Friday, 19 January 2018

Tryanuary: The Leicester Tweet Up

So Leicester hit the town last night in the previously mentioned Tryanuary tweet up. A good time was had by all and many local brews and hostelries were sampled, all in the name of supporting small local businesses in the city.

It was a good turnout, about 12 of us at our peak, so we put a bit of cash into the local economy and had a jolly good time. We started off with the King's Head and I indulged in a pint of the Titanic Cappuccino Porter - not a new brewery for me but I couldn't resist trying this unfamiliar brew. It was rich and thick and full of coffee flavour - a very satisfactory start.

Next up we headed just up the road to Broood who were nice and full because of the weekly quiz just starting as we left, hosted by an incredible glamorous and formidable quiz master. Here we were introduced to the Beermats Brewing Company, I enjoyed it's lightness and floral notes, although it still had a good hit of hoppy bitterness.

Next up was The Blue Boar, where I had an unspecified stout that I managed to blur the name out of in the photograph, because I'm an idiot. But it was very nice. Again, the pub was pleasingly busy for a Thursday night - the Leicester beer drinking community is not leaving their pubs high and dry this January. 

Finally, it was The Criterion, as we ran out of time for the West End Brewery (because evidently I drink too slowly) and enjoyed a phenomenal pint of the Tres Bien Cascade Special - a local beer for local people and a great way to round off the evening!

What new pubs, breweries and beers have you discovered this Tryanuary?

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Tryanuary 2018: Leicestershire Edition

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I've always been a big fan of Tryanuary here on the blog. This is the very sensible response to the knee jerk reaction of Dryanuary - instead of quitting booze for the month, encouraging you to get out there, explore, perhaps drink less but spend more on buying better to support your local breweries and hostelries.

Enjoying a Framework brew at
The Tap in the Square in late 2017

In January 2016 I was a busy little bee as we had so many new beer related things to celebrate, I shared my first visits to the Real Ale Classroom and the Needle & Pin - who have just finished their 1000 keg. I also enjoyed a fantastic Burn's Night dinner at The Parcel Yard and enjoyed burgers and brews at their sister pub, The Paget in Loughborough. Having picked up a couple of cold ones at The Offie, I also wrote about Art Brew Orange and local favourites Tres Bien's Cascade Special.

In January 2017 things were a bit busier, so I wasn't able to get out and about quite as much. However, I still popped along to the new Framework Brewery - whose first birthday we just celebrated at the Tap in the Square at St Martin's Square. I'm hopeful we'll see them back in the city centre soon! To mix it up a bit, I reviewed the newly released Burleigh's Leicester Edition gin, because that's trying something new and local, so why not?

Taking blogger's on a beer tasting adventure
at the West End Brewery in 2017

And now Tryanuary is here again, now with a shinier website and more coordinated events and activities on Twitter. And this year days of the month have been allocated to different areas so that they can show off what they have to offer. And Leicestershire's day, along with Rutland and Northamptonshire is on Thursday 18th January.

So let's make it big, let's make it bold and let's get out and support our local breweries and pubs in the cold, dark month of January.

Enjoying Charnwood Brewery's wares at The Parcel Yard's celebration
of female brewers in summer 2017

I'm making a list (and naturally I'm checking it twice) of what is happening, where you can go and what you can do on the 18th to celebrate our local beers. And I think we should arrange to head round a couple of pubs while we're at it. I'll keep this list regularly updated up until the 18th, so you all know what's on offer - anyone wanting to add to the list just bob me an email, or tweet me @Morrighani!

Thursday 18th January

  • Enjoy 10% off bottles at Brewklopedia on the 18th when you flash a screenshot of this blog post.
  • The Geese & Fountain in Croxton Kerrial are ALL OVER Tryanuary. There'll be getting in beers from breweries they have never had before for the whole of January (they re-open after their winter closure on 12th January) PLUS anyone flashing a screenshot of this blog post to them on 18th January will get 10% off all bottles, cans and draught beer! Woo hoo!
  • Bag yourself 15% off everything in the Everards shop using the code #tryanuary at the checkout. Bargainous!

