Monday, 15 December 2014

Malahide Castle, Dublin #NoFilter

Malahide Castle, Dublin

In the summer, I was lucky enough to go to a conference in Dublin. I love Ireland, and it was great to have chance to spend a week there while the weather was lovely (although sadly I spent most of the time in a lecture hall with Powerpoint flashing by).

The conferences in my field tend to be pretty good at combining cultural excursions with the academic sessions, though, and this was no exception. On the Wednesday we all piled into a coach and went up the road to Malahide Castle.

This isn't a castle in the fighting-off-attackers kind of way, more of a beautiful stately home. It was a fairly compact house, but we only had a couple of hours to look around, and we didn't have time to see all of the gardens.

This post is part of the Dublin #NoFilter project, run by London City Airport to highlight the potential of unfiltered photographs and the hidden gems of Dublin. (Monica at The Travel Hack will be picking her favourites, so fingers crossed, I might win a prize!)

Malahide Castle, Dublin
An outside view of the tower.

Malahide Castle, Dublin
According to the guide, the paint colour is known as Malahide Orange.

Malahide Castle, Dublin
I particularly loved the library.

Malahide Castle, Dublin
Gorgeous Victorian greenhouses.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Tastes of Christmas - a guest post from Jenny Oliver

I love Jenny Oliver's books: although they're shelved as romance, hers are invariably beautiful stories of personal growth, in which the development of a relationship is only one small part. So I was delighted when she offered to drop by and write a guest post with a festive theme.

Jenny's third novel, The Little Christmas Kitchen, is available now. Inspired by the seasonal and foodie themes of the book, she writes here about the tastes that uniquely capture Christmas for her.

For me, top of the list has always been that heady mix of raisins and spices and brandy that permeates Christmas cakes and puddings and mince pies. But there are certainly others: walnuts fresh from the shells; sugared almonds; German lebkuchen.

What are your favourites?

Jenny writes:

There’s no denying that the obvious Christmas tastes are the succulent turkey, the love ’em or hate ’em Brussels sprouts and the flaming Christmas pudding but I think there are other tastes, specific to everyone, that conjure an immediate flavour of the festive season. Here are mine...

  • For the last few Decembers we’ve gone to France with a couple of friends predominantly to go to the supermarket! This may sound odd, but to me the french supermarket is no Sainsbury’s or Tesco, it’s a hypermarket of delight. I like a Carrefour best but I’m happy with an Intermarche. We go on the ferry from Dover to Calais and stay a weekend - this year we’ve booked an Airbnb apartment in the seaside town, Wimereux. A mini holiday and the perfect treat. We go to the market, we walk through the chilly streets, we have lunch and then we supermarket sweep! Confit du canard, mustard in glasses with cute drawings on the side, cornichons, peppered saucisson, golden madelines, juicy marron glace and bottles of crisp white wine and deep ruby red. The car on the way home is rammed! And the meal on the ferry is delicious - warm rotisserie chicken, crisp baguette, soft avocado and maybe a cheeky bottle of red.
  • Big tins of Quality Streets. Jewelled coloured chocolates that sparkle temptingly! My favourites are the purple ones... unfortunately they’re my sister’s favourite as well which used to lead to quite of lot of sneaky hiding of the chocolate box (but became the perfect inspiration for The Little Christmas Kitchen.)
  • Hazelnuts, dates and turkish delight. No other time of year do we have any of these! But Christmas, without fail, the box of glistening dates appears, the nutcrackers and the powdery sweet turkish delight.
  • Panettone. This is new addition to my list. We had it last Christmas for breakfast, dipped it in our coffee and let the sweet soft brioche-like bread melt in our mouths. Awesome.
  • Cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Nutty Spanish Manchego, stinky French Epoisses, sharp British Stilton all served with quince jelly, dried figs and maybe a little glass of port! 

There are so many more I could mention, but instead I’d really love to hear from you. What are your top five tastes of Christmas? Tweet me @JenOliverBooks. Happy eating x

Jenny’s latest novel The Little Christmas Kitchen is out now. Hungry for more? Try The Vintage Summer Wedding and The Parisian Christmas Bake-Off (also in paperback).

