Saturday, 14 October 2017

"Gin, Glorious Gin!" at the Catford Gin Festival

Gin has had quite a journey over the last ten years or so; from old person's drink, to trendy and exciting, to main-stay of the drinks scene. I am still amazed at the number of new companies and brands that are jumping up all over the place and breathing continued life into the gin revolution. This was reinforced for me last week when I went to the Catford Gin Festival, an exciting new collaboration between the Forest Hill Gin Club and Team Catford. The festival was held as a "pop-up" in an empty store in Catford Shopping Centre, which is a great idea as it allows an empty space to be used and generates some revenue and much needed kudos for the local area. We were there for the afternoon session and it was pleasingly full of people (lively with plenty of people milling around, but not so full that you couldn't navigate your way around...!). Props to the organisers for putting on such an excellent event.    

Below are a few of my favourites from the festival, which I would heartily recommend that you check out too!

Colonsay Gin  

This was a particularly impressive spirit for its cleanliness and freshness. It was served with a couple of small slices of chilli in it and this was really interesting as it enhanced a natural pepperiness in the spirit and gave it a gently-warming profile without being too insistent. A really refreshing drink with a lot of clarity and precision. A nice aperitif gin, methinks. Available for £36.47/bottle on Master of Malt.


Pothecary Gin

It was my wife who was drawn to this stand, she freely admitted that this was because she liked the look of their bottles. Proof that a good bottle design can go a long way in drawing in an audience! Fortunately the gin from Pothecary followed through with its visual promise and delivered a lovely gin. They use five botanicals to flavour their gin: Lavender from Provence; Juniper from Bulgaria; Mulberries from Turkey; Lemons from Sicily, the best lemons in the world; and Tilia, a type of flower, from Poland. A well-travelled gin indeed! The dominant flavours for me on this were the Lavender which gives an initial floral bloom to the taste, before the citrus of the lemons takes over to provide some freshness. Available for £39.95 for a 500ml bottle on Master of Malt.

Pothecary also had a nice limited edition "Sicilian Blend" premium gin that focussed more on the Sicilian lemons and put them more front and centre. This was another spectacular gin that would make for some great cocktails.

Turncoat Gin   

Turncoat Gin from Liverpool presented a really interesting selection of spirits with their London Dry Gin giving a pure and distinctive drink with a slightly nutty profile. I particularly enjoyed, however, their Cascade Gin which incorporates Cascade Hops into the distilling process which is a doff of the cap to the fact that their Head Distiller comes from a Craft Beer background. This gives the gin a really interesting and complex aroma and taste profile, that is part-fruity, part-spicy, part-perfumed and all very smooth. They also had some rather excellent bitters that you can dash into your GnTs to give them a slightly different flavour profile; I particularly liked their Orange Bitters.

Skully Gins  

From the Netherlands, Skully Gin presented probably the most different gin that I have ever tried - a Wasabi Gin, with botanicals of: Ginger, Mint, Juniper, Coriander, Licorice, Vanilla, Orris Root, Cardamom, Sweet Orange and... oh yes... Wasabi! As you'd expect the gin packs a bit of a punch, but is also remarkably smooth. They suggest that you have this with a Ginger Ale or a Ginger Beer, which makes for a rather lovely drink. Could this be an excellent gin match for sushi?? You can buy Skully Gins' other gins on Master of Malt for £44/bottle, but they don't seem to currently have the Wasabi one, shame..

There were other good gins on display too, but these were the ones that particularly stuck in the memory (also the ones that I bought!)

Here's hoping that the Catford Gin Festival becomes a regular fixture in the diary. It was a lot of fun and it was great to see the event so busy with happy punters and interesting exhibitors.    

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Ashdown Park hotel review: a classic country escape

It’s that time of year where Christmas still feels a bit too far away to get excited about, but you feel in need of a bit of a break. I always find this time the perfect time to escape to the country for a weekend away, and if it’s one that can involve good wine, even better.

I recently stayed at Ashdown Park hotel in Sussex after visiting Bluebell Vineyard down the road, right in the heart of Winnie the Pooh country.

