Judging Italian Food at the Bellavita Awards (Show Me The Cheese)

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When somebody says ‘Italian food’ I think of simple, fresh, flavourful dishes, quality produce and traditional recipes. I’ve been disappointed many times by crappy pasta and metallic tomato sauce, served to me in so-called ‘Italian restaurants’ by men with moustaches and fake accents. I do have some really strong memories of Italian dining, but not necessarily for the right reasons. – there was that time in Tours where the waiter threw a steak knife at Adam and a little French man had a group of Scotts serenade his wife (seriously weird, Rachel put it on YouTube), and Hannah’s lovely birthday dinner in ASK where I found the foil wrapper of a bleach tablet in my salad. Fresh!

So, with all that in mind, can you imagine my excitement when I was asked along to the Bellavita Expo in London and invited to be a member of the judging panel for the inaugural Bellavita Awards?

Bellavita Expo in the UK’s biggest trade fair celebrating Italian artisan food, the Awards recognise excellence in Italian food and drink, and I like meat and cheese.

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Apparently, Bellavita is the first and only International Awards programme to be entirely dedicated to authentic Italian food and wine. I was totally dedicated to the food.

After all that hard work (eating and saying stuff) I thought it might be nice to share my top picks from my judgey judging.

I can’t tell you about the melons though, I didn’t try the melons. There were two melons, and only one was there to be judged. It was confusing, there was a man just stood there with two melons and nothing else. ‘Which melon?’ ‘Eat both the melons.’ ‘I can’t.’ ‘Okay, just forget about it!’  It was quite surreal.

Okay then! Onwards, to my top foody picks…

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Caseificio Ruocco. Mmmm, Mozzarella. The Fior di latte was deliciously light and really milky. And this thing that looks like a melon? (Top image, and above) A superbly tasty, creamy semi-hard cheese made of spun paste. The ‘Provolone del Monaco’ is aged for at least six months and made from the milk of the endangered Ageola cow. Fancy.

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2015 07 20 bellavita awards italian food expo london 01

Dorotea. Tasty little biscuits filled with sweet jam. I tried the apricot and it was lovely. Owner Maurizio started the business in 2005 when his hundred-year-old grandmother died. He used her name and her recipes. There are nine flavours in total and you can pick up a box in Harrods.

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Salsa per Amatori. Arturo Crispino (what a great name!) poured me a tot of thick velvety passata and I glugged it down. The ingredients – tomatoes and one basil leaf. No preservatives or enhancers, totally unassuming, really fresh flavour, not too strong, no nasty tang, beautiful rich red colour and just simple, traditional and nice. This is the weirdest shot I have ever drunk though!

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La Caveja Piadinerie. Wraps seem boring and generally just exist to hold other flavourful stuff together. This vegetarian 8 cereal wrap was actually tasty on its own too! They call it Italian street food. Apparently the young people love it. I quite liked it too.

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Di Sorrento. Too early in the day for booze, but never too early for cake. Hoorah!These little Limoncello Babas were delicious. Left for one day after baking and then soaked in Limoncello for 24 months. Looks like a poop, tastes like a dream. Could the Baba rival the Macaron and the Canale?

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Toscobosco. They make lots of tasty things, but I loved this truffley treat that they served with a creamy light Parmesan semifreddo. Pure cacao from Latin America and bianco truffle, with a touch of red pepper. Sweet, rich, peppery and incredible. Chocolate meets truffle, all in a little pot. Not for sale in the UK yet, but available by mail direct from the producer, somehow. I have to work out how to order some, I can’t not!

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Tartufia. Black truffle, from the Molise region, simply sliced and jarred in olive oil. Very simple, very flavourful. The Tartufia team are very proud of their product, and for using natural and traditional processes.The truffles are hunted by dogs, this is the kind of hunting I can agree with. They come from ’the land of truffles,’ Paolo told me, ’plenty of truffle.’

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Forno D’Asolo. This one wasn’t on my roster, but when I saw their beautiful display of pastry goodness I volunteered myself immediately. I particularly liked that they had their ovens on the go all day, wafting sweet pastry smells and bringing out soft, warm croissants. I sampled the Cornetto Vegano Albicocca, a completely vegan apricot croissant made with soya milk.

