jumped at the chance. Before we ever picked up a pencil or paintbrush, Susan Elliot, an artist and art history teacher from the US, urged us to change our view of the world and to see it “through an artist’s eyes”. Over the next couple of years, these classes (and then an ‘artists’ support group) were a beacon in my life.  I realised that I’d always been observant, but she helped find a way to express shapes, texture, space and sound to the page, paper or canvas. To be alert to possibilities in every light and shadow. Her voice and words of wisdom often sounds in my head when I’m picking up a paintbrush even though I haven’t seen her for over two decades.

a cup of tea, biscuits and other bits and pieces

Had to add the cuppa as #adoremycupoftea

Philippa’s book reminded me of how powerful that mindset is for creativity and to shift my view once more. Conscious Creativity is about how to experience your surroundings. In the introduction she says she has written the book as a sort of guide or springboard towards developing your own creativity in a very conscious way, a way of utilising all your senses and everything around you.

The chapters take you on a journey of self-knowledge, to discover new ways of working that are a conduit to your own expression of creativity.  This is not prescriptive. It contains no right way or wrong way or instructions how to paint, draw or photograph. It does, however, cover boredom, time and the effects of comparison. There are chapters on colour, texture, atmosphere, light and shadow – each contains practical exercises to heighten your way of noticing, interacting and absorbing all these things. For instance, it might be counting how many things you see of the same colour while waiting for bus, or giving your brain a break from ‘doing’ by washing up in a certain way in order for ideas and experiences to be mentally digested and connected. If this all sounds a bit ‘woo’ (as my daughter said when it was on my Christmas wishlist), this book is very practical.

Throughout the pages, Philippa’s own works provide examples of how she is affected by and expresses daily practices (e.g. abstract, matching, symmetry and pattern spotting).  Her photographs are vivid and joyful, but with a calmness and ‘rightness’, transforming the everyday into something enriching. I’m reminded of David Hockney’s drawing of an ashtray, complete with squashed cigarette ends and smoking detritus – it’s an illustration I’m always drawn to (as a staunch anti-smoker). Philippa takes you by the hand down a winding path with may end in a series of iPhone pictures stored in a folder for your eyes only, or a vast canvas in a gallery. She opens the door through the analysis of the way she looked at things as a child and as she grew up, her own creative processes (encompassing many forms of expression from theatre to painting), over several decades.

For results you need intention, “Like any other discipline across the board, creativity is something that needs to be practiced and exercised: the more you engage with the practice, the more you will get from it, and you will learn to trust your own way of doing things and your own way of seeing the world.” is Philippa’s advice.

Putting it into practice

How has this affected my own way of looking, connecting and creating? I’ve been documenting things I notice on my daily dog walk for several years in a more haphazard way, and more recently I’ve become more intentional, partly influenced by the things Philippa has shared on Instagram about the way she does things.

This book has helped me to dig a lot deeper and to question why I’m drawn to certain things.  I’ve discovered that there are ways of connecting with the world that I didn’t think were possible, or definitely not possible for me.

Every morning through the week, I emerge out onto the street, dog lead and iPhone in hand. I don’t consciously think about what I’m going to look at or record. Some days I think that I’m not in the mood, but then something will change. I’ll notice the texture of peeling paint on a wall, the shade of blue of the sky, the rust on a metal pipe, the shadows cast by a palm tree, and then I know the tone and direction that I feel like exploring.

I have a podcast in my ears but my headphones are not noise cancelling so sounds of birds, the wind in the trees, the spray of a sprinkler, all provide a backdrop. Switching my brain into something else seems to free up my eyes to just see without judgement or reason. It’s pure observation that I get lost in.

Getting home and sorting these images into collages and order starts my day with a creative purpose before I have to deal with emails and the like. I try to stay away from social and other distractions from when I wake up until I’ve finished this whole process. Often this book is the first thing I reach for, when I’m drinking my cup of tea in bed; it sets me on an alternative path of creating and expression rather than responding or being influenced by others in a certain niche. Sometimes it will be other books (such as the Hockney one shown here), or just making a conscious effort to look out of the window and follow the birds hopping around the balcony, the palm leaves nodding in the breeze, or the hazy glow of dawn.

a book of David Hockney art surrounded by leaves and other bits and pieces


The biggest revelation for me is about synaesthesia. I thought that you were either born with it or not and that it meant that saw colours for each word when you were reading, which I greatly envied as it sounds magical. It turns out to be much more; synaesthesia is something that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. “I am convinced we all have a share of synaesthesia, but that some people have an ability to access it more readily than others” writes Philippa.

