Best-ever blondies

Blondies are one of my go-to baked goods. They are always received well and I’m often asked for the recipe.

They’re moist and not too rich, and you can add whatever you like to them – nuts, fruit, more chocolate – much like these cookies or brownies, you can make them whichever ‘flavour’ you like.

My favourite combination is cherry and almond.

blondies

Ingredients:

  • 400g white chocolate
  • 150g butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 250g brown sugar
  • 200g almond meal
  • 90g plain flour
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 200-300gm of nuts, chocolate or fruit

 

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 180.
  2. Line a baking pan (rectangular).
  3. Melt chocolate and butter.
  4. Set aside to cool.
  5. Stir vanilla into the butter/chocolate mixture.
  6. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar together until thick.
  7. Add butter/chocolate mixture to the eggs and sugar.
  8. Fold in sifted almond meal and flour.
  9. Fold in your extra bits.
  10. Pour into the lined baking pan.
  11. Bake for 40 minutes.
  12. They are best left in the fridge overnight before cutting them up.

 

The combination I made for this post was cherry and Bounty, so a little bit like Cherry Ripe. The Bounty didn’t quite work as expected, but you could definitely get the coconut and cherry.

PS. They make a pretty good gift!

The food festival fail

Here a food festival, there a food festival

These days it’s not hard to find a food festival on pretty much every weekend. If you google food festivals, there are more results than you can poke a stick at, and if you look on Twitter, you’ll find just as many.

As a lover of food, I think it’s great! Many of these small food festivals are about showcasing local producers and chefs, and often there are a few celebrities thrown into the mix – usually, they’re the ones passionate about eating local and pushing the seasonal food philosophy, and they very well should be!

However, I have a problem.

Some of these events just seem like excuses for making a bit of cash for the organiser/s.

There are about 10 stalls selling fudge, 5 selling beer, another 10 selling liqueurs or gins, and another 5 selling jam. The rest of the stalls are people selling handcrafted furniture or jewellery.

And that’s fine. For a market.

Not an event claiming to be a food festival.

The Great British Food Festival

Today, I went to the Great British Food Festival at Bowood House in Wiltshire. The premise seemed fine – some demonstrations from local chefs, plenty of food to eat, loads of independent food producers, a few things for the kids.

When we arrived at 11:30am, we wondered why so many people were already leaving, considering the event had only opened at 10am. To be honest, the only reason we stuck around was to see a chef I like do a demonstration at 2pm.

We walked into the shopping tent to find the handmade jewellery, soaps and pyramid schemes. That was two minutes of my time I’ll never get back.

Then we checked out the two artisan tents. As I mentioned, it was essentially mostly liqueurs, gins, beers and fudge, and many of the traders are ones I’ve seen at events far from Wiltshire. There was even a stall selling Turkish delight that I’d seen in London a few weeks ago (not locally made is what I’m getting at). Pretty uninspiring to be honest.

Mostly people are walking around trying things they have no intention of buying (and look, we’re all guilty of it), but this is people’s livelihoods.

What I was expecting: local makers of breads, cheeses, and oils. A range of cakes and pastries. Locally farmed produce. Meat sourced from British farmers.

After that, we wandered the food stalls for some lunch and, again, it wasn’t very exciting. If I was going to an event called the ‘Great British Food Festival’, I’d be expecting some amazing options from the local area. While I can’t claim each stall wasn’t offering that, there were definitely some stalls who weren’t – in fact, one was offering “100% greek meat”. Let me remind you that we were at the Great BRITISH Food Festival.

What I wanted: people to be proud of their British or local produce. Doesn’t ‘our chicken comes from 2 miles up the road and we want to share it with you’, sound more exciting?

We sat under a tree for the next hour because the event organisers were woefully unprepared for the sun, which was intense, to say the least. More importantly, I wondered what would have happened if it was raining (because let’s be honest, that would have been more likely!).

The entertainment was OK, I guess. Small producers talked about their wares at one tent; at another two there were kids activities; at another, there was the ‘man versus food’ eating events and the bake off – don’t get me started on that! There was also some music, but that’s not why I’m here.