Where is Ashdown Park hotel?

It’s in Hundred Acre Wood! Well, it’s in the heart of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, which was the inspiration for A.A.Milne’s Winnie the Pooh spot. Ashdown Forest isn’t really a forest, more of a heathland, but there are some woods around so you won’t be disappointed. It’s around 40 miles outside of London – driving is easiest, but if you do want to train it there, East Grinstead station is a 15 minute taxi ride away from the hotel.

What’s Ashdown Park like?

Well, it’s definitely got the wow factor. The 19th century hotel is an impressive neo-gothic pile, set in 186 acres of landscaped parkland, with an interesting history. It’s been a hospital for injured Belgian soldiers, a convent, owned by an American university, and more recently, a training centre for Barclays Bank managers. It was sounding romantic until that point...

It’s also big. There are 105 rooms and suites squirreled down meandering corridors off the main house, at the centre of which is a majestic hallway complete with huge fireplace and baby grand piano which tinkles away 24/7 (sans pianist).

It’s quite easy to get lost, with staircases and doors all over the place, and it was a bit nippy down some of the corridors – although we later found out the heating had broken in our part of the hotel, so that may explain that – but it’s fun to explore, and you almost feel like you’ve got the whole place to yourself.

What are the rooms like?

Apparently none of the 105 rooms at Ashdown Park are the same, but naturally, I only saw one. My suite was huge, with a super comfy king sized bed, wood panelling, and dramatic stained-glass windows. There’s nothing particularly modern about the rooms – Nespresso machine, TV, bathroom, and Molten Brown toiletries aside – but I loved the classic, luxuriously plush furnishings. My kind of décor, and my kind of hotel: past grandeur with contemporary indulgence.

I was so blissfully happy lounging on the sofa in front of the window, looking out at the grounds, with my complimentary paper after a great night’s sleep and breakfast. The only reason I was happy to leave was to get out and explore.

Prices range from £199 for a deluxe room B&B, to £444 for a master suite B&B, and the hotel does have various offers on throughout the year.

What is there to do?

That depends on how active you’re feeling. Catching up on sleep, gazing lazily out of windows, or indulging in food and local sparkling wine is a good start.

I headed straight to the spa for a relaxing swim in the dimly lit, barn-like space, and a good soak in the hot tub. Golfers can make the most of the 18-hole par 3 course, or for enthusiastic amateurs, there’s a putting green nearer the main house – and the obligatory country house croquet lawn.

Mapped walks are available at reception if you want to explore the extensive grounds. Leaving the hotel, you walk through a stone arch and the grounds are just laid out in front of you. There’s a large chapel which can be booked for weddings, so much green, two fountains in the lake at the bottle of the hill, and paths off in all directions with different length walks.

Nearby, you can do a tour and tasting at Bluebell Vineyard, ride the Bluebell steam train, visit the llamas at the llama park, take off on one of the many nearby walking routes (Pooh Sticks bridge is ten minutes away!), or visit Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Always important, what’s the food and drink like?

Breakfast is excellent, with loads to choose from on the cold buffet (including some yummy local yogurt), and a great hot buffet with not one dodgy pink sausage in sight. A good English breakfast is a must at a hotel like this.

If you stay between April and September, you can order a picnic to enjoy on the grounds (traditional summer picnic £22.50, luxury hamper £29.50 per person, or a picnic version of the hotel’s afternoon tea for £24.50 per person/£45 per couple) (

Afternoon tea is a popular one at Ashdown, and even includes a Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea for children with hunny sandwiches and Kanga cakes. They should definitely do an adult version!

Dinner is quite a grand affair in the main dining room, with another ghost piano accompanying you throughout. The food was good overall – the highlight being my succulent and perfectly cooked lamb main course – but a little style over substance in places, including some soggy Rice Krispies making an appearance in the amuse bouche.

Service was friendly but could do with a bit of work. There was a struggle with understanding which wine we wanted, two separate waiters who had to disappear to ask the chef what specific things on the (short) menu were, and one who neglected to tell us the dessert we had both wanted had sold out until after we’d ordered it.

