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Too busy to be in my kitchen…

October 1, 2015

…well actually that’s not strictly true. But life’s for living right? And cooking, and travel, eating out, eating in, making food for friends over Eid and popping out for a few gorgeous gourmet events. I’ve jotted down so many notes, half-written posts, my head is churning with ideas – I wish I had some electrodes that I could pin to the side of my head to get it all down in word form by just thinking. But here we are back in my kitchen and what have I got to show you this month? Zero blog posts – oops.

In my kitchen from Hyderabad

I touched down from the UK early September then traveled to Hyderabad at the beginning of the month for a dear friend’s wedding. When I asked KP what he wanted me to bring back he requested a famous Hyderabadi biryani. Thinking this was an impossible whimsy, I tried to silence my lovely driver who was keen to persuade me to buy bracelets and gem stones by telling him  that there was only one thing I wanted to take home with me. “That’s easy” he said “when I take you to the airport we phone ahead to the a restaurant near the airport and ask them to ‘pack for flight’. We collect it on the way.” This all worked like a dream and I was able to present KP with this city’s famed dish from my suitcase before running out to Book Club that night. My only regret is that I didn’t bring more.


On my way out to India I put in an order from Le Clos – it feels like you are being given gifts when bags full of wine are handed over just before you get to passport control (well it is duty-free).  Couldn’t resist slipping a bottle of Williams Chase in to add to my gin collection. And talking of wine… while this is not new in my kitchen I’ve been sorting through my collection of bottles for the first Georgian wine day. Please do get hold of a bottle and join me in a virtual ‘gaumarjos’ on October 4th.

12 weeks until Christmas

Getting ahead for Christmas is essential and enjoyable (well I think so) and I now have fruit slowly steeping in fruit. I used raisins, currants, prunes, dried cranberries candied peel and brandy this year but the full Christmas cake recipe (with variations) is here; just do it – rewards for patience I promise. And all those cookie cutters can only mean one thing … a festive gingerbread project in the offing.

Cheese nerdiness

I was at the Lafayette Gourmet Food Fest this month (lingering by La Cave a Fromage) and somehow with Elie Makhlouf, the most knowledgable man about cheese I have ever met, got into a mutual homage to cheese which saw him unwrapping wheels of the stuff and forcing me to taste, contrast, compare and take home. What I had to endure (ha ha)! The real revelation was how different Comte made of milk from cows grazing during May and June tasted versus the same producer’s cheese from July and August milk. Phenomenal.

Fruit in season

A massive Union Coop supermarket opened round the corner from me during the summer and it’s very good for seasonal, regional fruit. Plums from Lebanon and Tunisia in several colours have dripped juice in my kitchen and not cost an arm and a leg. At the other extreme of retailer (my eyes water every time they tell me the total bill at the till) I picked up some of my favourite Pelagonia stuffed peppers from Waitrose. Sadly they don’t seem to stock the fabulous ajvar (roasted pepper relish) any longer.

Bread sagas

I made bread from my sour dough starter at last – hooray! And then had to throw both inedible loaves away – booooo! To boost my confidence I went back to a favourite Dan Lepard recipe, tweaked it a bit (due to a lack of some ingredients including inexpensive red wine) and tucked into it with abandon. Bread making mojo restored.

How wonderful to attend a baby shower where the pregnant mum to be gives you a jar of homemade lemon curd to take home. Good luck guys (birth imminent).

Here are a few more highlights of this month on Instagram*:

If you are wondering what is in other kitchens around the globe, visit Celia’s page and follow the links in her side bar for this monthly event. Thanks so much to Celia for sourdough encouragement via Whats app – especially given the time difference. You can look back on past goodies in my kitchen here.

What’s in your kitchen this October?

*Dubai-dwellers alert to an Instameet this Saturday morning. See igersdubai on insta – plus details for Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. See you there?

