Homemade Elderflower Cordial and a Walk on the North Downs

Elderflower is having its moment right now both in the real world and on instagram, where everyone seems to be making elderflower cordial. From the end of May until mid-July you can find it all over the place, both in the city and in the countryside, although you want to gather it away from roads and above hip height for obvious reasons.

It’s very easy to identify and the scent is heavenly – the only thing that you could mistake it for is cow parsley, but once you know the difference its easy to tell the two apart. Each elderflower head is called an “umbel” – such a cool little word don’t you think? The weather was so beautiful last weekend we thought we would head out of town for the day, which also gave me the opportunity to gather some.

Just beyond Croydon – literally 5 miles south – you suddenly hit countryside and rolling hills and wheat fields. Off the main roads, you wind down narrow lanes where passing traffic gradually changes from cars to horses. We headed to the “White Bear” at Fickleshole – even the name of the place sounds enchanting – where we left our car in the car park. On the Inn’s website there are a few recommended walks so we opted for route twoa circular walk over the North Downs. ‘Downs’ is from the old English word ‘dun’, which means hills. I grew up near the South Downs, which pretty much runs parallel to the North Downs, but with a good 31 miles (50km) between them. I don’t know the latter at all, so felt it was a good opportunity to stretch the legs and explore the beautiful countryside.

I had printed off the instructions and we headed off on what was to be a beautiful 8 mile walk down ancient pathways, rolling fields, Saltbox Hill nature reserve and Biggin Hill airstrip. There were a couple of brief times when we had to walk down a lane/road, one time was a little scary as there was no pathway so it was a case of running at breakneck speed about 100m to get to the pathway, which was on a severe bend. Nothing like a little bit of adrenaline to get the heart racing.

We almost missed this sign, so thought I would take a photo of it if you plan on doing the walk yourselves. It’s on Downe Road as you head towards Holwood Farm Shop. You cross the road and then walk down a little pathway that comes out into a large field with crops growing and a clear pathway leading through them and a couple of unsightly large pylons in the field (just ignore that bit).

I adore circular walks that I have not been on before as there is so much so see and take in. At one stage we walked alongside Biggin Hill airstrip, which has private planes landing and taking off at intervals and we even managed to see an old spitfire fly above us. We passed a church on our travels, which had a baptism going on when we poked our heads round the door.

The North Downs, like it’s sister counterpart, are made up of chalk and flint. The latter you can see being used as part of the facade on the local houses – rather pretty I thought!

We seem to come across a lot of horses on the footpaths (in fields). This beauty below was rather special. Just shortly after walking along the top edge of the field we came to ‘Saltbox Hill Nature Reserve’ a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. Each Sunday, during the summer months, there are guided nature walks through the reserve.

The walk was not particularly demanding, although there were some inclines from time to time and we did keep a close eye on the instructions so as not to get lost.

Back at the White Bear we drank some ginger beer before ordering lunch. In hindsight a picnic on the walk itself may have been more preferable as the walk took a little longer than expected.

The pub is very atmospheric, with cosy corners, black and white photos of owners long gone and a ghost or two apparently. It’s a great place for a drink, although the menu let it down – far too long and the quality of the food was not memorable for us, which was a shame.  It did provide, however, the perfect place to set off on our adventure.

With a bag full of elderflower umbels I left them to rest back at home for a while so that any creepy crawlies could escape. Do not wash them as this can spoil the flavour.

One very important ingredient you need for elderflower cordial, if you want it to last for a long period, is citric acid, which you can easily pick up from your local pharmacy.

Other than that it is very straightforward. You do add 1 kg of granulated sugar – this sounds a huge amount, but you need to remember that the cordial is concentrated so will be used sparingly and added to sparkling water or perhaps a gin cocktail or with some prosecco. The amount I made will easily last for quite a number of months.

The reason I have not been precise on the number of umbel heads required is because the size of the umbel differs from umbel to umbel so it really isn’t an exact science hence I have not given a specific amount.

 

Elderflower Cordial

makes around 2 litres of cordial

1 kg granulated sugar

2 litres of boiling water

4 unwaxed lemons, grated and sliced

50g citric acid (can be found at your pharmacy)

20-30 elderflower umbels (heads)

4 x 500ml glass bottle – sterilised

 

  1. Place the sugar in a large bowl or pan and cover with boiling water. Stir gently to help the sugar dissolve.
  2. Add the citric acid and stir into the water.
  3. Add the grated and sliced lemon.
  4. When the water has cooled add the umbels and submerge them as much as possible.
  5. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
  6. Sterilise your glass bottles by throughly washing them and then placing them in an oven (on the lowest temperature) for 10 minutes and then remove them from the oven to cool completely.
  7. Use a muslin/clean tea towel over a large bowl/jug and pour the contents of your original bowl into the muslin. Gently squeeze so that all the juice comes through.
  8. Seal and use as and when you want a refreshing summer drink or cocktail. Keep in a cool place and once opened store in the fridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Things To Do in New York City

I was recently in New York and spent a lot of time on my feet, pounding the pavements to see the sights and explore – clocking up over 80 miles in a week. I have been to New York many times before, both for pleasure and business, but this time it was definitely pleasure and I had the whole family in tow. My last trip I posted a post here  – so take a look if you are planning a trip. Here are some of my suggestions on things to do in the city that never sleeps.

  1. Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum

Ok, before you switch off and give up on my suggestions before they have begun, let me just say this. This museum completely knocked us for six, it’s brilliant. My girls (12 and 8 yrs old) LOVED it and my husband and I were equally absorbed. It was so interesting in fact that we left if at lunch time to grab something to eat to then returned for another session after lunch. The museum is on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid and the cruise missile submarine USS Growler, both of which are fascinating to explore. In addition they showcase a Concorde SST, a Lockheed A-12 supersonic reconnaissance plane and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. It was all quite overwhelming to have all these things in one place.

It is located at Pier 86 at 46th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighboured on the West Side of Manhattan.

yes it snowed when we were there can you believe it……kind of pretty with the blossom, in a surreal way!

