Loving the island life: hiking on the Isle of Wight

Today’s journey involves a train and a boat. My two favourite forms of transport so that’s a great  start. We’re heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest island in England which is set in the English Channel four miles off the Hampshire coast.

The ferry from Portsmouth took us across the Solent – a journey of 20 minutes towards island life and a weekend of hiking and relaxing. The island’s been a holiday destination since Victorian times – Queen Victoria built her much-loved summer residence Osborne House here and often came to visit with her family. It was also made popular by poets Swinburne and Tennyson.

In more recent times it’s become famous for hosting music festivals including the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival. In 1970 Jimi Hendrix headlined and the festival attracted around 700,000 people – truly massive for the island with a population of only around 100,000. I can only imagine the chaos.

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Sailing away from Portsmouth and its striking Spinnaker Tower

It’s amazing how crossing water – even on a short journey – makes you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world. A world that its residents are very proud of. And rightly so, as I soon discovered a beautifully peaceful island with plenty of history to absorb and sights to see.

Our final destination, a scenic drive from Ryde to the westerly side of the island, is Freshwater Bay House, a historic seaside Country House dating from the 1790s. It’s set on the cliff top with great views over the bay it’s named after.

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Looking back across the bay to our home for the weekend

Freshwater Bay House is home to HF Holidays, a leading walking and activity holiday company. They’ve been going for over 100 years, so they really know their stuff and we were soon settled in and ready to find out where our hiking boots could take us.

After dinner (more of which later) our guides took us through the walks available for the next day so we could make our choices. There were three options, divided by difficulty, so you could pick the one just right for you – it is your holiday after all.

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The golden sunrise across the bay

An early start and a hearty breakfast and we were ready to set off.

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A fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict

Our first walk (in a group of 10) was guided by Martin. It was a comfortable ramble along wide, grass-cushioned paths, through wooded tracks and winding coastal paths.

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Ready for hiking with my comfy new HiTech boots

Our pace definitely got the blood pumping but I loved that there was always plenty of time to absorb the stunning, ever-changing views of countryside and sea – and to stop and take pictures (or laugh at the cows who posed so beautifully). I must have taken hundreds of them. Here’s a taster of our journey which took us from Freshwater Bay to The Needles and back via the towering Tennyson Monument.

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Charming St Agnes Church is the only thatched church on the island

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Sea views through the silhouetted cows

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Love the signs along the way

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The multicoloured cliffs of Alum Bay

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A perfect view of The Needles through the lookout at The Old Battery

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Perfect forest pathways to amble along

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Shades of blues and greens as we head for home

All that fresh air and energy expended makes me very hungry. So it’s great news that the food at Freshwater Bay House is fantastic. The three courses menu offers dishes made using a lot of local products and with plenty of gluten-free options.

Farming is an important part of Isle of Wight life with plenty of sheep and cows everywhere. And it has a milder climate than the rest of the UK (with more sun) which makes for a longer growing season. Main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic – and there are even two vineyards.

I always look for Isle of Wight tomatoes in the supermarket – they’re so packed with flavour. So I was delighted with this starter. A colourful array of my favourite of fruits, with the yellow one stuffed with a deliciously silken asparagus mousse. Another thing on my “must learn how to make” list.

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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours

The fish dishes were particularly great, including lobster, mussels and sole.

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Local lobster with a mussel broth

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Sweet sole on a bed of risotto

Always partial to a cheese platter, I did my duty and tried the local delights. And took a particular liking to the Gallybagger (I know, weird name for a cheese) which is cheddar-like and extremely tasty.

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A delightful platter of local cheese to finish

On our second day we decided to do a self-guided walk. All it takes is a visit to the Discovery Room to plan your adventure. Once you’ve chosen your route you take the detailed laminated instructions, complete with photographs, detailed directions and suggestions of what to do along the way. With that and the great signage along the way, it’s impossible to get lost. Very impressive. We headed for the nearby town of Yarmouth.

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All pathways are clearly marked and numbers

Enjoying very different scenery from the day before, we meandered through fields heading inland to the stunning Yar Estuary. I loved the myriad birdlife and peace and serenity on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday morning.

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The beautiful Yar Estuary teeming with birdlife

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Finding our way through the forest

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The welcoming sight of boats as we approached the harbour

This was my first visit to the Isle of Wight and it was something of a revelation. More beautiful than I’d imagined with many paths to walk, views to take in and local lore to discuss. We were asked if we were from “the North island”, to which I didn’t know the answer. Turns out the answer’s yes – it’s the rest of the UK – the Isle of Wight is known by locals as the South island.