Also, our Hindleap wine from nearby Bluebell Vineyard (the restaurant has a decent selection of English sparkling wines on its list) was kept away from the table, but then not topped up. I don’t mind if the staff are attentive, but there were two occasions my partner had to get up and hunt down our wine. And no, before you ask, we weren’t drinking it especially quickly!

So overall...?

Oh I could already do with another weekend there. If you're looking for a classic country escape in beautiful surroundings, with plenty to see and do, and plenty of delicious local wine to drink, you will not be disappointed with Ashdown Park.

I stayed at Ashdown Park after visiting Bluebell Vineyard for a tour and tasting. Although the stay was complimentary, all my opinions are my own and not in any way influenced by delicious English sparkling wine.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Book review: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker – One woman's journey from enthusiastic wine amateur to oenophile

'After blood, wine is the most complex matrix there is.'

As you may know, I love wine, but there’s still so much more to learn, and often I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

So I was thrilled to recently get a copy of Bianca Bosker’s debut book, ‘Cork Dork’ – a term given to obsessive oenophiles.

Bianca is an absolutely badass woman who quit her job as the executive technology editor at the Huffington Post in New York, in a quest to become a sommelier, in just 18 months.

I don’t want to sound gushy, but I feel like Bianca has basically lived my dream, and documented the whole thing with humour, passion, and enthusiasm, but also critically, with no time for bullshit.

The book offers a totally refreshing look at wine, the wine industry, and teaches readers so much along the way. It doesn’t matter whether you know nothing more about wine than Blue Nun and Echo Falls (well…), or whether you’re the most knowledgeable Master Sommelier, everybody will get different things from the book.

‘Cork Dork’ covers everything from the baffling secrets of mass-market wines, to the insane and crazy world of master sommeliers and big bottle hunters, via a smattering of science, lessons in what makes a wine objectively good, and whether you can train yourself to taste and smell better.

For people who really don’t know their wine, ‘Cork Dork’ offers a totally unpretentious and humorous look at wine education, and for those that do already know their stuff, it might make them take a step back and look at their industry in a different light.

I feel like I studied ‘Cork Dork’. I’ve highlighted so many bits: facts I didn’t know, interesting people to look up, bars to visit next time I’m in New York, other books to imbibe, and exciting bottles of wine I will probably never get the chance to drink.

And I’ve already taken lessons from the book on board. I’ve found myself smelling everything around me, driving with the window down (unless it’s really, really raining), trying to work out specific scents in restaurants, and confused my housemate when she caught me working my way through sniffing the spice cabinet.

Genuinely, ‘Cork Dork’ has made me excited for the next step in my own wine education, and given me a bit of a push in the right direction. I’ve already convinced several people they NEED to read this book: one for the science; one for the crazy stories (I really want to go to a wine orgy…); one for the look at New York’s restaurant scene; and another for Bianca’s inspirational personal journey.

There’s so much in ‘Cork Dork’ to uncover, whether you want to know how to go about gaining more knowledge about wine and becoming a sommelier yourself, or whether you just want to look at wine in a slightly different way.

‘Cork Dork’ is now available in the UK, for £8.99.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

What to drink, see and do at London Cocktail Week 2017

This may be bad timing for those of you trying to go Sober for October, but you’re going to have to delay it a while, as it’s London Cocktail Week next week (2-8 October), and there is so much to drink, see, and do.

This is the seventh year of the boozy week, and of course it’s even bigger and better this year. There are now more than 250 bars taking part, loads of events going on, as well as pop-ups, tastings, and masterclasses.

You’re going to need to get yourself a digital pass for £10, which will get you £6 cocktails all over the city. From there, London is your booze-covered oyster (I think I saw that they’re doing those somewhere?). Or there are various places offering money passes off i.e. Time Out have them for £5.

As ever, Old Spitalfields Market will be the hub for #LCW17, but this year you will have to buy a ticket to get in (£5 in advance, a few for £10 on the door). In there you'll find a host of vendors offering signature £6 cocktails, with loads of food stalls too.