Scent and touch play a big part in how I interact with the world. A few years ago, due to a sudden deluge of rain, my sister, the girls and I ended up in a tent with a palm reader. She said that I was drawn to texture. As we left the tent my sister said “how did she know that the first thing you do when you enter a room is to run your fingers over something?” I was unaware that I did this. Could I be unaware of other things? Being more attune and open to this merging of senses has untapped new discoveries.

While lying on my yoga mat at the end of a class in savasana and trying to relax every part of my body , I began to visualise myself from the toes upwards. One day, as I did this, a colour associated itself with each part I was thinking of. So my toes were blue for instance, my ankles fushcia pink, my calves lime green etc. It came very naturally and I was in no doubt about each colour. Now, as it helps me to switch off from my other thoughts, I repeat this visualisation at the end of every practice. Some colours are consistent but others change. After a period of stillness, it’s as though a creative switch flicks on in my brain and I have the best ideas for photography, a concept or the outline of some writing at the end of my class. I’ve noticed that breathing in a scent evokes different reactions too including thinking of a texture.

During an interview with artist and musician Goldie, he was asked what it was like to live in New York. He described it in terms of sound and smell rather than sight and called this a synesthesic way.  I’ve caught a glimpse into how thrilling and life-enhancing it can be, especially in the new dimensions it brings to connecting with the world.

a book open to a quote by confucias, shells, a star fish, a mont blanc pen

Everyday creativity

The images in this post are made using things I picked up from the street on a single morning’s dog walk (apart from the piece of wood from an old dhow (traditional boat) which I dragged home a while ago, and the tangerine from my fruit bowl). The collages were made on the same day too.  I find it interesting that, even though I wasn’t thinking about it, brown and faded orange are the dominant colours.

I’ve used found items in these images today to tie into the book cover, but this process is not about copying – the cup of tea and digestive biscuits are a nod to my own obsessions –  it’s a springboard to my own discoveries. So now, like Susan’s voice, Philippa’s words are often in my head when I’m going about my everyday life. They are way-markers on a continuous creative journey and, like coming across a sign-post when a little bit lost on a hike, bring me confidence, energy and excitement for the way forward.

A quote on the first page:

‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.’


the book conscious creativity on a table with and other bits and pieces

More info:

A bit more about the book and how to order it here.

Read Philippa’s blog

Connect with 5ftinf on Instagram

On a separate topic, story highlights about reducing plastic waste (which I also wrote about here).

I bought this book myself and receive no incentives to review it or share details.

So tell me, does any of this strike a chord? I’d love to hear about your creative journey.

Dessert for a crowd – fudgy chocolate brownies

February 21, 2019

Chocolate brownies and two cups of tea

We’re still talking about the other night, when we had thirteen friends for supper round our table in the garden, as it was quite controversial. A few years ago we thought it would be fun to a ‘Desert Island Discs‘ style evening where guests choose the eight records, a book and a luxury item that they’d take with them if stranded forever. After a few of these, KP decided to change it up a bit so we had a ‘choose five singalong songs’ evening. This ended up with dancing to ‘You to me are everything’ by The Real Thing – you get the picture. We also had ‘songs that make you happy’; very revealing but each to their own! But the latest one which completely divided opinion was ‘cover versions that are better than the originals’. We had to vote whether this was actually the case and, especially with some rhubarb vodka shots forfeits thrown in, sometimes we got into some friendly but vociferous debates.  The playlist is on Spotify if you want to pitch in.

So what did we eat? During the late afternoon we had Bloody Marys at our house then strolled down to the beach for a friendly boules challenge. Well, the girl’s team was friendly. As this took me away from the kitchen, on our return we dipped crudites into hummous (from Mama’esh) then had Ravis, a Dubai Pakistani curry institution, deliver the main course. To round off we had these fudgy chocolate brownies, squared on a long plate surrounded with raspberries and blueberries, served with ice-cream. The soft, moreish, slightly gooey centres mean they are dessert-like rather than cakey, if you get my drift. Peace was resumed.

Three plates of fudgy chocolate brownies and two cups of herbal tea

I always manage to just keep my eyes open for clearing up at the end of a big dinner by thinking how nice a clean kitchen is in the morning. These brownies are perfect for a big crowd as they can be made in advance and served on side plates which take up much less space than bowls in the dishwasher.  I sang along to my own playlist of covers as I stacked them in and wondered what our next theme would be. Any suggestions?

Fudgy chocolate brownies

  • Difficulty: easy
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These fudgy brownies are made with melted chocolate so are as good for dessert with some cream or ice cream as they are with a cup of tea. You can make half this quantity (but you may regret it!)