In short, I felt like I’d wasted my day. If I wasn’t hanging out with a friend and waiting for a demonstration (which was the only good bit by the way!), I’d have been there for just 30 minutes.

I get that I’m probably not the target market. But who actually is? Because you could find the stalls at a market and not have to pay an entry fee, and the cooking demonstrations were very short and there weren’t many of them.

Even when you go to the Great British Food Festival website, you can’t find any information about the people who run the event. Where’s the ‘I’m passionate about local food’, ‘I wanted to support local producers’? It’s a lifeless event that could be so much better.

I’d honestly love to chat to some of the traders who go to these events. I hope for their sake they do get something out of attending them.

Far and away the best way to eat prunes: Far Breton

Over Easter this year, I popped over to France to see dad who was also there for his bi-annual visit. Even though the primary purpose of the visit was to visit my Grandmother, I requested that we make a trip to Carnac in Brittany and Mont St Michel in Normandy. So, over two very full days, we drove the five hours to Brittany, looked at some very large rocks and then drove another couple of hours to see a very famous rock – Mont St Michel.

Mont St Michel + Carnac

I really enjoyed the trip to Brittany, which included a stop in a little town called Elven where we had baguettes with ham and cheese; then in Carnac we had a delicious multi-course birthday meal for my husband at a tiny auberge; more than one kougin amann (because I needed to compare!); a trip around a farmers market with some of the most amazing produce I’ve seen in a while; and Far Breton.

Far Breton

Far Breton is similar in texture to a clafoutis – one of my favourite desserts. It’s essentially a baked custard-style dish full of prunes, which I think have always had a bad wrap. You’ll also note in my photos above that some people like it blonde and others much darker and it can be served on its own or served with creme patisserie.

I’ve been wanting to give the Far Breton a go since I got back, so I finally found some time and did a search for a trustworthy recipe. I went with this recipe from Richard Bertinet and got baking.

Far Breton

Far Breton

The recipe worked a treat! It wasn’t quite the same (because things always taste better when you don’t make them yourself), but it was a winner of pudding and the feedback from my colleagues and in-laws was great.

I can recommend, as Richard Bertinet does, having this with a nice up of tea and a book. Or a cider.

Review: Tapas Revolution, Bath

I was recently invited to review one of the newest editions to the Bath food scene, Tapas Revolution – brainchild of Spanish TV chef, Omar Allibhoy. He’s been dubbed the ‘Antonio Banderas of cooking’, so it was hard for me to say no to the offer.

I’m always a bit dubious when it comes to chain restaurants because it often seems that decor and marketing are top notch at the expense of the food, which is often flavourless and boring. Thankfully, Tapas Revolution is not one of those and I was very pleasantly surprised with the whole package.

Tapas Revolution, Bath

The restaurant

Located in Southgate opposite the Bath Spa train station, it has a really great position to greet passers-by and draw them in for a drink and a few bites. The decor is light and welcoming, with a few Spanish touches here and there. You’re eating in a modern restaurant with cultural roots that go back a very long time.

We were seated in a quiet corner booth so we had time to mull over our food choices. It was also a good spot to view the rest of the restaurant from (who doesn’t like to people watch!).

Drinks

We were offered water and then the waitress let us know that it was happy hour so quite a few drinks were two for one. I thought the drinks list was quite good, without being overwhelming.  A good range of wines, cocktails and non-alocholic options options are available, including some Spanish gins, which we decided to try. The Galician Nordes came out in a large glass with plenty of ice and a Mediterranean tonic – I learnt something new because I didn’t know there was more than one kind of tonic!

The food

After asking the waitress for her recommendation, we picked options from almost every part of the tapas menu. I tried to pick a few I’d had before as benchmark and some I’d never had to really see what was on offer. We tried:

  • Pan de la casa – toasted bread, tomato topped with garlic sauce and serrano ham
  • Croquetas de jamon – deep-friend Iberico ham and bechamel croquettes
  • Altas de pollo a la miel y limon – marinated crispy chicken wings with lemon and honey dressing
  • Albondigas en salsa de tomate – beef meatballs in a vegetable, tomato and white wine sauce
  • Chorizo a la parrilla – bread with grilled smoked sausage, piquillo pepper and cider reduction
  • Torreznos con mojo dulce – crispy pork belly with sweet and spicy sauce
  • Calamares fritos a la andaluza – squid strips tossed in flour, deep fried and served with alioli and lemon
  • Berenjenas fritas con miel – crispy fried aubergine with a spiced honey and thyme dressing
  • Patatas bravas – roasted potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and alioli

I’m pretty terrible with numbers and didn’t intentionally order so many dishes, but everything that came to the table was so different and really gave us a good idea of how good the rest of the menu is.