  • 7.30pm - Local Tweet-Up - Sample Leicestershire Breweries
We'll meet at The King's Head, who are big Tryanuary supporters, and sample the local beers on offer. We'll tweet about it all using #Tryanuary. 
Where should we go after the King's?  I'm open to suggestions... but perhaps a city trail via Broood, The Blue Boar and The Criterion before heading to the West End Brewery would be a good plan? Join our Facebook event page.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Happy Birthday Leicester Clocktower!

That grand meeting place of Leicester city turns 150 this year, and I was invited to The Globe today to celebrate the Clocktower's birthday with our historic county brewery, Everards.

New camera - not used to it yet, and I was chatting...

They have released Clock Tower, a dark golden ale, to celebrate this historic year for the city. I'll be honest, I did not get the note of blackcurrant at all, but the four hops - intended to represent the four figures in the city's history - do give a strong bitterness that lingers long on the finish, a characteristic for me that is more representative of the Clocktower's enduring legacy and influence on the city and the cityscape. As you would expect from Everards and their scale of production, this is a crowd pleaser - none too complicated or challenging but certainly a pleasing pint nonetheless. I would be inclined to simply term it a bitter though, I did not really get the 'golden ale' characterization, but perhaps that says more about my own naivity when it comes to this category of ale.

Courtesy of Everards

It was a jolly old birthday party that was held, with a stand up buffet accompanying the samples of Clock Tower, with the crowning glory being a beautiful chocolate cake made by Leicester Mistress of Baking Extraordinaire, Bitsy's Emporium of Awesome - made in the form of the pump clip.

Yeah, wasn't paying enough attention when taking photos.
Still, you can see that the cake is awesome.

Leicester's Haymarket Memorial Clocktower was designed by renowned local architect, J Goddard after the idea of the founder of the Leicester(shire) Mercury to create a central sculpture in the city centre that would provide a new focal point and an early example of the regeneration of a dilapidated area. For generations now it has been an iconic meeting point. It took a team of 32 masons and an overseeing foreman until 1839 to actually complete the work (is the birthday the date of conception, or birth...?! Probably best not to raise that at this point.)

The structure is perhaps best known for the four 'Leicester greats' which flank the gothic style tower. A slightly strange choice of key figures if you ask me - but Big Names nonetheless and all Lords, mayors or other key political power holders in the town at various points in history. Simon de Montfort (the fifth one, since you asked) was a thirteenth century French noble  and Earl of Leicester. It is unlikely he ever actually came to the city as he was so tied up causing trouble in London. William Wygston was a medieval wool merchant whose family amassed such fabulous wealth that at one point they were liable for 25% of Leicester's total tax bill. 

In 1535, one year before the death of William Wygston, Sir Thomas White - our next key figure - founded a charity to give business start up loans to young men who wanted to start up a business. That charity still exists today but now also deigns to lend to aspiring businesswomen as well as men! The final statue is of Alderman Gabriel Newton, another member of the wool trade who is perhaps best known for leaving his fortune for the education of the poor via St Mary de Castro, which eventually turned into the Alderman Newton School, a building which is now home to the Richard III visitor centre.

So now you know! Well, now you know my understanding of the whole thing anyway.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Fine Dining Face Off III: Taste Restaurant, Leicester College

Have you been following the Fine Dining Face Off through December? This is the final installment, so if you're not sure what's happening, head to part 1 here and then part 2 to catch up on my thoughts on the Olive Branch and The Spotted Duck. The final installment is concerned with the Taste Restaurant at Leicester College.

This is a hidden gem in the truest sense of the word. Fantastic fine dining at incredible prices, provided by the catering and hospitality learners at the College. We've been on a number of occasions and haven't failed to be impressed. It is a bit of a mission to find in the College if you haven't been there before, I think that signage from the main entrance to the restaurant itself could be improved given that there are many external guests visiting to enjoy the dining experience.

