Food in Florence – Top Ten Eating Experiences

Three years of living in Florence with a very active social life means I’ve eaten and drunk in pretty much every restaurant you could possibly want to try, and sampled every Tuscan speciality on offer. Because the food in Florence is Tuscan, it is not Italian! The regions are very proud of their own special cuisine, and many have their own particular dishes. Tuscan food is very rustic and uncomplicated, and totally delicious! If you would like to learn how to cook it yourself, check out my friend Giulia’s food blog, full of beautifully described and stunningly photographed recipes, many handed down in her family over generations.

But I want to tell you today about where and what to eat it when in Florence, because I’m bossy like that! This is not a list of the top ten restaurants, though you will find some good ones, it is not a list of the top dishes to eat, though some are included too, it is my snapshot of memorable culinary experiences in Florence, and ones I know you will enjoy too (except maybe the tripe!).

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 1)     Best Thing to eat in Florence – Bistecca a la Fiorentina (Florentine steak)

The ONLY place to eat this is Perseus in my opinion, and in that of most Florentines. This huge restaurant is packed every night with locals for good reason.  Don’t be tempted to order it elsewhere, as if you also go to Perseus you will be annoyed that you spent so much on an inferior steak! This is the display that greets you as you walk in the door:

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Order for two people or more and share, they can’t do it for one (unless you have a gargantuan appetite!), it’s too big! It comes rare, they won’t cook it any different even if you ask! The waiters bring it to you on a little trolley (it’s so big, they can’t do it on the table!), and carve it up in front of you. It is amazing – I didn’t really eat even slightly pink meat before trying this (which I admit the first time was scary!), and now I love it!

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Order it with just roast potatoes, and a good bottle of red (don’t go for the house stuff in the flasks, it’s not great, but their house red in a bottle is pretty decent, but for the steak I’d push the boat out a bit and get a nicer bottle – try a montepulciano di Abruzzo, or a Brunello di Montalcino – my usual steak accompaniments!) Don’t bother with a starter, they aren’t totally amazing – maybe just some bruschetta, and you won’t have room for pud!! It is a bit out of the centre, but you can get a bus from Piazza San Marco or the station (any bus going to Piazza della Liberta), but it is probably easier to get a taxi if you’re struggling to find your way around. You’ll probably need one home anyway! It’s expensive, (EUR 50 a head or more if you go for the nicer wine) but absolutely worth it.

2)     Gelato

Now this is a serious warning. You see so many visitors gorging themselves on gelato from the shops which line the main tourist streets between the Piazza del Duomo and the River Arno, and exclaiming how wonderful it is. I don’t know where they have been eating ice cream, but it can’t have been good. Do not under any circumstances be tempted to get anything from these places where it is piled high in hideous, almost radioactive colours with fruit decorations on it. (Wow, I really am bossy!) That stuff is full of chemicals and tastes like it. There are so many wonderful artisanal places where it is flavoured with natural things and really does taste absolutely unbelievable, that it would be a travesty to eat this stuff. There is even a great place right next to the Duomo if you simply cannot wait and have to get your gelato fix the moment you arrive (because you’ll be able to find the Duomo – just look up from anywhere in the city and you can see it!). Grom is one of my favourites too. It’s motto is ‘Ice cream like it used to be’. Try the nocciola (hazelnut), or their specialities, Crema di GROM (hard to describe, but amazing!) and Bacio (like the little chocolate and hazelnut sweets). Everything there is good – go several times and try them all!  You can find it on the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche.

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Then you have Vivoli which is near the Santa Croce church further across town. Their rice pudding (riso) is my favourite, and their Millefeuille is pretty awesome too! It’s on Via dell’Isola delle Stinche (which means street of the island of pigs, or leg bone in an alternative translation – perhaps a Florentine can correct me?! Who knows, it sounds amusing to me anyway).

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The best spot for an early evening gelato to be enjoyed as the sun sets is La Carraia, which is on the south side of Ponte la Carraia, so once you have your gelato you can walk to the centre of the bridge and have a wonderful view of the Ponte Vecchio one bridge over for beautiful dusk views. They also do amazing cakes to take away – perfect to take for dessert if someone invites you over to dinner.

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3)     I Due Fratellini

This is not exactly a restaurant, but more of a Florentine gourmet experience. I Due Fratellini (the Two Brothers) on Via dei Cimatori (38) is a traditional eaterie for workers finishing shifts at local leather factories or markets, and this is the last genuine one left in Florence – practically just a hole in the wall where you get a crusty bun filled with whatever you like (from an enormous menu), freshly made in front of you by the two friendly chaps who run it (no longer the original brothers of course, but all family!) with a small glass of red, which is 70 cents! For me the only option to choose is Porchetta (roast pork) with Salsa Verde, another must-try Tuscan meat. They have little shelves next to the shop which are numbered so you can put your wine glass down to concentrate on wolfing your sandwich, and remember which one is yours!

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Definitely an experience, makes a great little lunch if you plan on a big supper. Go early though, or you queue for hours because this place is deservedly popular with locals and tourists alike, particularly in a city where many gastronomic experiences are costly, and this one is cheap yet one of the tastiest!

4) The Mercato Centrale

The Mercato Centrale is surrounded by streets of markets which nearly every visitor to Florence checks out. Often however they don’t venture into the huge building at the centre of it all, which is a big mistake. The Mercato Centrale is a must-visit in its own right. Stalls and stalls of fresh ingredients and plenty of places to sample local goods. It is also where you will find number 5 on my list, and perhaps you should head there to eat before walking around the market… some of the cows muzzles and pig heads and huge piles of intestines on display might put you off your lunch!

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It’s a great place to buy decorative souvenir versions of the usual Italian delicacies to take home – porcini mushrooms, pasta (in just about every comedy shape), olive oil and balsamico and parmesan. You can buy all of these things more cheaply at a supermarket of course, but they won’t be quite so prettily packaged! Also a great place to pick up ingredients for a picnic in one of Florence’s parks (the Boboli Gardens are my favourite).

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 5)     Lampredotto

Okay, so tripe may not be to everyone’s taste, and I confess, I have not yet plucked up the courage to sample it either, but it is a Florentine tradition and one which is apparently delicious. I’m back there in a few weeks, I may force myself then! The best place is reputedly Nerbone, located in the Mercato Centrale, which has been serving up bollito (boiled beef) and lampredotto (the fourth stomach of the cow) Panini since the market opened in the 1800s, which they serve again with the spicy salsa verde. Unlike many Italian traditional eateries, the man who serves you does not also look like he was personally there when they opened. You can read about and view a video of another blogger’s experience of eating it here to tempt you!

6)     The best wine bar

Le Volpe e L’Uva (the fox and the grape, don’t ask why!) is a wonderful little wine bar which dishes up fantastic plates of hams and cheeses which perfectly accompany the wines. It’s a bit tricky to find in a little courtyard off the road, but totally worth it and right in the middle of town on the south of the river right by the Pontevecchio. The two brothers who own this spend half the year travelling the little family-run vineyards of Italy and buying by the crate, rather than by the van load, and every single wine is brilliant. I am a particular fan of the Maremma Viognier, and you HAVE to try a Vernaccia di San Gimignano while there, though preferably in San Gimignano (beautiful traditional hilltop tuscan town with lots of towers, well worth a day trip in combination with a visit to Siena). Of the reds try the Barolo, and the Sardinian wine is not bad, and if they have the one from the slopes of Etna, that is pretty awesome too. Also their Chianti Classico is very good. In fact, it is generally a good bet in most places to go for the Chinati, as it is local and will most likely be the best quality for your money.