The standout dishes for me were the Chorizo a la parrilla and Berenjenas fritas con miel. The flavourful, only slightly spicy Chorizo was served on fresh bread that was fluffy in the middle and crispy on the outside and a lovely sweet cider reduction, which worked so well with the spice of the dish. The aubergine, was, as promised, crispy, sweet and a little spicy – having never tried crumbed aubergine, it was a really nice mix of textures and I couldn’t get enough of the honey. The only thing I wasn’t a big fan of was the crispy pork belly because there was so much cinnamon in the sauce and even though I like cinnamon it was a bit much for me – in saying that, this is me looking for problems!

My dining companion, despite not being a huge seafood fan, really loved the calamari and was singing its praises on the way home later.

Tapas Revolution, Bath

Tapas Revolution, Bath

Tapas Revolution, Bath

Tapas Revolution, Bath

The best comparison I have for Spanish restaurants are the ones I’ve been to in Australia and they tend to be expensive and the portion sizes small. So, it was with great surprise that we received huge amounts of food and couldn’t finish it all. I also thought the prices were very reasonable, even more so when you get delicious, good quality food.

Overall, I really enjoyed my evening at Tapas Revolution and I’m looking for excuses to go back to Bath so I can have dinner there again.

The details
Tapas Revolution, Bath
Mon-Fri: 10am – 11pm  | Sat: 9am – 11pm | Sun: 10am – 10pm
20a St Lawrence Street, Southgate Bath, Bath BA1 1AN

Bristol’s Backwell House

One of the reasons I love living in Bristol is the number of stunning food options and importantly, so many restaurants and chefs using fresh, local produce. I love that people are so passionate about what is produced in the region – from cider to pork.

This is most definitely the case at Backwell House, a gorgeous, recently established boutique hotel in the North Somerset countryside near Bristol.  They have just launched a 40-cover restaurant where Chef Ross Hunter has developed a menu that focuses on local produce. So local, in fact, you’ll find that quite a few of his ingredients come from the Backwell Estate itself!

Backwell House

When I asked Chef Ross (who has worked closely with everyone’s favourite chef, Josh Eggleton) what he was aiming to achieve with his menu, he shared that it was about showcasing the produce. For him, choosing three to four stunning local ingredients and really making them shine is the most important thing to him. That’s my kind of philosophy. It’s all well and good spending hours creating foams and gels, but if you lose the fresh ingredients then you’re really just missing out.

The menu is very well priced at two courses for £29 and three courses for £35. It also changes regularly depending on what ingredients are available and in season.  Not only will you get to eat gorgeous food, you’re doing so in the beautiful countryside in a Georgian house (that’s the history lover in me talking!).

Pressed Backwell pork, new season peas, pancetta & tarragon emulsion was first off the ranks. Well-seasoned pork, gorgeous free peas and perfect crackling made for a brilliant starter. My esteemed dining neighbor, Alex (aka Gingey Bites) chose the Brixham crab, beetroot, apple, Nori seaweed, which not only looked stunning but was very tasty too.

Backwell House
Pressed Backwell pork, new season peas, pancetta & tarragon emulsion + potato gnocchi, wild garlic, calcot onion, hazelnuts

For mains, I didn’t want double portions of meat, so I chose the potato gnocchi, wild garlic, calcot onion, hazelnuts for something a bit lighter. Sadly it was underseasoned and the texture was not as light as I’d hoped. The onion was also too crunchy and undercooked for my taste. However, everyone else at the table sang the praises of the Cornish cod, Brixham crab bonbon, crab bisque, kohlrabi, pak choi and the 60 day Hereford sirloin, ox cheek, alliums, king oyster mushroom, beef jus. Alex said the sirloin was as soft as butter and very moreish.