Gin my kitchen

September 4, 2015

Unpacking is a tedious chore so it’s essential to have some goodies stashed away to make putting away the rest of the stuff bearable. I’m back in my own kitchen after six wonderful and frantic weeks away. Wonderful food, good company with friends and family; striding up hill and down dale amid green hills, country lanes and patchwork fields; ferrying veggie teen to work experience; helping elder teen into her new flat in Edinburgh; setting my alarm very early every single day to keep on top of my freelance work; no wonder it seemed a vast acreage of time away but was also gone in a flash.

A testament to good packing, the bottles arrived intact in my suitcase. Sippable rewards from visits to Plymouth gin (the Connoisseurs’ Tour was excellent – booking ahead essential), Cotswolds Distillery and Sharpham Vineyard. Warner Edwards packaging is just gorgeous with copper embossing and wire reflecting the still (which is called Curiosity). Spring water from the farm and 11 botanicals go into this smooth, award-winning gin made by two friends. I picked it up on a visit to the lovely Tivoli Wines in Cheltenham along with some Sibling gin that’s made in the town by four brothers and sisters. Thomas Dakin was sent to me to try – and after reading this review it will probably be tonight. Totally intrigued by the inclusion of horseradish.

Mellow Yellow was also sent to me – along with chilli oil and salad dressing which received a warm welcome from elder teen when lack of suitcase space meant they remained in Edinburgh. We were messaging today about Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Rush (do watch and sign the petition) when she said “that chilli oil….really really nice…made some cauliflower coconut soup and a drizzle of it on the top really lifted it. Very reminiscent of the chilli oil that sits on the tables of every restaurant throughout South East Asia, the obvious quality of the rapeseed oil combines with the chilli flakes for an oil that brings another dimension to a meal when drizzled on top.” The good news is that it has just arrived at Al Maya supermarket in Dubai so I can try for myself. The rapeseed oil is not organic but is LEAF certified. There is a lot of controversy at the moment over rapeseed as the neonicotinoid (the chemical that is killing bees and birds) ban from Brussels has been countermanded by the UK government probably due to pressure from rapeseed farmers who have experienced crop-losses. Watching this one with interest.

A sandstorm has just gathered pace and the wind is howling round the house. These visual snippets from July and August are all the more poignant:

My July #myjuly 🌿…………………………. #uk #breconbeacons #devon #dartmoor #landscape #mymonthMCP

A post shared by Trusted food + travel writing (@mycustardpie) on

Regular readers will notice that something is missing from my haul. Cheese! Tight on time and unable to park nearby in Edinburgh meant I had to give a visit to I.J. Mellis a miss. Torture. Bereft. In mourning for cheese.

By the way, totally rumbled when KP not only noticed the new vintage scales in the kitchen but picked them up and realised they were made of cast iron. He was aghast as he is verging on a phobia about travelling with more than 10 kilos (yes – I know, it’s impossible).

Thanks for following my travels on Instagram and all your nice comments. Itching to get cracking with inspiration from my new cook books especially Mamushka. It’s interesting to see the parallels and the differences between Polish and Ukrainian cooking. Just a trip to Hyderabad for an Indian wedding to fit in first….

If you are wondering what’s in other kitchens around the globe, visit Celia’s page and follow the links in her side bar for this monthly event. You can also look back on past goodies in my kitchen here.

What’s in your kitchen this September?

Precious Palmyra

August 26, 2015

Palmyra in Syria on

Palmyra in Syria on mycustardpie.comMy camera was old, a sandstorm cloaked the stones; this lends an ethereal nature to these images of ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. It’s hard to evoke the scale of the place which includes temples, a theatre and an extensive burial site with over fifty tombs. While you can wait in the queue for the Colosseum in Rome for over two hours, we shared this once-prosperous city, strategically placed in the middle of the Syrian desert and a vital part of the Roman Empire, with a few hawkers, a handful of camels and a scant bus load of other tourists.