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They supply coffee bars and cafes around the world, including Cafe Girasole , at 150 Seven Sister Road run by the lovely Eglal Gomaa (Find out more on Zomato) Whether you are vegan or not I think you’d be very happy eating this, they also do vegan pistachio croissants, and all sorts of other doughy delights.

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2015 07 20 bellavita awards italian food expo london 39

L’Antica Cascina. My absolute hands-down favouritest, best in show, tasty nice thing was their amazing CHEESE! Fermented amongst olive branches, in sealed terracotta pots for a month, the cheese is irregularly shaped, marked on its rind with the imprint of olive leaves and made with Ewe’s milk, the ‘Pecorino all’Olivio’ is delicious, moreish and full of flavour, but in no way overpowering. I reckon you really could just keep eating it, and I plan to hunt down a big chunk of it for myself.

If you’re down at Borough Market you can grab a slab (and one for me too please!) at Bianca e Mora. I don’t think you’ll regret it (unless you are dairy intolerant, of course).

I was more than delighted to hear that my favourite cheese of cheeses, became the overall winner of the food section of the Bellavita Awards. I knew it! (I didn’t! I just like nice cheese.)

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Bellavita Expo was massive – several thousand visitors and over 200 exhibitors. So much to taste and see. I was really lucky to be involved with judging such an array of incredible artisan products, but, I have to tell you, it’s not all truffles, cheese and limoncello, they made me judge lettuce. Twice. (That’s all I can say, too traumatised.)

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The enjoyment of the day was matched by the excitement of my journey home.

The trains were rather full as a couple had been cancelled. At Cambridge the first four carriages disconnect to go on to Kings Lynn, with the rest of the train stopping at Cambridge. I think it’s to do with the short platforms out in the Fens, or the fact that they think there’s not enough people to fill a proper train. Any way. I thought I was in the front four, but it turns out I was in carriage number five.

I rushed down the platform to the bursting front four. Passed the first two carriages assuming there’d be more space further down, but no. There was standing room only, and barely any of that. ‘Please, please don’t make me stay here!’ I said in desperation, followed, with slightly more confidence, by, ’Is there room for me? I’ve got a rather large bottom!’ Then the doors closed. I realised at this moment that I was neither on nor off the train. Those doors are more powerful than I ever knew. You’d think they’d stop when they hit body – they don’t. It hurt as I was crushed in their solid grip, and then two men prised me free and I popped forwards onto the train. ‘Hello!’ I said with loud excitement to the flush faces on the full carriage. I stood perfectly still, there was no room to move, we were all as still as stone. It seemed a bit quiet considering we were all so  up-close-and-personal with each other. I made a few random statements about my gratitude for not being squashed.

At the next station several people wished to disembark. I was stood in front of the doors. Some people looked worried, like they’d be trapped forever. I told them I was going to keep them there. I think they might have believed me, but then the doors slid open and I stepped onto the platform, ushering them off the train with a smile, ‘Go! Be free!’ I told them as they alighted hastily. A sweet little lady grabbed my arm and dragged me back onto the train.

Stop after stop the people got off, and I was soon left with an overly warm seat near the toilets. I felt happy and grateful. Clever British Rail!

Lotus Cup UK Speed Championship 2015 – Blyton Park (Round 6 & 7)

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On Friday morning I wasn’t even sure if we’d actually make it to Blyton. After Adam breaking a track rod end off, a rush to Elise Parts and a last minute chicken-feed geo (that’s how we roll in the Fens!) including a weight being dropped through the passenger side sill, we were glad to finally be on our way.

We arrived at my favourite Scunthorpe hotel, Wortley House, in time for dinner, drinks and an early night. I like the Wortley, it’s old-school, it’s run by good people and it has interesting carpets.

In the morning we ate a breakfast of hot croissants served to us at 6.30am by the most lovely, sweetly spoken lady. She called Adam sweetheart and blamed the pot when he spilt coffee across the table.

