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Peace at the end of the line. A trip to Rochers de Naye

August 26, 2017

A train ride to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

A train ride to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

I turned left out of the little station at the end of the line at Rochers de Naye. Totally alone with the breeze, the view, the sound of buzzing insects and the clanging of cow bells from the valley below. It turns out everyone else turned right leaving me alone, at peace with my thoughts, stillness, and heart full of the utter, overwhelming beauty of it all.  Where did you last feel like this?

There are many different trains in Switzerland: some luxurious and state of the art, some pretty standard and some which feel old and comfortable like Grandma’s rocking chair. All are clean and punctual. This train fell firmly into the latter, well-worn, charming category and, as a cog train with special teeth on the track to assist with the steep gradients ahead, had a rhythmic chugging to the steady motion. The friendly conductor ran onto the platform in Montreux to validate my ticket for me in the special machine (I’d forgotten) and then we were off, clattering gently along the edge of Lac Leman, then climbing upwards through verdant pasture, dark tunnels, passing wooden chalets with carved edges to their sloping eaves and neat window boxes of bright geraniums. The journey through the alpine countryside for about an hour was supremely relaxing, it would be worth buying a ticket for this alone.

A visit to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

Upwards and upwards we climbed. I felt I was willing ‘the little train that could’ not to give up as it hauled us to vertiginous heights. Finally we rounded a bend to the small platform at the end of the line and passengers swarmed to the front to disembark, and as mentioned, did a disappearing act.

I’d been looking for the spot I’d seen on Instagram and scaled a quite precarious mound, glad that no one was there to witness my scrambling. The only downside was not having a friendly passer-by to ask to take a pic so I abandoned all thoughts of this and threw myself into enjoying the moment.

There were some rather randomly placed yurts nearby – apparently you can stay in them. I traced the narrow path signposted to the alpine garden, reached the wooden gate and picked my way through this little rockery paradise in the shadow of the mountains. Planted in 1896 with alpine flowers, including the Swiss emblem Eidelweiss, the garden is named after the poet Eugène Rambert who was an avid nature lover. I could see the cows below on their immaculate pasture, the bells competing with the hum of bees and the tiniest breath of wind under the beating sun. This little piece of heaven was mine alone.

I picked up pace on the way back and marched through the station, past netted enclosures housing marmots (all hiding from the sun) to reach an alternative view-point at 2,042m over Lake Leman and the Vaud region, again totally alone with my thoughts and the extraordinary scene. There is a restaurant that can be reached through a long tunnel at the end of the platform where you can enjoy these views with refreshments – I guess that’s where everyone else went.

A train ride to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

A train ride to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

In Winter this is a place for skiers and has a hut to visit Father Christmas, but I was more than content to explore this tranquil setting under the summer sun. Even thinking about it now makes my shoulders sink, my mind a little calmer. The train journey back down the mountain along wooded and grassy swathes and the shimmering blue water, followed by the paddle steamer over the lake from Montreux to Vevey, was the perfect ending.

Here’s a little video of the journey up and down and what was at the top… Would love to know what you think.


Thank you to Vaud Tourism for helping me discover this lovely place.

More information about Rochers de Naye here.

A visit to Rochers de Naye, Vaud, Switzerland

Where do you go to clear your head and lift your spirits?






Food waste and Instagram pics. Can it ever be justified?

July 24, 2017
Lake Geneva in Lausanne

My restrained small bowl of hummus and an Aperol spritz on the edge of Lac Leman

That bountiful food flatlay we see on Instagram, scores of plates of all shapes and sizes cheek by jowl, crammed onto the table haphazardly, or lined up in symmetrical form, enticing our eyes, beautifully photographed overhead with hands reaching in to take, dip, or spoon from the abundant, eye popping, mouth watering feast. It’s a magnet for the double click.

Or the freak shake filled to its foamy brim, stripy straw standing tall, stacked with two or three sprinkle coated doughnuts. Another Instagram craze that our feeds are awash with, that attract adoring comments. “Yum”. “Delish”. “Want”.

But talking of feeds, who eats this food? I do wonder and in fact I have seen people at events pose with a photogenic milkshake or overflowing and alluring plate and then leave it after one spoonful.

Round tables 👌🏻 @koentadyy

A post shared by Flatlays (@flatlays) on

I was thinking of this while dining alone by the edge of Lake Geneva.  It was a hot day, I’d had a reasonable lunch mid-day, so I wasn’t that hungry. Therefore I ordered hummus and a drink. A voucher I’d been given for my meal (as I was invited as media) meant I could have ordered a whole lot more for the camera, but didn’t.

Is this wrong? We know and accept that food photography for advertisements is rarely eaten. It can’t be. The food has been tweaked, handled, poked, prodded and even sprayed with things that are inedible. Food photography can be as valid an art form as any other… and there lies the rub.

Isn’t this the same with Instagram feeds? I presume the lake side cafe in Lausanne would prefer me to take a shot that goes viral or at least garners maximum likes. They get publicity, I eat free and up my Instagram engagement. We all win – except for the left overs.

But something within me just can’t.  I’m the one who takes home anything edible, half empty jars, ends of loaves etc,  from photo shoots so it’s not wasted.  If I prepare food at home for a shoot, I eat it – all of it.

There’s enough food on our planet to feed everyone easily and yet people go hungry. The rich adding food to landfill in unprecedented quantities is wrong. Food producers have tended the land, or raised and slaughtered animals for our sustenance, I can’t morally order or cook food to throw it away. A recent study concluded that Instagram could be fuelling a food waste mountain in the UK (although we mustn’t forget the influencers who give ideas about using left overs and frugal food).