Next, I had the strawberry cannelloni, meringue, Cheddar Valley strawberries – a little play on eton mess. I loved the mix of textures and the use of strawberries. Definitely something I’d eat again.

To finish off, we were offered some housemade petite fours, including raspberry and beetroot marshmallows, apple jellies and orange shortbread. I adored the marshmallows and was pleasantly surprised at how well the flavours worked.

Dessert
Strawberry cannelloni, meringue, Cheddar Valley strawberries + raspberry and beetroot marshmallows, apple jellies and orange shortbread

I enjoyed my meal and the setting in which I got to eat it. Chef Ross has put together an excellent menu and knows how to make the most of the ingredients he has sourced. I can highly recommend a lovely drive into the Somerset countryside to Backwell House for lunch or dinner.

About the hotel

I couldn’t not put something in about the hotel itself because I really enjoyed spending time there. On the outside, Backwell House is everything you’d expect of a Georgian House – well-manicured grounds and stunning views. But inside is a different story. The General Manager and his family have given the house a revamp with their own quirky (often handmade) touches. Like a suitcase sink and handmade bedhead – it’s kind of fun to look for the little things that make Backwell House so beautiful.

The common areas are comfortable and there’s plenty of space to relax with a drink from the handmade bar. The rooms are luxurious and I’m jealous of anyone lucky enough to stay there.

The details:
Menus start at £29 for 2 courses and rooms from £95 to £245 per night B&B
Email: enquiries@backwellhouse.co.uk
Phone: 0117 325 110
Web: backwellhouse.co.uk
Backwell House, Farleigh Road, Bristol BS48 3QA

My favourite things to do in Paris

I’ve been really lucky to spend a lot of time in Paris over the years while visiting my grandparents. I absolutely love just wandering the streets, spotting interesting things that you may miss if you just stick to the tourist traps. Having recently visited again over Easter, I thought I should write down a few of my favourite things to do while I’m there (outside all the museums!).

Stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg

Located between Saint-Germain-des-Prés (a favourite area of mine to go walking) and the Latin Quarter, the Jardin do Luxembourg is a lovely mix of art and horticulture. I’d only ever been through during the winter, but this year I was lucky enough to walk through during Spring and it was nothing short of divine (in my opinion). Gorgeous flowers everywhere, sculptures aplenty, people chilling out in the sun or going for a jog. There’s really something about having a tranquil spot in the middle of chaos.

Bringing this back to food – there are a few cafes and plenty of space to sit down and eat if you decide to put together a little picnic.

Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Gyros in St Michel

I can’t remember who took me here the first time, but whenever I’m in Paris (and I have time), I always go for lunch. It doesn’t look like much, but the gyros are tasty, cheap and very filling.

Maison de Gyros: 26 Rue de la Huchette, 75005 Paris

While you’re in the area, you can see the Notre Dame and the Fontaine Saint-Michel.

Gyros is St Michel, Paris

Tea and lemon meringue in Le Marais

One day, my cousin promised me the biggest lemon meringue tart I’d ever seen and took me to a funky little cafe called Le Loir dans La Théière (which translates to ‘the dormouse in the teapot’, cute huh!) in the Jewish Quarter (Le Marais) and I was not disappointed. Every time I’ve been it has been very busy and there is often a queue to get a table. Don’t let that put you off though; if you’re in a small party they usually get you seated pretty quickly and it’s so worth it for the tart!

They serve other things too, but I can’t comment because every time I go I order the same thing. So naughty of me!

Le Loir dans La Théière: 3 Rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris, France

Le Loir dans La Théière, Paris

Window shopping in Les Halles

Les Halles has changed significantly since my first visit back in 2004, when it was a shopping quarter with what seemed like a few buildings and a lot of random shops attached in some way to the Metro/RER station below ground. It’s still a shopping quarter, but now it’s massive and a little less random, with big brand names having set up shop in the extension they have built. However, my favourite part of visiting Les Halles has always been wandering down the smaller streets to visit the random shops selling everything from vintage clothing to art.  I may have bought more than one pair of shoes from shops at Les Halles because some of them have excellent bargains.