The Boy and I visited in the autumn term this year for lunch. If you think that fine dining is out of your reach because you can't afford it, then this is the restaurant for you. On our visit, three courses were available for the princely sum of £10 - incredible value! Our coats were taken and we were seated at a smartly set table, with crisp white tablecloths. Tablecloths have become a bit of a bugbear for me recently because they are so hard to find now. Everyone seems obsessed with exposed wood and the like, but I think that a nicely presented tablecloth speaks volumes about the care and attention the team are willing to put into your meal.

Golden squares of cheese sit on top a red onion marmalade.

Our order was taken by slightly nervous, but knowledgeable waiting staff - remember everyone looking after you is still in training. First we enjoyed a freshly baked roll from the bread basket and my napkin was ceremoniously laid on my lap by the waiter. To start The Boy chose a traditional salad nicoise, while I opted for the breaded brie. The twist on the nicoise was a home smoked mackerel instead of tuna, which was full of flavour and beautifully presented. My breaded brie had a fantastic combination of soft and crunchy textures and the balsamic reduction and red onion marmalade it was served with gave just the right amount of sweet and bite to complement the creamy cheese perfectly.

The mains were the star of the show, as you would expect, with The Boy enjoying a large pan fried chicken breast served with a meltingly rich fondant potato and buttered greens. Every element was cooked to perfect, the chicken not dry, the greens still full of colour and flavour. The only criticism was that it would have been nice to have a gravy boat served with the dish. We're from the North-West - we like a lot of sauce.

I opted for the salmon dish, served on a bed of lightly crushed potatoes, which added texture and creamy spinach. The salmon was moist and delicious, but with an enviably crispy skin. The flavours worked beautifully together with the delicate flavours of fish and spinach being brought together beautifully by the light but flavourful white wine cream sauce. Once I again I would have also liked a little extra sauce on the side because that's how I roll, but I did note another table actually asked for more sauce and did receive it. We're obviously too frightfully British to engage in such behaviour.

Our dishes were cleared quickly and efficiently and then the table crumber was released to remove any unsightly crumbs we had left behind. The Boy had left far more crumbs than I, it should be noted. Now you really won't see that level of service any more until you come out way up on the other end of the fine dining price scale. It was a nice touch and fantastic to note that the next generation of waiting staff are being trained to really consider ever detail of the dining experience.

For pudding we both selected a baked cheesecake. The presentation was a little off for me - the knife had needed to be cleaned between slices to keep a clean edge, and while it looked good, it was a little immature. The caramel banana and physalis garnish was a nice touch however, and the sharp coulis a perfect complement to the dense lusciousness of the cheesecake itself.

A thoroughly enjoyable meal then, and I also had the pleasure of being invited to a Christmas party, enjoying the three course Christmas menu recently, which was also faultless in my opinion. I think it was the best turkey roast of the festive period for me.

My festive face

The Verdict
Surroundings - 7/10 - It's a little bit hard to find, and the decor is a little touch on the dated side, but your table will be immaculate. Given that it is part of a Further Education college, I think I can lean on the generous side.
Atmosphere - 7/10 - I'd recommend going with a group to really make your lunch or dinner special. The restaurant was relatively full when we visited and we felt very comfortable in the friendly environment, but would have had more fun with more people!
Service - 8/10 - The trainee team are genuinely excellent - attentive, warm, and starting to develop their tableside banter (if you poke them a little). Be aware that sometimes things may go a little off - our water took a little while to appear and it was hard to flag down the appropriate team member when we needed our drinks replenishing for example, but the students are all being supervised and prompted where necessary by their tutor and overall we were impressed by the professional service of the food and the attention to detail.
Food - 9/10 - A fantastic portion size that left you extremely satisfied at the end of the three courses. This is not the highest end sourcing of ingredients, but a good solid quality is clearly on offer and at the price point you really cannot argue with this.
Presentation - 8/10 - Very good presentation, generally contemporary and clean, but not over fussy, which I liked. A couple of elements could do with a little more refinement. Tableware is simple, white and uncomplicated with good quality silver and glassware. The food is the star and the way they have chosen to plate emphasises this.
Fine dining credentials - 6/10 - This feels like a low, but fair score. They have the full package. Cooking is on point, presentation is simple but effective and the serving team are clearly eager to give you the full experience, but it is a little hidden away in a college and the dining room could do with a little modernising (which I blame firmly on the Tory government's unbelievable cuts to the Further Education budget since you ask). Better orientation signage and a slightly smarter environment would really push this to the brink of perfection for me, but as it is I am mightily impressed and will be returning regularly

45/60 - Just pipped to the post by The Spotted Duck, but given their three course menu is literally a quarter of the price, I think that makes Taste Restaurant the moral victor!! Plus by visiting them you are helping to train our future professionals.

