Portmeirion, Wales (I Am The New Number Two!)

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We arrived at our hotel, Tyddyn Llan, a beautiful Georgian farmhouse in rural North Wales, to find that there had been a mistake with the booking. I didn’t mind that they’d shown the wrong rooms on the website, I could cope with that, but when they told us there wasn’t a room booked for us at all I was a little bit taken aback. Luckily they weren’t fully booked, and after realising it was their mistake and not ours, and some to-ing and fro-ing of the reception staff, we were given a very pleasant looking room.

We ate a dinner of six courses (yes, six courses, and canapes, and petits fours!) in the Michelin starred restaurant, and,  stuffed to the gunnels with traditional courses, retired to bed.

Our room (Room 4) was above the kitchen. Luckily for Adam he is a good sleeper, but he did miss out on the soundtrack of clanking pots and eighties music. I lay there, trying not to let my ear rest on the pillow, trying not to allow the mattress to become a massive amplifier of kitchen sound, until I heard it – Van Halen, Jump! I sang along, the kitchen staff sang along, Adam slept on. Lucky, lucky thing.

The building was beautifully old, creaky and characterful. I realised that the floor was significantly sloped when I got up in the night to use the bathroom and ended up accidentally running down the room towards the window, gaining speed until I hit an arm chair. It wasn’t the best of nights.

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We got up early and headed out into the sunshine. It smelled nice, of air and water. We drove through Snowdonia National Park, down towards Portmeirion. Adam put Iron Maiden’s The Prisoner on the stereo, to get us in the mood. ‘I am the new number two. You are number six!’  ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’ ‘Haaahahaha!’ and all that.

I’ve never actually watched The Prisoner (it was filmed at Portmeirion, in case you were wondering). I know it was shown when I was a child (a re-run!) but back then I was more interested in sitting behind the sofa making notes on peoples conversations, rather than watching tele. It was hard to persuade me to watch the television, and I’ve had to be conditioned to do so over the years!

At the end of the most magnificent lane, hedge-lined with hydrangeas in all pastel colours, was the magnificent village of Portmeirion. Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis had bought the land in 1925 and set out to show how a beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it. It took 50 years to build.

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As we walked down towards the sea the Campanile bells rang out with a rather eerie, and slightly fairytale-like chime. I do think that on a lonely, empty day it could be quite terrifying.

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I ate a pistachio ice cream on a wonky chair. It was made in the village using local milk – the ice cream, not the chair, that was blown vinyl and probably made in China, or Italy.

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We decided to wait for the land train ride, up the hill and through the trees of the sub-tropical forest Y Gwyllt. A lot of people were queueing and we tried to put them off – ‘I’ve heard one of the wheels is falling off!’ exclaimed Adam, ever practical. ‘The seats are covered in treacle!’ I joined in.

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We sat next to a lovely lady and chatted to her. She was on her way to a barbecue and had decided to stop off and enjoy her afternoon at Portmeirion. After some intense questioning we discovered she was the well-known botanical artist, Angie Girling, which was nice.

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The best thing about Portmeirion, for me, was the marvellous way architect Clough Williams-Ellis aligned the vistas. Every scene was beautifully framed, every building had a wonderfully styled view, every view had a selection of colour and form to enhance the setting. Quite incredible.

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According to Wikipedia Clough Williams-Ellis died aged 94 in April 1978, and was cremated, in accordance with his wishes. His ashes went to make up a marine rocket, which was part of a New Year’s Eve firework display at Portmeirion some twenty years after his death. My kind of chap. I was going to ask to be filled with un-popped corn and then cremated, but Bertram has given me food for thought!

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We drove back to our hotel, via the picturesque town of Betws-y-Coed, stopping for dinner and sights to be seen.

Top kitchen song of the night? Pulp, Common People. It was warm so we left the window open, and in the morning everything smelt like chips.

Shooting Soup with Glorious Foods

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What better way to challenge someone’s food photography skills than to set them the soup shooting challenge?

