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Mustard and Cheddar macaroni cheese

June 16, 2019

I have a obsession passion for finding out about ingredients, how they’re made, where they come from, the story behind them. This time last year I went in search of everything about dates, this is part of a series on mustard.

I’m sure we all have our own version of this – and our own names too. I’m firmly in the ‘macaroni cheese’ camp and wince at ‘Mac n cheese’ (sounds like fast food) or macaroni and cheese (sounds inaccurate). I’m sure Americans wince at my title for one of their national dishes, but whatever you call it, the satisfying comforting nature is indisputable.

I cook this at least once a fortnight. The method is simple but many people seem to be scared of making homemade béchamel sauce – that’s a white sauce made with butter, flour and milk – and I’m not sure why. Risk of lumpiness or put off by the sound of it being too complicated or taking too long?

There are simple tips below to avoid or even rescue lumpiness. And I do believe that it is the ultimate quick to prepare comfort food. You can definitely get it on the table in less that half an hour.

You can play with the basic recipe by adding different cheeses, adding other ingredients from seafood to chillies, topping with breadcrumbs or nuts, and there are different methods to cooking it – some people choose to use the hob only dispensing with the oven or grill although you don’t get the lovely bubbling cheesy top this way.

This version has a touch of luxury with a few spoonfuls or cream (or local labneh) and a little grape juice (with or without alcohol) that goes beautifully with the Dijon mustard.

I cook from scratch so don’t have many bottles or jars in my cupboards, just the ones that count as simple ingredients. Maille is always in my fridge, both original and wholegrain, for the taste and the Dijon is a lovely silky texture. Plus, importantly, the mustard is made traditionally and the mustard seeds are GMO free.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

About Maille mustard

Maille was founded in 1747 by Antoine Claude Maille who originally made vinegars, which is one of the basics of good mustard;. I love imagining all the things that have been witnessed while the vinegars and mustards were being steeped and stirred – three monarchies, the French revolution, two empires, five republics, five European wars and two World wars. The initial success of the company was by becoming the official mustard and vinegar purveyor to Louis XV and then to many of the Royal Courts across Europe.

The products were always made in Dijon, Burgundy, although by the 1970s, mustard growing had almost died out. Maille formed cooperatives with farmers and this led to a resurgance in the region and they now buy the majority of the mustard grown there combined with GMO-free grains from Canada.

The piquant flavour and smooth texture is because they steep the whole mustard seeds with white vinegar and then cut them (rather than the usual method of crushing them).

Variations

I managed to persuade my friend’s daughter, who is an incredibly fussy-eater, to try some of this the other day (always easier when you’re not their Mother). I thought the intense cheesy, mustardy flavours might be too much for her but she took a bowlful home and polished it off.

I like petit-pois on the side. Some people stir them into the pasta and sauce before grilling or putting in the oven but I like the fresh greeness of just cooked frozen ones or, ideally, freshly podded ones (which I can eat raw). KP insists on sliced tomatoes on top which I can’t abide, so I just put them on half of it which keeps us both happy.

While the traditional pasta shape is the elbow macaroni which is quite small, I like a bigger tube so the sauce really coats every bit of it. This is usually what I fancy when out shopping, so could be penne, amori or elicoidali.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

Mustard Macaroni Cheese

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Rich with cheese, mustard and a touch of cream - a simple, comforting recipe that everyone loves.

Ingredients

250g macaroni or other tubular pasta

50g unsalted butter

50g plain white flour

720ml milk

150ml white grape juice or white wine

1 -2 tablespoons of Maille Dijon mustard

225g strong Cheddar cheese, grated

2 tablespoons of cream or labneh

Finely chopped chives (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until it’s al dente (not too soft)
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Remove from the heat and add the milk a little at a time, stirring vigorously with a whisk until it’s all combined. Do the same with the grape juice. Return to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring continuously until the sauce thickens.
  3. Lower the heat, season with black pepper and a little salt and stir in the mustard,  about 170g (3/4) of the cheese and the cream or labneh.
  4. Drain the pasta well and add to the sauce, mixing it in well with a large spoon. Taste and add more mustard if necessary. Tip or spoon the mixture into a large ovenproof dish.
  5. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and place under a pre-heated grill until it starts to bubble and the top is golden brown. Sprinkle with the chives if you want a touch of green and serve right away.

Notes: If you don’t want to use cream, or grape juice replace it with the same amount of milk. If you want to make this ahead of time, prepare it up until the end of stage 4 and put in the fridge if necessary. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake in the oven (200C 180C fan) for 25-30 minutes.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with two jars of Maille mustard

Tips on making a smooth white sauce.