Where are your fine dining favourites?

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Fine Dining Face Off II: The Spotted Duck, Mountsorrel

Did you miss the Fine Dining Face Off I? Pop back and give it a quick read so you're all caught up. I'll wait.


OK, so we were delighted to be the guests of Rothley Wine Estate to dinner at The Spotted Duck in Mountsorrel. Only open for 9 months, there has been a slight buzz about this restaurant, with foodies in the city being excited but nobody else even having heard of it. I've been keen to try the food, particularly as I basically didn't know anything about it except that it is a fine dining restaurant and indeed, from the road it is hardly noticeable - you'd be forgiven for driving right by it. I presume this is what a lot of people do, given that our county's only Michelin starred restaurant, John's House, is just up the road.

The Spotted Duck

Our visit in late November meant that we were ordering from the Christmas menu at 2 courses for £40 and 3 courses for £45. A more modestly priced market menu is also available on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, but didn't go on a Wednesday or Tuesday!

Upon arrival we were seated in a comfortable reception by the open plan kitchen and given the menus to peruse while our table was made ready. In the end we were there for about half an hour, ordering our wine and starting to drink it while we waited. I'm not sure quite why we weren't seated as the restaurant was no more than half full during our visit. I would have preferred to sit and enjoy a pre-dinner drink at a table rather than on a sofa! It has to be noted though that in comparison to the food menu, the small but perfectly formed wine list is extremely reasonably priced -surprisingly so. You'll pay the same per bottle at any chain pub if I'm honest, but get a lot less in the way of quality.

Anyway, it wasn't a big issue, and we were seated at our table in the cosy dining room. The cottage feel, with its clean lines and tasteful decor makes for a splendid location to dine on a winter's evening and the restaurant is small but well managed, making the atmosphere good and vibrant without being either dead (as the restaurant was relatively quiet barring a small Christmas party group in the same space as us) or too noisy (as there was a small Christmas party group in the same space as us).

The starters were presented and everything was beautifully plated. I opted for local wood pigeon with heritage carrot and hazelnut. The pigeon was delightfully rare, however the plate that was chosen meant that it was extremely difficult to cut through the sliver of breast with its crispy skin - it just kept sliding around the plate in its own juices! I noted a waiter hovering nervously watching to check that I could cut through my own food which was kind of considerate but also a bit off putting!! However eventually I managed it and adored the game flavour in combination with the sweet carrot.

I stayed local with the main, with local venison served with turnip, and was a bit surprised that my portion looked pretty much the same as the starter. I eyed up the ample duck dish enviously and regretted my decision to avoid duck as I'd already had pigeon. However, the venison was the star of the show for the entire meal for me. Absolutely melt in the mouth and full of flavour. They seem to be a bit of a fan of a creamy quinelle at the Spotted Duck too, as every dish I saw was served with this element of indeterminate composition but lovely texture. I can't say I was complaining. 

After about five minutes the final element of my dish was brought out, which I'd completely forgotten about since ordering - a smoked potato cottage pie. This again felt like the potato had been pushed through a siphon, as it was practically a froth rather than a mash, but with the layers of rich shredded venison beneath this was a welcome flavour and additional bulk which left me feeling totally full.

However, being full was apparently no excuse to not have pudding, and it was my first opportunity to try figgy pudding. Served with a light creme anglaise and vanilla ice cream, this was a solid portion of deliciously Christmassy stodge - full of dried fruit and a rich steamed pudding texture. It was also served with a side note of the history of the figgy pudding, although mine had been cut dangerously askew where two prints on the same piece of A4 had been cleaved asunder. This irritated the OCD element of my personality, which usually lies dormant, but obviously had no tangible impact on the quality of the food!