And then there’s the lie peddled alongside the giant pretzel, the stacked burger with strings of melted cheese, the huge box of multi-coloured doughnuts, the ice cream cone piled high with tottering scoops. It’s always a pencil thin wrist holding it, a svelte bikini-clad form tucking into the impossibly huge chocolate chip cookie, slender ankles and tiny feet poking out from under the Nutella laden waffle stack. A recent article I read hypothesises that this promotes an idea if you get your aesthetic just right, if you’re cool enough, if you’re worthy enough, none of that science stuff about food and physiology will apply. I have two daughters. I have witnessed the impact of this continual pressure to conform to a impossible ideal throughout their growing up. There is no way I could add to it (this is also hypothetical given my age and uncoolness!).
So, whether you are behind the camera or in front of it, am I alone in wrestling with this dilemma?
I’d really like to hear your views and opinions on this tricky topic.

*Please note: I am not pointing a finger to individual accounts with the Instagram images shown here – I do not know what happened to the food in each picture after it was taken. They are examples of a particular kind of shot.


Trying to beat Imposter syndrome

July 8, 2017

Beating Imposter Syndrome on mycustardpie.comThe foremost advice given about writing a blog is to post consistently.

Well, you might have noticed, I’ve been pretty consistent recently in not posting. I feel I owe it to you, as many have joined me on this blogging journey of seven plus years, to explain why. It’s taken me a while to figure it out too.

I’ve made excuses about being busy – and it’s true that working in digital communications that the demand for more and better quality content just keeps getting greater – but that’s not the whole picture.

On Instagram yesterday, I finally admitted to a large dose of Imposter syndrome (psychologists call it neurotic imposture) and a sort of crazy perfectionism which has left me staring at the draft posts section of my blog like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to press publish. Many said they had not heard of the term ‘Imposter syndrome’ and it sounds pretty pathetic when you put it into writing, but I’ll try to explain…

When people compliment your work or say how talented you are at something you should feel good, right?  In fact the feeling that comes over you is the exact opposite. You believe they have the wool pulled over their eyes and you are not deserving of their praise. It’s the continual feeling of not being as good as a) everyone thinks you are and b) most other people in your field. This sounds like false humility and that’s why it’s really difficult to admit to, and super hard to rationalise and escape from.

This paragraph from a report in the Harvard Business Review – The Dangers of Feeling a Failure enlightens further (throughout the article there are many things about my background and expectations that I identify with):

“…neurotic impostors feel more fraudulent and alone than other people do. Because they view themselves as charlatans, their success is worse than meaningless: It is a burden. In their heart of hearts, these self-doubters believe that others are much smarter and more capable than they are, so any praise impostors earn makes no sense to them. “Bluffing” their way through life (as they see it), they are haunted by the constant fear of exposure. With every success, they think, “I was lucky this time, fooling everyone, but will my luck hold? When will people discover that I’m not up to the job?”

When my blog was in its infancy I was happy to do the best I could and just publish for the pleasure of sharing a variety of topics. Now there are so many blogs of incredibly high standards to compare my output with, paired with recognition as an ‘influencer’; it’s gradually caused my self-confidence about blogging to plummet and to doubt everything I set out to do.

Women are particularly prone to feeling like a fraud and apparently most people suffer from this at one time or another. I must admit to having it bad right now though and again, I’m trying to work out why this might be so I can combat it.

Much has been made of a version of the lives we portray online, the artificial perfect worlds, especially on Instagram. It seeps into our consciousness and even if our heads know that no one can really live like that and that nobody is perfect, envy, comparison and those feelings of inadequacy steal into our hearts.  The wealth of advice out there is a double-edged sword too. I read a lot and listen to masses of podcasts. It’s easy to fall prey to certain aspects of received wisdom about things you should be doing and are not. The list is too long, too overwhelming; achieving it feels utterly impossible, and those that do it all seem blessed with the abilities of super humans. Related to this is my resistance to chunks of the advice, for instance the current wisdom that the only way your blog will be successful is by finding as small a niche as possible. This is good advice but not for me – you and I would all be bored very quickly if this was my approach. There are too many things of interest out there in the world to dig into, probe, examine.Beating Imposter Syndrome on

Confessing to feeling a fraud

So why am I sharing all this in my most personal post ever (and completely outside the usual topics of my blog)?

  1. It’s a way to try to get over it. By sharing all I have nowhere to hide so have to get on with publishing posts more often – as I’m now accountable to you my readers in a different, more honest, and little bit scary way.
  2. The time taken to write and publish my blog posts has got longer and longer over the years and more daunting as the standards I’ve aimed for are higher (often feeling unattainable hence the delay in going live).   These words were written quite hastily in a bid to prove to myself that the world will not implode if they appear online in fact…
  3. …this might help someone by showing they are not alone. I know I’ve found solace by realising I’m not alone. Does this strike a chord with you?
  4. I value everyone who has taken the time to connect with me here or on other channels and I felt an explanation was needed for my blogging drought.
  5. This actually took time away from publishing a post I’m afraid to finish – procrastinating once more about making it live. Classic imposter syndrome but at least I’m admitting it!Beating Imposter Syndrome on

How I’m trying to beat imposter syndrome

This is what I’m turning to, and having it in a list form will help to remind and encourage me.  As I’m no expert in this field, I’ve resisted writing the ‘top ten tips to help YOU etc.’ Sharing my approach and progress is the best I can do.  I hope it helps others and I would love to have your thoughts about other things I might try.