  1. To make the roux (butter and flour paste), add the flour as soon as the butter has melted and whisk to make a paste. Cook on a low heat for about a minute so you don’t get a floury taste.
  2. Don’t stop stirring, especially when it’s on the heat. I use a wire whisk throughout but you could use a wooden spoon too.
  3. At the beginning, add the liquid just a tablespoon at a time and stir like mad. It’s easier to get a thick sauce smooth than a thin one. At first it will look clumpy but keep stirring a splashing in little bits of milk at a time and whisking vigorously. It’s great to tone your upper arms muscles.
  4. When all the liquid has been added, bring to a simmer (while stirring) until it thickens to a silky, smooth sauce that can be used for so many classic recipes.
  5. If you do get distracted from your stirring and end up with some lumps, you can blitz with a blender. You can make the whole thing in a Vitamix (google for the recipe) but I think it lacks the texture of the pan-made one.

This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.  

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

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Yoga retreat and hiking in Mansari, Himachal Pradesh

June 8, 2019

View from Naggar Castle over the Kullu-Manali valley

Warm air enveloped us we stepped out from the airport in Chandigarh, India. A total surprise as it was hotter than Dubai that we’d left a few hours ago. Entry at the e-visa desk had been a trial – by the time we had all battled with the haphazard fingerprint machine we were the last people to pick up our heavily laden backpacks from the baggage carousel. It was with relief and excitement that we settled into the Toyota Inovas (requested with seat belts). Herds of buffalo grazing on the grassy verge, green and yellow tuk-tuks rattling over the tarmac, horse-drawn carts laden with straw, sacred cows plodding nonchalantly through a cacophony of vehicles jostling for position as they circled roundabouts – my nose was pressed to the window to take in all in. I’ll admit that the novelty had worn a bit thin as we arrived at our destination, in the dark, nine and a half hours later.

Getting to Mansari

There is one road from Chandigarh to Manali which winds along the Beas river. Trucks laden with rocks (from the major road excavations further on) passed us by, one after another; all intricately painted, trailing beaded hangings, flags and other decorations, and all with ‘Blow Horn’ emblazoned on the back – which they did at volume.

We stopped for a simple but tasty lunch of dhal and bread at The Hill Top in Swarghat, at a road side soda drink stand with a magnificent view at sunset, and a ladies’ loo that was primitive in the extreme, but otherwise we let our skillful driver Himraj take the strain while we dozed or took in the many villages ranged along each side of the meandering, fume-belching highway.  The river was little more than a stream in places but as the snows melt and in heavy rainfall it can become a raging torrent with catastrophic effects.

A new and extraordinarily long tunnel carved out of towering sheer rock, and a road that was little more than a bumpy, dusty track on the edge of a ravine brought us to our final destination in the village of Mansari – the Manali Iyengar Yoga Retreat.

At daylight the view of the surrounding snow-capped Himalayan mountain ranges, bird song and barking dogs greeted us and all memories of the lengthy journey faded. We met Sonu who made tea and coffee with fresh milk from her family’s cow.

(Note: there’s a flight from Chandigarh to Kullu Manali airport – see below.)

 

view of the Beas river from the road to Manali

One of the views of the Beas river on the 9 hour road journey from Chandigargh to Manali

Discovering Iyengar yoga

Then it was time for yoga. The studio was welcoming with wood floors and wide windows but also a little terrifying, the walls draped with ropes secured by metal rings. Our teacher Rushad, a practitioner of Iyengar yoga for over twenty years, led us in a chant and a prayer to focus our minds before we started our first session which we mumbled along with. I stifled a fit of the giggles as one word sounded like ‘Choithrams’ (a Dubai supermarket). Booking as a group of seven friends meant that we had the place to ourselves; our own yoga experience ranged from doing a few sessions in preparation, to a couple of years (of Hatha yoga), and, with one exception, we were all in our 50s.

There were pictures of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar on the wall – the founder of the modern style of yoga named after him which is said to have made the practice popular in India and beyond. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a catalyst for his world-wide recognition and he went on to tutor many famous people and publish best-selling books on yoga. He developed a type of Hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures which are held for long periods of time. His personal teaching style was said to be harsh and unforgiving at times. Our teacher Rushad, who trained under BKS Iyengar, told us the tale of someone who was forced to hold a pose until his hamstring snapped, “you have to do, what you have to do” he said – towards the end of our week of tuition thank goodness.