It was a relief to wander undisturbed as we’d been a bit overwhelmed by the eager friendliness of everyone we’d met during our visit, especially in the town adjacent to the ruins. “Where are you from?” was the common refrain and we were thanked profusely for visiting Syria. I wonder where they are now?

Invaders have marched into Palmyra before. Taxes and revenues from the caravans which passed through  fuelled its growth and magnificent projects abounded. Let’s not forget that these riches were built by slaves and their masters’ splendid vision was crafted in toil, blood and death. Success was also its downfall when the powerful rulers of the city, including Queen Zenobia, flexed their muscles against Rome.  The city was raised to the ground by Emperor Aurelian in 273 AD. Luckily he didn’t possess hi-tech explosives.

Countless people have been inspired by the remains of the city: Lady Jane Digby’s grave in Damascus has a piece of its limestone as a tombstone; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here; Lady Hester Stanhope was a visitor after it was ‘rediscovered’ in the late 17th Century, and many country houses of that time have ‘Palmyra ceilings’ based on the zodiac ceiling in the Temple of Bel. Sadly the name that is foremost in our minds is Khaled al-Asaad who dedicated his life to the preservation and restoration of the site, resulting ultimately in his torture and death at the hands of those who exceed the brutality of the past in their actions.

Palmyra in Syria on mycustardpie.comIt seems that man hasn’t changed. Only the weapons have become more sophisticated.

Victoria sandwich cake family recipe

August 9, 2015

“It’s a sandwich cake. A sponge cake is made in a totally different way.” That’s the sound of my Mother in law getting cross at the telly when yet another cookery programme calls this British classic a ‘Victoria sponge’.

“Oh looks so good.” “I need this in my life.” “Wow! And yum! Any chance you can get the recipe or is it a closely guarded secret?”  That’s the sound of comments on a quickly Instagrammed picture of aforementioned cake, freshly baked by my Mother in law, sandwiched together with a layer of strawberry conserve and homemade buttercream.

There is a secret ingredient to this cake that’s probably used more by bakers of a certain age. Margarine.  A highly processed, manufactured ingredient that was marketed successfully as healthier for you (on scant evidence now proved to be suspect), which happened to be much more profitable for the food industry. You can use butter in the recipe but you’ll never get the magnificent rise. If you do go down the margarine route choose your brand carefully and read the label (although if you’ve read ‘Swallow This’ by Joanna Blythman you’ll know that a multitude of sins can be hidden by creative alternative descriptions). Palm oil – demand for and extensive use as a cheap non-dairy alternative has been the catalyst for vast deforestation of the planet putting many species in danger of extinction including orangutans – is often labelled as vegetable oil. Nutella contains palm oil by the way (which is part of the reason you will never find it in my cupboard). Read this ethical shoppers guide to margarine and spreads.

One thing is for sure, whether you use butter or margarine, this is a great tasting cake. Simple, light, not too sweet and a beautiful centrepiece for afternoon tea. My Mother-in-law is a very good cook, and really excels at baking (she was a domestic science teacher). Her pastry is as light as a feather and the first thing I ask her to do at Christmas is make the mince pies. This recipe has been road-tested within her own kitchen, our family and friends and throughout South Devon by hundreds of her past pupils.

This gallery should help you step by step. Click on any image to enlarge and use the arrows to navigate.

Anita's Victoria Sandwich cake

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 3 eggs
  • Self-raising flour
  • Baking powder
  • Margarine or softened butter
  • Caster sugar

Ingredients – Butter cream

  • 60g (2oz) butter, softened
  • 120g (4oz) icing sugar, sieved
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Jam (for serving)