There’s also plenty of food options, including brasseries, fast food and the all-important crêperies.

Nearby you’ll find Centre Pompidou – the home of a huge library and the Musée National d’Art Moderne. I haven’t actually visited, but I’ve been told it’s excellent.

Explore the flower market on Île de la Cité

This is a bit random, but every time I pass through here I can’t help but poke my head into the various shops selling flowers and other greenery. It’s in between Les Halles and St Michel, so it’s an easy stop on your way. Not all the little shops are open during winter, but in spring, it was magical. Flowers of all types and colours make you want to buy, buy, buy!

Marché aux fleurs: Place Louis Lépine, Quai de la Corse, 75004 Paris

Browse the books at Shakespeare and Company

I’m not the only person to include this on my list, but I do love walking into the shop and breathing in the delicious smell of musty paper. It’s a popular spot, but worth a visit. I don’t really need to say anymore.

Shakespeare and Company: 37 rue de la Bûcherie 75005 Paris

Explore the unknown in the Paris Catacombs

I went on my own the first time. Music in my ears, I wandered quietly around the labyrinth of bones that were moved to their current position in the late 1700s from various graveyards in Paris. Despite it seeming impossible that the remains of millions of people have been stacked and positioned in the catacombs, when you get there you’ll believe it.

If you’re into archaeology, the Crypte Archeologique du Parvis Notre Dame is also worth a visit.

Paris Catacombs

Bask in the decadence that is Versailles

I’ve been to the Château de Versailles many times because it’s hard to get sick of something so beautiful. The only reason I’m ever disappointed is if the garden is closed. Unfortunately, I’ve been unlucky the last two visits.

Versailles started off as a hunting lodge. King Louis XIII loved the area so much he built a basic lodge that would allow him to stay overnight when he went hunting in the forest. By the time his son, Louis XIV came along, it had already been upgraded. Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, would go on to turn the hunting lodge into one of the most beautiful palaces in the country. A lot of this may mean nothing to you because you don’t recognise the names or numbers, but you will probably know the name Marie-Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI, and their roles in the French Revolution. But that’s a story for a different blog, I think!

Paris Versailles

Paris Versailles

I recommend planning in advance where you’d like to go because not everything on this list will be open every day of the week and opening hours tend to be different depending on the season.

I hope you love my picks as much as I do.

Be there or be square: Bristol’s Square Kitchen

Before we got to Bristol, we had booked an AirBnB in Berkeley Square (pronounced Bark-ley for my Australian audience). I had no idea what the area would be like and just hoped for the best. Luckily, it’s lovely little square in Clifton, a beautiful part of Bristol. On arrival, one of the first things I noticed were the restaurants in close proximity. Particularly, the aptly named Square Kitchen, part of the The Square Club.

When old meets new

Berkeley Square was laid out and built in the late 1700s, so it’s made up of beautiful Georgian buildings (which I love). However, when you walk into the Square Club it’s a very different feel, and in fact a pleasant contrast from the outside. Modern art adorns the exposed brick walls, and the furnishings are a mix of old meets new. You don’t feel like you’ve walked into a stuffy fine dining restaurant, but you still know you’re going to get some excellent food.

We began our evening with a cocktail in the underground bar. The Square Kitchen’s extensive drinks menu won’t leave you without choice and it took me a while to decide on what to get. In the end I chose a Caribbean Cosmo at £7.50. It was a sweet tipple, that really made you feel like you were at the beach.

Classic fare

We were then taken upstairs to the dining room where we were treated to a little amuse bouche of ham hock terrine with piccalilli. It’s one of those dishes I usually associate with old-fashioned food, but it was surprisingly light to eat (not just because of the portion size) and the piccalilli picked it up and stopped it from being just a boring piece of ham.


Head Chef Kyle Jordaan aims for a menu that focuses on seasonal ingredients and for good reason: when fruit and vegetables are in season, they taste better, and he makes the most of that.