Apart from that, and the more than 250 bars offering a £6 cocktail, there are bar takeovers, masterclasses, distillery tours, food and drink pairing sessions, and plenty of other exciting stuff.

We managed to bag tickets to a special Gin Journey hosted by the Gin Boss himself, Leon Dalloway. We'll let you know how that is next week as tickets sold out pretty swiftly...

However, that does mean we're missing out on Jillian Vose of NYC's Dead Rabbit bar heading to The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green. Get there on Wednesday October 4, especially if you like Slane Irish whiskey.

Or how about: blend your own whisky with Chivas Regallearn the art of bottling bubbles with Schweppes; a Japanese whisky tasting with legend Dave Broom; learn the history of gin cocktails with Fords, a pop-up of #LCW17 waste cocktails by Trash Tiki; subterranean games and cocktails with Ableforth's; or finish the whole week off with an entire Tequila and Mezcal festival.

It is going to be a fabulous week!

Friday, 22 September 2017

Demijohn cordials – a tasty alternative to alcohol

It looks like quite a few people are going Sober for October this year. As a drinks blog, you may think that might be a tricky one for us to work around, but no…!

Demijohn, the liquid deli based in Edinburgh (it's a bit like Vom Fass if you've seen those around) has six handmade cordials that might make Sober October – or any night you’re not on the booze – a bit more tasty.

You’ve got a choice of Nettle, Elderflower, Raspberry, Lemon and Mint, Rhubarb and Ginger, and Lime and Chilli. Yum.

I’ve been working my way through the Lime and Chilli. It’s a nice combination of sweet and sour, with a bit of lingering chilli heat. My only problem is that I’m a bit of a cordial/squash addict, so I’m getting through it a bit quicker than I'd like to.

Demijohn suggests using 25ml of cordial with 250ml of still or sparkling water, or tonic. Add ice and slices of fruit and you've got yourself a mocktail of sorts.

The cordials are all made by Charlotte Grant, a micro producer in Suffolk. She’s been making her cordials from hedgerow ingredients found around her home. Because the ingredients are British grown or foraged, most of the cordials are seasonal – be quick if you want that elderflower one; it’s only around for a few weeks in June.

The cordials are priced at £6.45 for 100ml (so you'll get around four servings out of that), £9.95 for 375ml and £12.75 for 500ml, and are available in the Demijohn shop in Edinburgh’s old town – if you’re up that way – and via their website.

They’re not the cheapest, but if you don’t down it by the pint like a Summer Fruits supermarket squash, you’ll be able to make it last.

The cordials come in cute sealed glass bottles, and you can add handwritten messages, so they’ll also make very nice stocking fillers (Christmas is closer than you think!!). Just be careful you don’t get a bit lost in a buying spree on the Demijohn website… they’ve got everything from liqueurs, to oils and vinegars, and sauces.

Disclaimer: I was sent a 100ml bottle of the Lime and Chilli cordial for review. All opinions are my own, and not influenced by slightly spicy cordial.

Monday, 18 September 2017

A cure for the common cold? The Hot Toddy

With the mercury dropping faster than we can say “what-the-hell-happened-to-summer”, the lurgy is dead set ready to catch us all one-by-one. Luckily for us 21st century inhabitants, to every problem there is a centuries-old resolution, and its now common knowledge that the only sensible way to fight the common cold is to dull your senses with hot toddies.

In truth, medicinally speaking, there is nothing soothing at all about whisky-based cocktails, other than that if you drink enough of them, all knowledge of any physical discomfort will be obliterated. Nevertheless, with my first sore throat of autumn 2017, I’m game for trying a little home brewed cure.

Traditionally-speaking, the recipe for a hot toddy in its most basic and true form is this: whisky, hot water, sugar or honey. I believe the quantities are 'to taste'... some of us have more whisky than others.

But now, as we’re all sophisticated and trendy these days and not sitting around a cauldron in the weather-beaten Scottish Highlands, we can start adding all sorts of fancy accoutrements to make the cure for reduced olfactory sensibilities just a little more enjoyable.