 

7)     Pappardelle al cinghiale – Wild Boar Pasta (and a decent tourist restaurant!)

Trattoria Za-Za on Piazza del Mercato Centrale is in every guidebook and a total tourist trap, but with good reason – it’s brilliant! The food is great, especially the Tuscan specialities, though you can find dishes from most of Italy there, including pizza. I highly recommend trying the trio of tuscan soups (soup is not quite the right word to describe it really – they are so thick they are almost stews) as a shared starter, also the fried courgette flowers if they are in season.

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The wild boar pasta is absolutely brilliant. I get it every time I come here, and you have to try wild boar at least once in Florence. It has an amazing gamey taste, like a much richer beef, and is deliciously paired with juniper berries in this dish. I don’t have a photo of it with papardelle (the Florentine way of serving it), but I have a picture of the same dish in Siena, which is made with pici pasta, like a thick, hand-rolled spaghetti from Siena. A must-try if you venture there for the day!

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Go early in your visit, because you will probably want to go back!

8)     Rustic local food

One place you won’t find any tourists (and its all the better for cheap, well made local food) is Trattoria le Mossacce on Via Del Proconsolo. Brilliant. It is only open at lunch and dinner, i.e. not all day. No frills, no fuss, just really authentic Tuscan cuisine, priced for the Florentines and not tourists, and friendly staff who are happy to see some tourists stumbling upon their decent food!

9)     For chocaholics – Hemingway!

Hemingway is maybe not so popular in the heat of summer, but the rest of the year it is a warmly glowing comfy oasis away from the sometimes torrential Florentine rain. This place does the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted in my life – their cioccolato al peperoncino. Yes – chilli hot chocolate. Now we all know that’s a great combo in a bar of chocolate, but in a drink, it really comes into its own! They make it so thick it is more like a chocolate soup, I usually end up eating it with a spoon (shocking I know). I don’t have any photos of their hot chocolate, because once it is in front of me there is little else in the world until it is gone again! But I do have one of their incredible handmade chocolates – if you can manage any more chocolate after your decadent hit!

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I highly recommend a visit to this place on a chilly or rainy day. It is a little out of the way of the usual tourist spots in the Oltrarno, but for me that always makes seeing the sign outside all that little bit more special.

10 ) Pizza – last for a reason!

Why last? Because pizza isn’t a Tuscan thing. In Rome, or in Naples, eat pizza. Eat nothing but! But in Florence, it isn’t that great, because they don’t put as much effort into something that is made mainly for the tourists, at least, it seems like that to me. There are a couple of good places located in mainly residential areas far from the centre, and not places you could easily find on holiday. In the centre, for me there is only one place worth visiting for pizza I think – Ciro and Sons on Via del Giglio. The interior is beautiful, the waiting staff are very friendly, and most importantly, the pizza made freshly in their wood-fired ovens is delicious!

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If you are visiting Florence I hope you will give these a go – if you’ve been to Florence and have other favourites (places I might not have tried hopefully, so I can explore some new ones!) do let me know in the comments. And buon appetito!

This is my rather tardy Fiesta Friday offering – whilst I have done no cooking myself, I hope I have brought some inspiration and some deliciousness to the party, and an Italian flair! Happy weekend all!

 

 

 

Ste’s Marvellous Lemon Meringue Pie

I have cheated a little for this week’s Fiesta Friday over at Angie’s. I didn’t cook anything. Instead I let my boyfriend make all the effort and stood back and had a good giggle to myself whilst he did so. He, however, had the last laugh and produced the most marvellous lemon meringue pie ever, which I am going to share with you now. 

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Ste's Marvellous Lemon Meringue Pie

  • Servings: 4-8 depending on greediness
  • Time: 1hr 45mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Taken from BBC Good Food Website

Ingredients:

For the pastry

  • 175g plain flour
  • 100g cold butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 tbsp icing sugar
  • 1 egg yolk

For the filling

  • 2 level tbsp cornflour
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • finely grated zest 2 large lemon
  • 125ml fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
  • juice 1 small orange
  • 85g butter, cut into pieces
  • 3 egg yolks and a 1 whole egg

For the meringue

  • 4 egg whites, room temperature
  • 200g golden caster sugar
  • 2 level tsp cornflour

Directions:

  1. For the pastry, put the flour, butter, icing sugar, egg yolk (save the white for the meringue) and 1 tbsp cold water into a food processor. Using the pulse button so the mix is not overworked, process until the mix starts to bind. Tip the pastry onto a lightly floured surface, gather together until smooth, then roll out and line a 23 x 2.5cm loose-bottom fluted flan tin. Trim and neaten the edges. Press pastry into flutes. The pastry is quite rich, so don’t worry if it cracks, just press it back together. Prick the base with a fork, line with foil, shiny side down, and chill for 1⁄2-1 hour (or overnight) (tempting to leave this stage out, but it really helps!).
  2. Put a baking sheet in the oven and heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Bake the pastry case ‘blind’ (filled with dry beans) for 15 mins, then remove the foil and bake a further 5-8 mins until the pastry is pale golden and cooked. Set aside. Lower the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4.
  3. While the pastry bakes, prepare the filling: mix the cornflour, sugar and lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Strain and stir in the lemon juice gradually. Make orange juice up to 200ml/7fl oz with water and strain into the pan. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and smooth. Once the mixture bubbles, remove from the heat and beat in the butter until melted. Beat the egg yolks (save white for meringue) and whole egg together, stir into the pan and return to a medium heat. Keep stirring vigorously for a few minutes, until the mixture thickens and plops from the spoon. (It will bubble, but doesn’t curdle.) Take off the heat and set aside while you make the meringue.
  4. Put the egg whites in a large bowl. Whisk to soft peaks, then add half the sugar a spoonful at a time, whisking between each addition without overbeating. Whisk in the cornflour, then add the rest of the sugar as before until smooth and thick. Quickly reheat the filling and pour it into the pastry case. Immediately put spoonfuls of meringue around the edge of the filling (if you start in the middle the meringue may sink), then spread so it just touches the pastry (this will anchor it and help stop it sliding). Pile the rest into the centre, spreading so it touches the surface of the hot filling (and starts to cook), then give it all a swirl. Return to the oven for 18-20 mins until the meringue is crisp and slightly coloured. Let the pie sit in the tin for 30 mins, then remove and leave for at least another 1⁄2-1 hr before slicing. Eat the same day.

It was absolutely divine, and I am not really a fan of lemon meringue pie – usually too sweet for me, but the perfect tartness of the lemon layer was offset so well by the meringue that the balance was just right. I managed to stop after, er, two whole slices! 

Ste was very pleased with himself indeed, and I have to admit, I was very impressed with the way he executed the recipe exactly as the instructions said. I thought he would be tempted to cut corners or skip bits in his enthusiasm for sampling the finished thing as soon as possible, but he was very strict about leaving everything the required time. 