My first course was deep-fried goats cheese, pickled beetroot carpaccio, garden peas and cider reduction at £6.50. For the price it was excellent. Personally, I get a bit confused when a menu says ‘carpaccio’ if there is no meat involved as carpaccio is thinly sliced raw meat with a vinaigrette, but I just went with it because I really like goats cheese.  It was a surprisingly rich dish – too much gorgeous creamy goats cheese is actually not as easy to eat as it sounds!  In fact, I’d perhaps recommend sharing it with someone because of the richness. Based on what my fellow diners ordered, I think the options are varied enough to have something different and go halves.

For the main, I chose my usual – pork belly. It was served with crispy squid, globe artichoke, white polenta, crispy capers, aioli and gremolata for £15.50. Overall, it was a nice dish, but I did miss the crispy crackling. It was obvious a lot of love went into the dish as each element was cooked really well. I also had some food envy when the assiette of lamb came out though as it really looked like it made the most of the different cuts and their various textures.

A sweet finish

Sadly, we came to the end of our meal. But not so sadly, that meant dessert. At the time we dined at Square Kitchen I was going through a rhubarb phase, so I couldn’t pass up the poached rhubarb, vanilla panna cotta, rhubarb consomme, almond clusters at £6.20. It was my favourite dish of the night – soft poached rhubarb that wasn’t too sweet, thin and chewy rhubarb straps (I assume dehydrated), sweet and luscious rhubarb soup and a creamy vanilla panna cotta to round it all out.  I was actually disappointed that the bowl had such a large lip because it stopped me from drinking the rhubarb – perhaps they do it on purpose.

A couple of my fellow diners chose the chocolate bomb and none of us were disappointed when the waiter came up with a perfect sphere of chocolate and proceeded to pour warm caramel over it to melt it. I do love a bit of showmanship!

Chef Kyle is taking some stunning ingredients and turning them in to excellent dishes. I can highly recommend making a booking and going for a celebratory meal in the modern meets historical atmosphere or perhaps a Sunday lunch with a few friends.

Details:
Square Kitchen at the Square Club
Opening hours: Mon–Sat: Breakfast, 7–9:30am; Lunch, 12–3pm; Dinner, 6–9:30pm | Sun: 12-4pm
Address: 15 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1HB, UK
Phone: 0117 921 0455
Web: thesquareclub.com

Bristol Gin Festival from a Finnish perspective

Like Karis, I don’t enjoy ginger but gin has never been a problem. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I was excited to hear the Gin Festival was coming to Bristol while I’d be visiting.

The festival, which has been touring the UK since 2013, was set up at The Station in the Bristol city centre. It’s an easily accessible venue with a great courtyard. We arrived about an hour after gates had opened and the place was packed, music was playing and people were mingling happily.

While the atmosphere was great, the queue to the ticket counter was a bit daunting. I guess that’s the price to pay for an atmosphere like that, but at least the crew were up to the task and the line moved quickly and efficiently, and before you knew it we had our stack of vouchers.

Gin Festival

Vouchers and brilliant glass now in hand, we browsed the comprehensive event guide about all the gins available at the festival. The booklet was complete with drink recipes, gin quizzes, tasting notes and other interesting info. We picked various drinks from the booklet (admittedly, the garnishes played an important role in the decision making) and headed over to the bars. They were divided into four different areas and the booklet guided you to the right corner of the counter. Very efficient! Cocktails were also available, but we stuck to the main feature of the night – gin and tonic.

Speaking of tonic, there was a selection of Fever-Tree tonics available as mixers and the guide book came with recommended tonics for each gin. And the recommendations seemed spot on.

After cruising around the crowded expo hall we headed out to the courtyard to enjoy our drinks. It was surprising and pleasing to notice how different all the different variations were and I developed a new-found appreciation for the different styles of gin and the versatility of such a simple combination.

Gin Festival

What we drank (garnish and mixer):

  • Blackwoods Vintage Dry 60 (mint & lime with Fever-Tree aromatic tonic)
  • Poetic License Old Tom (apple with Fever-Tree ginger ale)
  • Trevethan Cornish Gin (orange and clove with Fever-Tree elderflower tonic)
  • Eccentric Citrus Overland (lemon and thyme with Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic)
  • Kalevala (lime with Fever-Tree Indian tonic)
  • Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger (apple with Fever-Tree soda water)
  • Ely Dark Chocolate (with orange juice)

We really enjoyed our night and the drinks we tried (sadly all agreed that the Ely Dark Chocolate wasn’t to our tastes, but it’s good to give things a go, though!), so thanks to the Gin Festival team!