  1. Form a blogging habit again. I’ve actually got a regular Instagram routine which I stick to that works well. It could be that this takes away from my time to blog so I’m going to put a strict time limit on it. In an interview for Janet Murray’s Soulful PR podcast, Jeff Goins talks about dedicating an hour a day to writing when he was starting out. This makes sense to get back into the practise of regular writing for my blog again. It also taps into the ‘do it until you believe it’ advice.
  2. Try to overcome perfectionism. This post is the first step. I’m going to diarise time once a week for batch editing my images which I never feel are good enough making this is a hugely time-consuming job. If I’m not making headway with this, I might even outsource some editing accepting that no one can be good at everything.
  3. Just doing the best I can. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”. C.S. Lewis. Getting stuff done and out there must be my priority (rather than 250 unpublished half-finished draft posts – no joke). From now on I’ll aim for ‘good enough’.
  4. Only seeking out things that inspire, buoy me up and give me strength.  Keeping away from content that makes me feel inferior or evokes envious or uncomfortable feelings for a while. Focusing on doing my own personal best.
  5. Identifying bad habits and working hard to break them. Who else here identifies with everything on this list of the five diets All women should be on by Sas Petherick?
  6. Being alert to the critical voice – and answering it. Acknowledging that my thought patterns are holding me back and setting a strategy to overcome it, however impossible this might seem.
  7. Valuing genuine, positive and kind people around me and trusting what they say. In response to my little reveal on Instagram I received some very touching messages of support for which I am truly grateful. Pooh-poohing their sentiments is tantamount to calling them disingenuous.
  8. Taking more risks, putting myself out there, doing the things that I’m afraid of.  To quote Margie Warrell on Working Mother : Letting fears sit at the helm in life is a surefire recipe for lackluster mediocrity—or as Thoreau put it, “a life of quiet desperation.” I WILL refuse to let my inner gremlin dictate my choices.Beating Imposter Syndrome on

My approach to blogging

I’ve also decided not to beat myself up about not having a narrow niche. The example of the lovely Sarah Von Bargen on the Yes and Yes blog really inspires me. She says:

When people ask me about my blog I tell them “It’s a lifestyle blog for smart, funny people.” And then I might point at them and wink and say “So you’re allowed to read it.”

My unique perspective on food, drink and travel will continue to be my blog niche which I hope will appeal to you if you like to dig a little deeper and ask the odd awkward question about things.

I’m designing a quick survey to help broaden my topics rather than “niche-ing down”. Send me an email if you’d like to receive it, or just tell me what you’d like to read more of (Instagram and blogging tips for instance).

Thanks for reading this far and for lending me your ears.  Be prepared for a deluge of posts to follow – this will mean I’ve succeeded in conquering some demons. This thing goes so deep that I’m actually feeling like being a fraud at confessing to a syndrome!  Feeling scared, vulnerable, and still daunted now I’ve written this – but also on the cusp of a new chapter.

Beating Imposter Syndrome on

Your thoughts, via comments, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or email would be highly appreciated. Are there any resources that have helped? If this resonates with you too, would you like to join me on the journey? Could we keep each other accountable and provide support for blogging, social, small business, life….? Let me know 🙂


Dubai – how to experience an alternative Iftar

May 26, 2017

Iftar Frying Pan Adventure

As a non-Muslim, it can be difficult to understand the true significance of Ramadan and what it really means to those observing a day-time fast for 30 days. Sure, it’s easy to see that the city of Dubai steps down a notch from its usual frenetic pace. White tents start to go up next to mosques to host communal Iftar for those who are less well off. There’s a mad dash on the roads just before sunset then all is quiet, the stillness punctuated only by the call from hundreds of minarets.

It’s a joyful time and one where families get together, sometimes at one of the many lavish Iftar buffets held across Dubai in 5-star hotels. These offer an extensive array of traditional dishes, a chance to try celebratory foods such as slow cooked whole lamb or ouzi, an endless variety of mezze and salad, plus – of course – a dizzying display of desserts. I have visited several and enjoyed my evenings, leaving satiated with food but without any real insight into this month that’s so special for local and expat Muslims. The amount of food waste from all these buffets is also a concern.

Iftar with Frying Pan Food Adventures and Gulf Photo Plus

It took a very different experience in old Dubai to change that. Sitting on the pavement with an orange and some water before me, the urge to peel the fruit was strong and I hadn’t been fasting. In parallel rows on either side of my strip of carpet were hundreds of labourers, sitting cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder in perfect peace. There was no chatter or commotion, just patient contemplation of the imminent breaking of the fast. The air shimmered in the heat of dusk, the warmth of the sun-baked concrete slabs seeped through the thin covering; even among friends this closeness seemed intimate and extremely humbling.  As the sun started to dip and the prayer rang out we all gratefully tucked into our little pile of food including water – this is the first sip of drink these men will have had since about 4 in the morning – laban (a kind of drinking yoghurt), milk, some dhal, samosas and the orange.

After the men had finished eating, they helped to clear the leftover packaging and then left to go to pray and to start an evening’s work.

This tour is not just dedicated to experiencing Iftar, it’s an in-depth guide to this bit of Deira through food with the highly knowledgeable guides of Frying Pan Food Tours plus experts from Gulf Photo Plus on hand to give tips about taking good street photos.  The photography tuition is excellent but having a ‘proper camera’ not necessary at all. A few people on the tour just used their phone camera and one no camera at all, just drinking in the atmosphere and experience without having to record it.  After Iftar the area went back to its usual bustling self, we sampled karak chai, freshly baked bread, other street snacks and ended with a shared meal once again on the floor but this time in comfort (and with air conditioning).

Iftar Frying Pan Adventure

Iftar Frying Pan Adventure

On our first part of the evening strolling around before dusk, we were guided observers in an alien environment; once down on the pavement we became part of the place.

For more information and to book visit Frying Pan Adventures or the Unseen Trails microsite.

Browse the gallery by clicking on an image and using the arrows left and right:

Here are some other ways to experience an alternative Ramadan within the community:

Filling the Blues

Filling the BluesThis is a Ramadan charity initiative started 10 years ago by Dubai-based restaurateur Tahir Shah the founder and owner of Moti Roti. What started as a small way to give back personally, gathered momentum and now sees restaurants from around Dubai involved and giving back. Every evening during Ramadan, a different restaurant prepares food which volunteers distribute to construction workers who are working the evening shift during Ramadan.