As the meal came to an end, I enjoyed a fino sherry from Lustau, full and sleepy in the cosy dining room. I ruminated that it had indeed been a fine meal.

The verdict:
Surroundings - 9/10 - once you find it, the restaurant itself is cosy, thoughtfully decorated and incredibly well laid out to enhance the atmosphere of your dining experience.
Atmosphere - 8/10 - lovely - intimate, yet with an air of quiet industry and the impression that every other table is enjoying themselves as much as you are.
Service - 7/10 - I found the waiting team to be attentive and very friendly, but was surprised that they were unable to address our questions about the menu and also to make recommendations about wine pairing with the dishes on offer (I had to make a recommendation to a fellow diner in the end!) Also bringing incomplete dishes out (the venison cottage pie being brought significantly after the service of the mains) puts them a mark down.
Food - 9/10 - An admirable selection of locally sourced dishes on offer, as well as some more exotic ingredients, which are cooked with care and almost always pushed through a siphon for some reason. Portion size was well balanced leaving you full without the risk of massive food baby at the end of three courses. Well, after the figgy pudding I was a little bit on the food baby side.
Presentation - 7/10 - dishes were generally very pleasing on the eye and while I understand their unwavering commitment to the plates that they have chosen across courses, I can't help but feel that choosing tableware that suits the dishes and enhances the dining experience would be a small tweak that would help elevate this restaurant even further.
Fine dining credentials - 7/10 - Definitely the full package here, although I felt that they have priced themselves just a little too high. I think that I would have felt more comfortable with two courses at £35 rather than £40, although the quality of ingredients used did go some way towards justifying the price. A little more education for the team on the contents of the menu and how it fits together with the wine list would be a great way to push their fine dining reputation that bit further. Can I also be critical that when I get to a certain price point I'd quite like a neat white tablecloth on my table. I am rapidly developing an obsession for tablecloths (or more properly the absence thereof in UK dining).

47/60 - an impressive total for a generally impressive meal. We have one more challenger in the fine dining face off. How will the curved ball, Leicester College's Taste Restaurant, fare against this tough competition?

The Spotted Duck did not know I was going to review my visit and our meals were paid for in full.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Fine Dining Face Off I: The Olive Branch, Rutland

The Boy and I have been fortunate enough to have headed out for some reet slap up meals recently, and three of them were fine dining experiences in the locality. So the logical thing was to stack them up side-by-side and see how they fared against each other! Let's do this in alphabetical order, so I don't have to decide what order to put them in. Keep an eye out for the next posts in this series coming soon...

The Olive Branch, Clipsham, Rutland

We sampled the Gourmet Tasting Menu at £32.50 per person for five courses with coffee & petit fours. I was a little baffled by the espresso cup of squash soup, but shrugged it off as a 'tasting' menu after all, but hoped that there would be a little more substance to the remaining courses! The crusty fresh bread (very, very crusty) and herb butter was a nice touch though.

The building itself is beautiful, and with the open fires crackling in the background it as the perfect setting for a cosy meal with friends on a cold winter's night. For my starter, I had scallops and bacon - a go to combination and so I stared enviously at my neighbour's plate when he received two whole scallops compared to my measly two halves. But all was cooked to perfection and the flavours were wonderfully balanced. I just wanted a little more... But don't we all?

Cracking on with the mains, and we were noticeably the loudest group in the place, breaking the almost sombre hush that was noticeable amongst the other guests when we arrived. The lamb and sweetbreads was delightful, full of rich flavour and complemented well with the deep flavour of the lentils beneath. And boy, there was a LOT of lamb - making up for the other courses I guess. The presentation was rustic but still delicate, although the time under the hot plate had welded the smear of green sauce to the plate, so I have no idea what that was.

We next received our palate cleanser - a simple grapefruit sorbet. It was probably the worst thing I've eaten in any restaurant in recent memory. And I've eaten in a chain pub recently. Sour and slightly bitter, with a lingering finish it didn't do anything that I would hope for. My mouth was far from cleansed and I yearned for dessert to take the taste away. Another rustic but still lightly presented dish followed, a chocolate mousse with central quinelle of chocolate ice cream, topped with a whole manner of accoutrements. It was pleasant enough, I had no complaints. 