Suggestions for exciting additions to the standard hot toddy that I have found during my extensive research include: cloves, lemon rind, cinnamon, stem ginger, root ginger, ginger ale, black tea, lemon and ginger tea, apple juice, black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, a slice of apple, swapping the whisky for rum, gin or even tequila.

Essentially, it seems as though you can virtually concoct anything you like and still call it a hot toddy, just as long as its thoroughly cockle-warming.

Real Hot-Toddy geeks go one step further and get all intertwined in the delicacy of mixing your whisky flavours with your seasonings: no point putting an elegant, smoky, salty island whisky with ginger ale and black pepper, as all the flavours clash and swamp one another.

Similarly, a rich American bourbon will totally override a delicate sliver of apple. But I'll stop there as it is all getting a little geeky and this sore throat will hold out no longer.

My Hot Toddy Recipe

For me today I will be opting for a simple equation:

A measure (or two) of whisky, a teaspoon of honey, and dash of lemon juice in a small mug or brandy glass, topped up with boiling water and all swizzled with a stick of cinnamon.

Mmmm, I'm feeling better already. Roll on the next cold, I'm pretty keen to try the tequila version...

Any Hot-Toddy recipes to recommend? We'd love to hear your tried and tested recipes.

Images taken from tienvijftien, trophy geek and Timothy Krause's photostreams under the Creative Commons License.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

An Introduction to Whisky Tasting

This photo taken from Neil Wilkie (bugmonkey)
Many people find tasting whisky, much like wine, to be a daunting task that can be intimidating and complex.

I've been there when I was first starting out tasting wine: people were swirling and snorting at their wine, and in my imitation I ended up inhaling wine and collapsing into a coughing, spluttering mess.

Luckily tasting whisky doesn't have the swirling aspect, but it can be a minefield that I should hopefully be able to clear, at least partially.

Choosing a whisky

The first thing you are going to need for your tasting is of course... a whisky. I recommend something of quality, but that doesn't have any crazy, overbearing flavours. This rules out anything peaty from Islay really, but I would also say to give any odd wood finishes a miss too when starting out. The Balvenie 12yr Doublewood is a great starting point, being nicely accessible with good complexity as well.

Photo by Mike Bitzenhofer


Glassware is important for tasting whisky: plastic cups are a no-no, and although swigging from the bottle is fun in a Johhny Depp, buccaneering sort of way, it doesn't allow you to experience all the finer nuances of a whisky.

 Glencairns are the generally accepted tasting vessel: they're wide at the bottom, allowing lots of air contact with the whisky, but they have a tighter neck concentrating the aromas.


The subject of water is a very divisive one and while people may not erupt into gang war, there can be minor hissy fits.

Some say adding water allows the whisky to open up and for the more scents and flavours to be released, others contend this dilutes the whisky, that it doesn't represent the distillery's work, and so on.

I firmly believe in trying both. Not only do you drink more beautiful whisky (YES!), but you get to experience the differences between the two. You need to decide how you prefer yours somehow.

Personally, I've found that some drams benefit from added water, but it really takes away from others.

Breathing Time

Contact with air isn't as dramatic as with decantng wine, but can be a fun thing to look at. Breathing time is not really essential to tasting whisky, however it adds another dimension to a whisky that you think you know already.

Now those issues are sorted we need to look at the process of actual tasting:


By Dr John Bullas
When tasting it can be helpful to take in the colour of the whisky.

Whiskies cover a huge range of browns, ambers, golds, and also much paler hay to almost transparent hues.

Be sure however not to let the colour influence you too much: these days, distilleries love adding caramel colouring to make a whisky look more appealing. Many of the uninformed believe that a darker colour equals quality, but we won't be fooled will we?


This for me is one of the most important and also enjoyable parts of tasting whisky (bizzare that, eh?). You'll want to give only a slight swirl, (don't give it the mad whirling dervish treatment you might with one of those austere Bordeauxs) and have a little smell. One thing to be wary of is the alcohol content of the whisky: those up in the 46% and above can numb your sense of smell, so tread lightly. Other than this there's not much to be said, sniff it and see what you smell.