Makes 18 – 24 large squares depending on how you cut them.


  • 280g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 400g plain chocolate broken into squares
  • 350g caster sugar
  • large pinch of sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 4 large eggs
  • 170g plain flour


  1. Grease and line a 33cm x 23cm tin* with baking parchment.
  2. Put the chocolate and butter into a large bowl and heat gently to just melt the contents. I do this in a microwave – my setting is medium power for 4 minutes, stirring halfway through but each oven is different. Alternatively suspend the bowl over a pan of simmering water that is not touching the base of it. Once you can only see the outline of a few of the chocolate squares it is done. Stir together to make sure it’s all melted and combined. Leave to cool slightly.
  3. Whisk the sugar, salt and vanilla into the butter and chocolate – it will be a little grainy at this point.
  4. Whisk in the whole eggs and the egg yolks one at a time, stirring after each one until blended. And the flour and stir as vigorously as you can until the mixture is smooth, thick, blended and glossy.
  5. Use a spatula to transfer the mixture into the tin and level until roughly even. Cook in an oven preheated to 180C (fan 160C) for 40-50 minutes. Do not over cook so start to check at 30 minutes. They are done when you insert a cocktail stick or wooden skewer and it comes out with moist crumbs clinging to it. If there are smudges of wet batter then it needs a few more minutes in the oven. If the stick comes out completely clean the brownies are overdone. If in doubt, take them out as they are better slightly underdone than over cooked.
  6. Leave to cool completely then lift the whole sheet of paper with brownies onto a board and cut into squares with a sharp knife (18 large)
  7. Store in an airtight tin or container for 2-3 days – they sometimes taste better the next day. They freeze well. Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed in the microwave (with ice cream).

*If halving the quantity, bake in an 18cm square lined tin. You can use a greased pyrex dish instead but it may need slightly longer in the oven.

What’s your biggest challenge when you have a crowd round for supper? (or do you avoid them like the plague?).

a tray of fudgy chocolate brownies and two cups of tea

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Perfect peace in the dunes: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa

February 17, 2019

The view over private infinity pool into the desert

As I swim in our private infinity pool on the edge of the desert, it brings home, vividly, the luxury of water to people who lived in this terrain in the recent past. The delicious feeling of the slightly warm liquid on my skin, rippling and sparkling, soothing and cleansing. Even a camel skin pouch filled with clean, crisp water from a well or oasis would have been treasured. To douse yourself, all over, must have been something unimaginable.

I thought that being the Al Maha resort would give me a sense of the life of a wealthy oligarch or entrepreneur, staying in a private lodge, with every whim catered for.  And it was true that every detail had been thought of so we wanted for nothing. But it’s the connection with nature, the desert and the history of the U.A.E. that transcends the deep fluffy towels, soft sweet rutab dates with gold leaf or the enormous rain shower.

tent like building in front of an infinity pool

The roof of our room is shaped like a tent with corded seams, the doors look out over an uninterrupted view of the dunes to the distant Hajar mountains. As I swim, small birds flit inside the open doors to peck at our dish of Arabic sweets, an Arabian mountain gazelle tip-toes up to the edge of the decking on its spindly legs and holds my gaze with its soft, brown eyes, and a small butterfly, taking a break from pollinating the fire bush, dips to the surface of the pool to catch a few drops of moisture.  The pulsating coo of pigeons blends with the chirping of sparrows and cheeky red-vented bulbuls. Occasionally a quail darts from one bush to another across the sand.

After driving down a rickety track through the dunes, our welcome to Al Maha had been with cool towels. Then we were ferried by buggies down winding paths flanked by bubbling streams in small channels, based on the falaj system of irrigation, to our secluded lodges where we want to hide away forever.

lights around a dinner setting in the desert

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

people sitting around a dining table on cushions in the desert at night

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

The promise of a special dinner lures us away from the blissful tranquillity of our rooms.  Four wheel drives take us through the darkness until we arrive at a small camp. Storm lamps flicker on long low tables edged with large cushions. Although there is a bit of generated light at the perimeter where cooks prep our food and turn lamb on a spit, we are reliant on candlelight giving a sense of low tech life once more; constellations of stars are bright and easily visible when we raise our heads to the clear sky. The sound of our conversations is the only thing that pierces the silent darkness. Once the temperatures drop, we head back to sink into the comfort of our enormous bed with the smoothest cotton sheets (300 thread count – that you can buy).