“We have a chance to give back to the workers who have built our restaurants, offices, apartments etc. – there is no illusion that we can fix everything for these guys, but all we can show is a gesture saying: Hey, we know you’re there and we appreciate it!” says Tahir. On a recent podcast interview he also mentioned that it’s not just the food that the workers appreciate.  They value the variety of human contact as though they are welcoming new visitors every night; it makes them feel part of the community.

This year in line with Moti Roti opening its first restaurant in JLT, FillingTheBlues will be serving Iftar for workers on a site in cluster L Al Barsha each night of Ramadan.
To take part (organise queues, set up tables, hand out food etc) visit the Moti Roti website or email

Ramadan Sharing Fridges

The Ramadan Sharing Fridge began as an initiative to help less fortunate community workers and labourers to have access to free food and drink during the month of Ramadan.
Under the umbrella of the Red Crescent and in association with Open Arms UAE, that brings together different members of the Dubai community to share a moment together, and to show appreciation and respect for each other. It’s about demonstrating that a small act of kindness can have a positive effect on other people’s’ lives both during and beyond the holy month of Ramadan.

To participate, join the Facebook group here. There’s a map to find your local fridge and advice on how and what to donate to the fridge. Each fridge is emptied and filled up to 20 times a day and are open 24/7 so you can donate anytime. Community workers are around between 8am until 6pm which is when the need is greatest.

Iftar Frying Pan Adventure

My daughter caught me in action on the Iftar tour

World Food Programme for Yemen

Just over the border in neighbouring Yemen, the continued conflict is having a devastating impact on much of the population with children bearing the brunt through lack of food.

As the Holy Month of Ramadan is a time for giving, the World Food Programme invite you to feed a child in Yemen who needs urgent food assistance. The ShareTheMeal app from the WFP lets you share a meal with just a tap on your smart phone. Download and share here

Where to experience an alternative Iftar in Dubai on

Ramadan Mubarak to all who are observing this Holy Month. If you have any special family traditions or foods you like to share I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Have you ever had a memorable Ramadan experience (whether you participate or not)? And please do let me know if there are any other ways to connect with the community for Iftar during Ramadan here in the UAE (or elsewhere).

P.S. Photo credit shared with my daughter – it was such a joy to do this tour with her and to see her interpretation through the lens in some of these pics.











Dubai – Where to have afternoon tea with a Burj Khalifa view

May 14, 2017

With scores of palatial hotels in Dubai, there are luxurious eating opportunities aplenty but the perfect afternoon tea can be strangely elusive, so I’ve done my best to track down the best.

Endless steaming pots of loose leaf tea poured into bone china cups, jugs of cold milk, cucumber sandwiches, plain scones, homemade jam and clotted cream are top of my list of non-negotiable elements. It’s an occasion not to be rushed.  The company of good friends to while away several hours and slowly divest the cake stands of their bounty should be available on prescription for the ultimate stress relief.

There’s a tendency in Dubai for too much, which is both strength and a weakness. I shy away from afternoon teas which bring out so many diverse courses that it feels like a late lunch or early dinner. On the other hand, the soaring spire of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, never fails to impress both in gleaming audacity and exuberant ambition.

Here are three places to find a most excellent tea within the shadow of this vertiginous structure.

Tea with an extra bonus

Hushed tones, a polished look and supremely comfortable understated luxury is what you’d expect from The Four Seasons. The one in DIFC has just enough reflective surfaces to catch a glimpse of your own polished high heels (definitely a place to wear your Louboutins) or a glimpse of a glamorous couple strolling through the lobby.

The view from the Penrose Lounge over the business district and the Burj Khalifa adds a Sex in the City vibe. Light-filled, stylish, geometric and resembling one of those coordinated Instagram accounts of the perfect life, it’s a very grown up place for a girl’s afternoon tea get together, which is just what we did. Warm scones wrapped in white linen napkins each had the hint of a flavour – orange, Cheddar, and walnut. This is a luxurious tea so expect dainty bites like foie mousse and salmon caviar, mere sandwiches are too commonplace.  The cake stands are laden with sugary fripperies such as raspberry financiers and pineapple passion verrine, well deserving the phrase ‘naughty but nice’. Staff are ultra discreet and keep teapots brimming and your Champagne flute topped up.

The extra bonus is you have the chance to admire a second view of the Burj Khalifa. Once we’d said our farewells, jaws aching from all the nattering, The Hedonista and I took the lift up to the Luna Sky Bar (a regular haunt) for an excellent cocktail while the sky turned rosy and the sun slid behind the tallest building in the world. Do book ahead if you want to secure a table (or just plead pitifully like we did).

More info: Penrose Afternoon Tea, Four Seasons, DIFC, Dubai

Luna Sky Bar, Four Seasons

Middle Eastern promise

A first-rate supply of people-watching is to be had from the raised Al Bayt lounge next to reception at The Palace, Downtown Dubai.   Peer through the palm fronds to see guests relax instantly as they drift into the cool, scented lobby, greeted by white turbaned men bearing hand towels to refresh them by the rose petal-strewn fountain.

While the panoramic view of the stately grounds, towering palm trees, Burj Khalifa and fountains is best from the outside terrace at Al Bayt, I prefer to sink into the plush sofas under the parlour palms and whirring fans overhead, lulled by the violinist.

Envelop yourself further in the charms of Middle East by choosing an Arabian-themed tea, where the fare is laced with spices, studded with dates and accompanied by cooling sherbets, or stick to the more traditional version; both are good. If your idea of heaven is a never-ending supply of tea-time treats, book for the buffet where serried rows of dainty delights are constantly refilled on the large round table.