2. The Met

An obvious choice I know, but my goodness the place is fascinating. Focus on one of two periods and then absorb yourself in these rooms. It is based in the Upper East Side just by Central Park. After visiting the Met you could pop into another of my favourite galleries The Frick, which I mentioned about here.

 

3. The Tenement Museum 

Try and book tickets before you arrive in New York for one of their tours as they sell out fast. The museum is interactive in many respects and focuses on Americas urban immigration history. There are a number of tours which allow visitors to view restored apartments from the 19th and 20th centuries, walk the historic neighborhood, and interact with residents to learn the stories of generations of immigrants who helped shape the American experience.

Based on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

4. Katz Deli

Close by to the Tenement Museum so a great place to go for lunch if the timing works. This kosher style Jewish deli has got to be one of the oldest in town – first serving customers in 1888. Tourist and locals equally adore the fanfare that goes into making their sandwiches. The portions are epically huge so order one sandwich between two.

Located at 205 East Houston Street, on the southwest corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, New York City .

5. One World Observatory

There are a number of place in NY to get that birds eye view of the city, but One World Observatory is pretty impressive and worth booking tickets in advance online. If you manage to go up on a clear day you really do feel on top of the world. Whilst visiting the observatory, just near by are two pools – approximately 1 acre in size – of where the original twin towers stood before that fateful day on 9/11. Take time to pay your respects to those who perished and see the names engraved around the outside. Behind the memorial you will see the impressive Oculus building, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to look like a dove in flight. Some critics have been rather harsh but I personally loved the structure. It is in fact a train station for the PATH train over to Jersey City and cost the grandiose sum of $4 billion to build over 12 years.

Based at 285 Fulton St

6. Nom Wah Tea Parlor and a walk around China Town

Book at table at Nom Was Tea Parlor, which has been serving dumplings to hungry New Yorkers since the 1920. There are a number of pleather booths (book one of those if you can), or tables scattered across the restaurant. Order the Xia Long Bao, which are called Shanghainese soup dumplings. It was raining cats and dogs when I visited so provided the perfect respite to warm up and fill our bellies with delicious dim sum.

After lunch have a wonder around Chinatown, which is a feast for the eyes. Mott and Grand street have a host of interesting food stalls, but stay south of Broome Street and east of Lafayette to get that real Chinatown experience. I managed to pick up a gorgeous Chinese teapot for my sister – so much so I returned and picked up one for myself a day later.

Photo credit: @sahirschmann of Five Leaves

7. Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Take some time to explore Brooklyn. As it is such a huge area, aim for Williamsburg which has a host of fabulous, shops, eateries and great street graffiti. Just walking the streets and soaking up the vibe will be interesting enough. There are some great places to stop for a coffee or a bite to eat.

Marlow and Sons – is regarded by some as ‘the best place to eat in the city’. It is great to stop for a snack or just a coffee or a more main meal for lunch or supper. It’s rustic, down to earth charm gives the place a genuine warmth and an enjoyable place to pass the time in good company. The American menu has an emphasis on fresh food and menus that change daily.

Five Leaves, based at Greenpoint, is another good option if you are after brunch with a hip crowd creating a nice buzz to the place.

If you love a bit of thrift/vintage shopping, those in the know head to Beacon’s Closet, which have a few locations, but one is a stones throw from Five Leaves.

Photo credit: @reynardnyc of Wythe Hotel

If you fancy staying in Brooklyn these hotels are worth checking out:

Wythe Hotel: 80 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 460 8000; rates from $300; www.wythehotel.com

right next door is: The Williamsburg Hotel:  96 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 362 8100; rates from $285; www.thewilliamsburghotel.com

1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge60 Furman St, Brooklyn, NY 11201; tel: 1.718 631 8400; rates from $350; www.1hotels.com

Urban Cowboy: 111 Powers Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211; rates from $195; www.urbancowboybnb.com

McCarren Hotel & Pool60 N 12th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 218 7500; rates from $350; www.mccarrenhotel.com

8. Moma – the Museum of Modern Art

If you feel the urge for a modern art fix then Moma is definitely worth a visit. The Tarsila Do Amaral: Investing Modern Art in Brazil exhibition was on when we visited, but most of all we enjoyed admiring the permanent collection, including works by artists such as Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.

18 West 54 Street

9. A browse around the East Village neighbourhood

We were staying in East Village so over the course of a week got to know a number of the eateries in the neighbourhood. Some evenings we ate in, stopping off at nearby Russo’s for some fresh pasta and sauces and the BEST fried artichokes, to take back to our apartment and devour. This Italian deli has been serving customers for over 100 years so is definitely worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood.

Another must is to either eat in or order take out at Xian Famous Foods (which I recently discovered is about to open a branch in London). I ordered take out ‘spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles, which were heavenly, but I could quite easily have ordered the whole menu.

A few streets away is an adorable little treasure trove of a shop, called Casey Rubber Stamps, owned by an affable Irish guy called John Casey, selling all manner of rubber stamps. It’s the type of place that you wander in and before you know it you end up buying quite a number of rubber stamps. They are great as gifts or to keep for yourself. It’s is so important to keep small business thriving so make sure you visit John’s store. My whole family loved it and spent time admiring the wide variety of stamps for sale.

For those who have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I love Vietnamese food. Thankfully there is a great Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village called Hanoi House  which is definitely worth a visit, if you are in the nighbourhood. Right next door to Hanoi House looked a rather good neighbourhood bar called Ten Degrees. and a little further down the street you will see a sign saying ‘Eat Me’. If you head into the door below this sign, you walk into a random hotdog vendor where you will find a telephone booth. You then have to enter and dial a number where you will be asked if you have a booking (make sure you do). Then the wall springs back and you enter the speakeasy. It’s called ‘Please Don’t Tell’ or ‘PDT’ for short. As we had our daughters in tow, we were unable to go in, but my sources tell me it’s a fun place to have a few cocktails and beers.