A fabulous place to get away from it all, live the bucolic lifestyle for a while and recharge the batteries. My new island paradise to escape to.

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Getting back to nature and communing with sheep

I was a guest of HF Holidays on this weekend.

They organise all-in experiences with food and activities included. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious, tasty three-course dinners are made using local ingredients. Every evening you choose your sandwich filling for packed lunch the next day and raid the snack room for extras to keep your energy levels up while you’re walking. The snack room is quite a sight to behold!

Guides are friendly and knowledgable and eat meals with you. It’s very much a communal experience, an easy way to make new friends with plenty of me-time, too.

As well as walking HF Holidays also offer a range of leisure activities and cultural tours around the UK and in Europe.

hfholidays.co.uk

 

The many wonders of Catalunya’s Cistercian Route

I was going to call this Spanish story “Eating my way along the Cistercian Route” but decided that sounded rather greedy and most importantly it’s far from the whole truth. Yes, there was a lot of eating going on and very good eating it was, too, but there was so much more to explore and discover in the footsteps of the Cistercians.

The Cistercian Route connects the three monasteries of Santa Creus, Poblet and Vallbona. It’s a beautiful land about an hour’s drive from the region’s vibrant capital, Barcelona. The area’s a hiking paradise with its footpaths of 105 kilometres (the most in Europe) and, as I soon discovered, has amazingly warm and welcoming people, spectacular scenery and some very interesting traditions. Oh and there’s all the amazing food (and wine) of course.

We took to the road ready to explore. First stop Valls, which boasts a unique tradition as the birthplace of the human towers or Castells. The community comes together to rehearse three times a week and there are international competitions with serious rivalry. I was lucky enough to witness a rehearsal and was soon awed by the spectacle as people clamber over each other to create a towering structure. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such combined speed, flexibility, strength and dedication. Simply marvellous.

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The amazing spectacle of human towers

At the restaurant Test  in the Hotel Class Valls we were served up a range of delightful dishes. Like this colourful pineapple carpaccio topped with melt-in-the-mouth Spanish ham and a zesty dressing.

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Pineapple carpaccio topped with succulent jamon

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Savoury and flavourful broth at its best

Another Catalan tradition involves calcots, which are sort of like a sweet spring onion. Their harvest is celebrated every year when they are cooked over fire and peeled and eaten by hand with a generous helping of romesco sauce. It wasn’t harvest time when we were there but I did tuck into tempura calcots which were tasty, sweet, juicy and crunchy. Worth going back for that big celebration, I reckon.

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The delicate sweetness and crispiness of tempura calcots

On to the first monastery in the puzzle. Santa Creus, which was founded in 1168, is amazingly well-preserved and provides a great insight into Cistercian life. The stories are fascinating and the sheer scale of the place and its grand architecture are entrancing, making it easy to imagine a life very different and somewhat magical.

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The spectacular design of Santa Creus monastery

Just outside the imposing gates of the monastery is the cosy local – Restaurant Catalunya. We ordered our main courses and were then fed plate after plate of local specialities – soft and sweet ham, anchovies, tomato toast, aubergines, they just didn’t seem to stop coming. It was a real feast with the warmest of welcomes and plenty of the local vino – that’s the Catalan way.

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A classic paella with fresh seafood

With all the deliciously tempting food to enjoy it’s great that there are plenty of hiking opportunities. Time to burn off some of those calories. We headed up the mountain from Montblanc up to the abandoned L’Ermita Sant Joan. Rocky, winding pathways through the depths of the forest, made even more beautiful by the swirling mist, led us to what felt a bit like the top of the world.

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Peering through L’Ermita Sant Joan into the misty distance

A meandering descent and we headed for today’s lunchtime venue – Riudabella Castle. Yes, lunch in a real castle – just when you think dining can’t get any better. Riudabella has recently started offering accommodation in the form of large studio-style apartments with fabulous vineyard and forest views – providing the perfect retreat.

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Take in the view from your castle on high

We tucked into an amazing lunch in the huge,magnificent dining room, starting with a beautifully colourful array of canapés. For mains a delectable leg of pork which had been cooking in the medieval oven for 15 hours – so succulent!

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A table loaded with tempting tapas

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The tenderest of slow-cooked pork

For dessert a local treat awaited. This is called Gypsy’s Sleeve – a delightfully light sponge rolled with lashings of cream and topped with sugar. One of the tastiest puddings ever, imagine eating sweetly flavoured fluffy clouds.

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Soft, sugary, creamy…heaven on a plate

Poblet is the largest inhabited Cistercian monastery in Europe, so keep your eyes peeled for one of the resident monks as you wander its corridors. A huge rain storm erupted during our visit providing a dramatic atmosphere for our explorations.