However – and this is what made me giggle – sadly the instructions did not mention that it would be possible to make this recipe with just two bowls and one saucepan. Which led to almost every item in the kitchen being put to use at some point, and a detritus left at the end of the job which would have been more commensurate with cooking for an entire wedding party!! Now I may be generalising somewhat (and I apologise in advance to the male culinary geniuses out there), but this seems rather typical to me of blokes cooking. The opportunity he took whilst whisking the meringue to open a beer was also classic. And he was very chuffed to get some tablet action in there too, with his recipe proudly propped up on the counter. I won’t complain though – if the recipe for perfect lemon meringue pie is Ste + mess + beer + technology then I’ll take it any day!! Just so long as his effort towards cleaning up afterwards goes a bit further than licking all the bowls!*

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*Which to be fair to him, it did!

In Praise of: Couchsurfing!

If you’re a traveller you probably know about Couchsurfing. But how much do you know? Have you tried it? If you’re not a traveller, the idea probably seems nuts to you. I know it did to most of my family and friends when I told them about it. And I admit, when I first heard about the concept I was sceptical – it seemed to involve you having people to sleep on your couch (for free) so you could sleep on others’ (also for free), and not much more – i.e. the main motivation seemed to be financial if you were travelling on a tight budget.

Then I gave it a go. Why? Because I had recently decided to move away from London to Florence for 5 years, and I realised there were so many ‘tourist’ things in my own city that I had never done, and what better excuse to do them than showing around a guest? I also thought that it might be helpful when I arrived in Florence to stay with a Couchsurfing (or CS as it is affectionately known) host whilst I looked for a place to live, so I confess, to begin with, my motivations were not entirely selfless.

Before I left London I hosted quite a few people from all over the world, and had some really fun times with them. I was already realising there was more to CS than first appeared, but it was when I arrived in Florence that I discovered the true beauty of it. I immediately joined the Florence ‘group’ to ask advice from local hosts on good neighbourhoods, expecting to find a few individuals hosting foreigners and giving a bit of info. I was surprised to find a huge and thriving community of people who regularly met up and organised activities, whether there were guests staying with them or not! Within a week of first arriving in Italy, I was living the Tuscan dream, harvesting olives in the countryside near Siena, and learning to handmake pasta from a little old Nonna before having a huge feast with the family and all the CS people who had come to help with the harvest. It was the kind of ‘Italian’ day you just dream about before you move there, and that dream would never have been realised without such a great way to make new friends.

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And those friends stayed with me throughout my time there, and I still see them whenever I go back.

The community aspect of CS is something which you don’t really discover until you get involved, and for me it is one of the most fantastic things about it. Wherever you go in the world, you have a ready-made group of people to do touristy things with, to have fun with, to go on adventures with, or just to meet for a coffee. And the crucial thing about it is that you know you will have things in common with them – they too love to travel, and they are also the kind of people who love to share their lives with others, whether they are moving to their town or area for a few years, or whether they are just in town for a few hours. Whether or not you actually get down to the core CS ‘business’ of sleeping on someone’s couch, or offering out your own, is kind of peripheral to the main aim – a global community of travellers keen to share their own small corner of the world.

And as I discovered in London, another amazing thing about hosting people and showing them around your town is that you see a place which you might just be a little complacent or jaded about through fresh, excited eyes.

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A constant stream of guests (maybe 60 or so in a couple of years) staying with me whilst in Florence (understandably a very popular destination, so CS hosts were in high demand) meant I never had a chance to forget what an amazing city I lived in, or how many wonderful things there were to do.

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We visited Petriolo Hot Springs in the middle of nowhere late at night, and sat in the steaming waters with a bottle of wine under the stars setting the world to rights.

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We organised crazy fancy dress parties and photography sessions in and around beautiful Italian villas with immaculate landscaped gardens, followed by lavish picnics in the grounds.

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We even organised a charity market, and raised hundreds of euros for local causes, and had a huge amount of fun in the process. We attended one CS friend’s first ever Tuscan cooking class, which years later is going strong and Juls’ stunningly photographed and beautifully written blog and bestselling cookery books are incredibly popular.

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Just looking back over my profile and remembering some of the amazing things I did in and around my own hometown thanks to Couchsurfing has made me so nostalgic!

And I have also made great use of CS on my travels. One month-long trip around India, taking in 9 different cities, was entirely organised through CS hosts.

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I stayed in some places I would never have visited or even known about on my own, and met some truly brilliant people who I would not otherwise have had a chance to interact with.

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Hosts let us into their homes and families, and made us a part of them for the length of our stay. One family of 18 people, living in a house with three bedrooms gave us one bedroom to stay in, relegating all the children of the family to the roof for three nights. The children loved it, gathering by the giggling coming from up above, but their kindness to us, in return for nothing at all, is something I will always remember. The lesson in how to make chapatis over a cow-dung fire has though, sadly, been forgotten.  Another time I was speaking at a conference in Helsinki, and was well aware that the conference ‘activities’ would not be my cup of tea, so sought out a host who I could spend time with and who might show me a bit more of the city outside the conference centre. I lucked out and stayed with two fantastic girls who immediately made me part of their huge group of friends, with whom I partied my way around the city, sightseeing in between conference sessions and getting far more from my trip than just another CV credit.

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One of the best parties I have ever been to was organised by a group of us from Florence. We found a huge farmhouse that slept 50 in the mountains near Arezzo, and rented it out for a weekend. Then we posted on CS groups all over Italy to invite people and their guests, both Italian and from elsewhere. We hoped to get maybe 40 people. In the end, we were over 120! They arrived in cars, on motorini, by train, on foot, by motorbike, and memorably, one guy turned up on his horse, which he parked under a tree for the night and then rode home again!

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The adventurous spirit that is at the heart of CS was overflowing, as was the hospitality! My dog and I went a day early with my friend Manuel to roast potatoes for 100 people, to cook huge vats of soup and prepare 20 spinach and ragu lasagnes. On the day we cooked Florentine bistecca over a huge open fire.

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It was a veritable feast, and followed by some amazing entertainment in the form of my friend Cat’s African drumming collective, La Manada del Fuego, who kept us dancing well into the small hours. People from every country, often with no language in common, mingled, danced, and laughed together, and I think it was truly the happiest, most successful party I have ever attended!

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A note of caution is inevitably necessary though. Even travelling with a friend, you should always be mindful of your own safety. CS goes a long way to help with this with their reference system, whereby every visitor leaves an account of their host and their stay, so before you even get in touch you can have a picture of whether your host will be right for you, and how a stay with them might turn out. However, even with this in mind, a CS host should not be your only option for staying the night, especially in countries which are culturally less familiar to you where what is offered might well be very different to what you would want. You should always have the name and address of a reliable hostel or alternative accommodation, and enough money to be able to stay there if the need arises. Happily I have never had the need to resort to this, though on one occasion I did move hosts after one night because the host’s circumstances had recently changed and I was not comfortable with the new situation. It is important not to forget that putting yourself at the mercy of others in unfamiliar surroundings always holds a degree of risk.

However, with that cautious warning delivered, I can honestly say that CS has opened up my eyes to a way of travelling in which you not only get to see the place you are visiting, but you get to really live in it too. On your next trip, or even in your hometown, I highly recommend you give it a try.

 

Triple Cake Fiesta Friday!

I love baking. I don’t get a lot of time to do it, because of having a full time job and this pesky PhD following me around, plus I’m perpetually on a diet so try to resist baking my own temptation too much!