The sun was shining as our little Lotus convoy headed off to Blyton Park, to the Westfield Sports Car Club sprint. We were there last year. It was a great weekend.

In the paddock I hunted down my friend Heather. It was her and her dad who had spurred me on last year at Blyton, and we’ve kept in touch ever since, updating each other on our sprinting progress on a regular basis. Like modern day pen-pals, with Whatsapp.

I couldn’t wait to get out on track with my… drum roll…. new shock absorbers! Whaaaaaa! So exciting. Really! (I’ve written more about this at the bottom of this post, because I really want to tell you about them!)

My mantra for the day was, ‘ I know where I’m going, and I don’t need a map, so there shouldn’t be a problem!’

First practice, 79.40. Adam did it in 77.54. Alrighty!

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2015 07 11 lotus cup uk speed championship blyton saturday 06

Duncan came back in after his first practice running on three cylinders and smoking (the car, not Dunc. Gone are the days of cigarette sponsorship at motorsport events.) Whilst useful friends stripped his car down, Duncan headed off to Lincoln in search of a head gasket. It was full on team work. I would have offered to help but there were no jobs suitable for my skill-set (I’m good at looking and pointing) and all I could offer was googly eyes. I really don’t know why Duncan wouldn’t use them to mark the cam pulleys.

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With all the excitement and activity in the paddock it was soon time to go out for the second practice. Adam did an excellent 75.49 – with my numbers on! Whoops. I did a 77.19, which is still good, I know.

We had our first timed run before lunch. Adam did an exciting 360 spin over the finish line, and John Taylor (he’s fast) had his hat on back-to-front.

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2015 07 11 lotus cup uk speed championship blyton saturday 08

Queueing up for the second timed run I heard that Emma had hit the barrier. It was worrying at first, but then I saw the recovery vehicle coming in, Emma sat in the front seat laughing away! She seemed excited (I think it was the adrenaline) and wanted to borrow a straight wheel so she could get back out as soon as possible.  She also needed a lot of gaffer tape and a full-on ‘art attack’ team. All I could offer was googly eyes, again.

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I managed to get my best time of the weekend, 77.18, on the third run. Russell went so fast that his gear linkage came off. Duncan, who’d finished rebuilding his car in record time, cable-tied it back on for him.

It was soon trophy time. We’d been trusted with the task of delivering the LCUK trophies, the temptation to Sharpie pen my name onto all of them was great, but luckily I resisted. In Supersport Dave Mann took 1st, Tony Pearman 2nd, and crazy-calm engine rebuilding, chips and mayonnaise eating, Duncan Fraser, got 3rd. Yes, that’s right, after rebuilding his car he had just enough time to get a lap in and earn a trophy.

In Production Rob Clark took 1st (Hooray! Rob! Whoop!), Graham Foley came 2nd, and Mark Swarbrick  got 3rd. (He has Haribo in his trinket shelf.) John Taylor (he’s fast) got a trophy. I think it was because he had his hat on the wrong way round.

Adam came 6th, I came 8th. Out of 13. Could have been better, but we were both chuffed with that.

While the campers headed off for Chinese takeaway, we headed back to the hotel. We drove passed the exciting sounding Sizzling Dolphin to get to the boring sounding Anchor and had dinner. We ate chewy chips that weren’t meant to be chewy.

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On Sunday, as the early morning dew lifted from the grass, across the field, something small and fast stirred beside the cars. It was Rob Boston doing a geo on Emma’s car with some borrowed tent guy ropes, of course! He brought her a set of wheels and helped get her back out on track. Hooray, again, for team work and camaraderie!

Both Adam and I were slower than hoped on our first practice, and then it started to rain. People were spinning all over the shop (including Adam), Dave and Duncan went fishtailing round the track at speed, and me, I put in a fairly respectable time of 93.62 by pootling round the track slowly. I think I actually placed 4th in that practice, ha! Bring the rain, bring all the rain!

We had an early lunch, the sun came out, and the track dried off ready for two runs in the afternoon. Damn it! My first run was 77.37, and my second 77.23.