If you need to 'reset' your nose, smell the skin on the back of your hand.


When tasting I find it most useful to take small mouthfuls and simply hold them still without any of the gurgling malarkey, perhaps stirring every few seconds or so before swallowing.

Think about the flavours on the tip of your tongue, what you can taste and feel towards the back of your mouth, and then seeing what develops over time.

Once swallowed, consider what flavours develop on the finish, the whisky's length, and if it's smooth and silky or a harsh, gasp-inducing ethanol bomb.

Lastly, there's the mouthfeel: if the whisky feels thick and oily or thinner and watery, this can give some indication of manufacture techniques used in the distillery (we don't need to worry too much at this stage), but the difference can be most striking between different whiskies.

That's pretty much all that can be said about tasting whisky from my perspective other than to say to try tasting around others: the imparting of different ideas is always fun, and will always make you see something you might have missed or not have considered.

Most importantly, have fun and don't feel under pressure or stupid. If you taste rubber then damn well say so and don't let anyone come along and say that you're drinking your whisky wrong. We are all different and people's palates, preferences, memories and experiences vary, and all of these impact on tasting. There really is no right or wrong answer, despite what the snobs might say.

Happy drinking!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Friday Cocktail: Che Bello! Limoncello, raspberry & basil martini

Some Fridays, you just need a huge hard dollop of booze to ease you into the weekend. If you've had a hectic, catastrophic, or otherwise horrible week, you need to schedule in a little bit of 'you' time with a cocktail that's so flavoursome it's basically going to be my dessert. My dessert to lunch, because it's been THAT kind of Friday.

Limoncello is popping up in a lot of cocktails at the moment, and I really think it's a must for your drinks cupboard. There's a reason basically everyone on the Amalfi coast drinks the stuff: it's super good and a highly refreshing little liqueur with a decent hit of sauce.

Lemon and raspberry are also made for each other, and the basil just makes it that much more complex, flavoursome, and... well, pretty wonderful.

The 'Che Bello!' or Limoncello, Raspberry and Basil Martini recipe (serves one)


  • About 8-10 raspberries
  • 2 dashes vanilla syrup or basil-infused simple syrup if you have time to make it
  • 40ml limoncello
  • 60ml vodka (or 40ml vodka and 20ml citrus vodka if you have it)
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 basil leaves, plus another two to garnish

Shake it!

1. Muddle the raspberries and basil leaves together in a bowl with one of the dashes of syrup. If you're a bit inexperienced, that basically means smooshing it all with the back of a spoon to release the juices and flavours.
2. Extract the basil leaves, and push the raspberries through a sieve (so you get all the juice and none of the seeds.
3. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, mix together the vodka, limoncello and lemon juice, and the second dash of syrup. Shake it like a polaroid picture for about 10 seconds, then strain into a martini glass or champagne saucer.
4. Pour the raspberry puree on top, and stir gently (or leave it if you prefer the 'oh look! There's blobs of pink stuff in my drink!' thing).
5. Garnish with a couple of basil leaves (to intensify the aromas) and a swirl of lemon zest.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Boozy Bakes: Orange & Cinnamon Madeleines

Ahh, madeleines... those stunning little French sponge cakes shaped like shells (try saying that quickly!)

They have that certain je ne sais quoi about them; other than their beautiful scalloped edges, they're pretty plain, yet somehow they still manage to ooze class and that Parisian sophistication we all seem to lust after.

Looks aside, Madeleines taste flippin' amazing too. Pillows of butter, almond and vanilla (and in this case zest and spice); I can just imagine myself nibbling one while sipping a cup of tea in a cafe along the Seine. THE perfect afternoon treat! 

But wait, this is a drinks blog right? "Don't give us a classic recipe", I hear you cry, "Vinspire's all about boozy bakes!"

So, to add a bit of Va Va Voom to these Frenchies, I've gone down the Cointreau route. Madeleines infused with orange zest and cinnamon, brushed with a Cointreau (or any other orange based liqueur) glaze. Yu-um. 