The faintest glow of pink on the horizon wakes us and, after a cup of tea made with fresh milk from the fridge, we head out into the dark, early morning. By the time we pace our way down a steep dune underneath the main building, the fiery orb of the sun is starting to rise rapidly. Three falcons arrive and we watch as each one swoops at 300 kilometres an hour above our heads to catch its reward of fresh meat.

Owl flying watched by a circle of people

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

Falconry is an art developed over centuries and Bedouins captured the migratory birds, used them to hunt for precious meat, and then released them back into the wild to resume their journey before the hot summer temperatures (which would kill them). Air-conditioning means they can be kept all year round now. The discipline of training your bird is a highly valued skill, as are falcons these days. There are falcon souks (shops) in the U.A.E. and birds can command prices as high as 100,000 aed. I often see a couple of falcons perched out in the early morning sun in a garden near me and it’s quite common to see a family going out for the day with a bird sitting in between the front seats.

The final bird we meet is a Pharaoh eagle-owl called Oscar who, we’re told, has more emotional intelligence than falcons. Her grumpy squawks and belligerence endears her to us all; as she flies from post to post she catches my face with her wing feathers. Her long distance sight is extraordinary but short distance rather lacking (much like myself these days).

Our breakfast table is laid on the terrace above with a view of the desert, naturally. There’s a small buffet inside and we can select from a menu too. The waiting staff bring the orders from all fifteen of us at the same time – my eggs Benedict is excellent, the sauce creamy and piquant, the poached egg perfectly cooked.

Our next event is a desert drive and our ranger Courtney keeps up a steady commentary of fascinating information about the conservation area as he steers our Land Cruiser slowly around the track. No dune bashing here and we stick to a trail so that we disturb the environment as little as possible. The Desert Conservation area was first established as a National Park by Sheikh Zayed as he saw that, with rapid modernisation, some things were being lost. The Arabian Oryx – the national animal of the UAE – was down to just 40 beasts and almost extinct.  This area of 225 square kilometres, which is about 5% of the whole country, was cordoned off to protect it.

Courtney explains how delicately balanced the desert is and if one thing is removed it has a huge impact on everything else which is why the preservation programme is ongoing and very finely tuned. I’d been a bit sceptical about a luxury development in the middle of this (as they are usually very intrusive and resource heavy) but Al Maha operates with as little impact as possible including a water recycling and filtration system that links the animal drinking pools with the grey waste water, and solar panels placed discreetly around the resort.

I keep up a stream of questions, ‘what’s that bird?’, what’s that plant?’ how about the water table?’ which Courtney is happy to answer with in-depth knowledge. We learn about ‘Sodom’s apple’, a plant that’s always intrigued me when I spot it growing on waste ground near our house as it’s always surrounded by bees. The flowers are round, pink and could be tempting to travellers in the desert but it’s very poisonous; as are the vipers that come out at night – the seventh deadliest venomous snake in the world.

Arbian oryx in the desert

rangers in the desert in front of four wheel drives

Our excellent guides

Courtney tells us about the components of sand and why there are different colours. He explains that the lighter sand is made of silica and the red sand of iron oxide particles so when you are driving off-road the red areas will support you better and you’re less likely to sink. We stop for a group photo and KP takes great delight in testing this out for himself (and then with others) by comparing how easy is it to walk on the two types. “It works you know…”

This slow immersion in the desert works wonders for leaving the frenetic pace of life behind and when we return to our room for a couple of hours it is further balm for the body and soul. Moving between standing at the easel, tracing the outline of the ragged branches of the plants in pencil on paper, investigating distant movement with the binoculars (all provided) and languishing in the pool or sun lounger with a book is bliss.

As we pack up to leave, reluctantly, our friend the gazelle wanders to the front door as if to say goodbye.

The white starched white linen and shining cutlery of the lunch table stretches out under a canvas awning to shade us from the midday sun while we look out across the desert. The food draws on local ingredients and is elegantly presented. I hate ‘posh’ food that pairs flavours or techniques for show but this is not like that at all. There is a little beetroot amuse-bouche and a palate cleanser (a sphere of mango sorbet on ice) but it just feels like we are being spoiled rather than something to impress. Juicy sweet Omani prawns perch in a yoghurt tahini dressing dusted with sharp sumac; my dainty pink lamb cutlets rest in a swirl of camel milk and cauliflower sauce; a circle of saffron jelly cubes surrounds globes of Arabian coffee panna cotta, a pistachio sable and fig chutney bringing more favourites of the Middle East.

Driving back into Dubai, the soft ochre and red tones of the desert turning to gleaming blue glass and shining grey metal, it really is like leaving another world and another era behind.