That’s what I thought.

I’m hosting a ‘Blogtography’ workshop with my lovely friend Aoife from Sweetpeas and Sours this week. I’m going to be sharing some food styling and photography tips, and Aoife is going to be wowing the crowds with her cocktail concoctions. If it doesn’t rain, it will be a good evening. (Even if it does rain, it will still be a good evening. I’m going equipped with five umbrellas so as to ward off the bad weather).

We are going to have a pot-luck picnic and we’ve got lots of props and goodies to make it extra special. I am hoping everyone will be inspired to keep working on their food photography, so I’m inviting them to take the shooting soup photography challenge. How exciting, hey?!

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The good people at GLORIOUS! kindly offered their support and sent me some soup to shoot and share.

What started off as an innocent exercise in photography ended up being some kind of crazy flavourful adventure of sight and smell, and memory!

I find it quite special how a smell can suddenly evoke such vivid memories and take you, in a snap, to another place and time.

Sometimes there will be a waft of my grandmother’s pantry just hit me and take me back to being six years old and feeling most impressed that there were foil wrapped biscuits in the Tupperware tub that also housed the normal biscuits.

Imperial Leather soap makes me think of my grandparents bathroom. The cool air. The fluffy pink toilet seat cover. The pale pink painted chair.

Last year I ordered a sweet curry in a Brick Lane restaurant and as I lifted the lid from the dish I was hit by the smell of warm sweet spices and instantly transported to the kitchen of Sophie Behagg’s grandmothers house. I was shocked. I’d never known what the smell was, it just was. I used to love going there to play, dressing up and pretending to run our many important businesses from the conservatory.

The smell of popcorn at the cinema reminds me of our dear little cat Winnie-Pearl, her tiny paws smelt a lot like popcorn, and a little bit like old slippers!

And, the taste of olives reminds me of my childhood best-horse-friend, Rainbow. For years I thought olives tasted like horses, until one day it dawned on me – Rainbow smelt of olives! What a revelation that was. Poor old chap had olive oil in his feed to help his tired joints. He was a lovely creature.

Reading the descriptive labels of the GLORIOUS! soups made me inquisitive. Not only did I want to taste them, but I wanted to smell them! (Oh, and, of course, photograph them).

So, yes, the soup. That’s what we are here for!

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New England in Autumn – A light and smooth butternut squash soup with a hint of warming cumin and strolling under a colourful tree canopy.

How can you resist that description? Unless you have an allergy to butternut squash of course (and then, I can tell you, you’ll still give it a little go!) Such a vibrant colour, with a thick potatoey body and a hint of nutmeg. Spicy, a definite autumn/winter warmer, and ideal for the summer we are having!

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More Bangalore – A rich Toor Daal lentil and chickpea soup with garam masala, curry leaves, mango chutney and being head to toe in a carnival of vibrant colour.

Oh yes, that fantastic colour. It made me think of spice markets. You can taste the carrots and coriander, the blended chickpeas and lentils create a smooth creamy texture. A simple staple food with a slight sweet tang of mango chutney.

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My brother lived in India for a while. The spicy warm scent made me think of our own visit to stay with him in Delhi. The bustling streets, the spices, the sweets, the colourful beads and vibrant fabrics, my brother’s ‘move like water’ theory that made it easier to move against the ebb and flow of the crowds, and monkeys riding pillion on motorcycles.

Another world full of delights. What a wonderful, wonderful place.

I had the best ever rice pudding in India. Ever, ever, EVER. Don’t doubt me! Up in the mountains at Neemrana Fort Palace, with the warm sun and gentle breeze on my face, I can close my eyes and be there. If only I could open my eyes to that magical rice pudding.

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Sun-Kissed in Sicily – a rustic pomodoro tomato and balsamic soup with roast garlic, fennel and a splash of watching the surf crash on black volcanic beaches.