10. Visit Central Park

No visit to New York is complete without a stroll around central park –  you can even hire bikes or take a horse driven carriage, although the latter might scream ‘TOURIST’ more than you would wish. It maybe good to combine it with a visit to The Frick, The Met or MOMA. If you are visiting over winter you can have a go on the ice rink and in spring and summer there is the option of the zoo. It’s also a great place to have a picnic and watch the clouds float overhead.

Whatever you decide to do, have fun, walk as much as possible and don’t feel you need to cross of everything off your list on your first visit. New York is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by. There are so many interesting characters that you’ll never have a dull moment.

 

 

 

 

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Sea Beet and Potato Curry

Recently I went on a lovely coastal walk on Mersea Island, which is off the Essex coast (it’s reached by a tidal causeway). I hadn’t planned to go foraging but when I came across sea beet growing in large clusters, it made sense to gather up two large handfuls to take home and cook into something interesting.

I do love to forage from time to time – not mushrooms mind you as they can be tricky to identify unless you are with an expert. Somethings are easier to recognise and sea beet is one of those. Disclaimer: If you are going to try to find some yourself please consult the internet for other sources to check on identification. John Wright’s book ‘Edible Seashore’ may also be a good book to take on your walks to help identify. It’s best to check with a few sources to be sure.

I thought the sea beet would lend itself well to a ‘sag aloo’ type dish (spinach and potato curry). It’s more robust than spinach and has a lovely earthy taste to it. It is in fact the wild ancestor to the beetroot, sugar beet and swiss chard and is called a host of names including sea beet, sea spinach, wild beet and wild spinach. In ancient times, the leaves and root of the sea beet were used to treat several diseases, particularly tumours. The juice is even good for treating ulcers apparently!

When you forage you need to wash and clean your ‘treasure’ properly in cold water. I rinsed the leaves three times to be on the safe side. I then roughly chopped the leaves and prepared the potatoes. This curry is a lovely way to include sea beet into your diet, but if you are not going near any coastal areas you can always use spinach instead.

I would love to hear from any of you who may have used this ingredient before? How did you cook it? Leave a comment in the comment box below.

Sea Beet and Potato Curry

1 tbsp oil

2 dried red chilli

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

pinch of asafoetida/hing (optional)

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut roughly into 2 inch cubes

1 tsp salt to taste

2 large handfuls of foraged sea beet or around 260g of fresh spinach

2 tbsp water

  1. Heat the oil and then add the dried red chillies. Move around the pan for 10 seconds before adding the cumin seeds. Let the seeds begin to fizzle and then add the turmeric powder and asafoetida (if using).
  2. Add the potatoes and cover them in seeds and spices and cook gently on a medium to low heat, stirring every now and then. Add the salt.
  3. After about 8-10 minutes, add the washed sea beet and fold in gently to the potatoes.
  4. Add 1 tbsp of water and allow the sea beet to wilt and the potato to soften completely. To check the potato has soften stick a sharp knife into it, if it goes in easily then they are ready. You may need to place a lid on the pan to help steam it, if the potato needs more time to soften,  which will speed up the softening. Add the remaining water if need.

Serve immediately with a dollop of yogurt and a wedge of lemon on the side. It also works really well if you cook my chana dal to eat along side it.

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A Weekend in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Fancy a weekend of fresh air, open spaces, glorious views, rolling countryside and peace and quiet? Then I have just the place for you. The weekend before last  – you know the glorious hot one  – me and a couple of girlfriends – headed to the Brecon Beacons in Wales,  an area of outstanding beauty. Not sure that’s the official line but it definitely warrants that accolade. It was a very stress free journey from London Paddington to Newport, a quick change of trains and then a further 30 minutes or so onto Abergavenny – a charming station, which really makes you feel as if you have gone back in time.

Greeted by one of my friends in her car (she had driven from the Cotswolds) we whizzed a further 45 minutes to the picturesque Brecon Beacons National Park where we would be staying for two nights in Fan Cottage (sleeps 6), which is part of the Cnewr Estate. If you are with a larger party you can book out the Farmhouse (sleeps 16). You can book them for the week or the weekend. Fan cottage is the little white cottage that you can see in the photo above.

Both properties have been tastefully refurbished in 2017. The beds are super comfortable (that’s mine above) with puffy pillows and duvets, the bathrooms have excellent power showers (one had a bath and shower), there is a snug and sitting room and a good sized, well equipped kitchen with stylish crockery. I was also really impressed by the quality of the curtains – random I know – but seriously people they were so beautifully made. Also the place is really well heated – we had to turn off some of the radiators the weekend we visited as the weather was a scorcher. We couldn’t resist putting on the log burner one evening though to add to the atmosphere of the cottage – so warm and inviting.

Both cottage and farmhouse afford incredible vistas of the Cray Reservoir (no swimming as it’s super dangerous), but fun to admire and walk around at leisure. The dam was pretty spectacular, although am I the only one who imagines it breaking when waking this side of it? Now the sunsets from the cottage were just divine.

It did not take us long to feel relaxed and rejuvenated. One day we went and ate lunch at The Felin Fach Griffin which is about 10 minutes on from the town of Brecon. I had met the owner – Charles and his family – last year at the Ballymaloe Food and Drink Festival in Ireland and he had spoken about his three Inns – two in Cornwall and one in Wales.

The food and service were excellent and I would return in a heartbeat. The place is rustic and low key, the perfect place to nestle in for the afternoon around the fire with the papers or in our case on the grass outside. The food was full of flavour, original, but not too left field, and platted in a way that makes you want to actually dive in. The faro risotto was the tastiest I’ve eaten – just check out the colours on the plate.

Whilst we didn’t even see even half of the Brecon Beacons we did climb the highest peak in South Wales – Pen Y Fan – 886 metres about sea level and Corn Du just next to it, which enabled us to see for miles around.

The round trip, interspersed with lots of chatter and going at a slow and steady pace, is about 3 hours. We did pass a few people running up and down it – but each for their own hey!