However, every so often I have a baking splurge, sometimes because the garden has produced a whole heap of fruit that needs using up right now, and sometimes because every so often my cake day at work comes around! We all take turns in providing cakes for our Tuesday morning office round up, and it can get pretty competitive. Waitrose and Tesco get a fair amount of custom from the non-bakers, but amongst those who do bake, the ante just keeps going up and up. Not that we are trying to make it a competition or anything, besides, there’s already a clear winner for that – my friend Justine and her fiance Mike are a daredevil kitchen duo for whom there are no baking boundaries! Everyone looks forward to their weeks. It just seems to bring out the desire for perfection, baking for colleagues, even more so than for friends and family!

Sadly, I rarely make it to perfection, but usually get some pretty happy responses. I work in a very international office, so I like to introduce them to traditional British baking. I once made cream teas, baking scones (mine are a pretty decent cross between Delia and my grandma’s recipe), and bringing some clotted cream up from my parents’ in the West Country, with homemade raspberry jam (because I am allergic to strawberry and very selfish like that – I wanted one too!), which went down extremely well. This week, happily, was also fairly successful!

I made three cakes, an Earl Grey and cardamom loaf, a lemon and raspberry drizzle cake, and a nectarine and pistachio cake with orange glaze. All three were very easy to make, and though I think I had some slight timing issues with the latter two, one too long and one not quite enough, they were pretty acceptable. I’m giving you the recipes, as adapted by me, so that my fellow Fiesta Friday bakers can have a go and make them properly!

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Prep: 20 minutes, plus infusing and cooking

Cook: 45 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 100ml whole milk
  • 1 tbsp loose leaf earl grey (I used Fortnum and Mason Smoky Earl Grey)
  • 8 cardamom pods
  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder

For the Icing:

  • pinch loose leaf earl grey
  • 110g icing sugar

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  1. Preheat oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/gas 4. Heat the milk and tea in a small pan until steaming. Split open the cardamom pods, and crush the seeds in a pestle and mortar, and add to the milk. Take off the heat and leave to infuse for 20 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together (with electric beater) the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time. Strain the infused milk into the bowl and beat well.
  3. Mix the flour, baking powder and a large pinch of salt together, then fold through the wet ingredients. Add to a lined loaf tin (or this would work nicely as muffins or mini tea loaves, lessen cooking time accordingly (approx 25 mins). Bake until golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
  4. Once cooled you can ice them, by steeping the tea in 1 1/2 tbsp boiling water for ten minutes. Strain, then mix into the icing sugar until glossy, then drizzle over. I preferred the glazed look, but if you want a more ‘iced’ look (as per my lemon and raspberry drizzle) add less of the tea.

This recipe originally appeared in the Waitrose magazine, courtesy of Pippa Middleton. Having rather been a bit mean-spirited about her first commercial enterprise (her book on entertaining) I feel I may have judged her too harshly. This cake is a delicately scented delight!

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Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • zest (and juice) of 1 orange
  • 200g unsalted butter, softened
  • 125g caster sugar and 1tbsp extra for glaze
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 50g pistachios, finely chopped
  • 3tbsp semi-skimmed milk
  • 411g tin of apricot halves in fruit juice, drained (reserve juice)

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  1. Preheat oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/gas 4. Line 20cm square tin with baking parchment. Mix the flour, baking powder and orange zest in a bowl.
  2. In another bowl, using electric beaters cream together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, gradually adding the eggs. Finally stir in half the pistachios, the flour mix and the milk. Pour into the cake tin.
  3. Arrange the apricot halves (inside up) over the top of the cake, then bake for 35-40 minutes (or until golden/skewer comes out clean).
  4. Heat the reserved apricot juice, orange juice and 1tbsp caster sugar in a pan, simmering gently over a low heat until reduced to a syrupy consistency. When the cake is cooked and still warm use a pastry brush to apply the glaze to the top. Then scatter over the remaining pistachios. A brush with some more glaze will help to hold them on! Leave to cool in the tin.

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Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 60 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 140g light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 150g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • zest (and juice) of 1 lemon
  • 100g raspberries

For the Icing:

  • 30 g icing sugar
  • pink food colouring

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  1. Preheat oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/gas 4 and line a loaf tin with baking paper.
  2. Whisk all ingredients except the lemon zest and juice and raspberries in a large bowl until smooth. Stir in the zest and raspberries, and pour the mixture into the tin. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until golden and springy.
  3. When cool, mix the lemon juice with the icing sugar and a drop of pink food colouring (I may have rather overdone mine!) into a smooth paste, and drizzle over the top.
  4. Beat your family off with sticks so they don’t eat it before you can take it into the office.

So there you have it! My three cake recipes. I hope you enjoyed reading, and maybe someone might even attempt them (they are all so easy). I did my best with the photos, but sadly there are no pictures of the slices piled high on a plate, or of the beautiful cross section of the raspberry cake with the bright pink of the berries peeking out, because I would have felt a little odd at the office meeting stopping people to photograph them! I was hoping there might be a slice or two left for that purpose, but nope. 

The vintage style photo filter helped my pics look slightly better, but I would so appreciate advice from those of you who come up with such stunning pictures. I only got a few good ones thanks to it being a very sunny day, but without the sunshine I find it really hard to get any decent shots, even with my DSLR (which I am still learning to use) because the lighting is rubbish. Any advice on camera settings, tips and tricks, gratefully received!

Happy Friday everyone, and have a great (and tasty) weekend!

Beetroot houmous and some horsing around!

I absolutely love houmous. One of my favourite at-work snacks is carrot or celery sticks, or even finely sliced peppers, dipped in houmous. Just the regular kind is amazing, and even better when homemade, but this week I experimented with beetroot houmous, because some cooked beetroot arrived with our shop instead of the fresh beetroot I had ordered, and I couldn’t think what else to do with them!

I googled a couple of recipes, but none seemed sure on whether to also use chickpeas, some used white bread as a thickener which I wasn’t keen on, and so I decided to wing it. Blender, ingredients, whizz, and see what it tastes like!

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Now for the actual ‘recipe’, as far as you can call it that! I used:

  • a pack of cooked beetroots, (about 6 in all)
  • three garlic cloves,
  • three teaspoons of tahini,
  • a teaspoon of cumin seeds.

The end result was spectacular. A delicious, thick (but not as thick as houmous usually is) brightly coloured dip which went really nicely with celery.

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Just looking at the colour of it cheered me up – I imagine this would be a ray of sunshine at your desk on a (metaphorically) dark day at work (because I can’t be the only one who has them – you know, when everything seems to happen all at once, or you’re back to back meetings with no time for ‘real’ work, or you spend ages diligently plugging away at your emails yet you still have hundreds to deal with and feel like you’ve achieved nothing – just me? Oh.) and an even better excuse to hoover up fresh veggie crudites as well!

I actually took the pot of it over to my sister’s, as I was visiting the next day for her to take me horse riding at the stables where she works as a riding instructor, and we munched most of it after a long afternoon riding and then helping with stable chores which left me exhausted, though she does it every day! Her boyfriend Chris was a big fan and asked for the recipe. Well, here you go Chicken!