Tomato soup always reminds me of alphabetti-spaghetti and indigestion. I’m still not hugely convinced by tomato soups, but this one is herby and garlicy, and that gives it much redemption in my eyes.

I never used to like tomatoes, but now I love them. Just the other week I was enjoying the most delcious but simple tomato salad at Crafthouse, and before that I was at the Bellavita Awards tasting the freshest and best of Italian foods, including a marvellous velvety passata (and all the cheese!) Aoife gave me some tomato plants and I am still hoping those little green fruits will go red soon, and that the chickens won’t see them before I do.

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When it comes down to it I really think it’s all in the colour and composition. Soup is pretty flat, so what are you going to do about it? All we have is colour and props. (A lot of fun can be had matching your cutlery to your soup!)

There’s not much diversity in form, or texture to offer you an idea of what the soup tastes like, most other foods evoke bigger memories and associations, so we have to try a bit harder to find ways to tell a visual story about the flavour and the experience.

To help me do that I have all sorts of random props floating around the place, I love cooking and styling food, and I also collect vintage recipe books which are great for inspiration (and comedy value – check out this teatime treat for your Valentine!)

It’s not easy shooting soup, but with the help of GLORIOUS! I proved pretty good at eating it.

I’m going to be challenging the blogtographers to shoot soup and join me on a glorious adventure – do you want to join us?

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Thank you to GLORIOUS! Foods for supporting the blogtography workshop and inviting everyone to get involved and share their
#GloriousAdventures
It’s been souper! (I know, I’m not even funny, I’m sorry, I’ve ruined everything!)

Dinner at Crafthouse, Leeds

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I’m not really very good at birthdays – a combination of being busy,  childhood memories of party guests sticking peanuts in my cake, and the fact that I will never be able to top the present my mum and brother gave me on my 11th birthday! (And why try? It was the most beautiful white mountain bike, and the gift had such a big impact on me that all these years later I am still incredibly grateful for their kindness.)

So anyway, it was my birthday and it seemed like a good opportunity to eat a dinner. I usually find a reason to eat a dinner everyday, which is handy.

I popped into Bradford to run a few errands as the rain poured down with grey gusto, so I took shelter from it in a time warp cafe, getting the evil eye from a characterful woman who raspily laughed on her mobile phone as she told the caller the details of a court case she was reading from her newspaper. I was intrigued.

Heavy rain dampened the day, but by the evening the sun was shining and bright. Once we’d found our way to Crafthouse (it’s not easy!) we entered through the heavy ribbed-glass doors and were greeted by cooled air and chilled tunes.

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Stepping into the airy sanctuary above the shops, with a bright and spacious style, I busily admired the space for its lovely marble counter and odd tables, the simple string screen, the bread baskets in copper, the cut crystal glasses… lovely, lovely.

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We sat by the window (it would have been hard not to!) and admired the view, eating fresh soft warm bread and enjoying it.

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My seat was so low that they bought me a cushion. A fur cushion, that looked like a cat. I reached for my stash of googly eyes and felt pleased with my efforts. 

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I started with Duck Liver Terrine – cherry texture, doughnut, Manuka honey. The strong, perfectly balanced flavours packed a pretty-as-a-picture punch. The peppery Nasturtium leaves, the creamy smooooth pate, that aromatic florid honey, the rich cherry and that tiny doughnut of great power – really good. I mean really. 

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Adam opted for the silky smooth East Coast Lobster Veloute – kummel, lobster, borage flower, poured from a small neat copper pan into a crisp white china dish. Creamy and delicate in texture, but rich in flavour.

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Straight from the Josper Grill I chose the 35 day dry aged Rib Eye with an Heirloom tomato salad and peppercorn sauce.

I was delighted with the bowl of the prettiest tomatoes, a mixture of colours, some rich orange and marbled like a bowling ball, others dark red and green, yellow, red and just beautifully enjoyable to the eyes and to the palette.