  1. Grease and base line 2 x 20 cm (8 inch) diameter, deep Victoria sandwich tins.
  2. Weigh the eggs in their shells. Weigh out the same measurement of self-raising flour, margarine or butter, and caster sugar. So if your eggs are 210g (7 1/4 oz) you will need 210g self-raising flour, 210g margarine or butter, 210g caster sugar. Baking powder should be about 1/2 teaspoon per 70g (2 oz), so in this case would be 1 1/2 teaspoons.
  3. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl.
  4. Weigh the other cake ingredients. Put the flour into a large bowl and stir in the baking powder. Add the margarine, caster sugar and beaten eggs.
  5. Beat (with a hand-mixer or in a stand mixer) on a low-speed to incorporate. Turn your mixer up to full speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. The mixture should be light and airy.
  6. Divide the mixture into the lined tins evenly. It’s a good idea to weigh them for accuracy. Level with a palette knife.
  7. Bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven at 190 C (170 C fan) for 20- 25 minutes. The cakes should be golden brown and spring back when touched lightly.
  8. Turn out and leave to cool on a rack.
  9. To make the buttercream: Place the softened butter into a bowl (I prefer unsalted). Gradually beat in the icing sugar and vanilla essence until smooth. Spread the buttercream onto the base of one of the cakes with a palette knife. Add thin layer of jam and place the other cake on top (base downwards). Sprinkle with a small amount of caster sugar.

Here’s the picture that started it all over on Instagram:

This second cake was baked as a massive thanks to the staff at Walter C. Parsons in Plympton for their kindness to veggie teen. Top choice if you need funeral services (don’t worry we didn’t).

Do you have a family cake recipe that goes down a storm? Or a relative that’s a legendary cake baker?

Get the party started with a visit to the ice factory

July 24, 2015

Stocking the cooler - Modern Ice Factory Dubai - mycustardpie.comHaving a group of friends over for a gathering or dinner, one thing is always on our list – ‘buy ice’. Dubai temperatures mean that a large cool box (in Australian an ‘esky’, in New Zealand a ‘chilly bin’) is filled with chipped ice and a load of beers and soft drinks. Drinkable ice is needed in copious measures for long drinks, cocktails and cooling things down. You can buy a bag or two at the supermarket or visit the ice factory which is my favoured option.

It feels like a mini-adventure driving up to the Modern Ice Factory (which looks far from it). Round the corner from the Oasis Centre Mall and gleaming BMW dealership this is a little bit of ‘old Dubai’ operating in the same way for decades. On a Friday morning there is often someone in a 4 wheel drive ahead of you in the queue. When it’s your turn you reverse up the steep concrete ramp and place an order in pidgin English. There is ‘machine ice’ or ‘block ice’ which comes in an enormous block or crushed for cooling purposes only and ‘drinking ice’  or ‘tube ice’ which is suitable for consumption in cubes housed in smaller packets. It’s the same type that you buy in the supermarket but cheaper when you go direct.

Machine ice comes along a chute, out of a hole in the wall onto an elevated platform and one man puts it through a crusher which whines loudly like a chain saw into a sack below (old rice sacks). The sacks are dropped down to from the platform. An older man always loads it into your car and does the deal. Last time I was there I had a bit of a chat (fragmented words and sign language) and found out that his name is Nixamiti (excuse the spelling) from Jaipur in India. He has six children and has been in the same job for 25 years. Do say hello if you visit.

What to do with ice

  1. Fill your cool box or ice bucket with crushed ice or ice cubes to keep drinks cool. If you want to cool things down quickly, a combination of half ice and half water will do it quicker than all ice. If you are doing this with wine, make sure you take it out when it’s reached the right temperature. A quick guide to wine serving temperatures here.
  2. Put into a long tall cocktail or shake one over ice. Here are two simple gin cocktail ideas to get you started.
  3. If you don’t have a pool that’s chilled in the summer (you have to live in the Middle East to understand this), buy some of the huge ice blocks of machine ice. Float them into the pool for evening swimming parties (they will disappear too rapidly if you do this in the day – although can be fun for a children’s party).
  4. I’m tempted to say ‘make an ice sculpture’ – but only if you have thermal gloves and a chain saw or chisel and a lot of patience! These are incredibly popular in Dubai and often the centrepiece of a display or entrance – which is quite bizarre given our summer temperatures.  Apparently you can order one of these from Modern Ice too (they deliver).
  5. Have a power blender (such as a Vitamix)? Make instant sorbet by adding juice, a sweetener and ice cubes and giving a quick whizz.