Keep an eye out for special events too; last time I visited was for a limited edition Bulgari tea outside on the lawns. Designer-clad ladies sipping Laurent Perrier Champagne, perched on white ladder-backed chairs weighted with smart handbags in pastel shades, gossiped under the shade of large umbrellas. At this designer-themed tea, there was a Hendrick’s tea trolley, a harpist and a range of Bulgari fragrances, notes of which inspired the flavours from citrus to bergamot. I hope they repeat it next year – but until then take refuge from the summer steamy temperatures indoors under the lazy whirr of the overhead fans.

More info and to book: The Palace Downtown, Dubai Buffet teas are served on Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays, with table service and cake stands on all other days.

Classic tea with a classic view

The idea of afternoon tea as we now know it is credited to Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, UK in the 1840s. Her solution to hunger pangs between lunch and dinner in the late afternoon was to ask her maid to brew tea in her rooms, to sip with a few slices of bread and butter. She started to invite friends and it soon became a focus for female socialising as well as sustenance. It quickly took off and Victorian society embraced afternoon tea with gusto.

Founded in 1707, Fortnum and Mason really made its name during the Victoria era, supplying fine food to royalty, winning a prize at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and even inventing the scotch egg (not Scottish at all).  At a famous horse-racing event, the Epsom Derby, Charles Dickens noted “Look where I will…. I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!”

Dubai is the only place where you can enjoy afternoon tea at Fortnums outside the UK. The modern three storey building is like a slice of cake wedged in between Dubai Mall and The Address Hotel, with the pointy end revealing an unrivalled view of the Burj Khalifa through picture windows (or out on the terrace). It’s blissfully quiet, sound muffled by soft, upholstered banquets and luxuriant carpet; an instant balm for a frazzled soul. The linen is starched, aqua bone china delicate and the tea itself classically well executed. Service is impeccable (a huge turn around from when it first opened).

Work your way through the smaller items on the cake stand then liberate a slice or two from larger classics such as Victoria Sandwich, lemon meringue and Battenberg, which nestle under huge glass cloches . If judging on the food alone, this is my favorite tea as it has more sandwiches (including divine Coronation chicken), savoury things and plain scones – blame my lack of a sweet tooth – although the mini chocolate eclairs did go down very well too.

At twilight, ask the waiter to pour another cup of Royal Blend tea, look over to the small bridge of jostling tourists straining to look upwards as the Burj Khalifa towers above them, and watch the sunset in utter contentment, without a single neck twinge.

More info: Fortnum & Mason Tea Salon, Dubai  (no afternoon tea menu listed online but it’s very similar to the London one) Unlike the other venues, this is unlicensed.

Best Afternoon tea in Dubai with a Burj Khalifa view

A cream tea and an afternoon tea are slightly different – read about my search for the perfect scone.

I was invited to all three of these teas but not under any obligation to write about them – I’ve tried other places in Dubai which definitely didn’t cut the mustard and would genuinely recommend all three. All views remain my own as always.

What do you like best about afternoon tea? Are you a traditionalist like me or do you like the more modern variations? What’s on your non-negotiable list? And if you could overlook anywhere in the world while sipping tea and eating cake, where would it be?




Kyrgyzstan – a long weekend hiking and exploring

May 7, 2017

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The lady in the headscarf stands over us, wagging a finger indicating firmly that it is time for us to go to bed. We crawl into sleeping bags, donning hats and fleeces in response to the rapidly lowering temperatures, and soon there are eight bodies all in a row and the sound of deep breathing. I lie on my back, wide awake, despite a day of strenuous hiking, the hard ground making every position unbearable for long and unable to relax sandwiched between my gently snoring neighbours. A little later, the woman and her daughter come back, announcing their presence through low mutterings and a lot of clanging and scraping as they clean the little stove and restock it with slabs of dried animal dung. Fire relit, the bustling activity continues outside as a canopy is thrown over the roof hole and secured with ropes so we are hermetically sealed inside.  Later,when I decide to brave the cold and relieve myself, I discover that the door is tied shut and have to snake my hand through a forced gap to unloop the string. The stove has done its work and the icy cold and breezy environment turns to boiling hot without oxygen; my face blazes as I try to breathe deeply and combat the feeling of intense claustrophobia. As romantic as it sounds, my first night in a yurt is not the most comfortable of experiences.

It does mean, however, that as soon as dawn light glimmers through the thin patches in the canvas I’m ready to be up and watch the early morning mist swirl around the surrounding mountains and catch the first sun rays to burn through. I’m on Tes-Tor in Kyrgyzstan, a country I know very little about, for a long weekend of light hiking in April 2017.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Landing in Bishkek

Our journey starts from Dubai with a FlyDubai flight taking four hours through the night to the capital Bishkek. For most of our group it’s an easy process with no visa needed, but the group one for the Indian nationals has a problem and they have to remain at the airport for most of the day to sort it.

Our Kyrgyz guides ferry us in mini buses through the streets of the capital in the early morning light. Bishkek is named after a paddle used to make kumis, the national drink of fermented mare’s milk.  The city centre is dominated by soviet-style angular buildings and heavy-hewn black statues of Lenin, Pushkin and Mikhail Frunze (a Bolshevik leader in the Russian revolution).  This country emerged from the USSR in 1991 after 70 years of Soviet rule.  The Kyrgyz were nomadic in the past, and there’s a mix of cultural backgrounds as the country was part of different empires over the centuries.  Many of the unique and ancient traditions have been preserved in this small landlocked country surrounded by mountains which was a part of the Great Silk Road.

The first people we see out on the streets have attractive round ruddy cheeks and rosebud lips. Many women bind their heads in coloured scarves and coats and dresses are covered with bold embroidery. Some men wear tall sculptural white felt hats (called kalpaks), also embellished with navy embroidered patterns .