Over the next six days we did an hour and half of yoga before breakfast and an hour in the evening before supper. It pushed us all out of our comfort zones; we were encouraged to hold poses in exactly the right way, supported by ropes, straps and blocks, with every limb and muscle positioned in perfect alignment while we envisaged our breath in parts of the body; “breathe into your armpit chest, breathe out through your tail-bone”, “close your eyes and turn them to look at the back of your head”.

A particularly challenging movement for me was an inversion on the ropes which meant hanging upside down – an alternative to the traditional headstand. I trembled with fear and shed a few tears on the first day. By the end of the week I could do it confidently, without the padding of a blanket, and rather enjoyed relaxing with my head dangling down and my arms folded on the floor.

Rushad changed what we did every day, a mixture of physical practice and visualisation through guided meditation. He was direct and quite firm in his teaching but guided us taking into account our different physical challenges. On the last day he advised me on some really helpful positions to practice at home to improve my poor posture, stiff shoulders and demonstrated that I had a stiff hip which I was compensating for by doing a common Hatha asana in the wrong way. The different approach to breathing has also helped with my 50 years of bad posture caused by asthma. We could all see improvements to our flexibility and confidence by the end.

Rushad is usually based in Mumbai and travels especially for the yoga retreats. The rooms are light and airy with twin beds, clean bathrooms and hot showers. The wood burner was lit at night as the temperatures dropped. It felt like being welcomed into someone’s home and was very relaxed. It’s not as cut off from the outside world as you might think as a road runs past the garden wall so the beeping of horns, the barking of the many street dogs and the chatter of school children float in throughout the day (especially the dog chorus early morning) but it’s in the middle of a lovely little village which we enjoyed exploring over the six days we were there.

Local food in Mansari

Each morning after yoga, we took over the kitchen to make breakfast. Sonu helped chop ingredients, make toast and brew tea and coffee, while some of our group stirred up Parsi eggs (laid by local hens) and porridge on gas rings in the kitchen that overlooked the pretty garden.

Dhansak is a Parsi speciality and Rushad insisted that he cook it for us one lunchtime (assisted by Sonu). We hiked off to work up and appetite and returned to witness the final touches including the frying of chips which he deemed essential for eating with dhansak (no argument from me). We ate a type of red rice for every meal. Sonu brought a bag of dhansak masala for S to take home with her.

There are a few places to eat in Mansari ranging from a pani puri stall by the side of the road, smarter looking cafes to a kind of kitchen in a tent. Most places (in the whole of this region) seem to offer Maggi noodles (the power of big brands like Nestle reaching their tentacles far and wide). We had vegetable momos – Nepalese-style dumplings – from a little place in Haripur which were filled with cabbage. Tasty and cost about £2.60 to feed seven of us.

While our bodies are temples they still need gin and tonics. There’s an ‘English wine and beer’ shop in most villages and the nearest was a walk towards Naggar to the village of Haripur. Imported spirits and wine are very expensive (we should have raided the duty free shop on arrival in Chandigarh) so the local gin – complete with dire health warnings – was our choice of liquor. Tonics weren’t available but a local, lemon and lime soda called Limca mixed with soda water did the job.

There are a few chicken butchers in the village consisting of a cage of hens crammed into a small space and a man behind a counter wielding a large hatchet over a blood soaked board. I suppose the lack of refrigeration is because they are slaughtered to order. We didn’t test this out.

Bus trip to Manali

One day we boarded the bus that bumped over the winding roads and narrow bridges to Manali – the nearest large town. Shoe shine stands surrounded the bus station with men eager to transform your footwear – even trainers.  Manali a backpackers’ haven and we took refuge, from the rain and wind that whipped up, in Cafe 1947 serving excellent pizza which oozed cheese, cooked in a wood-fired oven. Their outside terrace overlooked the raging river below where people were dangling over it on dodgy-looking wires.

We bought funny, woollen hats for the whole gang (which we were very glad of later, up the mountain). We popped into from Himalayan Trails to meet Jogi and discuss our up and coming trek with him (more to follow on this).

There are quite a few shops selling outdoor gear and we invested in some back pack covers and rain proof ponchos as the heavens opened. We ran for the bus and squeezed onto it just before the doors closed. We were cheek by jowl with local villagers, while the bus conductor managed to negotiate his way through the centimetres between us, there were little shrines surrounded by flashing lights obscuring part of the windscreen (to bless and protect the driver), Indian music played at volume drowning the creaks and clatters as we bumped over the road. The conductor blew his whistle for the driver to stop or go and passengers had a couple of seconds to leap on or off before we accelerated again.