Monday, 8 December 2014

Autumn Vegetable Pot Pie (Secret Recipe Club)

Autumn Vegetable Pot Pie

My assignment for Secret Recipe Club this month is Melissa from Smells Like Brownies. Melissa is a fellow vegetarian, who is currently blogging her way through the process of making a wedding cake. I get the impression her approach to food is very like mine: eat loads of veggies and generally healthy dishes, and then indulge in the odd slice of ridiculously delicious cake that makes up in taste what it lacks in virtue.

I didn't even have to go as far as Melissa's recipe index to choose something to make -- these veggie pot pies just jumped off the front page. (Although, given the name of her blog, I feel a little guilty for not trying one of her many tempting brownie recipes!)

I halved the recipe, and I did manage to successfully remember to halve all the ingredients as I was cooking... except one. I put the original amount of vegetable stock in, so I ended up with a bit too much gravy (I decanted the filling into the pie dish with a slotted spoon, and it was all fine). I also completely forgot the yoghurt, but the end result was still delicious, so I've written up the recipe as I actually made it, and I'll try to get it right next time! Because this is definitely a recipe I'll be making again.

Autumn Vegetable Pot Pie

The pastry was really different to my normal pastry recipe: much less fat, and featuring egg yolks and buttermilk where I'd just use water to bind it. I was tempted to be lazy and just use my usual pastry recipe, but I thought I'd give this a go. It came out softer than my usual shortcrust, and more flaky, but not in a crispy way like puff pastry. If you don't have buttermilk, you can substitute in regular milk and a few drops of lemon juice.

Of course, if you don't enjoy making pastry at all, you could get away with folding some rosemary and pepper into a ready-made block.

Autumn Vegetable Pot Pie
Serves 4

For the pastry:
190g (1 cup) flour
¼tsp baking powder
60g (½cup butter) butter
2tsp fresh rosemary
1tsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 egg yolk
¼cup buttermilk

Vegetables for the filling:
300g (½ small) butternut squash flesh
160g (2 medium) carrots
225g (½lb) brussels sprouts
¼ large cauliflower
1tbsp olive oil
½cup frozen peas

For the mushroom gravy:
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
225g (½lb) chestnut mushrooms
1tbsp butter
1tsp thyme
1tsp rosemary
¼tsp dried chilli flakes
1tsp freshly-ground black pepper
1tbsp butter
2tbsp flour
1 cup vegetable stock

  1. Make the pastry: combine the dry ingredients, rub in the butter, and combine with the egg yolk and buttermilk. Set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F).
  3. Dice the butternut squash and carrots. Quarter the sprouts, and divide the cauliflower into florets.
  4. Toss the vegetables in the oil, and arrange on a non-stick baking tray. Roast for 25 minutes, until carrots and squash are softened.
  5. Once the vegetables are cooked, remove from the oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 190°C (375°F).
  6. To make the mushroom gravy, begin by dicing the onions, garlic, and mushrooms.
  7. Heat 1tbsp butter in a large, deep saucepan and sautee the onions until softened.
  8. Add the mushrooms, garlic, herbs, and spices, and cook until the mushrooms are cooked.
  9. Push the mushroom mixture to one half of the pan, and at the other side, melt the remaining butter together with the flour to form a roux (don't worry if you get some mushroom juice in this mixture, it's inevitable!).
  10. Cook the roux for a couple of minutes before combining with the mushroom mixture.
  11. Add the vegetable stock, and simmer until the sauce thickens to coat the back of a spoon.
  12. Stir the roasted vegetables into the gravy, and add the peas.
  13. Spoon the filling into a deep pie dish (mine is 15x23cm, 6x9in, and it only just fitted).
  14. Roll out the pastry to cover the pie, and press down the edges to seal. Cut a few slits to allow steam to escape.
  15. Bake for 25 minutes at 190°C (375°F).

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Winter Weekend in Telford & Ironbridge


The Ironbridge Gorge has been on my radar for a couple of years, so when Premier Inn got in touch to let me know about their new hotel at Telford International Centre and ask if I wanted to visit the area, I was obviously going to jump at the chance.

The biggest attraction is a visit to the Ironbridge museums, which celebrate various aspects of the industrial revolution. From the iron bridge itself, which is still going strong, to a reconstructed Victorian town, there's no shortage of things to see. By the time you're visiting more than a couple of museums, it makes sense to get an annual ticket, which also has the advantage of reducing the pressure to cram everything into a couple of days. (In fact, it being November, a couple of the museums were shut for the season, so we'll definitely have to go back!)