Perhaps the Gin Festival should come to Finland?

Juho.

Details: The Gin Festival has regular events around the UK, take a look at their website to see where they will be next!

A long weekend in Amsterdam

My holidays are usually pretty packed, but now that we can go away for 3-4 days at a time, we have a little more time to relax. Not.

Earlier this month, we finally made it to Amsterdam. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. As a history buff and foodie, I’m keen to go anywhere with old buildings and good food.

As it was my first time in Amsterdam and we only had four days, we did a lot of the very touristy things – ate cheese, visited some windmills, walked through the red light district and ate some dutch goodies.

We had a really good weekend, so I thought I’d share what we got up to:

Explore the canals

This one is pretty easy – walk around. Amsterdam is compact; there are a lot of different aspects to the city in a very small space (it seems). I can highly recommend just walking along the canals, taking in the sights, particularly the houses:

  • You’ll note that some a bit wonky – in some cases this is on purpose because apparently if your house leans forward, it looks bigger.
  • Keep an eye out for the hook holders jutting out from the top of many – they were used to haul up goods to the top level of the house so they remained dry.
  • Take a look at the make up of each house – many have coats of arms and imagery to show who owned the house and what that person did for a living. I think the more detailed the image, the more ‘well-to-do’ the person living there.

Amsterdam canals

I found it interesting that because space was so sought after, housing lots were narrow and tax was charged on frontage. Therefore, houses were narrow, but often extended backwards a fair way. These houses look very small on the outside, but some have 30+ rooms and would be considered mansions.

I could keep going because it was absolutely fascinating learning about how things worked in old world Amsterdam, but I’ll let you figure all of that out when you get there.

If you don’t want to walk around the entire time, I can highly recommend a canal cruise. You’ll get a bit of commentary and you can see a huge amount of the canals, without needing a foot massage! We did a cruise with the Blue Boat Company.

Amsterdam canals

The infamous red light district

One of those places you read and hear about often. You’ll find that it’s crowded once it starts to get dark and the throng of people don’t really stick around, they just take a look and move through. I can recommend doing the same. Take a look – see what the buzz is all about – and then move on to other (more interesting) things, like the Museumplein to get your obligatory photo with the Iamsterdam letters. Keep in mind that food and drink is expensive in the red light district because it’s so touristy.

Amsterdam redlight

Markets

I love markets and I always try to fit one or two in wherever I go, much to the annoyance of my husband. We were very lucky in that Dappermarkt was right outside our AirBnB, so even walking from the train station to the place we were staying was fun!

We also went to the Albert Cuyp Market. It was long and there were plenty of goodies to view (and eat!). You probably don’t need to go to both, but I recommend going to at least one.

Amsterdam markets

A countryside tour

All you need for this is half a day, really. We chose a half-day tour that would take us to see the windmills in Zaanse Schaans, try cheese in Volendam and see clogs being made in Marken. We had a quick lunch in Volendam, which consisted of kiplings, oorlog patates and we may have had some poffertjes to round out our deep-fried meal of champions.  The tour we took was excellent, because we got to see plenty in a short space of time.

Amsterdam windmills

A cheese tasting class

What’s a trip to Amsterdam without cheese? I found this by accident and I’m really glad I did! For 16 euro, you’ll get an hour full of cheese with a few wines. Held at Reypenaer Cheese – an unassuming shop front on Singel representing a company that doesn’t actually make the cheese, they just ripen it.

Amsterdam cheese tasting

You’re shown downstairs in their shop to a small room with desks all set up for our session. No joke, kind of felt like we were in a classroom – it has tables with all the implements you need to taste cheese successfully.

We were given the history of the company and what they do, as well as a taste of their five cheeses. The best part – the cheese was left on the table with you, so you could have as many testers as you wanted to get your mouth around the various flavours and textures.