Exploring Naggar

On another day we took the bus in the other direction to Naggar which dropped us down on the main highway with a steep long, zig-zagging hill up to the main attractions. The sun was beating down so we hailed two tuk-tuks to take the strain.

Roerichs Memorial house

Roerich’s Memorial house

Roerich’s Estate

One ticket gained entry to the Roerich’s Estate including the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute and Roerichs’ Memorial House. If we thought a long drive in a comfortable car was a bit wearisome it was humbling to get an insight into what pioneering adventurers went through to explore remote areas of the world.

Russian-born Nicholas (Nikolai) and his wife Helena embarked on the five-year-long Roerich Asian Expedition took them through wild terrain including Punjab, Kashmir, the Altai Mountains, Mongolia, the Central Gobi with a detour through Siberia to Moscow. They were not able to send communications for a whole year and were attacked in Tibet then detained by the government for five months, camping out in sub-zero temperatures with very little food (five of the expedition died).

The couple and their sons appear not to have been motivated by personal glory but an urge to record, preserve and unite. “There is no future without past”. Nicolas was a talented painter (as was Helena) leaving a huge collection of works (some displayed on the Estate) which are now extremely valuable. His wealth of other achievements ranged from archaeology to philosophy and he was a notable figure of the day, connected to a wide range of influential people from Ghandi, to HG Wells, to Charlie Chaplin.

He left an amazing legacy – but even if this doesn’t interest you one jot, it was blissful to stroll around the elegant wooden buildings that summed up a certain age, sit on the upstairs balcony in the family home, imagining, as he would while taking a break from his prolific pursuits, looking out over the valley, while he sipped a pink gin or a stengah.

Naggar Castle

Naggar Castle is a bit of a strange place as it’s a tourist attraction plus a hotel. As ornate wood and stone building with a small temple, it’s worth visiting if only for the open courtyard and incredible views. We strolled around and drank in the rays from the lowering sun. Everything in India seems to be labelled and each room had a sign over the door, including ‘Economy room’ – sorting guests into a kind of caste system.

view of Manali valley

View of the Himalayas and Manali valley from Naggar castle

German Bakery

The German Bakery was recommended by Rushad and he roared up on his motorbike as we were about to go in. The tables are on a balcony so you can watch the world go by and we sat with cups of tea, baked cheesecake and biscuits doing just that. There are all sorts of different teas and we ordered three, but had to finish one first as they only had two teapots. The homemade biscuits were really good and I bought some of the peanut cookies to take on the trek.

Short hikes in and around Mansari and Haripur

In the afternoons we explored the surrounding countryside and villages on foot and by local bus. We hiked our way to a couple of local waterfalls and down by the river. They were led by N, “shall we go for a yomp?”, who went out for an early morning run each day and explored a new direction. The whole area was like stepping into the past, brightly painted buildings, overlapping rustic slate tiles on the roofs, dry stone walls, orchards, fields of grasses grown as cattle feed and rose bushes in bloom dotted about everywhere.

a small canal by a river

The path up to the waterfall

Waterfall walk – we took the main road out of Mansari towards Manali and followed the road round when it met pine forests. A little further along on the right there’s a large painted sign saying ‘waterfall’. We took the path upwards, past a carved, wooden temple, a little school, and alongside a concrete trench to channel water. We met an old lady, wearing a traditional woven kullu, bent double with a huge sack of straw on her back (a common sight in Mansari) and a seated woman who lived with her husband under a tarpaulin in the trees – both dressed in bright saris. Eventually we came to a place with dark rocks that reached upwards and a cascade of water splashed down in a white torrent to the river below. A little makeshift kitchen with plastic tables and chairs was perched by the waterfall (one actually set in the water) and we had a cup of chai while we watched tiny birds dart through the spray.

Waterfall walk 2 – we gathered beautiful pine cones while walking up the zig zag road that started by the side of the main petrol station in Manali. At the top there’s a flat sort of car park with a shelter and mural and the path leads from the back, past wooden houses and orchards where people (mainly women) were working. A couple of cafes are signposted (painted on boulders) but the Jungle Junction, by the side of a narrow, open bridge across the fast flowing river, was closed as out of season. A man herding a jittery cow appeared. My friend ran but instinctively dropped to the ground to stop being knocked off the edge into the raging water below. The herder – and my friend – thought this was hysterical.

It began to rain heavily so we sheltered under a tarpaulin by a narrower bit of the river, decorated with flowers, at the River Forest Cafe. Hot chai kept us going until there was a break in the rain. If we had walked on I think we would have reached another waterfall. After playing a jolly game called Head’s Up (which involved putting our mobiles on our foreheads), we went back the way we came.