Blists Hill Victorian Town is the highlight: a huge outdoor museum featuring everything from an active forge to a working chippy. (And, of course, a proper sweet shop to satisfy your sweet tooth.) Even in the winter, most of the shops and workshops are manned by enthusiastic volunteers dressed in Victorian costume, and a lot of the shops had goods and souvenirs for sale.

Blists Hill

Blists Hill

Another favourite of ours was the Tile Museum, which has a diverse collection of seemingly thousands of different designs, as well as displays explaining the different kinds of tiles and the methods for their manufacture and decoration.

Ironbridge tile museum

Premier Inn

After wrestling a little with an excessive collection of Telford roadworks, we managed to find our way through to the Southwater car park, thence to walk to the hotel. The hotel itself is in the middle of a new development near the city centre: there was no shortage of restaurants just a couple of steps outside the door, as well as a cinema, ice rink, and ten-pin bowling.

Just a few feet away, Telford Town Park is a huge green space with adventure playgrounds for kids of all ages - from wooden toddler play areas to a high rope course for adults.

High ropes in Telford park

Our room was as clean and modern as you'd expect from Premier Inn, and you could tell it was very new. We had a lot of beds, more than we really needed for just the two of us, but at least that gave us space to spread out! We made good use of the tea and coffee facilities (since the Costa across the road sadly shut in the evening) and since Andy and I disagree on the matter of showers vs baths, we were glad the room had both.

Ironbridge Premier Inn

Before checking out, we made the most of the buffet breakfast to fuel ourselves up for another day of exploring.

Speaking of food, we found some lovely cafes in the gorge. On Saturday we had lunch at Cherry's, which I picked out in advance as it gets the best reviews for veggie food in the area. It's not the cheapest, but I was really happy with my white lasagne, which came with hefty sides of fresh salad and potato wedges. On Sunday we had soup and scones at Scarlett's, in the Maws Craft Centre, which was also excellent.

Lunch at Cherry's

At the other end of the gorge, the Iron Museum had a set of fantastic exhibits on the evolution of the industrial forges and smelting processes that lie at the heart of the industrial revolution.

We also popped briefly into Enginuity, which is a kid-focused science museum. There wasn't much to keep us there, but anyone with children would find it a great way to use up some of their excess energy in an educational environment.


Unfortunately a lot of the local stately homes were closed for the winter, but Sunnycroft, one of the National Trust's smaller properties, was still open for business. This is a fairly recent acquisition, and a comparatively modern property, but the family who left it to the Trust had accumulated a huge collection of antiques and ephemera so it's a fascinating place to visit.


I'll be writing more about a few of these places over the coming weeks - so do keep an eye out if you're interested, and feel free to let me know what you'd like to hear more about.

Full disclosure: I stayed for free at the Telford International Premier Inn, and was given a budget for tickets & travel. We set our own itinerary, and all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Rachel and the Chocolate Factory

A few months back, I was asked if I fancied a visit to the Thorntons factory. Well, if there's one thing I love even more than chocolate, it's the chance to have a nosy around behind the scenes, so of course it was an enthusiastic "yes!" from me.

Feeling remarkably enthusiastic about a 6am start, I got the train up to Derbyshire, aiming to meet up with four other bloggers at Alfreton station. Mine was the first train to arrive, a good forty minutes before the taxi was booked to take us to the factory, so I was a block of ice by the time the others arrived.

Today's dramatis personae:
On arrival at the factory, the first thing we noticed was that there was chocolate everywhere. Even the reception desk had a huge plate of truffles where anyone could help themselves (full when we arrived; almost empty when we passed by the desk again on our way out). We signed in to get our visitors badges, and proceeded to the Thorntons board room, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch (lots of healthy salad and antipasti to fortify us against the sugar-rush that was to come) and got a look at the full range of chocolate goodies.

Then it was time to head over to the factory itself. The rules are pretty strict: no jewellery, no electronics, and a complicated health quiz to check you weren't going to take infectious diseases into a food prep area. It feels surreal, but as a consumer it's obviously reassuring! Before we could enter the factory, we had to get suited up in white overalls, special shoes, and disposable hair-nets. Stuart even had to tuck his beard into a bright blue snood (and I got to learn a new word, there, though not one I see myself using every day).