The steak was a perfectly cooked cut of excellent quality. Rich and flavourful, with that Josper touch, it was crisped on the edges, soft, and eaten with ease.

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Adam’s choice was the flavourful Duo of Lamb – roasted rack, crispy shoulder, stewed Basque style peppers, black olive, with a side of buttered potatoes. Another winner.

Of course, he had to follow this with one of his all-time favourite puddings, Creme Brûlée served with a lemon shortbread.

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They’ve been serving delicious creme brûlées since the beginning of Crafthouse. It’s a forever thing. A classic. The shortbread was exceptional. With crisp sugar on top it was very light, lemony, and buttery.

Where I have the rather unclassy ‘Harvinator Scale of Burger Appreciation’, Adam has his ‘Creme Brûlée-ometer’ which scored this creamy, creamy beauty a superb 9/10.

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I was pretty chuffed when my Whipped Valrhona Milk Chocolate – salted caramel, chocolate sable breton arrived. Will you look at that?!

My first thought was that I should wear it on my head like a magical party crown.

I had two choices and only one pudding, so I ate it.

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I chose wisely. Such creamy mousse, so cool and smooth, so chocolatey. I was chomping happily through the biscuity-cakey-base and then BOOM! I met with a centre of silky smooth salted caramel. Result!

I think I have said creamy and smooth too much today. I can’t help it. Crafthouse are texture experts!

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All of that lovely food was followed by the nicest cup of tea I have ever had in a restaurant. Perfect tea for me! Refreshing and clean tasting with good water, accompanied by the madeleine of your dreams.

Sticky and crispy on the outside, so soft in the middle. Lemony and delicious. ‘How is that possible?’ Adam asked with almost disbelief, ‘Butter!’ I said as I popped the rest of it in my mouth with a contented smile.

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The service was attentive, but not intrusive. We were looked after by Christophe, with the salmon tie. He was a total delight, a charming man.

The Crafthouse experience was an excellent one. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, from the ambience to the decor, the food to the service, I couldn’t fault a thing.

The lofty location and the non-obtrusive signposting to Crafthouse made it feel, to me, a bit like a private members club, like Kensington Roof Gardens perhaps, but without the flamingoes.

And, because of it’s secluded and tucked-away position, I feel it’s got to be a destination place. I can’t imagine anyone just pops by – it’s on the roof top!

A well kept secret? Spread the word!

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You can find Crafthouse at  Level 5 Trinity Leeds, 70 Boar Lane, Leeds, LS1 6HW, and if you get lost, you can call them on 0113 897 0444!

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Thank you so much team Crafthouse for inviting us to dine with you, for putting up with me adding googly-eyes to your cushion, and for making it a birthday to remember for many good reasons! I really hope to see you again soon! 

Lotus Cup UK Speed Championship 2015 – Hethel (Round 8)

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Before we left for Hethel my nephew Sam told Adam that the car needed to be really, really clean, so that when we didn’t do very well nobody would notice. He’s four years old and very thoughtful.

We arrived at the Lotus Test Track in good time, and wide awake, for a change. It was good to see all the other Lotus’ there with B19, and PML, and some extra LoTRDC drivers who we don’t always see – John and Andrew.

I told Andrew that he either needs to get involved in the whole season of sprints, or back-off and give me a better chance of getting a point or two! I told him that the point system was a bit like when you win all the tokens at the arcades, and if he was lucky he’d be able to trade them in for a box of biscuits or something. I’m not sure he was keen. Later on he said I could keep the biscuits.

Practice one went okay for me, until I arrived at the second hairpin and didn’t turn soon enough – two wheels on the track, two wheels on the less-grippy gritty grass. I slowly made my way round the outside of the bend as if I was stuck on rails, all the way round until I could get back on track without risking a spin. It was slow, but it was all I was capable of. 155.47, not great, but almost 2 seconds faster than my best time back in May.