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The cloister’s courtyard in the pouring rain

From an ancient monastery it was time to take millions more steps back in history to the Espluga Caves. Take a walk through eerie caves with displays explaining Spain’s prehistoric past and the story of the humans who made these caves their home for thousands of years. It’s a ghostly and somewhat spiritual experience.

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Time to step even further back in history

And then to dinner at the Hostal des Disset Fonts in L’Espluga de Francoli. We ambled through the streets of the sleepy town to our destination – another warming experience of great local food and wine.

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The substantial goat’s cheese salad

One of the nicest starters I’ve had in a long time, the sweetness of the chilled melon soup was perfectly complimented by the saltiness of the Serrano ham. A marriage of Spanish flavours made in heaven.

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The perfect mix of saltiness and sweetness

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Simple ingredients perfectly cooked

Montblanc is known as the centre of the Cistercian Route. It was founded in 1163 by King Alfons I and a lot has happened inside its protective medieval walls. The legendary fight between St George (Sant Jordi) and the dragon is alleged to have taken place here and the day is celebrated every year with a festival and the exchange of flowers and books. I could have meandered its cobbled streets for hours – popping into one (or several) of the many bars, cafes and restaurants scattered along them.

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Medieval terraces in Montblanc

And now it’s time for lunch again. My favourite part of this amazing trip with its myriad highlights was soon turning into lunchtime. And today cemented it. We wound our way up narrow mountain roads to the village of Fores where we were welcomed into the Mirador de Fores, another cosy little restaurant with far-reaching views from on high across to the sea.

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The best village restaurant in the world…possibly

The chef’s passion was clear in his descriptions of every dish (even with my limited Spanish I could get that much). He had our whole menu planned and we started with the juiciest of anchovies atop tomato and olive bread. A rustic classic bursting with flavours.

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Anchovies on toast doesn’t get better than this

And then croquettes – described by the restaurant as the best in the world! A huge claim but a fair one, I’ve eaten my share of croquettes and these are definitely up there. Large, and packed with chunks of chicken and luscious sauce.

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The tastiest chicken croquettas

Next course was this clever assembly of black sausage, a vegetable tower of potato and onion and crunchy crackling on the side. One of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted – I’ve got to try to work out how to make it myself. Or go back there soon!

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My top Spanish dish of the year…well one of them certainly

And the good stuff just kept coming. Slow cooked shoulder of lamb that melted in the mouth, sweetly caramelised onions and a crunch of fried aubergine. Ingredients couldn’t get much simpler or produce a tastier result.

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A totally tempting trio for mains

We also sampled a local stew made from rabbit, snails and chicken, traditionally eaten by the workers on the land. Hearty fare designed to give you strength.

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A hearty traditional stew

Dessert was a luscious cheesecake served with nuts, preserves and local honey. Heavenly.

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Finishing off a delightful lunch with a delightful dessert

One of my Spanish colleagues on our trip through Catalonia introduced me to Orujo – basically the local liquor drunk as a digestive after an indulgent lunch. The appropriate way to finish off your feast that definitely helps with the digestion. Thank you Jose, a new Spanish tradition that I’ve embraced.

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Colourful local liquor at Mirador de Fores

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Here’s the team outside their fabulous restaurant

Phew, that was some lunch – I’d go back to Catalonia just to repeat the experience. Seriously.

A new day dawns and it’s hiking time again. Today we took in scenes from the Spanish Civil War – lookout points, foxholes, bunkers cleverly hidden in rolling hills. A sobering sight and reminder of Spain’s recent and somewhat brutal history. Final destination, the monastery in Vallbona de les Monges, the only female monastery in the region and it still houses eight nuns.

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Vallbona de les Monges and its monastery nestle in the valley

And then of course it’s lunchtime, in another sleepy village. Rocallaura Cafe was full of locals on a sunny Saturday and offered simple, tasty fare.

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Love colourful signage, a great welcome

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Onion bread has never tasted so good

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Sausage, potato, aubergine and jamon, Spanish simplicity at its best

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The joy of the menu del dia

Final stop on our Catalonian odyssey is Verdu. Famous for its handmade ceramics (love a Spanish ceramico), imposing castle and the Miro a la Taula.

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

What better way to encapsulate Catalonia’s many treasures than a last-night dinner celebrating the art, food and wine of Spain. At Miro a Taula you’re guided through two tastings. The art of Miro and his contemporaries, including Dali, Picasso, Calder, Chillida and Barcelo and the food they ate.