Riding again was brilliant. As a teenager Tash and I both had our own horses, and though we mainly hacked, we did occasionally do some competitions (mainly cross-country or showjumping – neither I nor my horses had the patience for dressage, beautiful though it is). Since leaving for university I’ve not had the time for a horse (or the money!) and though I still ride whenever I have the chance, I would love to do it more regularly again one day. I am very jealous of my sister getting to indulge in her passion for horses every day, and very proud of how she’s developed as a rider and gained her instructors qualifications.

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The stables where she works now is amazing – it is located in Wimbledon Village, a little high street in South West London next to Wimbledon Common, next door to a pub and hidden behind a chic clothing boutique. You would hardly know it was there!

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The horses are all beautifully kept and definitely not your average riding-school plods (I think mainly because they cater to adults and a lot of the horses are privately owned on livery) and the yard is spotless, as you’d expect in such a preened little part of London. The only hint as to the yard’s presence in the Village (aside from the odd gift left for the roses on the tarmac!) is the ‘equine’ crossing. This amuses me every time I see it – a button to press from horseback, suitably elevated on the pole, to stop the traffic to enable them to cross. It even has a little green (or red) horse instead of man!

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The best part about Wimbledon Village Stables is that most of their riding is done on Wimbledon Common. I previously thought of this as just a large park, but after having ridden for an hour along beautiful, secluded trails without ever seeing a glimpse of the city or buildings, I’ve realised it is much more than that. The stables has its own arenas for flatwork and jumping, hidden in among the trees, and even the route to access them is lovely. I cannot imagine how nice it must be to learn to ride there. As it was, used to total freedom in the open countryside in Somerset, I was expecting to be disappointed, and was in fact totally the opposite! Even in the countryside it is rare you can access so many interlinking trails without having to do any roadwork at all, and even with the added hazard of much of the common also being a golf course, the red-clad golfers are very aware of the horses and careful not to swing when you’re around.

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We had such a lovely time, just like when we were children, riding out together at weekends, and the horses were beautifully behaved. Even five days later I am still walking a little bit like John Wayne, but the hypertense thighs and sore behind are more than worth it. Thank you Tasha, Wimbledon Village Stables, and especially Jazz for being a great mount!

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Spring has Sprung: Time for the Garden!

Happy Fiesta Friday all! Today you will be pleased to hear that I have cooked something for you! Though sadly it was just a barbeque with some improvised ingredients, because the day dawned so beautiful we couldn’t help but want to cook outside. That and the Italian neighbours had family visiting from Sicily and the smells from their cooking wafting across the garden as we worked were just too tempting! No actual recipe, but next week there will be three – I promise!

What felt like the very first day of the English spring (and no doubt may well be our last day of spring, knowing our weather!) seemed the perfect time to get on with planting some seeds for our new vegetable patch. We have turned the very bottom of the garden by the river into a large veg patch, and have been composting and preparing the bed all winter, except for the long period of time when most of the garden was underwater thanks to the flooding. Now it is time to actually begin growing some things!

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It is still too cold to plant things out directly, so we got some little lidded propagators to keep on the windowsills inside the house. Lids are crucial to prevent cat theft of any baby shoots. They eat all our plants, the little sods. I chose a selection of veg we use often, and planted half of a propagator each with the seeds. As a first time gardener, despite reading a few books on the subject, I confess I am not really sure what I was doing. But at least my earthy fingers look the part, clutching some red onion seed!

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It took quite a while to plant all the various seeds at the different depths and varying spreads which the packets recommended, and once done I gave them all a thorough watering, along with our other babies, a raspberry and blackcurrant plant, and left them to sunbathe on the deck.

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Whilst I was doing this, Ste was mowing, then raking and finally re-seeding the lawn, because parts of it had died under some huge trees we took out over the winter, before turning his attentions to other man duties, namely the barbeque!

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Once finished planting, I started work on the veg patch itself. It was rotavated before the flooding happened, and was all ready for a second rotavation, except for the fact that the floodwaters had left behind all manner of stones, rubbish and debris, which we didn’t want to bury into the bed. So I raked the whole area. By hand. It was hard work, especially in what was actually pretty hot sun! And I loved it! When I finished and stood back to admire my handiwork (admittedly rather creakily as I felt permanently bent over from the raking) I was pretty chuffed. This weekend we will add a layer of compost and rotavate again, and then we can lay some pathways around and through the bed for easy access. Our little veg garden is almost ready for some veg in it, which is very exciting!

And the river is finally back to normal levels almost – the ducks and swans were happily swimming past and taunting the dogs.

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They were loving all this outdoor activity, and both are absolute sun hounds – they love to sunbathe! Billy especially, I think it reminds him of being back home in Italy. They even snuggled up together at one point to appreciate the sunshine – too cute! I love that they are becoming best buddies now – a far cry from being terrified of each other when they first met back in October.

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Here they are admiring my raking – annoyingly both decided it was fun to pick up the newly raked away stones and branches and put them back where they started. I was not too pleased about that development so we distracted them with sausages instead!

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Even the cats were out enjoying the sunshine. Both are relatively new to the great outdoors, so I have no idea what Julian was thinking as he climbed some trees! He happily took himself inside for a nap on my bed later on though, so thankfully he is not so enamoured we will never see him again.

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After all the hard work – we rewarded ourselves with a delicious barbeque. I marinaded some chicken breasts in a jerk sauce, and we cooked some sausages from my parents home-reared pigs which were delicious. I am sure they taste best when barbequed. I made a couple of quick salads to go with this, and some sweet potato wedges.

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The salads were cucumber and marjoram in creme fraiche, and a salsa with tomato, onion, chilli and lime juice which went so beautifully with the jerk chicken. I love the fresh colours of the salsa and the zing the lime gave it. We even treated ourselves to a beer – one of Ste’s favourites by BrewDog, a brewery in the UK which I bought him shares in for his birthday (so all the more reason to increase their profits by drinking lots!).

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It was the perfect finish to a perfect day. Maximum happy all round, and a super tidy garden with plenty of progress made on the veg patch. Long may spring continue! Happy Friday everyone, and I wish you all a sunny, productive and enjoyable weekend! Preferably with pugs!

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Dinosaurs and Fireworks: Best 9th Birthday Party Ever

My little brother Jack turned 9 this week, so we had a birthday party for him last Saturday. Because today is Fiesta Friday, I have saved my story of this real-life fiesta for today specially, so that I can bring some party to the party!

Jack has just moved schools, so he only had a couple of little friends to invite, but we made sure they had an awesome day. It started early for me – Jack gets up at 7am so Mum and I had to be up earlier to get decorating. Mum had already made the vanilla sponges – one circular, one in a sandwich tin – so all we needed to do was cut it to size, add frosting and decorate it. We always make him a cake in the shape of his age, last year the 8 was decorated with a mini construction set, complete with Lego workers drilling the roads, the year before was a 7 with free-range farm animals on it. Neither Mum nor I has the time to make all the decorations, so we cheat and use whatever is out there. This year I had hoped to do a blue cake with an underwater theme, and decorate it with little plastic fishies and seaweed and maybe a seahorse or two, possibly an evil shark lurking, but try as I might I could not find any ‘sealife’ figures anywhere. This is odd – I am sure this was a thing when I was a kid, but maybe I imagined it. Anyway, something I found in abundance, and which was probably better suited to a 9 year old boy, was dinosaurs. So I got a tub of dinos from a pound shop, and added to Mum’s stash of mini eggs (greatest chocolate known to mankind, around once a year at Easter) and chocolate buttons, we did a pretty decent job of decorating.