In Supersport Tony Pearman took 1st (and a trophy with a smurf on it!), Dave Mann 2nd (receiving his trophy with the help of his super-cute little girl) and Duncan 3rd. Duncan also got the ‘Driver of the Day’ trophy for Saturday’s endeavours, truly deserved.

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In Production Rob Clark took 1st (of course!), Jez Braker 2nd (he also did a fantastic job of looking after everyone all weekend) and Simon Foley came 3rd (good for him!) Emma Newman was awarded ‘Driver of the Day’ for her positive determination and for getting back on track after her accident on Saturday.

Adam came 6th, and I came 10th – disappointing. I lost out on an extra point (1st – 9th all get different points accordingly, but 10th and slower all get the same) by just 0.05 seconds, that’s 50 milliseconds apparently. 9th place went to Martin Scarfe, his car has a lot more power and is race-spec (Phil Stratton-Lake’s ex-Elise Trophy, trophy winner!), so I think I can cope with that!

John Taylor (he’s fast) had his hat on back-to-front.

I thought I should compare my 2015 times to my 2014 results, so I did. If I’d done this years times in 2014 I would have come 3rd on the Saturday and 4th on the Sunday… you what?! I mean, I’ve improved massively – my best time last year was 85.48 – I’ve knocked over 8 seconds off that! But, wow! The competition is so much tougher, I’m not just up against one racing driver (it was pretty cool ‘competing’ with Martin Donnelly last year) but several racing drivers, and several racing cars. There’s only one thing for it… Need. More. Wang!

In case you are interested, all the times can be found here, and there are some more photos here. 

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And now, to my big ‘thanks I’d have never made it round so comfortably without the help of decent shocks’ update:

I’ve been waiting since the beginning of the year for some dampers from a company whose name I will now not mention (I’m not being polite, I just can’t bear to say it!) I kept holding on and having faith, but after months of being fobbed off my loyalty waned. I started asking around for advice from impartial people who’d give me an honest view on what to buy, and the answer was… GAZ.

So I spoke to GAZ. I explained that I was half way through the season and had been continuously let down, I’d been driving around on knackered old sofa springs (as good as!), whilst trying to get round corners the angle of the car resembled a dog cocking its leg, and I really needed some help.

I don’t know if it was the sheer desperation in my voice, or the fact that I told Warren he sounded like a normal human (flattery will get you everywhere. Not me though, I say stupid things to people all the time!) but the kind and clear answer was that they were willing to help me and they offered their support.

I placed my order on ‘Hot Wednesday’, as it became known, (to me), the hottest day in the UK for 9 years, apparently, and I collected the dampers on the Friday. (I even managed to wangle a factory tour – they are really proud of what they do, and I’m just nosey.) By Saturday afternoon Rob Boston was fitting them (he worked on our car until 9pm, such a lovely chap!) and by Sunday we were testing them out. I mean, seriously –  I’d been waiting six months and then this team of awesome wizards turned it around in a just a few days!

The car looks and feels so much better. We’re still learning about the dampers (first time we’ve had adjustables!) but they’re great, and I’m happy. Everything has gone brilliantly. I’ve thought long and hard, and the only thing I can fault GAZ on is their telephone hold music. It’s like a bad doorbell from the Eighties.

At Home With The Chickens

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The other day we were in the garden when we heard, from behind the hedge, the most horrific chicken scream, mixed with a loud man’s voice and something to do with a dog. I looked at Adam. ‘Sandra!’
I ran through the gate, across the garden, and round the corner into the road.

There, in the middle of the road stood the man whose voice I had heard, face looking on, all straight lines and angles, hands held out in front of him, palms upturned, no sign of a chicken or a dog, but instead, a cloud of white feathers circling the man, like a whirlwind in a snow globe.

I rushed over to him. He started waving his arms around. I couldn’t understand what he was saying fully, because he was speaking in German, but I got the gist. A dog had attacked Sandra.

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Adam came along quickly and spoke to the man, ‘Das hund ja?’ Or something. This dear man had stopped the dog and scared it off. Chicken Saviour. He said that the dog had grabbed her by the back of her neck and swung her about. There was no blood – a good sign, but there was no sign of Sandra and I was convinced she’d gone off somewhere to die of shock.