Fabulous tapas, great art and the opportunity to absorb it all in peace and without crowds, a truly unique experience. Followed by a delicious dinner in the gallery.

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Some of my favourite Spanish ingredients on a platter

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The zesty fig and pomegranate starter

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Melt-in-the-mouth lamb with apricots

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The dining area in the centre of the gallery

I think this is the longest blog story I’ve ever written. And that’s because there’s just so much to share with you about this party of beautiful Catalonia. What a journey it was.

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The Catalonian flag against the blue Spanish sky

I was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board on this trip.

I flew to Barcelona on Vueling.com

Where to stay in Malton, Yorkshire: The Talbot Hotel

Continuing my series on Where to Stay on your travels, today we’re taking a mini break, heading north from London to Malton, Yorkshire.

The Talbot Hotel was originally built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge and has traded as an inn since 1740. It was completely restored in 2011. Here’s why you should stay there.

The location

Set in the heart of the historic market town of Malton with its myriad shops and great food, it’s also only 10 miles from the North York Moors and 18 miles from the city of York. I love that you get the mix of country living – fresh air, peace and open spaces – as well as a bustling little town with great food shopping and a cookery school. Read more about what I saw in Malton here.

The views

Quintessentially English with green, rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. The hotel is set on a hill so you get a wonderful perspective on your surroundings and the rural world around you.

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Yes, it really was this green, the English countryside at its best

The rooms

The beautifully decorated rooms are generous in size with a large, extremely comfortable bed, desk, separate seating area and lovely ensuite. I particularly loved the huge shower and its striking black and white tiles.

There’s a kettle and a range of coffee and tea including a lot of herbal brews – a refreshing cup of tea in the comfort of your room is always welcome.

Oh and the wi-fi’s really good – fast and reliable.

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The breakfast

One of the absolute best things about staying in a hotel has to be breakfast time. I’m not usually much of a breakfast eater. I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, I just can’t manage it – unless I’m in a hotel, that is, and options are literally presented to me on a plate.

There’s a buffet offering of fruit, cereal and pastries and a menu of delights, too. The first morning I tucked into poached eggs and avocado on toast – heavenly.

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I love the combo of avocado and egg

On morning two I wrestled with my choices, ultimately abandoning one of my favourite breakfast treats – eggs benedict – for the delights of a full English. Thought I’d better sample the local bacon, sausage and black pudding and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the fact that it wasn’t stupidly huge like they sometimes are and I managed to polish off the whole plate.

Okay, I admit it, I must be a breakfast eater, just not if I’m making it myself.

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The full English Talbot-style

The Cookery School

Not only can you shop for and eat amazing food in Malton, you can learn how to cook it too. The Malton Cookery School is allied to the hotel and is just down the road. We did a Yorkshire lamb workshop, which you can read about here. There’s a wide range of courses all held in a kitchen with fantastic facilities and knowledgeable, professional teachers. A really fun and educational way to spend a morning and you’ll come away inspired with new ideas to try at home. I promise.

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The spacious kitchen is a pleasure to work in

The Wentworth Restaurant

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel’s Wentworth restaurant (there’s also the more informal Malton Brasserie which I didn’t have the chance to try out). The menu showcases local products and offered some intriguing choices.

Like this cheese and pickle starter. Smoked Ribblesdale mousse was served with pickled golden vegetables and mustard granola. One of the prettiest starters in a long time and great in flavour, too, with its soft cheesiness, crispy veg and crunchy granola.

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A different take on a classic English combo

I opted for some local scallops which were served with pork belly, black pudding, carrot and blood orange. I’ve experienced the scallop/black pudding thing before and it’s quite amazingly good. The small slivers of pork belly were tender and flavoursome and the carrot puree sweet and delicious.

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Scallop heaven partnered with black pudding

The fish main course option was roast North Sea halibut which was served with mussels, braised fennel, Jeera (cumin) sauce and coconut. The sweetest of fish with an elegant and subtle cumin-flavoured coconut sauce.

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Fish with a touch of the Asian flavours

As we’d spent the morning cooking and eating lamb I had a rare desire for a vegetarian dinner. Lucky for me there was the perfect dish on the menu. The fried potato gnocchi came with woodland mushrooms, peas and broad beans and a silken truffle cream sauce. The little towers of gnocchi were beautifully browned and slightly crispy – just the way I like them, and the pea, bean and pea shoot added greenness and sweetness. The perfect dinner dish after a meat-filled day.

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A delightful plate of indulgent gnocchi

Tonight we were going big – so dessert was on the cards. The options were too good to resist. The Valrhona Manjari chocolate marquise came with cherries in kirsch, cherry sorbet and pistachios. The perfect pudding in shades of purple.