The next day at home, the wind whipped up, the sky went opaque and heavy spots of rain started to colour the patio. As a long-term resident of the desert, I took my cup of tea out into the garden to smell the sharp, green scent of water on parched earth and to feel some of the moisture on my skin. But I also thought of those people who lived their lives among the sand dunes as I turned my face to the sky.

infinity pool overlooking the desert

I took all the photographs except the three I’ve credited (to The Luxury Collection). I was invited (with KP) for this trip of a lifetime by The Luxury Collection and Al Maha, organised by Foodiva

Find out more: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, The Luxury Collection, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve

Read more about our weekend: Dubai Confidential 

As a destination in itself or as a complete getaway from Dubai, Al Maha is a really special place.

a view of private infinity pool and desert at Al Maha Desert resort and spa

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A quick guide to Burgundy and Olivier Leflaive

January 18, 2019

paintings of wine

Soft light streamed in through the windows of Il Borro, the long table in the private dining room looked so elegant.  My heart sank as I realised I’d made a schoolboy error.  There was no memory card in my camera.  I asked the photographers on hand but they didn’t have a spare one, so my iPhone would have to do.  Sigh.  Spotting my friend and talented artist Hatty Pedder, I sat down in front of her, while sipping a glass of Valentin Leflaive Blanc de Blanc Champagne, to have my portrait painted …in wine.

We were there to drink wines from Olivier Leflaive from Burgundy, one of the foremost wine regions in France.  Unlike most French ACs (Appelation Controle) which allow a range of grape varieties to be grown and blended together, the Burgundy region is simple.  White is nearly all Chardonnay and red is mainly Pinot Noir*; but that’s all that is simple.  To quote Jancis Robinson on Burgundy (Bourgogne in French), “Small, expensive, infuriating, complicated region that can occasionally deliver paradise in a bottle.”

The grapes of Burgundy

Chardonnay – the grape that rose to prominence in the 80s, where over-oaked (or even oak-flavoured), relatively inexpensive wines were ubiquitous, and is now often reviled by people who swear they hate it. But take that grape grown on limestone and clay in a cool climate to become Chablis, or with complex terrroir, the perfect site on a slope and skilled use of oak barrels and it becomes some of the most expensive white wine in the world.  Different parts of Burgundy make the magic happen.

Last weekend a friend confessed he wasn’t really into Pinot Noir.  Those used to the big block-busting reds so loved by the Bordeaux devotees, the Robert Parker fans and the concentrated heavies of the New World, might think it lacks body and structure.  However, it has legions of fans (including me); when you stick your nose in the glass and inhale it’s like being in Harvey Nicholl’s perfume hall for wine. It tastes of juicy, soft berry fruits like cherries and raspberries, but with other layers (especially if matured in oak barrels) like spice, smoke and even truffle and game.  It’s silky in texture, and despite the lack of tannins (the stuff that grips your tongue and coats your teeth) some can age really well. While it’s grown all over the world, the most famous, expensive and sublime wines are made in Burgundy.

Who grows, makes, bottles and sells it

Finding out which wines are worth drinking in Burgundy is complicated.  I had to go back to all my wine exam books for a refresher and do some heavy reading to put the jigsaw pieces into place to write this. Explaining it briefly and a way that doesn’t have you nodding off is a challenge, but I’ll try.

Back in the Middle Ages, the region was a rich, self-governing state, a land of peasant farmers, and some of the wine villages seem not to have changed a lot since then.  Many of the famous vineyards are still worked by the men who own them.  Vineyards have stayed within the same families, often for centuries, but a complex system of inheritance, in place since Napoleonic times, means that property must be shared among all siblings.  This has resulted in the land being carved into very small plots with some vineyard owners farming 15 hectares or less. Clos de Vougeot AC for instance, an area of 50 hectares, is shared between 90 growers.

These growers, historically, did not make much wine.  They sold their grapes to merchants or négotiants who blended them together, made and bottled the wine and sold it under their own name.  This began to change due to a demand for domaine-bottled Burgundy i.e. growers who make wine from their own grapes, bottle it and sell it under their own name.   As the wine-making skills of the latter ranges from superb to underwhelming, unless you have tasted and buy from one vineyard regularly, it’s often more reliable to buy wine made by a highly-esteemed négotiant made with grapes from their own vineyards. The other alternative is a négotiant-bottled blend with grapes from several growers.  All these options can be made from grapes from very similar vineyards. Simple? Non.

Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy being poured into glasses at Il Borro restaurant

Listening to Jean Soubeyrand CEO of Olivier Leflaive

A bottle of Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy on a dining table

Wine-growing areas of Burgundy

If you want to dig deep into where all the famous names of Burgundy hang out (geographically) there is a link below. In a nutshell there are four main areas in the region: Chablis, Cote d’Or, Cote Challonaise and Maconnais.**

As Chablis is in the North and much cooler, all the wines are white – steely, minerally and refreshing; the priciest and best at aging is Chablis Grand Cru, followed by Chablis Premier Cru.  The Côte d’Or is divided into the Côte de Beaune where all white Grand Crus (except one rare one) are made, and the Côte de Nuits in the North where the fullest bodied, longest lived reds come from and all the red Grand Crus apart from one (Corton) are produced.  Most appellations in the Côte d’Or include both red and white wine even if they’re more famous for one.

Wines of the Côte Challonaise are judged less prestigious so can be good value for money (the whites of Rully and the reds of Givry and Mercurey).  The most famous appellation of the Mâcon is Poilly-Fuissé for its full-bodied whites.

A long table and chairs at Il Borro restaurant

Il Borro

a row of bottles of Burgundy from Olivier Leflaive

Some of the wines we tasted

The Lefliave family

So with the Burgundian jigsaw puzzle as a backdrop, where do the Leflaives fit in?  Again, it’s a bit of a saga but one that explains why I was keen to try their wines.

The Leflaive family has long roots in Burgundy going back to 1717 when Claude Leflaive founded Domain Leflaive.  A descendant, Joseph Leflaive, increased its holding of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in the early 20th century and, gradually, built a reputation as a top Burgundian producer.

Its standing reached greater heights when Anne Claude Leflaive began running the day-to-day operations in 1990. In 2006 she was named “the world’s top white winemaker” by Decanter magazine and in 2014 the Institute of Masters of Wine named her “Winemaker’s Winemaker”.  She did this while gradually converting Domaine Leflaive over to biodynamic viticulture at a time of great scepticism about even growing organic grapes. She also set up a wine school, Ecole du Vin et des Terroirs in Puligny-Montrachet to educate others about what she believed in; organic and biodynamic practises are now widespread in Burgundian vineyards.  She introduced horses into her vineyards, a method from the Middle Ages, which leaves the soil looser and less compacted than heavy machinery; this has now been adopted by top vignerons such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

So where does Olivier Leflaive fit into the dynasty?  Olivier ran Domaine Leflaive with his cousin Anne Claude (remember that inheritance system?) until 1994 when he left to concentrate on his own business that he’d founded ten years earlier.

Olivier Leflaive produces négotiant bottled and domain bottled wines. They grow their own grapes and also buy grapes from select vineyards while they are still on the vine, harvesting them with their own team. This is a unique system pioneered by Olivier Leflaive and means they have much more control over quality.

paintings of wine

Biodynamic benefits

In most of the world, grape growing for wine is some of the most intensive and chemical-reliant agriculture and I’ve walked in vineyards where the soil is barren, denuded of goodness, swamped with man-made fertiliser.  I’m keen to know if Olivier Leflaive follows Anne Claude’s extraordinary legacy. The literature says that they produce wines in ‘the most ecological and sustainable way.”

Schiller Wine quotes sommelier Charles Devarennes while on a vineyard walk in Puligny Montrachet “Our daily mission is to produce top quality grapes.  This involves a sustainable approach to working the vines, and also supporting our partner winegrowers in cultivating their plots using an organic or biodynamic approach. We have not any organic certification as we don’t hesitate to use chemical treatment if it’s really necessary.  The harvest is entirely manual and the grapes are picked with the utmost respect for the plant. Harvesting by machine is to be avoided at all costs as it damages the vines and can never match the skill and judgment of a human being.”

I didn’t manage to ask more about this at the lunch but did raise another ecology related issue (see below).

Tasting the wines of Olivier Leflaive

The dining room is filled with animated conversation as the starters arrive on sharing platters down the long table. There’s soft burrata with tomato and basil, beetroot carpaccio with goats cheese, and fried baby calamari, prawns and courgette. The vegetables are organic.  This is just the kind of simple food, served elegantly, made with good ingredients, that I like to eat.

I get a bit wine geeky with the two whites that accompany them doing a lot of sniffing and swirling.  Both wines, Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2014 and Olivier Leflaive Meursault Vireuils 2013, have lovely floral, aromas with lemon and soft honey flavours.  Both are very food-friendly but the latter is a little more rounded and fuller and goes really well with the seafood.

It’s clear that the menu has been designed around the wines and Il Borro has done a good job.  There’s grilled, sliced, tender beef fillet with shaved parmesan, herbed sea bass with rosemary new potatoes, and a porcini mushroom risotto.