We rewarded ourselves with lunch at the beautiful fishing hotel of Gliffaes, which is perched above River Usk. My cauliflower and roasted garlic soup definitely hit the spot after my hike.

The place is enchanting and feels as if it’s from another era, where time has literally stood still. Imagine grandfather clocks, roaring fires, tea in the drawing room, butler service (not quite, but almost) then you get the picture. The grounds and position are beautiful and great to wander around after a bite to eat and before catching the train back to the big smoke refreshed and rejuvenated after a wonderful weekend in Wales.

 

 

To Book:

Fan Cottage or the Farmhouse on the Cnewr Estate – click here

Felin Fach Griffin – click here

Gliffaes  – click here 

 

 

 

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Cambodian Nut Mix

I wanted to introduce you all to my favourite snackage at the moment. I only came across it recently when I was staying in Kep-sur-Mer in the south of Cambodia – you can read about my stay in Kep here. Most evenings we would head to the sailing club (below – the pool table was a perfect activity during cocktails hour) next to our hotel – Knai Bang Chatt – which I really recommend if you are thinking about a trip – and when you order your drink they give you a bowl of this delicious nut mix.

They are so simple to make and yet completely addictive and because they are a little salty you naturally want more to drink. Clever hey.

Anyway I thought it would be perfect to show you how to make your own nut mix at home. It makes sense to make a decent amount and then store it in an airtight container. There seems a bit of a theme with airtight containers – I blame it on the snow and being stuck inside few weeks back. There is literally 5 ingredients: peanuts – with their red skins on- fresh curry leaves, dried red chillies, garlic and salt. That said I think there may have been some lemongrass mixed in with the nuts, but I can’t be sure, so if you have any by all means finely slice it lengthways and fry it with the sliced garlic.

Cambodian Nut Mix

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 whole garlic, pealed and thinly sliced

2 steams of fresh curry leaves (approx 20 leaves)

5 dried red chillies

1kg of red peanuts

rock salt to taste

optional: lemongrass, thinly sliced lengthways and fried with the garlic

 

  1. In a large pan gently heat the oil and then fry the garlic so it turns a light brown. If you are also going to use lemongrass, add it at this stage.  Remove and place on kitchen paper.
  2. Using the same pan gently fry the fresh curry leaves and add the dried red chillies. I tend to split some of them so as to release some of the seeds to give heat.
  3. Add the nuts and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle with salt.
  4. Take off the heat and add the garlic (and lemongrass if using) thoroughly.
  5. Once cooled store in an airtight container. They will last for ages and are good to bring out with drinks in the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

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Travels in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Kep-sur-Mer)- Part 2

A short plane ride – under an hour – from Siem Reap and you arrive in the capital, Phnom Penh, which is a buzzing metropolis. We were only there for two days but managed to see a huge amount. As a family we visited the splendid Royal Palace, which is still lived in by the ruling King of Cambodia. He lives in one part of it – which is closed off to visitors – but the rest of the palace is there for tourists and locals to visit and enjoy.

I adored the stunning yellow – possibly gold leaf –  roofing and the mellow yellow paintwork. With the bright blue skies as a backdrop and the fuchsia pink flowers, the whole place looked really magical.

The other place of interest nearby is the National Museum, housed in an equally impressive building – this time a distinctive rust-red colour.

There are over 5000 objects on display – many Angkorian era statues including the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King’. After our mornings culture we decided that my husband and elder daughter would visit the ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘Toul Sleng Genocide Museum’, whilst my younger daughter and I would check out the two key markets in Phnom Penh known as ‘Central Market’ (Psai Thmei) and ‘Russian Market’ (Psah Toul Tom Poung).

We headed to Central Market to begin with, which is housed in a beautiful historic building with an impressive yellow dome.

In the main hall jewels of every shape and colour were being sold and leading off this central area where a labyrinth of passages selling a wide range of goods from clothing to manicures.  Naturally the food area is what attracted me the most.

Every possible form of dried fish was on offer, but I particularly liked the demure and stylish lady below selling honeycomb.

We picked up some donut looking snacks to graze upon whilst we surveyed all the wonderful food on offer, although we were tempted to have some Banh Xeo.

They are the yellow rice pancakes above and the large photo below. They are absolutely delicious and you can stuff them with whatever you fancy, although typically they are filled with slices of pork belly, prawns, beansprouts and herbs. I often tend to leave out the pork belly and just have prawns. My recipe for them are here. so take a look and give them a whirl. Let me know how you get on !! They are far easier to make than you think and my whole family adore them. You can easily pick up rice flour now at all the large supermarkets. The summer rolls below look tempting don’t you think?

We then headed over to the Russian market, which is fairly similar to central market in as far as goods are concerned, although I did see more stalls selling some beautiful looking crockery, which I was tempted to buy. Russian market is darker and a little more claustrophobic and I imagine on a hot day with lots of people it could be rather sweltering inside. For both markets we had a guide, but in all honesty this is unnecessary as you can easily wander around at your own speed and feel quite safe. Getting a tuk tuk is easy so moving around the city is pretty straightforward.

We stayed in the old US Embassy, which is now called the White Mansion. It was in a great location to everything we wanted to see, the rooms were large and spacious, there was a pool and the cafe attached to the hotel- Eric Kayser – offered incredible pastries and breakfasts. It is for the public as well as hotel guests, so worth a visit even if you are not staying here. They do offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, although we only ate breakfast there.

On the first evening we dined at a fabulous restaurant that we booked again the following night. It’s called ‘Khmer Surin’ and it is the perfect place to savour real Khmer cuisine in a cosy atmosphere with local musicians playing traditional Cambodian music.  There is an English menu and such a range of dishes that over the two evenings we worked our way through a number of memorable Khmer dishes. They also served great fresh juices and cocktails. We also discovered that they operated as a guest house. The rooms look characterful – with Khmer furniture and decor and are very reasonably priced indeed, so I would definitely consider staying here if I were to return to the city.