I’m one of those people who ask for room temperature water and hate masses of ice in drinks (bars make drinks look bigger by filling them with crazy amounts). I’ll make an exception for ice in cocktails – who wants a warm G & T? Not me. Are you an ice-fiend or a chilly mortal like me. Any cool ice ideas (sorry)? Please let me know in the comments….

Visit Manila. What to do in 24 hours

July 22, 2015
Manila capital of the Philippines -

The view from my hotel room of Makati – the financial district and one of 16 cities which make up Metro Manila

We’re in Manila for a day. My mind boggles at the population statistics. Can you even imagine living in a teeming metropolis with over 10 million people as they do in ‘Metro Manila’; and Greater Manila houses over 25 million souls. This mental vision of seething humanity and some reports of street crime clouds my expectations about the capital of the Philippines. However, with 450,000 Filipinos in Dubai I was keen to see visit capital; and the reality I experienced was so very different to the dystopian scenario I had in my head.

While it’s charmingly named after a white flower that grows in the mangroves, Manila is not the most picturesque city.  Some of the wide concourses and roundabouts remind me of Plymouth (Devon), which was also devastated during World War II. Manila was second only to Warsaw in terms of destruction. That utopian planning zeal of the late 50s and 60s is evident.  Traffic is naturally a problem but limiting cars via a number plate system is helping to cut jams and emissions. Smoking is banned in all public places. This added to a seriously impressive commitment to environmental issues that kept cropping up throughout my week in the Philippines. Driving into the centre of the city we pass areas of precarious wooden housing structures and shelters around the river (Tagalog means river dwellers), multi-coloured jeepneys, and some staggeringly bland concrete structures (the Cultural Center of the Philippines could earn Prince Charles’ ‘carbuncle award’) and the gargantuan Mall of Asia (which fails to excite our group of mall-weary Middle East dwellers).

Manila capital of the Philippines -

A Jeepney – one of thousands, each with unique decoration which ferry passengers around the city

Coasting along the open corniche, we are finally liberated from our mini bus in the heavily restored walled part of the city founded under 300 years of Spanish rule. Our guide for the day is quite a character; enthusiastic, mercurial and forthright; she reveals many contrasting sides of the city, sometimes unwittingly. One snippet of information she feeds us is that boxer Manny Pacquiao owns most of the taxis. Manila seems the embodiment of a forward thinking ambitious nation, with the almost fifty years as part of the US top of mind, still mindful of the legacy – both good and bad – of their Spanish rulers of the past…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself….

1. Old Manila

A small, leafy area of narrow streets, colonial houses and open squares in contrast to the modern concrete of much of the rest of the city. Known as the walled city or intramuros, this was the seat of the Spanish government, fortified to protect them from invaders and uprisings. Am I imagining that our guides are a bit protective? While hawkers of hats and beads approach, they are not intimidating, although some very brazen begging children tug the heartstrings as one is so little. We are taken by bus to the various sites but, with flat shoes, water and a guide (either written or in person) it would be good to go by foot especially at cooler times of the year or by Bambike (see below).

Intramuros or old Manila - Manila capital of the Philippines -

Intramuros or old Manila

2. Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica

Imposing rather than beautiful, this cathedral which has been raised to the ground many times since 1579, was completely rebuilt after World War II and this reincarnation finished in 1958. It  is worth a visit for the contemporary stained glass windows and to immerse yourself in the devotion of this staunchly Catholic nation. We wander under the high, arched ceiling among crowds of nuns and worshippers and buy bamboo hats in the square outside.