We drink white wine – Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Folatieres 2014 which is slightly smoky with a mineral finish  – and red wine – Olivier Leflaive Pommard 1er Cru Epenots 2011 that’s luscious with cherry flavours and hints of spice, earth and truffle thrown in. It’s perfect with the risotto but also is good with the sea bass. Pinot Noir when made well is nuanced with softer tannins than big and bold reds, which is why it’s one of my favourite grape varieties, so can pair with fish (it’s a good lunchtime red too).  I could while away the afternoon sipping this slowly, inhaling its heady aromas (i.e. sticking my nose in the glass often), curling up with a good book.

They serve a crowd pleasing chocolate fondant, with gelato and caramel sauce for pudding and we order teas and coffees.  Champagne would have been great with this dessert too.

waiter holding plates

Loved the food at Il Borro

hands reaching over a table with spoons for dessert

Digging into dessert (iPhone pic)

Royal approval

These are excellent wines and I’ll be ordering some from Le Clos for sure, but, if you want a more impressive seal of approval, look to Harry and Meghan.  CEO, Jean Soubeyrand mentions, at the end of our lunch, that Olivier Leflaive wine was chosen for the Royal wedding by the couple. “It’s not the most expensive wine; Olivier Leflaive Les Setilles Bourgogne Blanc is nearly the least expensive.  We heard about the news from the UK press.  Fantastic for us – proud and happy and a very, good free ad.  They had a special committee with some top UK wine merchants and they decided to buy our white wine. We have five wine merchants who distribute our wine in the UK and we asked them “Did you sell the wine to the Royal family?” and they said “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no” in a very British style.  So officially we have never been appointed to sell the wine to the royal wedding – but very proud.”

Climate change in Burgundy

Jean Soubeyrand became CEO of Olivier Leflaive in 2007 and sits at the head of the table at our lunch, to my left, so I get to discuss one of my favourite topics (although not favourite occurrences) climate change.  There is evidence it is having an impact on viticulture, for instance, warmer temperatures have been partly responsible for the improvement in English wine.  I ask him if it’s made a difference (read his answer with a French accent):

“I have only been in Burgundy for ten years but talking with my team and older members in Burgundy, the time they pick the grapes is much earlier than before.  It’s only the first step of analysis because you have to consider that before, the way of making the wine was different, it’s difficult to compare.  But looking back over 30 years, we pick the grapes two weeks earlier.  The weather is less stable, you don’t have less rain, or less humidity it’s just more unpredictable and unstable.  We had frost at beginning of May so we lost a big part of the production.  Winters are not as cool as before, summers are hotter – not average. Is it a cycle, is it short-term, medium term or long-term cycle? It’s impossible to tell.  For us it’s good because probably 50 years before, Burgundy wines had a lack of maturity in the grapes of ripeness. Our wines are a little bit more fruity due to increased ripeness in the grapes.”

Hatty Pedder artist painting a lady (me)

Hatty Pedder painting my portrait in wine

Maison Olivier Leflaive

Jean signed off the afternoon with an invitation to the small hotel they own in a 17th Century building in Puligny-Montrachet called Maison Olivier Leflaive.

“I could talk about Olivier Leflaive for hours but this is just an introduction.  We have a modest hotel and restaurant in Burgundy.  We consider making wine is one thing, but to welcome our customers is also very important.  We had to find the one thing to make people happy, to visit the vineyard and visit the winery and then to go for the lunch.  But not a regular lunch, but a tasting lunch with a sommelier not only to pour the wines but to talk about the wines.  The purpose is for our customers to taste, education and to spend unique time at Olivier Leflaive that we hope they will remember for ever.  And our wish is that when they come back home to Dubai and they visit a restaurant and see us on the wine menu they say “Oh darling, we’ve been to Olivier Leflaive. Get the wine!”

Tasting a very flat and thin red Burgundy even though it had an illustrious name, at a friend’s house this week reminded me what a minefield it can be to navigate the region when buying.  Finding a trusted source like Olivier Leflaive means you’re not disappointed, and there are good quality, affordable bottles at Le Clos (as well as a few you’d need to save up for).

paintings of wine on an artists board

Back home – tea instead of Burgundy

Paint brushes and wine (over camera)

Getting back home, I was still annoyed about forgetting my camera.  Hatty’s work inspired me to pick up a paintbrush and dip it in wine (and some watercolours) to capture some of the mood of such a lovely lunch.  My afternoon of drawing and painting was almost perfect… The only thing missing was a glass of good Burgundy.