Our final destination was in the very south of the country in a place called Kep-sur-Mer, which, as the name suggests, is by the sea. We were heading there for two main reasons – to relax and to eat crab, as the town is famous for it’s ‘crab market’.

The drive took a few hours from Phnom Penh but once we reached this sleepy backwater (it used to be THE place to hang out Cambodian high society and French colonials and now is making a bit of a revival) we checked into our hotel – Knai Bang Chatt – a beautifully stylish boutique hotel – only 18 rooms, set in lush tropical gardens overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

Before we even explored the hotel, we left our bags in our room and headed off for lunch in the local crab market. It was a lot smaller than I had imagined, but nonetheless it was exciting to see our lunch being prepared so freshly. The fisherman would bring in the crabs, then the amount of crabs was agreed – we went for 1kg of crab and 500g prawns. You need to pay the fisherman separately from the cooks.

Watching the preparation is not for the faint hearted. The crabs were severed and cut into four pieces, their  lungs – the feathery cones lining the side of the body – were removed. Within minutes they were tossed into the pan. Cambodia is famous for its pepper – particularly its Kampot pepper – and many dishes are heavily peppered. We decided that for the crab dish we would include pepper but the prawns we would keep it simpler so that my youngest daughter could dive in.

Minutes later we were walking away with what looked, and tasted, spectacular. From a separate stall we bought rice, some chilli sauce and water. We found a pew and joined others by diving into our lunch. There is no polite way to eat this so use your hands and get involved.

Back at the hotel we discovered a beautiful space with manicured lawns, a gorgeous pool, a library and lots of day beds, swinging baskets to lounge upon. Next to the hotel (and owned by the hotel), we discovered a rather stylish sailing club, with a great bar and restaurant, pool table, table tennis and volleyball courts. It was a little enclave of cool, which would not have looked out of place in the Hamptons or the South of France. Hotel guests mingled with other tourists and Cambodian families, down from Phnom Penh for the weekend. Happy hour was particularly popular as the bar was particular good at creating fabulously tasty cocktails accompanied by the tasted spiced nuts I have ever eaten. I am going to do a blog post on how to make them as they are seriously addictive and perfect with a good beer, cocktail or glass of wine. One evening we ate in town, which is a short 5 minutes walk from the hotel. There are a handful of restaurants overlooking the sea by the crab market and we were recommended to Kimly, which was good, although our crab lunch will always remain the more memorable.

As far as trips from Kep, one day we ventured over to ‘Rabbit Island’. Go with low expectations and then you won’t be too disappointed. It certainly doesn’t have same turquoise waters that surround the Thai islands such as Phi Phi as I guess it is literally a stones throw from the mainland. I was saddened to see quite a lot of discarded rubbish and bottles as we walked over to the other side of the island to find a place to snorkel. The rubbish is apparently taken off the island every day, but with fairly basic accommodation on offer and no fresh running water, I guess it is hard to keep the place spotless of rubbish. Apparently the islands that are further from the mainland are more inline with our idea of a white sand, crystal clear waters desert island. Islands like Koh Rong Sanloem may be worth checking out if you are keen to find this kind of escape, although I reckon it would be worth staying a few nights as some of the more remote islands take up to 3 hours to reach. Needless to say on ‘Rabbit Island’ our hotel had organised a lovely lunch for us and we had some incredible massages on the beach.

If you are planning a trip and there is something I have not covered here, then write a comment in the comments box below and I will get back to you. Cambodia has a lot to offer whether you are travelling on your own, with friends or family.

Phnom Penh

White Mansion

Khmer Surin Guest House

Khmer Surin Restaurant

Eric Kayser Bakery and Cafe

Kep-sur-Mer

Knai Bang Chatt

Kimly restaurant

Kep Sailing Club

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Travels in Cambodia – Siem Reap (part 1)

Cambodia is a wonderful country that is most definitely worth visiting, but you need to be aware that it is still trying to find its way in the world after the horrific genocide that was carried out by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime between 1976-1979 killing up to 3 million Cambodians. There is clearly a huge amount of wealth in the country, if the number of Lexus, Porche and Range Rover cars on the roads is anything to go by, but this wealth is clearly not trickling down to the average Cambodian. Corruption is evident and the coffers tourists give to see the Angkor Archaeological Park are not all going into the restoration of other ruins as this seems to be done by overseas organisation and UNESCO.

Also as there are still a huge amount of unexploded landmines around the country that will take years to uncover, so wandering off on hikes in jungles is best avoided unless you are with a guide who knows where is safe to walk.

Our trip was split into three sections:

Siem Reap – to visit many of the temples and see the floating villages on Tonle Sap – the largest fresh water late in South East Asia.

Phnom Penh – to visit the Royal Palace and temples, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, the markets

Kep – in the south to relax and visit the crab market

Siem Reap

We stayed at the beautiful Heritage Suites Hotel nestled in a quiet location in Siem Reap, near Wat Polanka. Guests are often collected from the airport in one of their old classic Mercedes, very Agatha Christie don’t you think? The hotel is at the edge of town giving really easy access to the Angkor temple complex, which is around 15 minutes drive away. The day we arrived our guide arranged for us to collect our 3 day temple passes – worth doing to avoid crowds queuing to get theirs the next morning. There seems to be a wide range of places to stay in Siem Reap for all budgets. We ate at great place called ‘Chanrey Tree‘ which I would recommend and they also offer boutique accommodation which may well be worth checking out.

Angkor Wat is probably the most well known of all temples in Cambodia and whilst it is incredibly impressive there were heaps of tourists, which is a shame (although expected/pre-warned). We went mid morning and others at our hotel went before dawn  and said even then there were still huge amounts of tourists waiting for the sun to rise. So my advice is to definitely go and visit but make sure you spend time also seeing some of the others, which we found less crowded and in some cases there were only a few others wandering around the ruins. Ta Prohm and Bayon temple were our favourites. Both are featured in the “Tomb Raider” movie staring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

Ta Prohm looks as if it is almost being eaten up by either the silk-cotton, thitpok, gold apple and strangler fig trees.