Manila capital of the Philippines -

Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica

3. San Augustin

By contrast San Augustin is palpably swathed in history. The only building to remain unscathed in World II this treasure built in 1589 has UNESCO status. The monastic corridors feel so traditionally familiar, yet the view is incongruous overlooking a courtyard of palm trees. The trompe l’oeil ceiling is breathtaking and my eyes are riveted while I steal photographs, not wanting to disturb a very serious-looking religious ceremony next to the altar. “Getting married in this church is every Filippino woman’s dream” says our guide. “All my family did. They’re divorced now.”

4. Casa Manila

It’s easy to imagine life within the walls of the house of a rich family during 1800s in Spanish colonial times with the slatted wooden blinds, parlour palms, gleaming dark wood, polished parquet flooring and a wealth of beautiful antique furniture. The cool, elegance contrasts with the view from the window down into a make-shift shelter where little children, naked in the shimmering heat and humidity, wave up at us.  Finding out afterwards that Casa Manila is a replica house built in the 1980s under the guidance of Imelda Marcos was like peeping behind the curtain at a magic show. (No photography was allowed of the interior.)

5.  Fort Santiago

Perhaps it’s the time of day but we are solitary strollers in the peaceful tropical gardens leading up to the Spanish-built fort which has guarded Manila for over 400 years.  As well as protecting the city from a variety of invaders it houses a shrine dedicated to the national hero of the Philippines José Rizal. Rivalling Leonardo Da Vinci in his litany of accomplishments he was an ophthalmologist, novelist, poet, sculptor, linguist, painter, architect and historian. He also excelled at fencing and martial arts. The main focus of of our guide’s narrative is dedicated to his memory.

“Have you been to the British Museum?” she asks and explains that José Rizal was in London at the time of Jack the Ripper. “Do you know what Jack the Ripper did?” We’re too hot to reply.  “He ripped off prostitutes!”  Apparently his initials and coincidence that the murders stopped when José returned to the Philippines led to suspicion that the two JRs were one and the same (still documented in the British Museum). So potential serial killer was added to this amazing man’s biography.

He met his end wrongly accused of conspiracy and rebellion against the government in 1896 and was led to his death by Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army. It was quite moving to follow a path of bronze footsteps showing the final journey across the lawn in the gardens of this ambitious and talented champion of the people.


24 hours in Manila -

In the botanical gardens

6. Forbes Park

On an unexpected detour through Forbes Park we see how the other half live in this millionaire’s gated community. On the main road through, flanked by Manila Golf and Country Club, high nets protect our vehicle from misguided balls. Jeepneys and tricycles are not allowed in to keep the air pure for the ambassadors and wealthy families who live here.

7. American Cemetery and Memorial

White serried rows of crosses on impossibly green undulating lawns amid a few gleaming sky scrapers are an astonishing contrast to the ramshackle parts of the city. It feels like little America but with views over the city to mountains beyond. The site of 17,206 graves of American servicemen killed in World War II were buried here although some of their bodies have been repatriated. 570 Filippino military lives are laid to rest here too.  It’s extremely peaceful, contemplative and moving.

24 hours in Manila -

24 hours in Manila -

24 hours in Manila -

8. Makati

16 cities or districts make up Metro Manila and Makati is the financial and business centre right at the hub. We stayed in the Shangri-la Makati, it’s not far from the airport, and the views through the gleaming towers to the skyline were compelling day and night. Samantha and I went in search of street food stalls and an organic market but were thwarted (it was the night before). However, a really helpful security guard gave us directions to Greenbelt and personally escorted us across the road. It felt very safe to wander in the vicinity of the Shangri-La. There are three museums, four parks and two heritage churches, as well as a lot of high-end shopping.

9. Greenbelt

Yes, it’s an upmarket shopping mall but year round outdoor living makes designing a mall so that two floors of restaurants and cafés look out over a small park a completely viable proposition. Great for hanging out and people watching in the evening. There’s a real buzz and a good selection of places to eat and drink, plus there’s the Ayala museum including an ancient gold collection.