*There is also a small proportion of Aligoté and Gamay (red).

** Beaujolais is often considered part of Burgundy but is a whole different topic on its own.

Wine Folly has an excellent guide to Burgundy with maps if you want to read more.

Fiona Beckett talks about the best food pairings with red Burgundy and white Burgundy on her Matching Food and Wine site.

Visit Hatty Pedder if you want to see more of her work.

Thanks to Le Clos for inviting me to lunch at Il Borro (and providing many of these photographs of the lunch) and to Olivier Leflaive for the excellent wines.

Painting of wine glasses

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Any questions about wine? I’d love to help if I can. Have you ever painted in wine?

Gingerbread biscuits that are part of so many happy memories

December 19, 2018
gingerbread biscuits on a wooden board
There are some recipes you make again and again. This is one of the staples in our house. I can’t remember the first time or how many sessions of gingerbread-making I’ve done in my kitchen. Some solo, some with my girls as they were growing up, some with hordes of children and even a few sessions just for adults with our early food blogger group called Fooderati Arabia. Just writing this now is making me want to send out an invite, make a vat of mulled wine, and gather together for rolling, cutting and baking until the house is filled with spicy aromas and the sound of happy nattering.
I’ve given these out at Hallowe’en, put them into party bags, wrapped them as gifts and, of course, just stacked the biscuit tin at home for having with a cup of tea. My Father was Polish and there is a huge tradition of gingerbread or pierniczki there, they claim to have invented it (as do many European countries) and there is even a gingerbread museum.  However, I didn’t really grow up with these and a gingerbread man was just an occasional treat from the baker.

I adore the flavour of ginger in savoury or sweet things. From a noodle broth, spicy and fragrant, that feels like it’s fighting every illness known to man, to the sticky syrup from a jar of stem ginger.

These biscuits seem to have just the right amount of ginger flavour to please both children and adults. Icing is not necessary, but, while I’m not the neatest, I find piping patterns both creative and relaxing. As for shapes, the sky’s the limit, just don’t make them too small or they will bake too quickly. I may have a slight cutter-buying obsession (I blame Nigella). If you make them I’d love to see yours (tag mycustardpie on any social or drop me a comment).

More recipes using ginger:

Ginger chocolate biscuits

Pear, ginger and raw honey flapjacks

Sticky ginger cake with Turkish delight icing

Gingerbread biscuits (or cookies)

  • Difficulty: easy
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Classic ginger biscuits that are easy to roll, cut into shapes and bake. They have a great ginger taste and are fun to make.

Amount depends on which cutters you use. Makes about 12 large gingerbread men.


  • 350 g (12 oz) plain white flour
  • 5 ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda
  • 10 ml (2 tsp) ground ginger
  • 110 g (4 oz) butter
  • 175 g (6 oz) soft light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 60 ml (4 tbsp) golden syrup
  • Currants (optional: for decoration if making gingerbread men)
  • 200 g icing sugar (optional)


1. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ginger into a food processor, or a KitchenAid fitted with the paddle attachment, or bowl. Whizz in the machine, or rub in the butter lightly by hand until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Stir in the sugar and make a well in the centre.
2. If making by hand beat the syrup and egg together in another bowl. For a food processor, just add direct.
3. Pour the syrup mixture into the well and mix to a fairly firm dough by whizzing briefly again in the food processor, KitchenAid or by hand. Give the dough a little extra kneading if required – you want it to be smooth.
4. Divide the dough in half and roll out, one half at a time, on a lightly floured surface to a 4-5 mm (1/4 inch) thickness. Using biscuit cutters, cut out figures or shapes and place them on baking sheets lined with baking paper. Add currants for eyes and buttons if making gingerbread men. Bake at 190 C (375 F) Mark 5 for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Do not overcook – light golden is fine – any browner they taste burnt.
5. Leave on the baking sheets for 1 minute, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool.
6. To make the icing: sift the icing sugar into a bowl. Whisk in cold water, a teaspoon at a time, until you get a piping consistency. Alternatively you could beat an egg white until frothy and whisk in the icing sugar a little at a time. Put into a piping bag and ice the biscuits when they have cooled completely.

Notes: The dough will rest, covered, in the fridge for ages. Warning – children have a tendency to roll dough too thinly. The cooking time depends on the heat of your oven and the thickness of the biscuits. I start checking after 10 minutes. If rolled thinner, they hold their shape better and don’t spread so much but can overcook quickly.

Gingerbread biscuits cooling

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These are great at any time of the year, but if you’re celebrating Christmas hope you have a good one.

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?