We head East for a couple of hours through farmland dotted with brown sheep, budding fruit trees and square houses. The mosques are square too as if fashioned from a similar frame, with a painted jagged, metal sphere, placed on top as a minaret. They remind me of the shape of cut glass.

Burana tower

After a couple of hours we reach our lunch stop at the site of the ancient city of Balasagun. A medieval minaret is about all that remains. At the peak of its wealth, during the reign of the Karakhanids (955-1130), it was an important place on the Great Silk Road and had over 200 places of worship. The Karakhanids were the first people in Central Asia to accept and practice Islam and the Burana minaret, constructed inside the ancient city, was the first to be built in this part of the continent.

We’re welcomed into a yurt, its walls and roof covered with brightly painted wooden struts and embroidered cloth. The first of many feasts that we’ll enjoy over the next few days is laid out on little tables.
After we cannot drink another drop of tea from flowery painted metal teapot we wander in the sunshine to see the ancient burial site. The open grassland is dotted with curved petroglyphs (carved stones) called bal-bals – the name may be derived from the Turkic for ‘grandfather’ and these primitive pieces of ancient rock do look more like people than gravestones.

The red brick Burana tower just begs to be climbed and I tackle the steep narrow winding stairs in order to take in the panoramic view of the mountains. Earthquakes, marauding Mongols and pilfering Russian immigrants lessened its height and it’s been given a rather neat restoration job, but it’s still impressive for something that’s been around since the 9th century.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

View from Burana tower

Once my feet are back on the ground I spot a large party of Chinese girls swarming up the driveway so I make a dash for the loos but balk when I get there.  The concrete stalls with no door and a just hole in the ground are clean but ridiculously basic and exposed – and a hint of things to come during our stay.

There’s a lot of nodding off on our next leg of the journey as our bus winds its way through miles of countryside, climbing higher to meet the clouds that roll in over the towering hills.

Homestay in Karool Dobo village

Through a metal door down an unmade country lane is our home stay,  consisting of a couple of long buildings with many rooms. It’s clean, comfortable but icy cold inside the rooms. We’ve barely digested our vast ‘breakfast’ but we’re led into another yurt where we sit on blankets to eat at low tables that groan with dishes. Platters of fried wide pastry ribbons with jagged edges are formed into rolls like crowns and arranged into towers. Baskets of bread, biscuits and wrapped sweets  are dotted among large bowls of white sugar and several varieties of homemade jam.
We start with a salad of potato and beetroot and another one with carrots and thin noodles. A soupy stew of hard chewy beef and potatoes follows. Black tea is served in abundance of course.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Outside our homestay in Karool Dobo, Kyrgyzstan

The urge to curl up in a ball and snooze is strong but once we don hiking boots and many layers (uncertain of the temperatures) it’s a wonderful feeling to be striding up the nearby hill. We are guided by a local with no English who is clearly fitter than the fittest among us. He strolls with ease leading us upwards, stopping periodically and crouching on his heels, while we catch up panting (well it might just have been me doing the heavy breathing). The Kyrgyz are a horse rearing nation and we walk past many herds on the hillside. After ascending for well over an hour there are patches of flattened, damp brown grass recently liberated from a blanket winter snow. A little higher up we discover a remaining snowy patch and this discovery brings a delight that only desert dwellers can really understand, especially when we spot a snowdrop raising its tiny, new fragile head in a clearing.

Back at the homestay, the yurt is laid with the exact same spread of pastries jam and bread but this time supplemented with a slightly different beef stew and rice. It’s hearty fare made for extreme temperatures. We’ve bought whisky on our way out of Dubai and get to know our neighbouring room mates over a few hot toddies before sinking gratefully into comfortable beds.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

With our homestay hostess

After welcome hot showers, we dodge the pouring raid from veranda to yurt, to sit on low cushions once again for breakfast. There’s a tangy, slightly fizzy (i.e. fermented) yoghurt which I love but is too strong for some. Traditionally this might have been made from mare’s milk (kumis) but I think this yoghurt is from cow’s milk. A semolina porridge transports me back to infant school dinners, in a good way. The teapot circulates endlessly as always and the same bread, biscuits, bowls of sugar and crenellated pastries fill the table (do they dust them?).

Our host and hostesses wave us farewell and I pose for a picture with the lady of the house who smiles with lips firmly closed, hiding her many gold teeth. Rain lashes down but eventually clears as we head further East through dramatic green hills.

Lake Issyk-kul. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

We stop by a lake which gleams flatly below us. During the summer, crowds flock to these vast stretches of water and, by the largest called Issyk-Kul, bask on the only beaches in this landlocked place. Today we see no-one.

Kochkor livestock market

The streets of Kochkor are lined with vehicles as it’s livestock market day. We enter through the sheep area with woolly beasts of all sizes and ages being shown by their owners. We thread our way among the beasts and men, fawning over curly-headed calves that hide behind their protective mothers. Horses are cajoled and whipped further along, interspersed with the odd clutch of poultry, food stalls and other random items.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

At the Kochkor livestock market

People are mildly interested in our presence but mostly we’re ignored or observed with a gently smile.  The range of vehicles also reflect that horse power of four legs is still relied on heavily. Ladas of various vintages mingle with pick up trucks and slightly newer models of makes I’ve never heard of. Gleaming four-wheel drives are nowhere to be seen.

Visiting a cemetery

On our drive we’d caught intriguing glimpses of ornate looking tombs, interspersed with etched marble markers, all arranged haphazardly and overgrown with long grasses bleached from winter temperatures. At last the bus stops by one on the outskirts of the town and I leg it out of there as fast as I can, camera already clicking in the eerie stillness.