Tree and brick entwine and almost hold each other up. Ta Prohm is an ancient Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university built between the 12th and 13th centuries by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII. The walls are decorated with deep bas relief of female divinities, devatas or apsaras. It’s pretty impressive.

Health and safety doesn’t really operate in Cambodia so you can scramble around as much of it as you want, just be vigilant that there aren’t any snakes hiding! You’ll certainly see bats.

At Bayon Temple (below) built at a similar time, it was the official state temple and its most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene smiling stone faces on the towers and upper terraces. Apparently there once 54 towers each with four gigantic faces so making a total of 216 faces. Now however, there are 37 stone towers in ruins.

As to who the faces are remains a debate. Many think that it is king Jayavarman VII who built the temple. He apparently created these faces as a dedication to Buddha.  Others believe it to belong to Bodhisattva (Buddhist enlightened being) of compassion known as Avalokiteśvara. As King Jayavarman identified himself with Buddha and Bodhisattva it makes sense that the faces are a combination of both.

Back in Siem Reap it is really easy to get around. All tuk tuk rides seem to cost $3 and it was a fun way to whizz around town. Siem Reap river runs through town and it was certainly easy to walk from our hotel to see some of the temples and markets.

Being on foot you often get to see Cambodians going about their daily chores up close. The one below we found rather fascinating.

We visited the Old Market, known as Psar Chaa which is a good place to pick up some kampot pepper and a host of other interesting spices. The food hall was interesting with beautiful produce on display, although the meat and fish section is probably not for the faint hearted.

It’s sells a lot of trinkets and tat but there is always the odd unique gift.  For scarfs and blankets head to ……..

As far as eating out is concerned “social enterprise eating” is very in vogue and should be supported. The restaurants provide a training for vulnerable young adults from poor rural areas, orphanages or safe shelters, which can then help them in the real world, giving them a chance to end the circle of poverty they are trapped in.

A couple to recommend (although there are many more) are:

Haven it took us about 10 minutes by tuk tuk from Heritage Suite Hotel

Marum Restaurant It is literally 2 minutes walk from Heritage Suite Hotel.

There is one street to avoid or head to, depending on your idea of a good time, called ‘Pub Street’. We did venture there one evening and had a great and very reasonable meal at Khmer Kitchen which served up all the Cambodian classics.

After a days touring you may want to rest up or visit a spa (there are so many in Siem Reap), but if you want to be entertained I can highly recommend a visit to Phare – which is Cambodias answer to Cirque de Soleil. They were really impressive and fun to watch. You can book tickets here.

The other trip we went on from Siem Reap was to the visit the floating villages on the freshwater lake (which looks rather brown!), known as  Tonle Sap.

Around 90% of those living on Tonle Sap are Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese (circa 700k) who are forced to dwell on the water in really poor conditions and with very little opportunities.  Apparently law restricts land to Cambodian citizens only, but this does not apply to the water – hence the ethnic Vietnamese populations move onto the water.  Many are living mere metres from land.

Fishing provides them with a small income, although they have to pay arbitrary taxes as they can’t prove they are in Cambodia legally. It all seems unjust and unfair and they are caught in a limbo situation.

The lake does provide food to eat, but the lack of basic sanitation is apparent and disease is rife. There were a few tourists at the part of the lake we went to, which brings some extra income for them, taking tourist on their boats out onto the lake. With little opportunity or investment one wonders how the cycle of poverty will ever end.

If you do make a trip please be sympathetic to the communities who live on the lake. Whilst I enjoyed this trip, I do have mixed feelings about the predicament they find themselves in.

My next post will be on  the capital – Phnom Penh and Kep in the south, so be sure to check back in next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cambodia, VB6 and a review of “My Vegan Travels” by Jackie Kearney

Sunset in Kep, Cambodia

Happy New Year everyone. As you’ve probably gathered from my lack of posts I have been off the grid for a few weeks, which has been bliss – although I was still posting on instagram so do check out my feed if you are interested. My family decided to cheat winter for a few weeks and headed off to Cambodia to see the ancient ruins, visit the capital and then head south to laidback Kep – which was once where the Cambodian royals and wealthy would head to relax and enjoy themselves; before the Khmer Rouge destroyed much of the town.

Angkor Wat Temple complex

Back in London and it has all been a bit of a shock with the cold, blistery weather and getting dark so early in the day. I reluctantly packed away my flip flops and got out my winter boots. January is a funny old month. We all start with such good intentions.

Most friends seem to be attempting a “dry January” and “veganuary” has now been thrown into the mix. Read more about it here if the term is new to you.

Sacred prays in Angkor Wat complex

I can get my head around being more vegetarian, or at least a diet which has a heavy vegetable focus, but vegan……now that involves a lot of thought and planning. Whilst I was pondering veganuary, I read about a rather interesting “diet” or let’s just say “way of life” which, in my view, seemed more attainable and realistic. There is a lot of chat about it in the media at the moment. It is called the VB6 diet. Now don’t get me wrong I do not follow diets and have never been on one, but this VB6 caught my attention.

Lotus flower arrangement in Siem Reap

The diet was given life by New York Times’ lead food writer Mark Bittman and literally means “Vegan Before 6pm”. I am increasingly convinced we all need to eat more vegetables and fruit and less meat and fish. Like Mark however, I am not going to become vegan anytime soon, but a swing of the pendulum towards more of a plant based diet is definitely attractive on many levels. I would prefer to eat meat and fish less often but the quality of what I eat to be high and ultimately know exactly where the produce has come from. By eating it less frequently does allow us to buy better quality meat and fish when we do actually buy it.

Drying out fish on the shores of Tonle Sap – the 4th largest freshwater source of fish in the world

The VB6 diet came about when Mark was told by his doctor that he was overweight, his cholesterol and blood sugar were too high and that intervention by surgery was one possible option. He discussed these findings with another doctor who suggested that becoming vegan was another way that could help him. Knowing that becoming a true vegan was out of the question he decided to adapt and become vegan throughout the day but in the evening from 6pm he could eat what he wanted. It made a lot of sense as he could be sociable in the evening with friends and eat how he always has done. He is also really realistic that sometimes he may deviates from the plan and he readily admits he has milk in his coffee in the morning, but for the most part he continues to be vegan in the day time.