We first had to cut a hole in the centre of the round sponge, then cut a finger of the rectangle that was the same width as the circle, and attached it with a little artful carving to the bottom of the circle. Voila – the figure 9. A bit messy though, so we hid the join with lashings of green-tinged buttercream icing (I know, so healthy!). Once the basic cake was made, I went to town with the dinosaurs. An ichthyosaur needed a little pool of blue icing to swim in, the pterodactyl made his home atop the cut out centre of the sponge, in a nest of (thoroughly washed) twigs, filled with mini eggs.

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The twigs looked fantastic, but later on I discovered were not the best idea amongst a group of kids trying to out-do each other. My warning they were not edible simply proved a challenge to all of them as to who could eat one. They all managed. I thanked goodness it was Mum who would have to explain things to their parents if this had adverse effects!

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Cake made and safely stashed away from prying eyes, we woke Jack and he opened his pressies over a special breakfast I made for him and Ste of banana pancakes. I am not sure who was more excited, Jack or Ste. He loved all the clothes we got him, which is brilliant because he gets through them like nobody’s business. He also re-purposed my new tea cosy which I made last week as a hat.

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Eventually it was time for his friends to arrive, and the party started. The completed cake was pretty cool if I do say so myself, and Jack’s face when he saw it was completely worth the early start! This next one was taken after he’d blown out all of the candles, and then miraculously they all re-lit themselves. He obviously realised it was going to take a while!

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After tea it was back out to the garden for more playing on the trampoline (apologies for the photos, I forgot my camera, and trying to take pics of fast-moving children at dusk on a phone is not easy), and swinging in the hammock (there is a hammock with children in this picture, honest – you can tell by the discarded wellies in the foreground) until they all felt a little sick from too much tea and bouncing.

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At which point their parents all arrived, just in time for Dad to let off a few little fireworks in the garden. We had sparklers first, because, well, sparklers.

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Then the boys assembled on the garden wall to stare up into the sky expectantly.

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Thanks to the phone camera, I missed catching pretty much all of the fireworks, but I love this silhouette of them all looking heavenwards.

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At about 7pm they all headed home, and we headed into the warm house to sit down.

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Ste and I were absolutely cream-crackered, having done the majority of running round after some lively little boys, and by 8pm embarrassingly we were ready for bed, with a new appreciation for all of our friends who already have little ones! Both us and the dogs slept like logs that night!

How to make a Cafetière Cosy

For today’s Fiesta Friday I wanted to come up with a delicious recipe, to keep up with all the lovely ones you’ve all been posting, but instead I created something a little bit different! 

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At the weekends I love nothing more than making a big pot of fresh coffee, with exciting different coffees from around the world. I have one of those enormous cafetières that claim to be 12 cup ones, but I think they must mean really tiddly cups (espresso-sized!) because we normally get 5-6 out of it at most! My problem is that before we can drink that many cups of coffee, which takes us both all morning, the coffee at the bottom of the pot is stone cold. And microwaving nice coffee is just wrong. 

Using my tea cosy sort of helped, but the fundamental problem was that it perched on top of the cafetière a bit like a hat, and didn’t cover the coffee at the bottom. See exhibit A above!

Frustrated weeks of cold coffee later, and I decided that it was time to fix the problem. Tea cosy wrong shape = get a cafetière cosy! A quick look on eBay and Etsy didn’t reveal any I was particularly fond of, and most seemed either designed for smaller cafetières, or to be the wrap-around style with buttons, which seemed a little too much effort for my liking. So, what better way to practice my sewing, than to make one?! And any excuse to use the pretty reproduction French vintage sewing box my parents gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. 

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I found some beautiful Liberty print fabric in the Victoria and Albert Museum online sale (if you haven’t looked at their beautiful library of historic fabrics I suggest you do so now, but only if you’ve got some pennies (or more accurately, pounds!) to spare) for a steal, and sourced some thermal insulating fabric and basic white cotton from eBay.

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The thermal insulating fabric is important to stop the heat escaping – although a regular fabric casing would help, it would be far less effective. And the cotton lining is just to make it look a little nicer inside! The total cost of fabric for this project (with a lot leftover) was around £9. If I worked out the actual cost for the amount of fabric I used, it would probably be about £1-2. 

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Once I had everything assembled, I embarked upon my project, without any patterns or instructions, and just a vague idea of how I would do it. This would test my sewing skills, probably last used in primary school, to the max! First of all, I cut out a piece of each fabric to the same size, which was the circumference of the cafetière and handle, plus an inch extra each side, and three inches taller than the cafetière. Then I practised quilting on the inside two layers (just to be sure I was capable of stitching straight lines!) before adding the top layer of decorative fabric, and quilting it for real. I am not sure this was a necessary step, but it certainly improves the finished look, and I suspect the rest of the sewing, especially the top, would have been much harder if the layers were not sewn together. 

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I then sewed a seam along the bottom edge and trimmed the fabric flush with that seam, with about 2mm to spare. This was the edge which I covered with bias binding. I originally bought some 25mm wide stuff, but upon examination of my ‘straight’ lines elsewhere, I realised it was just too much of an ask to be able to sew it on once folded in half, so I had to wait a few days while some inch-wide tape arrived. This was much easier, and I had no need to iron it in half, it simply stayed folded once I’d creased it, which was so helpful. My enormous cup of tea in my favourite West Elm ‘owl’ mug was ever present during my sewing for brief moments of reflection! 

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I tacked it all along the bottom edge and then very carefully sewed along it. A slight wobble here and there, but not a bad effort if nobody looks too closely.

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Then I pinned the sides of the cosy over the cafetière, and sewed down the side, and cut the excess fabric away to about 3-4mm away from the seam. 

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The final step was the top. I folded a three inch-long bit of bias binding in half to make the tab, and stitched it together. I then placed this upside down, inside the cosy, so that once turned inside out, the tab would stick out from the top. I roughly pinned the top over the cafetière, then took it off and drew a neater shape to stitch. I know that I added the cotton lining to make the inside look presentable, and then I drew all over it in pen, but I had no tailor’s chalk, and besides, nobody but me would look inside anyway. If I make another one in the future, I will make sure the inside stays pristine white with only the cross-hatching of the quilting stitches to spoil it!

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A quick stitch around the top of the cosy, and trimming down to the seam, turn it inside out, and voilà! 

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A perfect fit! And as you can see, a rather more suitable tall, narrow shape than the tea cosy. 

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I am so pleased with my new cosy, and cannot wait for a weekend of endlessly hot coffee! I may treat myself to some new beans to celebrate. 

How do you keep your coffee warm? And what is your favourite type? I am always on the look out for new ones to try! 

 

Top Ten Things to do in Budapest

Happy Friday All! And what a Fiesta Friday it is too! Today I want to give you some top tips for exploring one of the most fabulous cities I’ve been to.

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Budapest is an incredible city – definitely one of my top five in Europe – and to my mind, really under-appreciated. Everyone knows they have great thermal baths, and some impressive architecture on either side of the Danube, but that’s about as far as it goes. In 2010 I spent a month there, and had the most fabulous time. The nightlife in particular was an eye-opener, so vibrant and exciting, especially when compared to Florence, where I was living at the time.  This list of my top ten includes the thermal baths of course, but there is so much more to Budapest. I hope you make it your next city-break destination!