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Who could resist this chocolate/cherry combination

Being not much of a dessert person I took on the responsibility of trying the local cheeses with this substantial artisan selection served with yummy sloe berry chutney, poached grapes and biscuits. All good stuff – and as for the poached grapes.

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Yorkshire is definitely for cheese lovers

The service 

From the warm and efficient welcome at reception to the friendly greetings and smiles from staff, great dinner service and the chatty barman in the cosy bar, everyone is clearly doing their best to make sure you’re happy. And they seem to be enjoying it too.

I felt at home at The Talbot from the moment I walked through the door. It has a warmth and comfort about it and is the perfect base for exploring this beautiful and delicious part of Yorkshire.

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Looking up towards the lovely hotel


What to eat and where to shop in Malton, Yorkshire

Today we’re up in beautiful North Yorkshire in what is known as Yorkshire’s food capital – the lovely country town of Malton. It’s famous for its food festival, monthly food market, Malton Cookery School, traditional food shops and Made in Malton artisan producers. It’s also James Martin’s home town. So you can tell there’s a lot of foodie stuff going on here – simply the perfect place for me to visit. You can read about my fantastic Cooking with Yorkshire Lamb workshop by clicking here.

Malton has a population of around 13,000 and is kind of halfway between York and the seaside resort of Scarborough. A pleasant train ride from London and we were ready for some Yorkshire foodie discovery. As we say in South Africa local is lekker (good).

And it’s all certainly all local ingredients at the The Talbot Yard Food Court where the shops produce everything they sell on site.

The fabulous butchery Food2Remember is aptly named – I certainly won’t forget it in a hurry. Especially as I was offered some warm boerewors to try as I stepped through the door – well impressed with his recipe for my favourite South African sausage. In Yorkshire – who’d have thought?! As well as great local meat, there was also a cabinet of delectable pastry snacks.

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Freshly made pies, pasties and scotch eggs

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An amazing array of meat and home-made sausages

Groovy Moo is a cafe and gelataria – heavenly for ice cream lovers with all your favourite flavours and more. I loved the jammy dodger ice cream (how I love those little jammy biscuits).

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Passione Della Pasta makes pasta daily and also had a fabulous array of local fruit vinegars on tap. I bought a bottle of the lovely raspberry and rhubarb – what a simple way to transform any salad.

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Authentic pasta made fresh daily

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Local vinegar in fruity flavours

There’s no shortage of bakeries in Malton, the aroma of baking floods the streets and there are plenty of tempting window displays. It’s a mouth-watering town to walk around.  Costello‘s in the market square is a family-run business with the motto: “We make our own and we do it all by hand”. The family history dates back generations with Fred Costello opening up his first shop after the war in 1945. Costello’s Malton is a more recent addition, having opened in 2014.

The range of pies available in  is mind-blowing!  And there are plenty of sweet treats to choose from and wonderful coffee, too.

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A marvellous selection of pie fillings

After much deliberation I chose this amazing barbecued pulled pork pie – love that there are contemporary options as well as the traditional offers.

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Meaty and luscious barbecue pulled pork

These are my favourite shopping discoveries in this wonderful foodie town. You can read more about it and where to shop at maltonyorkshire.co.uk.

THE LOCAL PUB

Even in these days of pubs closing at way too rapid a rate, Malton has a drinking few options. For dinner we visited The New Malton in the market square. It’s laid out over two rooms with a little bar and a warm welcome. The traditional menu offers plenty of local specialities.

Like the pork and herb sausage toad-in-the-hole with onion gravy. Well, you have to sample the Yorkshire pudding when in Yorkshire, don’t you?

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When in Yorkshire: traditional toad-in-the-hole

I love a good burger and couldn’t resist this steak burger with pancetta, Swiss cheese, dill pickle, coleslaw and home made chips. Made with top quality steak it had all the ingredients I love for a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.

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Or a burger made with best Yorkshire beef

What a wonderful foodie break in such a quintessentially English setting. And the reason I went there was because my recipe for tasty lamb koftas won first prize in the #lovelambchallenge. Click here for my two tasty lamb mince recipes.

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We stayed at The Talbot Hotel in Malton. Read all about it in the next in my series of Where to Stay, coming soon.

The totally fabulous food of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a vibrant, bustling country with an amazingly diverse history and a wide range of influences that have made it into the fascinating place it is today.