10. Santo Niño de Paz Chapel

Leaving the brightly aisles of designer shops behind us, we crossed stepping-stones and bridge to enter super-modern open-sided church in the middle of the Greenbelt shopping centre park. People of all ages wander in and worship and a service was going on as we strolled through. The confessionals look like milk cartons. Walking out the other side there are model water buffalo amid bamboo and palms. Eating and shopping are all happening a few metres away. Really quite an extraordinary spectacle and a slice of modern life in the Philippines.

24 hours in Manila -

The bridge leading to the Santo Nino de Paz chapel

24 hours in Manila -

Inside the open sided Santo Nino de Paz chapel

Other places

A few other places to visit: Art Galleries on Chino Roces Avenue including Manila Contemporary, which hosts local and international exhibitions including major artists. Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown.  Quiapo Church which is the site of the Black Nazarene statue credited with various healing powers for the market stalls in front of the church and surrounding streets.

24 hours in Manila -

View across the Pasig river (from Fort Santiago) which runs through Manila

24 hours in Manila -


Safety in Manila

There was a lot of debate with our group and guides about safety in Manila. The top Google results are alarming, slamming the city for being unclean and dangerous. Our guide assured us that it was safe if you didn’t put yourself at risk (by walking around in the wrong areas at night wearing gold jewellery for instance). This vast city where the average wage is 2 USD a day means that petty crime is a factor to beware of. As an organised group we were cocooned a bit but I think that the reality is somewhere in the middle. Keep possessions safe, don’t wander off the beaten track especially at night and go with a guide (see below) to the more down-to-earth areas.

Tours and guides

Old Manila Walks, Bambike Eco-tours and Smokey Tours all look really interesting (except the cock-fighting with the latter).

Where to stay

I stayed for two nights at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati which has the excellent facilities that you’d expect from a five-star hotel but much more too. It had a character and warmth which made me very sad to leave. The rooms are all curved and lined in a blonde wood which gave it a Biedermeier meets Scandinavia feel. It’s welcoming without fussiness although has flourishes of quirky opulence – make sure you look up at the chandelier and down at the amazing carpets. The atrium and lobby lounge are huge overlooking a small tropical area absolutely crying out for you to sit and drink afternoon tea to the sound of the 14-piece orchestra which plays live every afternoon. The corridors felt like I had stepped into a 1930’s movie with rippled silver walls and gilt. I swam in the outdoor pool on one of the upper floors with the sun turning the sky pink and took a hundred of photos of the compelling view of Manila from my window.

Where to eat

Although our mission to eat street food while in Manila was thwarted (more of that in posts to follow) the places we visited did give us a good opportunity to sample many Filipino classics right away.

Circles Event Cafe – Shangri-la Makati: A good range of traditional Filippino dishes and some international (excellent sushi) at this buffet style restaurant with three open kitchens. Masses of pork and a good introduction to halo-halo.

Café Ilang-Ilang – Manila Hotel: An opulent entrance and the staff dressed in Victorian clothing (think Filippino artful dodgers!) make this an interesting venue. We were fascinated by group of glam older ladies were dressed to the nines in stunning grey dresses all different styles. We discovered that this was a renewal of wedding vows. Another gleaming buffet style venue mixing international favourites with traditional dishes such as lechon. There is also a pork-free section. A show-stopping patisserie display went down well.

People’s Palace:Modern Thai restaurant amid the Greenbelt shopping mall complex. We sat outside on sleek leather benches flanked by a wall of greenery – a good place to watch the world go by. My chicken larb was really fiery and fresh with herbs. Good cocktail and mocktail selection, the latter included some made with calamansi juice and dalandan, both types of citrus. Calamansi is fresh and tangy, a bit like yuzu and this sip started an addiction that lasted all week.