1)      Andrassy Ut, Heroes Square and Varosliget Park

When visiting a new city, I always tend to familiarise myself with the more famous landmarks in the city centre before venturing further afield. Andrassy Ut is the famous world heritage boulevard leading from the river up towards Heroes Square, a huge plaza edged on one side by an impressive monument, behind which is Varosliget Park.  The castle there is a crazy combination of five of the most popular building styles in Budapest: gothic, Romanesque, renaissance etc, which was built for the last Millennium celebrations in 1890 something. It was very pretty but the lake which usually surrounds it was dry so it was a little uglier than usual!

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2)      Chain Bridge, Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion

Later that day I walked down towards the Danube, crossing over the famous chain bridge (which looked nothing like a chain, it was huge!), and taking the funicular up to the castle in Buda. It was quite expensive and only took about 45 seconds, so not really worth it, but the old wooden carriages were cool!

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At the top I wandered around the castle area for a while, along to the Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers the best view down over the Parliament Building and the city. Then I found a nice café called (if I remember right!) Café Miro, and had a beer whilst reading my book. It was a stunning summer’s day and just sitting and watching the crowds of tourists with a cold beer was a perfect way to spend a couple of hours.

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3)      Drink in a ‘Ruin Bar’ in the Jewish Quarter

Main tourist sites and overview of the city done – next stop was the nightlife! I was there for a summer course and one of my fellow students was from Budapest, and since I arrived a week early, we met up for a drink my first night in the city. He took me to the old Jewish quarter, and to Szimpla. I was a bit taken aback by the area when we arrived, and there didn’t really seem to be any bars around, but then you enter an unassuming door, and suddenly inside opens up a courtyard or whole building which has been occupied by a trendy bar decorated with vintage industrial and flea market furniture, the walls adorned with the work of local artists and with the pipes from the old apartments still jutting out into the open air. This was a ‘ruin bar’, so called because they pop up in the ruins of apartment buildings and shops. People simply move into abandoned buildings and open bars there, and stay until the building is developed – it’s unofficial, but they’re also somehow allowed to be there. Sometimes they stay awhile (Szimpla opened in 2001), and sometimes they disappear as fast as they appeared if the neighbours have protested too much.

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They’re all a bit warehouse-club décor, Szimpla has mismatched furniture, random art on the walls, an old school telephone handset as a doorhandle on the ladies loo, and a hollowed out Cadillac with table and chairs in, and a Mini Cooper sawed in half with seats in! In the evenings we took in many more of the cool bars in Budapest – Instant, Mamoush, Szoda,  and Corvinteto was another favourite – a bar on the roof terrace of a shopping mall, accessed by a rickety old lift. Great views of the city, so perfect for a sundown drink but also fantastic til the wee small hours, with particularly good electronic music. I spent several long nights there dancing like a mad thing.  These bars are popular – you will find other tourists and people speaking English will be rife, but you will also find Hungarians en masse, drawn by the relaxed nature and edge of these bars. They are the centre of the city’s vibrant nightlife, and even if it takes you a while to find one, you must go.

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4)      Try Unicum (only once!)

On that first night after we’d had a few beers my friend David introduced me to Unicum. It is the national drink (they’re proud of it because apparently it is so horrible nobody else will drink it!), a herbal brandy a bit like Jagermeister, but way more disgusting! First sip was horrendous! By the end of my stay I could manage a shot of it okay (but you sip, not down it, thus prolonging the agony). You must try it, simply because your Hungarian hosts will insist, but I would suggest your liver could do without regular doses.

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5)      Early evening stroll on Margit Island

Another friend in Budapest, an old work colleague, took me to Margit Island on Friday evening. Holdudvar Margit Island is in the centre of the river Danube, and is a huge park, essentially the playground of Budapest! Hot summer evenings see half the city descend on the island to stroll, gossip and eventually end up in the bars. Holdudvar was our bar of choice, and it seemed of quite a few other people.

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My friend Orsi and her sister Dora got quite excited a couple of times at Hungarian celebrities, one of whom was the leader of the new trendy political party at the time. I can’t promise you famous people, but I can promise you a lovely night out. This is also the place to come for a run, if you’re a keen runner, as you can circle the whole island with park on one side, river on the other, and the scenery is lovely, but when I went it was July and far too hot for a pale British girl to think about running!

6)      Party on a Ukrainian tanker

Many nights were spent partying actually on the river, in A38, a club and restaurant on an old Ukrainian tanker moored on the Buda side of the river. To the joy of many of my fellow classmates, there were several table-football (foosball/babyfoot, take your pick!) tables so we were a frequent fixture there after the sun went down, lounging on the deck and drinking local beers, and they hosted some great club nights too.

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Daedalus was a highlight for me. He’s an American electro DJ with a crazy little box of buttons that he uses as sound effects, and a brilliant light show, who dresses as a Victorian dandy in baby blue tailcoat and has the best sideburns ever! We danced pretty madly that night. A38 also has a really classy restaurant on one of the lower decks, but with glass walls to either side giving beautiful views on the river. I got all my various groups of friends in the city together one night for a big meal there, and the food was not only fantastic, but great value, and given that we took over half the restaurant, the atmosphere was pretty great too.

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7)      Visit Lake Balaton (or attend ‘Balaton Sound’ festival)

Another highlight of my stay was the Balaton Sound festival which David and I went to on the shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s ‘seaside’ where everyone from Budapest spends their summers. We skipped afternoon classes and caught a train to the lake, where we quickly got into our swim stuff and went in, it’s huge and beautiful, and also very shallow for a long way at the edges, which makes it great for swimming. It was such a cool atmosphere – bars and people in bikinis dancing all along the shore and also on jetties over the lake, with live DJs playing in the evening sun.

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When we dragged ourselves away from sunbathing, we went to see some music and later watched the sunset over the lake which was stunning, the lights from the other side glowing in the distance.

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You can also hire a boat and sleep on the Lake at night, which is very cool!  We talked for ages about anything and everything as the sun went down, then when the giant mosquitos got too much, we went and danced like mad things to the Chemical Brothers, who were amazing as ever.

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After the Chemicals we hotfooted it to Chromeo, who were playing in a tiny tent, about 4 feet from us, which was amazing! They’re hardly known here, so I was delighted David is also a fan, and it seems so were a lot of other Hungarians! They were fantastic as expected, and we left on a high. We had another beer or two and a really nice curry, before wandering back through the resort to the train station, to get the first train home. Arrived back at 6am and went straight to bed, not getting up until 4pm the next day! Brilliant night, wish I could have camped and stayed for the whole festival. One day I will come back, or perhaps go to Sziget, the festival held on the island in the Danube island in August, which attracts headliners of the ilk of Glastonbury etc.

8)      Try Langos

Or not. This is something I tried at Balaton, a Hungarian seaside speciality, which is basically deep fried dough with sour cream and grated cheese – disgusting, but I was pretty hungry and it goes okay with beer!

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9)      Thermal Baths

The thing for which Budapest is most famous, and which we made full use of in our month there, is the thermal baths. I went to the most famous, the Gellert baths, which are inside the Gellert hotel on the Buda side of the river.