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The people of Kyrgyzstan were nomads until the 20th century and were buried very simply wherever they died. The practice of erecting ornate mausoleums to the deceased started when they adopted a more permanent lifestyle. The graves made of mud bricks and metal frames (resembling yurts) are adorned with ornaments from Islam, Shamanism and symbols of the Soviet Union. There is no tradition of visiting the dead so the cemeteries are overgrown, crumbling, serene, ramshackle and beautiful. I would return to this country for a tour of the graveyards alone.

Hike to Tes-Tor

The hustle, bustle and teaming life beckons us to stay, but our bus is waiting. We stop at the bazaar in Kochkor for provisions; the business are inside brightly coloured converted shipping containers.  One houses a little cafe where every table is full, bowls of steaming stews and dumplings keep emerging and a tantalising scent of slow cooked onions make us long to stay. However, we are committed to climbing a mountain and soon we’re standing at the bottom of a path by a farm, strapping on boots or mounting steeds. Our hiking group starts together but the younger fitter ones surge ahead and the rest of us spread out.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Soon R and I find ourselves walking alone, trudging up the long, slow, ascending path. The view of a high range of snow-capped mountains behind us becomes more distant as we climb higher, the steep green granite hills around us resembling sections of Dartmoor. We ford a few rocky streams and eventually a swathe of slowly melting snow. A beaten up transit van is parked just before this and a huddle of men wave from the small windows – daytime drinking or just shooting the breeze? The only litter we see on the hillside are empty vodka bottles.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Hiking upwards

With a sense of achievement we enter our camp of four yurts. Three hours was predicted to finish this stretch of about 10km but at this altitude ( the camp is 2800m) and gradient, and as 50+ aged hikers, we’re more than satisfied to have done it in 4 hours 20.
We enter the welcoming warmth of the yurt to join a late lunch of beef stew, salad, homemade jam, bread and tea.

Higher up to Lake Köl-Ükök

A hike to a lake is on the cards but R and I are both still feeling the effect of the climb up. I try to determine whether there are any really steep ascents. The main guide speaks French and Russian but through translation assures me that it’s the same as the journey up. R joins the horseback gang while I elect Shank’s pony. It’s good to be hiking with other people to take my mind off a few aches and slightly less fresh muscles. The group all have interesting backgrounds and their professions range from banking to radar engineering.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Some of the speedier hikers have left us behind, the predicted time of an hour and a half has been exceeded and the lake is still not in sight. Some of my group accept the offer to continue on horseback as we’re all feeling a bit weary. After traversing a very narrow slippery snow and mud covered path we meet the speedy gang on their way down. The lake lies at the top of a very steep climb (over 3000m). I take a couple of steps and reassess. In summer the Lake Köl-Ükök is brilliant blue, meadow fringed and reflects the surrounding mountains, right now it’s frozen and snow-covered, plus the sun is getting very low. I don’t fancy risking the walk back in the dark. I join the speedy gang for the journey back through the valley and love striding out down hill at pace. There is not one regret at missing the frozen lake which will be breathtaking in summer full of meltwater, with blue skies and wildflowers, but is a sea of white right now. This decision also rewards me with the view of a spectacular sunset behind further mountain tops at the end of the valley.

More feasting, a frenzied game of Uno, a fair few nips of warming whisky and the aforementioned early night dictated by the formidable matriarch put an end to the day.

Coming down the mountain

I’m up way before our Kyrgyz lady alarm clock at 6.30am and there’s more finger wagging at 7 to encourage the last few stragglers out from under their blankets. Within a short time we’re all eating fermented yoghurt, semolina porridge and drinking a vat of black tea, then packed up to walk back down in the sunshine. Some go by horse and our heavy bag does too.

It’s a glorious morning and we pass several mounted herdsman shepherding flocks, some old and wrinkled, some young and shy – the latter guffawing with laughter after I take a picture. Our faces are glowing with slight sunburn by the time we reach the edge of Isakeev village after three pleasant hours of hiking downhill.

Kochkor – another feast

There’s a relaxed Sunday air as we peer out of the bus windows onto country lanes as we wend our way towards Kochkor. Children sit at the roadside, an elder girl cuddling a cheeky looking toddler. There is cherry blossom everywhere and houses with wooden eaves and window sills carved and painted blue.  We stop at a smart-looking homestay with yellow shutters and a huge table laid for lunch. Explaining dietary requirements (several vegetarians and one dairy-free) takes some doing especially in a culture where meat is prized, but we get there eventually and there is more than enough food for everyone (this is an understatement).

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

There’s a five-hour bus journey back to Bishkek, where we stare out at endless green meadows, rushing rivers, roadside fruit sellers and, at one point, the border with Kazakhstan, under the spring sunshine and post lunch drooping eye lids. The only jarring note is the non-stop Kyrgyzstan pop music that the bus driver tunes into, worthy of the most testing Eurovision song contest entry.

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Warned to hang onto purses, our group snakes along the edge of the pavement in Bishkek. In crocodile formation we dart down rabbit warrens of alleyways in the slip stream of our guide. At the start we skirt bodies passed out on pavement, evidently senselessly drunk.  Think too much about crossing the road and you’ll never set foot on it; the cars career out of nowhere at speed. There are some very dodgy looking meat skewers on a dirty grill, sold by glowering dodgy looking men but some jolly folk music floats from a pleasant-looking courtyard; this is a place of contrasts.

We are led to souvenir shops selling felt hats, wooden instruments and mini replica yurts, among other things.  Above our heads, several loud speakers blare, competing, strident, and unintelligible (to us) cacophonies above our heads. I brave the public loos and recommend that if in the Osh Bazaar, however urgent, you never, ever do.

Threading our way to another part of the market, we are soon surrounded by stalls piled with food. Refrigeration isn’t valued much here it seems and chickens, meat and intestines are displayed in the open air. A cool hall is lined with high tables and women selling various dairy products and the famous Kyrgyz raw honey.  Their ladles drip thick cream and golden honey and the famous pure white variety made by bees from the nectar of wildflowers in the mountains – and none of the sellers can resist sampling their own wares from time to time, with undisguised relish.