There are delicious eating opportunities around every exciting corner, from the colourful street markets to the five-star hotels and restaurants. I even discovered several new dishes which became firm favourites. I’ll be testing out some Sri Lankan recipes myself at a later date and sharing them with you, so watch this space. You can read more about my trip to Sri Lanka by clicking here.

Now sit back and devour my pictorial tribute to Sri Lanka’s wonderful food.

There’s plenty of fruit on offer and the streets are lined with a seemingly endless supply of wonderful produce.

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Love these huge, creamy avocados

Buffalo curd is a Sri Lankan delicacy. We visited a farmer who makes it by hand using milk from his buffalo herd and watched him stirring his concoction over a fire before pouring it into these terracotta bowls and letting it set. It’s tart and tasty and usually served with their deliciously sweet jaggery syrup.

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Buffalo curd doesn’t get fresher than this

Restaurants serve up fresh crab in many shapes and forms. It looks beautiful with shells in pinky/ orange and tastes sweet and juicy.

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Fresh crab salad in the buffet spread

Dhal is a dish on offer with every meal – I loved it in my breakfast hopper (more of that later). Coconut cream adds a silky smoothness and richer flavour.

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A bowl of spicy lentils

And here’s my personal favourite. From the first breakfast when I was directed to the hopper station I fell in foodie love with these crispy Sri Lankan-style pancakes and proceeded to create different versions every time I had one. Made while you wait with fried eggs nestling in the base, they really are a great addition to any mealtime.

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Bring on the two-egg hopper

As Sri Lanka is an island you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s plenty of fresh fish to sample. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Negomobo fish market. We got up before dawn to witness the boats coming in, fish being auctioned and even carefully portioned and sliced for sale to eager customers.

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The fish is filleted and sliced straight off the boat

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A lady seller sorts through her live prawns selection

The markets are a buzz of activity and aromas, selling a wide range of exotic wares. There’s a lot of grains in Sri Lankan cuisine, here they are proudly on display.

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Sackfuls of grain in the market

Here’s my favourite hopper combo – an egg topped with dhal, tomato relish,and  coconut and onion sambals. So yummy!

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Spicy hoppers make for a great breakfast

When you have such a cornucopia of fruit on offer, you’ve simply got to make juice. This colourful little juice bar on the street in Negombo offered a truly exotic choice. We sampled the nelli and avocado juices. Nelli is kind of like a gooseberry and the juice has a serious zing to it and leaves a bit of a tingle on your tongue. Something of an acquired taste I would say. I adore avocado so loved the juice, which was literally just avos pureed. As you can imagine, it was thick, creamy and beautifully rich – and extremely filling.

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Ordering juice is quite an experience in Sri Lanka

If you’re feeling thirsty on your journey there are stalls everywhere selling King coconuts. The top is lopped off for an instant, portable drink that’s full of electrolytes – ideal for rejuvenation on a sultry Sri Lankan day.

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One unique Sri Lankan experience I was lucky enough to experience was lunch in the chena overlooking fields of okra, chilli and tomatoes. These shelters are dotted around the lands and used by farmers to watch their crops from and prevent wild animals from destroying them. The range of 10 colourfully tasty dishes were prepared for us by the farmer’s wife using local ingredients and served with an incredibly warm welcome.

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A range of tasty traditional dishes to tuck into

Little roadside cafes are a great place to stop for lunch. There’s no menu, you’re simply brought what’s on offer that day. We tucked into a selection of vegetable dishes including the best tempered potatoes, a sweet carrot dish, dhal and onion relish served with smaller portions of fish and chicken and, of course, rice.

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A relaxed lunch on our road trip

I had the privilege of enjoying several cooking presentations which is why I’ve learnt lots of new recipes to share with you. As I said, watch this space. Here are some of the exotic spices I’ll be cooking with.

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Sri Lanka’s spices are a joy to cook with

Of course Sri Lanka is also the land of tea – one of my favourite drinks. So I made sure I sampled plenty of it. I also visited the beautiful highlands around Nurawa Eliya with its emerald tea terraces as far as the eye could see and the delicate aroma of tea flavouring the air. Total tea heaven.

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The tea pluckers are out no matter what the weather

I loved the flavours and aromas of Sri Lanka. And the freshness of all the ingredients. A wonderful foodie paradise.

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

 

Where to stay in Sri Lanka: my five favourites

Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts, from its cosmopolitan capital Colombo to the many sweeping beaches and majestically green mountains and forests, there’s a different aspect around every corner. And wherever you venture the welcome is warm, the food is exotic and delicious and there’s plenty of history and tradition to absorb.

Today I’m taking you to five places I visited and continuing my Where to Stay series, I’ve included five hotels I stayed in and why I particularly liked them. It’s a five-for-one sort of day. The pictures could speak for themselves really…some truly stunning places.