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The main pool was stunning, but the baths themselves were pretty standard, attractive, nice, but a bit dull! You can get plenty of spa treatments though, which are pricey, but if you come for the baths I suspect you would make use of them, and they would make Gellert far more worthwhile, especially if you were staying there. My favourite though was Szeycheni. A huge complex of interconnecting rooms with pools of different temperatures and shapes and sizes, about thirty in all, surrounding a huge courtyard with two large pools, around which hundreds of people gather to sunbathe. It was really quite stunning.

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They also have huge parties in the baths, where live DJs and amazing visuals and performance artists turn the baths into clubs, with everyone in bikinis. Yet again, the Budapest nightlife proved beyond anything I’d experienced before in other cities.

10 ) Visit Szentendre

If, by some miracle, you tire of what Budapest has to offer, you should take a trip to Szentendre, a village down the Danube. We took a boat there, which was a very pleasant couple of hours, although very hot in July. It was very pretty, and architecturally totally different, as it was settled by Serbs and the Ottomans, so all the houses are small and brightly coloured, around cobbled maze-like streets.

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It was ridiculously touristy though, and it was so hot that after a little wander and some lunch, we took the train back to Budapest to seek solace in Corvinteto’s rooftop breezes.

I cannot recommend Budapest highly enough. Although my top 10 is heavy on the nightlife, there is also a huge amount of culture to explore, and on top of that, and probably the main reason for visiting, is that Hungarians are incredibly hospitable and friendly. Even in the face of my frankly poor attempts to learn the language, they were encouraging and appreciative, though I think they realise that Hungarian is quite a difficult language to learn, so even basic attempts meet with great approval. From my perspective, any language with 21 cases and where the noun changes dependent on the preposition, is far too complicated for me!

Valentine’s Day Steak at MASH and the Book of Mormon!

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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone (and Fiesta Friday for those of you who ‘celebrate’ it!)!

I know all the reasons that Valentine’s Day should be abhorred – commercialisation, why have a special day to show your partner you love them, yadda yadda – but I still kind of like it! When I’ve been single it’s not really bothered me not to receive anything (and let’s face it, most people don’t get anything if they don’t have a significant other, unless their Dad is still blessing them with a rose or card – thanks Dads!), because I’ve been able to decry the whole thing with the “Ugh, so commercial!” line. When I’ve been in a relationship, I’ve been pretty happy not to make a big deal of it (after all, we love each other 365 days a year right?), and celebrating it on the actual day (which is kind of arbitrary anyway!) has never been a big deal to me. I do like the fact though that it is another excuse, like an anniversary or birthday, to do something a little bit special. Because sometimes the boys need a bit of encouragement, right?! (Sorry chaps!)

This year I used it as an excuse to do something I’ve been wanting to do forever now it seems. I got us tickets to see the Book of Mormon! We (and the rest of the theatre) must be the last people alive who still hadn’t seen it, or at least it felt like that. And now I have. Wow. But more on that later!

Since we were heading into London anyway (no mean feat with most of the trains from Maidenhead cancelled due to flooding), we decided to make a night of it. As I couldn’t get theatre tickets on the 14th, I booked them for yesterday, the 13th, so knew we could happily go out to a restaurant without a) having trouble booking, b) paying through the nose and c) having to sit amongst hundreds of other couples all enjoying the awkwardness of forced romance. I am pleased with this plan, I may do it again next year! Also because it meant I could get a pre-theatre table at the restaurant I wanted to try – MASH (the Modern American Steak House) on Brewer Street in Soho.

Both Ste and I love steak. I am always a bit reluctant these days to go to a steak place though, because I am pretty sure living in Florence with ready access to the huge hunks of juicy bistecca from the enormous Chianina cows has spoilt me steak-wise for life, but the reviews of this place were pretty raving, so I decided to book. I must confess, I was influenced in my decision by the fantastic offer they have if you book through Toptable, of a starter, main and a side for £25. So I was quite excited about our supper!

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The exterior is very sleek, with whitewashed walls and silver logos, though perhaps somewhat spoilt with rather ugly red canopies over the window. Inside though, it is chic all the way. You enter to an upstairs lobby with a cloakroom, and go down two sweeping sets of stairs to another reception desk, where a waitress will take you to your table. We entered the dining room and I had to pause a moment to take it all in. Seriously impressive, and not at all what I had been expecting, even having seen photos on their website. It is a huge room reminiscent of a ballroom, in beautiful art deco style, low lit and very stylish.

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The ‘walls’ dividing some of the seating areas are glass bookcases filled with wines or champagne, and backlit to lovely effect.

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Most impressive though were the two huge chiller cabinets in the centre of the room, both filled with slow-curing Danish beef. The restaurant is a sister to MASH in Copenhagen and Danish beef is one of their specialities (along with Uruguayan, American and the famous Kobe). I defy any meat-lover not to be impressed.

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We had a cosy little booth for the two of us, and settled in as very attentive waiters brought a big basket of delicious bread and water, and the menu to peruse.

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We both went for the Toptable deal, because it was quite a bargain when you consider that when ordering à la carte the cheapest steak is £25 on its own.We added a bottle of very lovely rich Argentinian Malbec for £29, and had some to die for ice cream for pud for £3 a scoop, bringing the total to a respectable £45 per person, which for a special meal out I think is pretty reasonable for London (especially given all the Valentine’s Day ‘special offers’ seemed to start at about £60 per person!)

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We started with a plate of charcuterie each, and for the main we both went for an American rump steak, with sides of chilli fries and enormous onion rings to share. The sides were perfect – the best chilli fries I’ve had, with a perfect amount of heat. Ste chose the béarnaise sauce, I went for red wine. And the steak….wow. Image

I ordered it medium to rare, and it was exactly the right side of medium for me, i.e. closer to rare! The enormous steak knife cut through it like butter – such a cliché, but true! In fact, the knives were so heavy I think they would have cut through it without any sawing motion at all, they really were hefty. I need to find out where I can buy some similar ones. I certainly was not disappointed I chose steak!

The meal was fantastic, and even though we were there very early (5.30pm!) for a pre-theatre meal, it wasn’t empty and the atmosphere and music were just right. The waitresses were very friendly and helpful, and there when you needed them, and not when you didn’t, which is quite an art. We spent most of the meal planning occasions when we could invite friends there, because I will most certainly be going back as soon as I have a good excuse (anyone want to come with me and give me that excuse?!).

Even the bill was presented wonderfully:

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We left full and extremely happy and headed around the corner to the Prince of Wales Theatre for the main event of the evening: the Book of Mormon.

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I actually don’t even know where to start describing it! If you don’t know, it’s an irreverent look at religion, written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park guys. That should give you an idea of the humour of the show! I had heard that I would be shocked, that there would be a lot of open-mouthed staring, and a LOT of laughter, but really I could not have been prepared for how many times my jaw hit the floor or I almost sprayed my wine everywhere laughing so much. It was simply brilliant. Ste, not a theatre fan, is now a convert. He wants us to make a tradition of going every Valentine’s Day, so I need Matt and Trey to get writing again because I can’t imagine we’re going to find anything which can beat this. Deservedly a sell out, and I am sad it is only running for a couple more months. There are still tickets available – book now if you have not seen it, you will absolutely not regret it, I promise!