Riverside walk – going in the direction of Haripur and taking the first right hand path led us down past a couple of government schools and the huge Jawahal Lal Nehru college that appeared deserted. A dog came out of the grounds and adopted us along the walk – this was a common occurrence. We took the path left; it’s fringed by trees to the right with a steep drop down to the river Beas with views across to the colourful buildings and green and red roofs on the opposite bank. (There’s a path that goes right in the circular walk back to the main road but it was blocked by a landslide.)

river at the bottom of valley

River Beas far below in the valley

traditional house

We looked across green fields and the distant snow-capped mountains to the left and met many women doing farm work or washing clothes in pumps with water from the Himalayas.  We stopped to joke with an old lady who was very happy to have her photo taken with us as long as her cow was in the picture. The friendliness of the villagers was a constant throughout our trip and while I took photos of them (with their permission) I spotted some with their phones surreptitiously capturing the odd sight of seven women in hiking gear (travelling without their husbands).

The path comes to an end and leads upwards, past some traditional wooden buildings. These usually have a cow or two underneath them, the living quarters above with the upper storey stacked with hay. We happened upon another ornately carved wooden temple (the Neelasuri Devi Temple) and eventually emerged back out onto the main road by the Haripur sub-post office. I nipped inside and met two men who were happy to chat and show me the stacks of paper, mail bags and wooden pigeon holes that harked back to a bygone age.

We passed two looms set up on verandas where women were weaving the local Kullu shawls; made of fine wool, checked in black and pink with a red border. We saw them worn, with a belt to hold them in place by many older women. At the other end of the scale, teenage boys sported some extreme haircuts – shaved at the sides and extravagantly bouffant on top.

temple

Countryside walk – this path took us off the main thoroughfare to wind upwards past rustic small-holdings, orchards and along the little streams coming down from the mountain.  Walking along the main road until you get to Haripur you go downhill to reach a pretty little temple in pink and green before the bridge across the river. We retraced our steps opposite the Trout Farm, to a small path to the left leading upwards. It threads higher and higher past beautiful gardens and farms, streams and meadows and a couple of temples – the Madho Rai Krishna temple and the Lord Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple.

As always we got some interested gazes from the people working on the land and friendliness, smiles and return of our ‘namaste’. Stopping to catch breath due to the steep incline, we saw preparations for wedding celebrations – an area surrounded by looping swathes of pink and white silk. Further on there’s the government village primary school and we could hear the chatter of the children.

The path eventually meets the car park area mentioned in Waterfall Walk 2, and we walked back down the hill to the Mansari petrol station but you could take the right hand path and continue on up the river.

traditional building

Forest walk – When you get to Haripur, in the corner between the General Store and the Himachal Gramin Bank, there’s a path that leads downwards into the forest alongside a tributary of the River Beas. It seems to be a popular area for picnics and short walks. We spotted where the dirt track (suitable for vehicles) continued downhill and found the Tall Trees Resort at the bottom. Wooden buildings surround a really pretty garden with neat stone paths, ornamental bridges and flower beds, overlooking the Beas river down below. We could have been in Hampshire.  As we were between breakfast and lunch the menu was very inflexible (we wanted something small to go with our chai), so we settled for drinks and using their very clean loo.

Tall Trees looks like a lovely place to stay especially if you want to be in a very peaceful location off the beaten track – it’s really secluded and hard to reach by car. Looking at Google maps I think it might be possible to turn left along the river to the 15 mile bridge and loop back round on the other side of the tributary but haven’t tested this. We retraced our steps upwards, back to Haripur and Mansari.

Kullu-Manali Valley, Himachal Pradesh

This rural area was the perfect foil for the hectic city life of Dubai. The area is famed for its outdoor pursuits like mountain biking, paragliding, canoeing and hiking. It’s also famous for its weed which was growing wild by the side of the road and in the forests.

This was part one, the yoga bit, of our 12 day trip in Himachal Pradesh. Details of hiking the Hamta Circle to follow soon.

Some of the images are not great quality, taken with old Iphone in a state of disconnecting from the world 🙂

barbers shop

The barber’s in Haripur

Useful contacts and info – Mansari, Haripur and Manali

view of Beas river

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Do you know this region of India? Where else should we visit in Himachal Pradesh?  Is this your kind of holiday or is it too far away from things?

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
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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.

Ingredients

  • 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)

Directions

  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

Synaesthesia

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.’

Confucius

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  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?