I started in Colombo. The city has a long history as a port on the ancient east-west trade routes (going back over 2,000 years) and it’s a very diverse history, too. Sri Lanka was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before independence in 1948 and this is reflected in the capital’s culture and architecture.

A mix of old and new (and updated) with teeming streets of myriad vehicles, bustling markets and people of all religions living in harmony. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a mosque, a temple, a Roman Catholic church and an Anglican church all metres from each other. An example of diversity at its best. And easy to explore from the comfort of our base at The Kingsbury Hotel.

THE KINGSBURY HOTEL, COLOMBO

Perched proudly on the coast, The Kingsbury‘s sweeping driveway and spacious, high-ceilinged lobby makes for a grand entrance. And the rest of the hotel lives up to that initial expectation.

THE BEDROOMS

In the days of shrinking hotel rooms, I was delighted with the space and light with floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive bed in the centre of the room. I mean seriously massive, with the biggest and plushest pillows ever. How I wanted to bring one of those pillows home. A large ensuite with luxury walk-in shower was well stocked with Bulgari toiletries and fluffy towels.

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Beds don’t get more comfortable than this

THE FOOD

Buffets are extremely popular in Sri Lanka and The Kingsbury takes this to a seriously new level. Their splendid buffet spreads out over two rooms (I missed the second half initially) and offers a spread of Western, Indian, Japanese and South East Asian cuisine prepared by renowned chefs from around the globe. There are stunning displays of fresh produce at breakfast, lunch and dinner, an array of ready-prepared dishes and (my favourite part) food stations where the chefs cook fresh dishes in front of you. It’s where I ate the first of many hoppers (more of that in a later post) – a Sri Lankan favourite that I fell in love with. Their High Tea is a real show stopper.

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The indulgent seafood section

THE SKY LOUNGE

Gotta love any opportunity for some alfresco socialising. The Sky Lounge is the perfect spot for sundowners – breathe in some of those sea breezes and watch the sun sink below the horizon. There’s a great cocktail list, so settle in.

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Al fresco sundowners overlooking the sea

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My first Sri Lankan sunset…stunning

JETWING, YALA

Yala National Park, in the south-east of the country, is the second largest in Sri Lanka. It’s a unique mix of jungle, grassland, forest and scrubland also bordered on one side by the ocean. It is home to 215 bird species, 44 types of mammals and has one of the highest leopard densities in the world.

Set just outside the park, Jetwing Yala is the ultimate escape-from-everything sort of place. It nestles in an unspoilt forest reserve down a dusty road (always a good thing), bordered on one side by a stunning beach.

THE BEDROOMS

I’m no camper but give me a tent any time if it’s like this one. From the minute I unzipped the door (a novel way to get in to any room), I loved this large airy space and could have spent hours lying on the luxurious bed looking out towards the sea. And then there’s the bathroom. Light-filled and stylish with two showers – one indoor and one outdoor – I did love showering under the blue Sri Lankan sky and certainly left Yala squeaky clean.

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Now this is my kind of tent

THE PEACE AND HARMONY

You’re driven in golf buggies to your tented villa (a quick call to reception and they’re there to pick you up again) and it really does feel you’ve been delivered to your own private piece of paradise. The large terrace looks out across the forest towards the sea and when night falls twinkling lights create a wonderland where the only sounds are the occasional animal on night time explorations. You’re woken at dawn by the rising sun and birdsong – another day to breathe in the freshest of Yala morning air.

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As dusk falls, a new world unfolds

THE BEACH

A wonderful first for me – a national park that’s also a beach resort. And the beach at Jetwing Yala is stunning. There’s a bar and beds perched on top of the dunes where you can while away sunny hours or you can organise your own private dinner by firelight overlooking the sea. Just watch out for elephants – really, there’s a sign warning you to.

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Sand dunes, the white beach and sparkling azure sea

JETWING KADURUKETHA, WELLAWAYA

Jetwing Kaduruketha offers a different environment to escape to. Set in the peaceful village surroundings of Wellawaya it’s a real chance to get in touch with the people and traditions of Sri Lanka. There are 25 chalets spread over 60 acres, overlooking the working paddy fields.

THE ROOMS

Beautifully spacious with light flooding in and an open-access bathroom running down one side. The huge shower looks straight over the fields. Plenty of seating options with a sofa, desk (with a fabulous view, I enjoyed blogging from here!) and verandah chairs. All rooms are supplied with their own bicycles for getting around the resort or heading off on your own voyage of discovery.