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2015 07 02 chickens with watermelon 02

Neighbours came out from their houses, they all know Sandra, we started searching for her, a search party of over ten of us. An hour later she was found. Alive.

I picked her up and checked her over. Her back was all bald, plucked and sore looking. Feathers missing, but fine. We brought her home and she hobbled slowly round the garden looking sorry for herself.

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The next morning she went straight back out again! She can’t be tamed, she’s a sociable creature.

They call her Houdini round here, or Trudy, my neighbour also calls her Trudy. One old lady, Mary, who is particularly enamoured by her, and can just manage to use her wheely zimmer to get to the top of the road, (she got stuck on our front gravel with it once, Adam had to rescue her and get her to the grass!) has been heard from the other side of the garden hedge calling, ‘Sandra! Hello, hello Sandra!’ She’s a chicken lurer and Sandra is mesmerised by her charms. (Mary feeds her.)

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In other chicken news:

Baby chick Ruth Sultana will be eight weeks old this weekend. It’s hard to remember the cute fluffy little thing she was, now we have this funny looking dinosaur/hawk-like beast wandering around the garden, and flying, She can really fly. I say ‘she’, we’re still not sure. We thought she was definitely a she, but then she started showing signs that she might be a he. Such is life.

Sasha has been really enjoying the watermelon, with her sight problems it seems that something that is large, brightly coloured and stays still is the ideal thing for her to eat.

Ginger Belinda has stopped being jealous of Ginger Margaret and is now sharing chick protection duties with her. Double-hard ginger mothers.

And April, April has retained her championship title in the local village show with her award winning egg. The trophy is at the engravers, and will return to our kitchen shelf next month. We call it the Egg Cup.


The Alpacas of Houghton Hall

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It feels a bit weird to be sharing these grey skied photos today, what with the sunshine and the heatwave, you know, but apparently alpacas love sunbathing, they love playing in sprinklers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they really liked ice cream too. So, it’s totally fitting!

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A few months ago I was commissioned by Practical Goats Sheep & Alpacas magazine (yes, I know – it’s niche!) to photograph the fabulous Alpacas of Houghton Hall.

I didn’t get to meet all 800 of them, but I really tried. I almost had to be dragged from the field. I stood amongst the beautiful creatures as they ate their food and looked quizzically at me and I felt like I could stay there for ever.

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2015 03 16 Houghton Hall Alpacas 102

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I met the first two babies (cria) of the season, and now I look back on these images with the knowledge that a cute cria crop of almost 200 has been produced. It’s hard to fathom really.

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Liz, the Editor of PGSA, said that I could be the queen of the alpacas, but I felt more that I could be at one with them, become one of them – see the alpaca, be the alpaca.

Is it the heat speaking? I can’t tell you. We’ll probably never know!

What I can tell you though, is that an alpaca accidentally punched me in the stomach, and I nearly came home with a blind alpaca. Those two things are not related – I didn’t get into a brawl or anything.

I was posing for a selfie with an extra friendly camelid when Emmeline (their Marketing Exec) took a photo. My new alpaca friend was quite startled by the camera flash and decided to do a runner, but of course he had to move me out of the way first! It was quite funny, and he soon came back with his lovely face.

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All their faces are different. Seriously. Look at them, they are all clearly individuals with their own characters, (and great teeth!)

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This one blind alpaca really stole my heart. With his dear, soft head held down, he snuffled around in the small enclosure, being kept safe and informed  by his fully-sighted alpaca friend. They really are remarkable creatures.

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I could have stayed for so much longer, but instead, I’ll just have to go back another time… any excuse!

Here’s the magazine, with the multi award-winning Mystical Magic on the cover. You can read the full article in PGSA here. 

practical sheep goats and alpacas magazine cover by karen harvey

If you’d like to find out more about keeping these beautiful animals I’d highly recommend speaking to the team at Houghton Hall Alpacas. They really know their stuff,  they’re passionate about alpacas, and they really care.

And if you’ve got a field full of inquisitive and cuddly animals that I can hang out with for an afternoon sometime, just let me know, I’ll bring the biscuits!