Amsterdam cheese tasting

On the plus side, we scored cheaper tickets to the Bols experience as a package deal…

Heineken and Bols experiences

There’s always seems to be some kind of alcohol-based museum in the cities we go to. In Amsterdam, there were two: the Heineken Experience and the Bols and Genever Experience.

We went to both.

The Bols and Genever Experience was actually really interesting in terms sensory activities. My favourite part was smelling the flavours of the various liqueurs and trying to work out what they were. It takes about an hour to go through and at the end you get a cocktail of your choice.

Amsterdam House of Bols

The Heineken Experience was actually disappointing for me. I didn’t like the way they had set things out and I didn’t enjoy waiting 20 minutes for the ‘brew you ride’ which wasn’t anything spectacular. Part of the ticket price gives you two beers at the end of the experience and you get a quarter-pint or so right after the ‘brew you ride’. If you must go, I can recommend not going on a weekend – we stopped by on the Saturday and we could see from just the outside that it was packed because the queues were huge.

Amsterdam Heineken experience

This was clearly no relaxing tour of Amsterdam; we were most definitely tired by the time we’d finished everything on this list, but I really felt like I’d managed to see so much of Amsterdam. I should also note that we also went to a few other places not mentioned here, but the above were my highlights (or things I felt I should cover).

Happy to share my tips if you have any specific questions!

A Grand old time: Bristol’s Mercure The Grand Hotel

Being in the UK means I’ve had the opportunity to travel so much more. This means scouring travel websites looking for the best deals on flights, accommodation and tours in brilliant locations (and I’ve really spent a lot of time looking!).

Because my wanderlust usually takes me further afield, unsurprisingly, I often forget about what’s happening right here in Bristol. But, I know some of you don’t come from here and perhaps you’ve been thinking of visiting.

When I’m looking at hotels, people often say “it doesn’t matter where you stay because you’ll be out and about and you’ll spend very little time in your room”. I think that’s half true – you spend longer than you realise in your hotel room and the more comfortable it is, the better. I also think it’s nice to walk into a lovely clean room with practical features and nice things to look at.

I was recently invited along to Mercure’s The Grand to see their very funky makeover. I know this isn’t the 70s, but they really have done some amazing work with the refurbishment.

Located on Broad Street in the Old City, close to Broadmead and St Nicks’ Market, it’s the perfect place to base yourself if you’re in Bristol.

The building itself is gorgeous. I couldn’t find any history on the building itself, though it’s Grade II listed. When you see the outside, you imagine you’ll walk into something old world. But after the refurbishment, it’s now a stunning combination of classic and modern. You walk into the lobby and it feels bright, clean and modern, but it the old and new world compliment each other well.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol

Local artists

The team who designed the new look and feel of the hotel worked closely with Upfest to give the hotel the ‘Bristol’ feel. More than 500 pieces of art have been created by local artists. So often when you walk into hotels, they are bland and clinical, you could easily imagine yourself in any city in the world because there’s no art or even personality in the hotel, let alone the rooms. I think it’s brilliant that Mercure has taken the opportunity to make use of Bristol’s creatives to make the hotel something to write home about.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Art

Comfortable amenities

The rooms aren’t just pretty. They are practical too. The beds are amazingly comfortable and the bathrooms are classic and clean.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Room

Keepers Kitchen and Bar

As part of the refurbishment, the restaurant has had an even bigger makeover and it’s not your usual boring hotel restaurant. As you’ll see from the photos below, you’ll note that Keepers has a theme – honey! Their plan is to eventually have bees on the roof of the hotel, so they can use (very) local honey in their cocktails and on the menu.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Speaking of cocktails, they have a brilliant range on offer in the bar, including three honey-based cocktails.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

On the food side, the restaurant has a solid menu to please everyone. We were treated to anti pasti, pizza, and small versions of mains from the menu, including mushroom pappardelle, pan-fried sea bass, glazed pig cheeks (my favourite from the night), and the Keepers posset made with honey, of course.

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Mercure The Grand, Bristol - Keepers Kitchen and Bar

Mercure The Grand, Bristol is the perfect place for a staycation or if you’re just visiting, it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Details
Address: Broad Street, BS1 2EL  Bristol
Telephone: 08713769042
Web: mercure.com