Marriot Cafe – Manila Marriot Hotel: A good buffet lunch selection (including crispy pata – deep fried pork leg) and a very short distance from the airport. Marriot Café is the place to go if you have a couple of hours between flights and are feeling hungry. I recommend the rice pudding.

My friend Rowena, compiled a great list of other places to eat in Manila over on Honest Cooking.

Many visitors to the Philippines skip Manila, rushing on instead to fly to tropical islands with aqua seas and white sand beaches.  By missing the capital you also miss understanding a lot about this country, its history, why the Filipinos you meet will probably speak impeccable English and also have an indomitable work ethic.

I flew to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific Air and stayed courtesy of the Philippine Department of Tourism. All opinions my own.

Tastes of paradise – in my kitchen

July 1, 2015

Here’s what’s in my kitchen at the beginning of July (take a closer look and read the captions by clicking on an individual image, use the arrows to navigate).

Do we buy souvenirs in a desperate bid to extend our travels? I’m trying to remain in a tranquil, happy place – in spirit, if not in body – that was the result of a week in the Philippines. Various edible mementos  have made it into my kitchen reminding me of shiny, happy people, blue skies and seas and some different and beguiling tastes.*

While local veg is getting thinner on the ground, ripe juicy fruit from the region is flooding into Dubai and filling the shelves of our supermarkets with its aroma. Some of our supermarkets I should say, as several stick resolutely to importing under-ripe, hard, tasteless and expensive fruit which would qualify for a silver card as an airline passenger. My kitchen has a selection of cherries from Syria, apricots from Jordan, grapes and mangoes from India and some nectarines from Tunisia which burst so violently with juice that I’ve had to stand over the sink to eat them.

As usual the return back to Dubai was improved by ordering something from Le Clos. Bags were handed over to me on arrival containing Stellenrust, Tolpuddle Pinot and some Sacred pink grapefruit gin. This went into the cupboard with a bottle of Don Papa rum – I’ll keep up the Filipino tradition of giving visitors to the house a nip or two (which they can’t refuse), perhaps in a dark and stormy?

A few pics of the Philippines from Instagram

Veggie teen has a rampant sweet tooth that baffles me (I haven’t). As she’s vegan this month this puts most chocolate out of bounds so she was delighted to sample Pana Chocolate which is raw, organic, handmade, vegan and also contains no processed sugar (relying on agave syrup instead). She loved it. I wasn’t so sure about the texture, although enjoyed the very dark versions especially the mint. I’ve made another batch of salted caramel for her today as she wasn’t able to eat it or these muffins during her vegan month of June.

Some people just manage to choose the most thoughtful gifts. I was honoured to be asked to speak for an hour at a recent workshop held by legendary food writing guru Dianne Jacob at the Dubai International Writers Centre. She brought me a sachet of dried sour dough from San Fransisco; just thrilling. I’m going to activate it after the summer so I can tend to its needs alongside Prudence.

I’m leaving strict instructions for KP to keep Prudence, my sourdough starter, alive as I’m off to the UK this month. My feet will be planted firmly in stout walking boots striding across the springy grass of the Brecon Beacons in  a couple of weeks time. Just. Can’t. Wait.

Before I leave for the summer I usually do a big clear out of my spice cupboard and restock in September (especially as this year I’m going to my first Indian wedding in Hyderabad). I couldn’t resist a jar of special spice mix, known as B’zaar or Biz’har,  that is used in Emirati cuisine; most families make their own.  This is the first time, to my knowledge, that you can buy some made to a personal secret recipe (which is never revealed). Stocked at Baker and Spice and The Change Initiative.

Puerto Princessa in the Philippines on

Puerto Princessa – Philippines

If you are wondering what’s in other kitchens around the globe, visit Celia’s page and follow the links in her side bar for this monthly event. You can also look back on past goodies in my kitchen here.

*I travelled to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific Air and the Philippine Department of Tourism so some of my edible souvenirs were gifts, as was the Amira rice and Pana chocolate. Opinions my own.

What’s in your kitchen this July?