A shrine in Phnom Penh

So has it worked?

Absolutely. He has lost a good amount of weight – 36 pounds then gained a little to plateau to around losing 26 pounds. The diet seems sensible and also not really very restrictive in the grand scheme of things. He talks to the Huffington Post here about the diet. Have a read, it’s really interesting. I definitely plan to pick up a copy of his book and see what he has to say in more detail. You can order it here if you are interested.

Buddhist shrine in Angkor Wat

Which brings me to a rather lovely book that was recently sent to me, called “My Vegan Travels – Comfort Food Inspired by Adventure” by Jackie Kearney. I don’t own a vegan cookery book so was not too sure on what to expect. What I discovered is a hugely informative book with recipes that actually sound and look (if the five photos below are anything to go by) delicious.

Photography credit above: Clare Winfield, published by Ryland Peters & Small

At first glance there did seem to be quite a number of ingredients in each recipe but that has never phased me. If you are someone who likes 5 ingredients, then this book is probably not for you. For anyone who has a keen interest in cooking and a willingness to try something new then you will love it. The chapters are slit into “No Place Like Home”, “European Summers”, “Asian Comfort” and “Americana”. I obviously gravitated to the “Asian Comfort”.

I think that to become full-time vegan does involve a commitment to actually stock your pantry/cupboard/fridge very differently. Leafing though the pages I found a couple of Cambodian recipes. Again I never come across Cambodian recipes so both of them really appealed to me. I opted on one though which I think is a real January mood-pick-me-up. It’s called “Num Banh Chok” – a Cambodian yellow curry with rice noodles and I cannot tell you how AWESOME this recipe is. I gave it to my father-in-law who has been recovering from a bout of flue and he couldn’t stop saying how delicious it was. It is now firmly part of my culinary arsenal and I will be cooking it again and again hence forth. I LOVED it.

I thought that the recipe tied in so well with this post and me having just come back from beautiful Cambodia, as well as the VB6 article, which I had been mulling over.

Now a couple of things to note. I made one change –  I added fried tofu instead of banana flower. I do love banana flower but it is tricky to find, certainly if you live outside London or not near any Vietnamese grocers. I thought it wasn’t very realistic for others to find if I found it tricky. Secondly, the vegetable with holes in it is called “lotus root”. I admit lotus root is also not that easy to find. My usual Asian grocers did not have it so they sent me off to a Chinese grocers that did. So folks aim for Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Japanese grocers near you. It is not stocked in your local supermarket. You can buy it online at places like Amazon and Fresh Oriental – here. You can also buy it frozen, but fresh is best if you can locate it. Galangal is not as hard to find, but again you may need to head to your South East Asian grocer.

Once you have the ingredients the recipe is a piece of cake to make. Do try it and let me know. If this recipe is anything to go by I can’t wait to try making the other Cambodian recipe “Khmer croquettes” (photo below) very soon. Don’t they look temptingly moreish.

Photography credit above: Clare Winfield, published by Ryland Peters & Small

Cambodian Yellow Curry with Rice Noodles

adapted from “My Vegan Travels” by Jackie Kearney, published by Ryland, Peters & Small

Serves 4

(1/2= half)

To make the Spice Paste

2 6cm/2 inch thumbs of fresh turmeric (or 1 1/2 tsp powdered)

1/2 tsp paprika

4 garlic cloves

5cm/2 inch thumb of ginger

5cm/2 inch thumb of galangal

4-6 dried red chillies, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes

1 small red onion

2 lemongrass stalks, ends trimmed and outer layer removed

10 kaffir lime leaves

 

To make the curry

2 tbs coconut/vegetable oil

900ml/4 cups vegetable stock or water, plus extra if needed

2-3 tbs vegan fish sauce or light soy sauce

1 tbs agave syrup or brown sugar

200g/7oz lotus root, peeled and cut into thick slices (or use cauliflower florets(

1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed

150g green or runner beans, trimmed

400ml/14 oz can of coconut milk

1-2 rock salt, to taste

100g/3 1/2oz Chinese leaf, roughly torn ( I used choi sum, but chard, beet leaves also works)

100g fried tofu cubes (I picked this up at Hoo Hing)

 

To serve

1 packet of thin rice thread noodles, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes

drizzle of chilli oil/chilli (optional)

50g/1/2 cup of roasted peanuts, roughly chopped (optional)

 

  1. First place your rice noodles in a bowl and cover with hot water and leave whilst you get on with making the dish.
  2. New place all the spice paste ingredients in a blender/food processor and blitz until smooth. Easy hey.
  3. In a large non stick pan/wok, heat the oil and fry the curry paste.
  4. Add the stock/water, vegan fish sauce/light soy sauce and agave nectar/brown sugar and bring to the boil then add the lotus root and squash and simmer for around 8 minutes.
  5. Then add the green/runner beans and simmer for another couple of minutes before adding the coconut milk and more stock if needed; it should be a soupy consistency.
  6. Salt to taste and bring back to the boil. Make sure the butternut squash is soft. The lotus root will not be as soft!
  7. Stir in the choi sum and then remove from the heat, allowing it to wilt completely.
  8. Drain the rice noodles from the water. They should be soft and ready to eat.
  9. Place in a bowl and ladle the curry broth on top. Sprinkle with peanuts and chilli oil if necessary.

More instalments from Cambodia next week.

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Ten Reasons to Visit Joshua Tree, California

On a recent road trip around California my family and I stayed in Joshua Tree for four days and three magical nights. My sister and her beau had gone the previously year and had raved about the place so I decided to follow their lead and include it in our trip this year. There is a lot going for this little town, so I thought I would break it down into ten reasons to tempt you to visit.