Adam’s first practice was far more impressive, and nerve wracking. I was standing on the pit wall, chatting to Steve and Stefan, watching the cars go by and waiting for my car to come back in. ‘There it goes,’ I thought, as Adam sped by with a squeal. Too much squeal! As he lost the car on the bend my hands came up to cover my mouth, and my eyes bulged at my fellow onlookers. We couldn’t see where he’d gone, as there was a wall in the way, and although it looked like he was headed for the barrier, there was no bang, so that was a definite positive. Somehow he managed to keep all four wheels on the track, carry on and get a time!

My second practice was more successful, and pretty. Yes, pretty! As I headed off the start line something red flashed in front of my eyes. No, not the red mist, (Gary Thwaites hasn’t been around  for ages to spur me on with stories of kitten harm at the finish line) it was a beautiful butterfly. I didn’t get a proper look, I couldn’t identify it, I was busy driving, but it was nice, and I liked it. My time was an improvement, 153.35. Thank you butterfly driving mascot.

Simon Foley wasn’t having as much luck (no helpful insects for him.) With an almighty bang one of his engine mounts had broken and needed to be replaced. Sounds like a big deal? Not when you’re hanging out with a bunch of Lotus lovers! In no time at all the part had been sourced from Simon Oakley and was being fitted. ‘Hit it with a hammer!’ directed Phoebe with intent.

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After lunch (a banana and a bag of popcorn for me, if you’re interested!) it was time for the first timed run. I was slower than my second practice, 155.23 –  a fluffed gear change, and no butterfly, that’s why!

On the second timed run Martin Roberts went off in a cloud of brown dust, his wife looked on with bewilderment. I managed a respectable 152.52, and Adam showed me up with a 147.45!

The death burger wagon was doing an afternoon tea special of scones with cream and jam. Lynne latched on to the decadence of the moment and said she thought it would be nice for the ladies to wear dresses, and fancy hats, a bit like Ascot. I wasn’t sure how practical it would be, but I’d really like some sequinned lapels for my race suit.

I’m not sure how long I was day-dreaming about those glitzy lapels, but it was long enough for Simon Foley to get fixed up and back on track for that second run, and… Boom! He made it to trophy time with 1st place in Production!

Jez Braker, with his magnificent flower-pot induction kit, took 2nd, and Martin Scarfe, who finally found the ‘Go!’ button, took 3rd place and Driver of the Day!

In the SuperSport class Dave Mann didn’t manage to get a second timed run in due to car troubles, but that didn’t stop him – 1st place, winner! John Taylor (he’s fast!) took a staggering 2nd, and Tony Pearman 3rd.

I’m not sure what happened with Tony’s times, but something wasn’t at all right. His second run showed almost 160 – which at the rate he drives must have meant he took a detour to the shops or something! Maybe that’s why he wasn’t hungry for his birthday cake later? Perhaps he’d popped off to the chippy? I hope he didn’t have ‘pea wet’ on them.

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After the trophy giving we ate the cake of Victoria Sandwich with redundant birthday candles, off the back of Dave Mann’s trailer. Dave didn’t even get a crumb. Sorry Dave, I owe you a cake.

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It was a good, sociable and sunny day under the big blue Norfolk skies. We even got an airshow fly past. Nice.

Derek from GAZ popped in, and Jaime from LoTRDC came along too, just to hang out with us all, on his day off!

All in all  Adam came 10th, and I came 11th, out of 13. This time last year my best time was 160.71 (I was 11th then too, but out of 15) I’ve knocked over 8 seconds off since then. I should be pleased. I need a faster car (and more skill!)

Dinner on the way home didn’t involve pancakes or waffles, but it did involved peas. I don’t like peas, but I do like good company, so it turned out right in the end.

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P.S. I apologise for my random photographs. No photo policy at Hethel. They have to protect their magic from the general public.

P.P.S. Did I tell you, I am currently 1st in the standings for the whole of the UK in the BWRDC Speed Championship? I wonder how long that will last?!