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Your own private space with views all round

THE RESTAURANT

The open-sided dining room overlooks the hotel’s stunning pool, the paddy fields and majestic mountains in the distance. There’s an a la carte menu with a mix of traditional Sri Lankan dishes and contemporary Asian and International cuisine. Breakfast offered such a selection of deliciousness – my eggs Benedict was spectacular, with the addition of curry leaves for a bit of local flavour.

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An amazing breakfast: Sri Lankan eggs Benedict

THE SCENERY

Kaduruketha is a perfect picture in shades of blues and greens. The resort itself with its trees, vegetable gardens, freedom and open spaces provides an instant leap back to nature. Meander through the fields, amble along the banks of the nearby bubbling streams, explore the village full of friendly locals or hike through the mountains. It’s your chance to kick back and immerse yourself in rural Sri Lanka.

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Nature’s view: Paddy fields, forests and mountains

THE BLACKPOOL HOTEL, NURAWA ELIYA

The heights of Nurawa Eliya are often referred to as Little England – it was the favoured escape for the English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. The weather’s even pretty British – with swirling mist and plentiful rain. You can smell the aroma of tea in the air and see it growing all around you from The Blackpool Hotel (another touch of England for you).

THE BEDROOMS

The contrast from the steamy weather of the lowlands brings the opportunity to enjoy plush carpets underfoot, thick duvets to snuggle under and a wonderful in-room fire to toast your toes in front of. Large doors open onto the balcony overlooking the far-reaching greenness of terraced tea plantations.
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THE FOOD

Another amazing buffet spread to marvel at, below is just a small selection of the desserts on offer. Mind blowing! I also loved their grill station and area preparing fresh Asian dishes. Their chef prepared tempered potatoes and traditional dhal for us – two favourites from my trip – and these were the best I tried. The hotel also does a fantastic high tea – well you are in tea country after all. Remember to drink lots of tea while you’re here – it’s in a class of its own.

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Dessert choices to make you very confused

THE SURROUNDINGS

I hadn’t anticipated that tea plantations could be so beautiful. On a magically misty morning the pickers were out in full force undertaking their daily delicate task of picking the best of the shoots from the tea plants. They punctuated the slopes of green in their colourful garb. The mountain views are stunning and the roadsides dotted with aromatic food stalls, tiny restaurants offering all means of local delicacies and fruit and veg vendors around every corner. The British introduced their favourites so as well as the usual Sri Lankan treats you’ll find plentiful strawberries, cabbages and cauliflowers on display. Nurawa Eliya’s like nowhere else in Sri Lanka.

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A landscape of green with dots of colour

JETWING BLUE, NEGOMBO

Negombo is the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka and is famed for its expansive sandy beaches and fishing industry. Set on the west coast close to the airport, it’s a relaxing destination for a beachside break. You can see reminders of Dutch, Portuguese and British influence in the colonial charm of the town. And there’s an amazing fish market – more of which in another post. Jetwing Blue is one of four sister hotels set along a seemingly endless beach lined with palm trees.

THE BEDROOMS

Even when you’re in your room there’s no doubt you’re at the beach. The polished tiled floors, huge windows and balcony overlooking the sand and sea cleverly reflect your environment. There’s plenty of space to move with another enormous bed in the centre and a large desk area perfect for blogging. The stylish bathroom comes complete with Jetwing’s special toiletries and a deep bath to luxuriate in.

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The perfect room for beach life

THE BEACH AND THE POOLS

It’s well documented that I’m a dedicated beach baby. So how heavenly is this beach/pool combination? Life is focussed on outdoor living with all roads leading to the beach which is lined with pools, bars and restaurants (but not too many) facing across the perfect view. There are plenty of sun loungers to chill out on and miles and miles to walk and ponder. Life’s better at the beach.

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THE FOOD

With one of the most fabulous fish markets I’ve ever visited just down the road, I knew there had to be great fish dishes at Jetwing Blue. The Negombo Crab is one of the signature local dishes and was made for us from scratch on the beach using a cornucopia of spices and the very freshest of crabs. The hotel’s buffet is another masterpiece of taste and vision. I started the day with a plate piled with tropical fruit – I don’t think my fellow travellers had ever seen so much passion fruit consumed by one person before. And there were more of those fabulous hoppers freshly made to order.

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Negombo crab curry cooked for us on the beach

There’s a lot to discover in Sri Lanka. And its charming, welcoming people make it even easier to fall in love with this country of incredible diversity. Not to mention the food…more of which in a later post, so come back soon.

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Sailing boats are a typical sight on the beach in Negombo

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

I flew to Colombo on Emirates via Dubai.