Conversely, The Boy received his Welsh Rarebit and was a little lost for words. The tomato bread was dense, and the topping was a bit of a low blow at the fine tradition of rarebit. It was basically like American cheese - you know the stuff you can potentially get in a can? The Tesco bagged salad garnish didn't really help elevate this dish any further. Such a shame as having rarebit as a dessert option instead of a cheeseboard is really an innovative idea, but the execution really fell short.

Happily it was soon time for coffee and petit fours. The coffee was fine as were the selection of sweets that accompanied it, although I didn't find they matched with coffee particularly well - perhaps the traditional teeny baked goods might have hit the spot better.

The verdict:
Surroundings - 10/10 - a beautiful building, a cosy fire - just a gorgeous place to dine.
Atmosphere - 2/10 - wasn't sure if I was allowed to speak when we first arrived. Bring your own atmosphere.
Service - 5/10 - Friendly, but curt. Not quite the warm country welcome I had hoped for, and the occasional error in our order makes me score this lower than I would have liked.
Food - 5/10 - A genuinely mixed bag of idyllic highs followed by excruciating lows. Quality of ingredients is clearly there, but execution is lacking.
Presentation - 7/10 - In-keeping with the pub's rustic aesthetic, the food is presented with thought, but not too formally. Each dish generally made a good impression when it was served.
Fine dining credentials - 4/10 - Didn't quite have the full package for me. I was prepared to forgive a lot as the building itself is so beautiful it's a gorgeous place to eat, however for the price we paid I expected just a little more thought. For me it's more gastropub than fine dining and the mid-range of that, should such a distinction exist. I'm guessing their pricing is more about where the pub is located than anything else.

33/60 - not a great start... are my expectations too high?

Next up... The Spotted Duck in Mountsorrel. Keep your eyes peeled!

The Olive Branch did not know I was going to review my visit and we paid for our meals in full.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Podcast Review: Spilled Milk

It's that time again, when I hand the blog over to the talented Ginny Copley, for her to give you the lowdown on another fabulous podcast. This time we're looking at Spilled Milk, a fabulous podcast based all around food - my favourite!

Still a bit lost when it comes to podcasts? Read Ginny's guide to listening in first. Take it away Ginny!

What is it?
A podcast about food – one type of food per episode- and the silly, funny conversation between two food lovers that it inspires.
‘Starts with a food-related topic which the hosts take and run with as far as they can go – and, regrettably, sometimes further.’

Where to start? Toast, ice cream? Parsnips? Mexican junk food? There are hundreds of episode to choose from, all of which focus on a specific food and the entertaining observations, memories, and opinions that it evokes. Somewhere mixed up in all that you will also learn a bit more about the food under examination. Most episodes also include some tasting, like Gas Station Candy (Episode 275) where the hosts Molly and Matthew buy a bunch of chocolate bars to eat, judge and compare. If you are British you probably won’t have come across a ‘Big Hunk’ bar and once you’ve listened to this you’ll be glad you haven’t!

And if like that one…. Then there is an extensive menu of other episodes to choose from (yes, I’m going to keep going with the food puns guys, sorry). These shows are like the sorbet of podcasts – a palette cleanser after consuming something more heavy – light, refreshing and witty; easy to add to your current podcast diet of ear deliciousness.
Also, I do like to stop in life for a while to consider a thing in a bit more detail and sometimes that thing is Mandarin Oranges (Episode 264) or Cauliflower (Episode 217) and oh my word – Americans really do know a lot about Root Beer! (Episode 270)

In a nutshell… Food, chatter, puns, eating, straying from the topic…….. and coming back to it again. Similar to eating lunch with some over-enthusiastic, loud, playful and hilarious friends - you don’t want to eat every meal with them, but when you do it is a lot of fun.

Don’t listen if… See above – if bubbly and frothy isn’t your cup of tea, this isn’t for you. Also it is seasoned with a little swearing.