Emerging from the changing rooms, the smell of chocolate and caramel washed over us. We were a little disappointed to be rushed past a wall that was temptingly labelled Visitor Tasting Station, and straight on to the factory floor... but our attention was soon grabbed by the whirring of machinery.

I was a little taken aback by the Easter eggs, which were almost the first thing we saw. Logically it makes sense that all the chocolate Santas and Snowmen must already be in warehouses, ready to be shipped across the nation, but I was still subconsciously expecting to see the Christmas lines in production. Apparently, though, Easter egg season starts as early as September.

The whirring arms rotated the eggs slowly through three dimensions, spreading the chocolate evenly around the moulds, and incidentally explaining why you never seem to get a bag of chocolate buttons inside your egg, any more. Apparently this all-in-one method of production is much more reliable than sticking two halves together, but it does rather rule out the possibility of putting anything in the middle.

We stopped off briefly the next station to try our hands at industrial piping. Liquid chocolate is routed all around the factory through a vast network of metal pipes, and the piping nozzles are connected directly into this system, meaning that when you release the catch to let the chocolate flow, it flows out with the pressure of a tap. I've always thought I was quite good at piping, but the industrial machine took a bit of getting used to, and the speed with which the professionals can work was really something else.

Then we went for a walk around the various different areas of the factory. (I wish I'd been able to take my phone in, as quite aside from snapping a few photos, I would love to know how many miles we walked over the course of the tour!)

I'm an engineer at heart, so I loved seeing how the production lines are put together. It's all very modular, and I can just imagine the process of arranging the perfect steps for a new product. Decorative elements are piped into the moulds before the Easter eggs are made, then the decoration is chilled before the main chocolate can be added and the rotation process starts. Creamy fillings are chilled, shaped, then pushed through a chocolate waterfall to give them a crunchy shell... before the conveyor belt carries them gently into a metres-long cooler to set the chocolate at just the right rate.

There are separate areas dedicated to several of the critical processes. There are multiple rooms dedicated to toffee (more on that later). Giant stand mixers are used for making thousands of chocolates-worth of filling at a time. Turkish delight is stamped into patterns using powdered starch, which envelops the whole room with a dusting of fine white powder.

And very little is wasted. Whether it's run-off from the industrial piping machines, or eggs rejected by quality control, the 'waste' chocolate is melted down again and recycled into the next product, while failed chocolates are sold as misshapes.

I was intrigued to note how very different things smelled within each region. You could be blindfolded, and with a little practice, I think you could tell roughly where you were by scent alone.

One of the most exciting bits of the tour was watching the toffee being poured. We arrived a little too early for this the first time we passed by the toffee room, and had to make a detour to go back for it, but I'm so glad we managed to see it. Each batch of toffee is made in a giant machine that's part stand mixer, part high-temperature boiling pot. Once it's up to temperature, it's quickly decanted into a huge pot on runners, which is used to tip the liquid toffee into the slab moulds. The whole process is over in seconds, and it smells divine.

The slabs of toffee are then cooled, and eventually sent through to the toffee-smashing room. Here, the loudest machine in the factory slams its plates together to break the sheets of toffee into irregular, mouth-sized chunks. A winnowing machine then separates the pieces: too small, and they're discarded; too large, and they're sent round again for another round of breaking. Those that are just right make their way into bags and boxes, ready for the shops.

On our way out, we finally stopped off at the Tasting Station. By this stage we'd been inhaling sugar for so long that we were quite restrained, although I did my best to sample as many as possible.

The dulce de leche truffle was a crowd-pleaser and the clear winner of the popular vote, but my favourite new discovery was a mini tiramisu, from the Dreamy Desserts box - one of a whole range that I hadn't tried before. I'll definitely be treating myself to a box of these over Christmas, or possibly the Winter Desserts collection which looks equally yummy and presumably a bit more limited edition.

Then it was back to the Derbyshire Hotel, where a gorgeous three-course dinner had been laid on for us. I thought I'd never want sugar again, but somehow I still managed to be tempted into dessert by the description of spiced cranberry sticky toffee pudding. Ah well. I'm sure the miles of walking went some way to making up for the insane amount that I ate, and it was absolutely worth every bite.

Photographs courtesy of Thorntons; used with permission.

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