Folk night at Arzu in Bishkek

When a folk night in restaurant in Bishkek was mooted I was sceptical but most of the group were really keen. This sort of event is usually quite predictable and aimed at giving tourists what they want rather than something really authentic. Arzu is a smart restaurant (compared to what we’ve seen to date) and almost empty.

The waiters flap and if ordering wine is a slight challenge (beer is much easier), explaining what vegetarians and vegans eat seems an impossible task (given the fish that arrives). Caesar salad as one of the starters makes my heart sink – but I cheer up when the manti arrive. There are dumplings in the cuisines of most cultures along the Silk Road, a Chinese influence, from Nepalese momos to Georgian khinkali, and I’m always keen to try them. The filling is dense and beefy, the thin pleated dough wrapper silky. They are the culinary highlight of the whole trip for me.

Traditional musicians. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The musicians arrive. Two beautiful women with serene expressions dressed in intricately embroidered clothing with a fountain of soft, grey feathers on their fur-trimmed hats, carry slender pear-shaped wooden stringed instruments with long narrow necks (called komus). One man in splendid traditional dress complete with tall hat plays a side-blown flute (a chopo-choor) and another in similar dress sings. A younger, solemn looking chap in a bright blue coat stays in the wings until he takes centre stage. Sitting at the end of the table he sways rhythmically from side to side as, in a strong nasal chant he recounts a historic and moving tale of tragedy and valour. We cannot understand a word but there is no doubt about the subject matter or the amount of feeling it evokes.

The women lighten the mood with fast and dexterous plucking and strumming of strings with dramatic arm movements and switching their instruments into different choreographed positions. Afterwards I ask how long it has taken them to become so expert; they began playing at the age of seven.  The whole programme is utterly captivating and when the group join us at the end of the table for a photo it’s revealed that they are a famous ensemble who make regular appearances on TV.  The whole evening including a sumptuous meal has cost us 10 USD per head.

There is no dessert (a relief after our days of feasting) and we catch a few hours of deep sleep at our clean, comfortable hotel before heading to the airport. It’s been a weekend of real immersion in a very different culture, a world away from our own, with many tales to tell. From spotting snow leopards and red foxes in the Winter to a profusion of wild flower meadows and more breathtaking scenery, there is much more about this amazing country tempting us to return.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Visiting Kyrgyzstan

Getting there:  There are four flight a week to the capital Bishkek from Dubai on Fly Dubai and the flight time is 3 hours 40 minutes. There are no direct flights from the UK.

Organising your trip: We signed up for this weekend with Trekkup Dubai via the Meetup app and I see they are repeating this trip. If you do a quick google search there are many companies who organise guides for trekking and hiking. Community based tourism, including homestays and yurts, is well set-up and Kyrgyzstan is very inexpensive.  There is some good information about arranging your trip from Goats on the Road here.

Staying in Bishkek: Rich Hotel

Visa info Foreign travel advice Kyrgyzstan for UK  General visa info

Thanks to R for spotting this trip and encouraging me to sign up. I’d love to return to hike through the wildflowers meadows in summer. Have I tempted you to journey off the beaten track?






Roast caprese stuffed mini sweet peppers

March 21, 2017

Every Friday morning at the farmers’ market I pause over the tubs of sweet mini peppers and inhale deeply. When I think back to the veg on offer when the market first started, the range of produce could probably be counted on two hands. Farmers now understand more about what people want through connecting with customers over the last seven years. This means that there is something new every season and pocket-sized peppers in yellow, orange, red and green are here to stay in the Emirates. Freshly picked, powerfully fragrant and oh so sweet, they are just irresistible.

Mostly, I’ve been tossing them in a slick of oil and roasting whole. The seeds don’t seem bitter so I just slather onto toasted, crusty, sour dough with a sprinkle of seasoning. I had a brain wave to put a twist on a favourite recipe I’ve been making for about twenty years. And it works beautifully. When took these to book club they went down a storm.

Roast caprese stuffed mini peppers

Roast caprese stuffed mini sweet peppers

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

An Italian-inspired vegetarian appetiser recipe perfect to serve to a crowd

Easy to make ahead and then finish off –  just lay on the cheese and pop under the grill or in a hot oven a couple of minutes before serving. Make it vegan by just omitting the cheese and the final stage.


  • 12 mini sweet peppers
  • Olive oil, for brushing
  • 75-100 very small tomatoes
  • 12 black olives (dry cured preferred), stoned and halved
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • 1 teaspoon raw honey
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 1 tub of mini mozzarella (12-15 pieces), each halved
  • Fresh basil


  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Cut the mini peppers in half lengthways and remove the inner membrane and seeds. Brush with olive oil and lay cut side up on an oiled baking or roasting tray. Place in the oven for 20 minutes until soft but not coloured (some edges might start to catch a little).
  2. Meanwhile toss the tomatoes and olives in a bowl with the olive oil, pomegranate molasses, raw honey and seasoning.
  3. Remove the peppers from the oven and fill the cavities evenly with the tomato mixture. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes are soft but not bursting (too much). This stage can be done ahead of time.
  4. When ready to eat, top each pepper with half a mozzarella and put back into a hot oven or under a hot grill for 3-5 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly bubbling.
  5. Top each pepper with a small individual basil leaf or shredded fresh basil and serve.

Roast caprese stuffed mini peppers

If you are inspired by this farmers’ market haul there’s more over on Instagram…

All pics taken on my iphone as I’m still dithering about my new camera choice!

And that’s it! Uncharacteristically brief post from me. Let me know if you make them and what seasonal produce you can’t get enough of right now.