Extra advice – Many American Podcasts start with a pre-amble to promote the show’s sponsor or advertise a product. It can occasionally be confusing as the hosts themselves often voice the advertisement and it can sound like it is the episode. Just give it a couple of minutes and the show itself will start.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Win an Evening Spa Experience at Ragdale Hall Spa

It's been a year since we last offered a prize at Ragdale Hall with Rothley Wine! Where does the time go? Rothley Wine have just made their latest delivery of King Richard still white wine to the Hall, so it seems like a good time to big up that partnership!

Now the Christmas trees are going up and the time has come around again for me to offer you the chance of a lovely Christmas present - a free Evening Spa Experience at Ragdale Hall Spa, worth £120!

The competition will close on Christmas Eve at midnight (Santa will make sure no more entries are accepted after that time) and I will announce the lucky winner on the Extreme Housewifery Facebook page on Christmas Day, so make sure you like it so you see the announcement! Let's have a listen to what Ragdale Hall have to say about the competition...

Win an Evening Spa Experience for two people at the award winning Ragdale Hall Spa

Valid Monday to Thursday - worth £120

Ragdale Hall, in the beautiful Leicestershire countryside was recently awarded Best Destination Spa in the UK* and combines state-of-the-art technology with the charm of traditional Victorian architecture. Whether you are looking for total relaxation, me-time and pampering or to kick-start a healthier lifestyle, Ragdale Hall is the perfect choice. Our great selection of spa days and spa breaks include something for everyone, so if you're seeking a romantic getaway, a day out with girlfriends or some time-out with your nearest and dearest, Ragdale Hall really is the spa to visit.

You’ll enjoy all facilities, including the Thermal Spa with its Candle Pool, heat experiences, indoor and outdoor waterfall pools, as well as a NEW Rooftop Infinity Pool . You can then carry on the relaxation over a delicious two course meal in the Verandah Bar - a sophisticated eating and drinking space with fabulous views over the gardens and a terrace - perfect for al fresco dining when the weather allows. You both have full use of the Gym, exercise classes and outdoor facilities plus complimentary robe hire.

If you are not the lucky winner, then maybe a Ragdale Hall gift voucher would be the perfect Christmas present. Available in monetary amounts from £25 or for days or overnight breaks, they are the ideal Christmas gift.

For further information contact Voucher Sales on 01664 433030 or visit

*Good Spa Guide Awards 2017

Terms and Conditions

6.30pm arrival – 9.30pm departure

Travel to and from Ragdale Hall is not included

We don’t allow any persons under the age of 16 at the Hall

The prize is non-transferable

The prize is valid for six months from date of letter sent to winner

Fill in your details to enter the competition!

* indicates required

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Avina Wine Stopper

I love a wine gizmo, especially one which necessitates me drinking sparkling wine to test it, and so when Avina asked me to give their premium champagne stopper a go, it's fair to say I bit their arm off.

I've never found a champagne stopper that is *really* any good. There are a few out there I've used that keep the bubbles going, limping along, for a couple of hours - if you're lucky, but you can tell that the seal is not airtight and that your bottle is rapidly losing its initial effervescence. This is particularly true when I am doing wine tastings with Rothley Wine, where we run three sessions over the day and, if a group is small, we may use the same bottle of Spirit of Freedom to taste over a couple of sessions. It's never quite the same.

Avina clearly have the same problems and were founded to make quality wine accessories that are designed to last a lifetime - and for me this stopper really ticks the boxes. The design is simple, yet robust and has a decent weight in the hand.

All you have to do is pop the little rubber stopper in the bottle, and pop down the tab and the rubber forms an airtight seal, which will keep in both your wine and your bubbles. Being an idiot, I immediately decided to check the claim that it will preserve your sparkling wine even when stored sideways. I took my full, newly opened bottle of cava and inverted it entirely. Totally fine. I have literally never had a sparkling stopper that I would trust with this, and in hindsight I think I'd probably try this with a practically empty bottle in the future, but you can't argue with their claims.