1. The main reason to visit Joshua Tree is to actually see the National Park itself, which is breathtaking in its stark beauty. The park includes not one but two deserts: the higher Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert. Each have ecosystems whose characteristics are determined by their elevation.

Picking up my dose of Vitamin D – breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea.

The landscape is otherworldly and would not surprise me if other planets have similar terrain. You get that feeling that perhaps Mars is not that different!! The famous Joshua trees (first photo) litter the horizons in every direction, but the park offers so much more in as far as wild life and cacti.  Go and seek out ‘Cholla Cactus Garden’ (pictured below), which is pretty cool. These beauties have super sharp needles so wear covered shoes and watch where you are walking. There is a clear short loop through the garden to follow.

There is also a plethora of wildlife which have adapted and learned to survive in this desert landscape. You may come across scorpions, black-tailed jackrabbits, rattle snakes, as well as non-venomous varieties, tarantula, coyotes, bighorn sheep, lizards, kangaroo rats (these were pretty cool)and lynx.

2. The nights sky is pretty epic in Joshua Tree due to very little light pollution. Every evening we would head out and sit in the jacuzzi – yes there was a jacuzzi in the airbnb we were staying in (more of that later), and watch the shooting stars and satellites zooming overhead. Sadly the iPhone isn’t advanced enough to have a beautiful photo of the milky way and stars so I can’t include a photo here. Does anyone know an app that perhaps allows you to take photos of the sky at night? Leave a comment below if you do please.

3. Airbnb offers some wonderful places to stay across the world. We stayed in the stunning Joshua Tree House (Casita). With over 117k followers I kind of knew that this place would be something special. Firstly the location is magical – about 15 minutes from the park entrance and about 10 minutes from the town of Joshua Tree itself. To reach it you drive off road down a sandy track. It’s right next door to Joshua Tree Hacienda, but both places offer privacy. Walking through the front gate you are treated to a stunning desert garden which overlooks a great expanse of desert stretching towards the town of Joshua Tree. The Casita, which has a dusky pink exterior, has been lovingly styled by Sara and Rich who have oodles of creative flair and taste.

The furniture, vintage books, lighting, swing (in the living room) the wood burner, the guitar you can use – all add to the charm of the place. Everything has been thought through and has a meaningful place. It’s also an instagramers dream.

4. If you are travelling with children, they can become ‘Junior Park Rangers’. You pick up a booklet from the tourist office at one of the gates and they need to look for things in the park and answer questions. When they have completed the booklet they return it to the tourist office where a park ranger will ‘test’ them on their knowledge of the park and what they have seen. All being well they will become Junior Park Rangers and receive a badge and little hat.  It’s fun for them to get involved and learn more about the park and wildlife in this way.

5. If you like hiking then Joshua Tree National Park offers many trails to follow. There are a few rules though that you need to pay heed to as the desert and sun does not offer those who get lost much comfort for survival. Our favourite trail, which was only 1 mile in length – but perfect considering the heat, was ‘Hidden Valley’. There are a lot longer trails, which could be good when the weather cools off in the autumn or early spring. We were also pretty cautious about going on longer hikes as a couple had gone missing on one of the trials two weeks before we had arrived and, as I write this post they have now been missing for over a month, which is pretty horrific.

It is worth following the pointers below before you set off on any hikes.

– Obvious I know but make sure your tank of petrol is full – you would not want to break down here if you have taken the car off the main roads through the park and gone done more of a track to reach some of the longer trails.

-Carry loads of water with you and in the car.

-Stick to the trails as the place is very disorientating and it could be  easy to get lost. There are lots of old gold mines in the park, and whilst most of them are covered over apparently there are some that are not.

-Take maps and a phone

-Wear sunscreen, a hat and light clothing

-Tell people where you are going

-Wear good walking shoes/trainers/boots.

6. Go and have a sound bath at the Integratron in Landers (which is near to Joshua Tree). Whilst the timings did not work out for us, my sister loved the whole experience on her trip and highly recommends. The structure was designed and built in the 1950’s by George Van Tassel (ufologist and contactee). He claimed the Integratron was capable of ‘rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel’. He apparently built it following instructions provided by visitors from the planet Venus. The sound bath 60 minute experience allows ‘deep relaxation, rejuvenation, and introspection’.

To book your sound bath click here.  

7. Want to live out your cowboy fantasies? A short drive from Joshua Tree is Pioneer Town, which is definitely worth scoping out. The place is a real life Old Western set created in the 1940’s that actors actually lived in whilst films were being shot – films like ‘The Cisco Kid’. The place is pretty cool and many  of the places on the ‘high street’ you can actually go into and there are locals selling all manner of things – including saddles and pottery.

8. Whilst you are in Pioneer Town head to Pappi & Harriet’s. This BBQ restaurant and music venue is pretty legendary, with big names singers occasionally making an appearance, including Paul McCartney in December 2016. They also have ‘open mic’ for those budding vocalists out there. The venue is great and definitely my kind of venue fitting less than 300 people in all. Intimate and cosy in one. Click here to see who is playing in the coming months.

9. Love vintage clothing and eclectic antiques? Then Joshua Tree and neighbouring Yucca Valley are definitely worth exploring for picking up that unique outfit for Coachella or Burning Man festivals or that special piece for your home. Most of the boutiques are based on or near by Twentynine Palms Highway. You can’t miss the brightly coloured exterior of ‘The End’ which is packed to the brim with brightly coloured vintage and contemporary clothes. Also worth checking out is the ‘Hoof & Horn’, ‘Funky and Darn Near New’, Ricochet Joshua Tree, 62 Vintage Marketplace and Pioneer Crossing and Antiques.

10. Under an hour away is beautiful Palm Springs. If you think Joshua Tree is hot then wait until you get to Palm Springs. In August it is SO hot that even restaurants with tables on the pavement are spraying diners with cooling water spray. This place sizzles but is also achingly hip. If you love midcentury modern design then you will be in heaven. We only stopped briefly (note to self to stay a few days in the future) but managed to soak up the vibes of the stylishly sophisticated, The Parker.

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