This is a handy piece of kit. Totally portable, and no faffing around with vacuum pumps or what have you. It comes in at just under £12, which may sound a little pricey, but when you consider they give you a lifetime guarentee 'you break it, we'll replace it' you will literally never need to buy another one. Well, you might want two, I dunno - it depends how much sparkling wine you want to have on the go at any one time.

So, turns out it was so good that it ruined my plan of drinking all the cava, because I was testing when the fizz would start to lose it's edge. And it really didn't! We had a couple of glasses and then left the rest and it still tasted fabulous and crisp about four hours later. I was going to leave the last glass for the next day. But I didn't - I'm not having Avina ruining all my fun with their excellent quality accessories!

Thanks to Avina for sending me the champagne stopper for review - I shall treasure it and it will be road tested to the extreme with all the English wine tastings I do in a year! This would make a great Christmas gift for the wine lover who has everything. Trust me, it will literally change their life - at least for a moment.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Becoming a Master Chocolatier

Well, I think it's fair to say I'll need to do a helluva lot more practice, but I did learn a lot and have a really good time when test driving the chocolate workshop at Cocoa Amore in St Martin's Square.

You settle in first for a talk about the history of chocolate and the process by which chocolate is made, accompanied by tasting of all of the various stages from the chocolate making process. This then progresses on to looking at where in the world chocolate is produced - the so-called Cocoa Belt around the Equator, which you can see on the lovely map on the ground floor of Cocoa Amore. This is accompanied by a delicious tasting of the chocolates that are being described to you, giving an excellent insight into not just the range of different flavours that can come from cocoa, but also what the different percentages on chocolate mean and how they all taste.

After the talking and the tasting, it is on to the fun, messy part, where you first learn how to line the shells for your filled chocolates. Everything about making chocolate is tactical and sensory - and makes absolutely awesome slow motion clips!

With very clear instructions about what to do, we took it in turns to fill, and shake, and slice, and tip, at least we did all of those things to the very best of our abilities! The great thing about chocolate is that so long as you aren't developing the recipe, and if someone melts the chocolate for you, there isn't really anything you can do wrong! Your end result may not look perfect, it may have some air bubbles in or something, but it's going to taste great so who cares! Anyway, once those were in the fridge to set we moved on to our truffles.

This was next level messy compared to filling the shells, and therefore even more fun. The process of turning your block of ganache into beautiful coated and dusted truffles is again a simple one, but incredibly satisfying. We bagged those beauties up and returned to our chocolate shells.

Now chilled and ready for filling, we all experimented with a milk chocolate filling and a whole rainbow of flavouring options. I went for tonka bean, which tastes quite like vanilla-almond and added just the merest hint of cherry, which I thought was incredibly delicious but I realise may be an acquired taste!

After this process was complete, we weren't trusted to put the thin layer of chocolate on ourselves, as this is the part which seals the chocolates and keeps the filling from going off - so fair enough really, which meant it was time for us to take a little break.

As part of the workshop, a hot drink is included. Naturally most people chose one of the wide range of hot chocolates on offer, but I had eaten more than my fill of chocolate for the day so opted for a coffee instead which was very pleasant. Along with our drinks we were offered our choice of chocolate from the counter - so it turned out I hadn't quite eaten my fill of chocolate for the day as I wolfed down an amaretto truffle!

When we were all done, we returned upstairs to the workshop to find our chocolates complete. We whacked them out of the mould (satisfying) and arranged them in a little box (also satisfying) and then sat back to contemplate the afternoon's achievements.

As well as having a lot of fun and trying something new, you therefore leave a Cocoa Amore workshop with quite a haul of chocolate! You make enough filled chocolates to fill your box and more besides, which means you can look really generous in giving someone the pretty boxed one when in reality you actually have a lot more left over anyway!

Chocolate Haul

I was very pleased with my achievement and I think that buying someone a voucher to enjoy this workshop for themselves would make a lovely Christmas gift. Tis the season after all! Thank you to Cocoa Amore for inviting me along to have a go at their workshop. I don't think I'm quite a Master Chocolatier yet, but it has encouraged me to want to practice, practice, practice!
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