AND like those Cookies 4 Gin that I featured years ago, these make the best accompaniment to a little alcoholic beverage, particularly a Cointreau-based tipple like one of my personal faves - a White Lady

I think madeleines have been given a bit of a bad rep in terms of being tricky to make, but I've found no problem whatsoever with this recipe (adapted from Harry Eastwood's Skinny French Kitchen - like the Kir Royale Macarons).

For those of you who care, it's actually a low calorie version - more calories saved for cocktails, yay - cutting out a lot of the butter you'd find in traditional recipes. By doing this I guess it doesn't give you the crisp crust you'd typically get, but it still gives you the springiest (is that a word?!) sponges.

If you don't have a Madeleine tin - they're not exactly essential kitchen cookware - then you could use a well greased cupcake tin instead. They'll taste the same, just won't have "the look".

Restrain yourself, madeleines are best eaten cooled, and if you've managed to not eat them all at once, they will keep for up to three days in an airtight container. That said, they are at their best on the day they're made, so certainly don't feel guilty for eating more than your fair share!

Now get yourself a Cointreau, read the recipe, and get baking!

Orange & Cinnamon Madeleines recipe
(makes 24)

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, for brushing
  • 4 medium free range eggs
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g plain flour, sieved
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 80g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 
  • zest of 1 orange
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract 
  • 50g butter, melted

For the glaze:

  • 2 tbsp Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
  • 3 tbsp icing sugar, sieved


  1. Preheat the oven to 210 C and brush a little oil inside the madeleine moulds.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt and sugar until pale and bubbly. Next, add the remaining ingredients and mix until fully combined. 
  3. Spoon the mixture into the madeleine moulds, filling them only three-quarters of the way up (you'll have to do two batches, so don't use it all!) 
  4. Put the filled madeleine tray in the freezer for 10 minutes (or in the fridge for 30) and refrigerate the remaining mixture for the next batch. It's important to chill the cake mixture at this stage, since it's the contrast between hot and cold that gives you the characteristic little bump. 
  5. Once chilled, cook in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. 
  6. Remove the cooked madeleines from the oven, unmould and wash the mould before repeating the process of greasing and refilling, freezing and cooking. 
  7. Once cooled, make the glaze by mixing the Cointreau and icing sugar together. Liberally brush onto the top of each madeleine. 
  8. Dust with additional icing sugar if desired. Enjoy! 

Cocktail image taken from Farther Along's photostream under the CCL. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Cooking with Booze: Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter & Parmesan

Ah, Monday... So begins another week.

I don’t know about you, but my Monday’s are usually filled with good intentions. Be it hard work, health or housecleaning, having a ‘fresh start’ on a Monday, where you can wipe your slate clean if needs be, gives you enough positivity to see you through to Friday.

Don’t worry; I’m not going all spiritual or preachy on you. Sometimes a good intention could simply be to shake up your weekly routine, to try something new, or to make the effort to cook something completely different for dinner one night. Hell, why not combine the three! (You can see where I’m going with this can’t you?)

We featured Contratto Vermouth ages ago, but I'm still a fan, and I thought that I should attempt to do something other than just drink them. Madness, I know, but being quite a keen cook, I went on the hunt for a vermouth-y recipe to tackle. Now, as it was mid-week, I didn’t want to slave over the stove for hours on end after work, so it had to be something pretty straightforward.

A bit of Googling uncovered a Simon Hopkinson recipe that took my fancy; Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter and Parmesan. I tweaked it a teeny bit, but although it technically takes just over an hour, it’s easy peasy, and leaving it to do its thing in the oven means you can get on with whatever else you need to do.

So, faaaaabulous fennel! Its aniseed flavour can split opinions, and eating it raw is totally different to eating it cooked. Cooking it transforms it from a crunchy celery-like bulb, to a soft, supple, and liquorice-sweet vegetable. Braising it in vermouth deepens its flavour, and although it adds sweetness, the butter and parmesan make sure there’s a salty savoury stamp on it. It’s delicious.

Simon Hopkinson tells us that this dish is a perfect partner to roast lamb, yes please, but it is also a great veggie dish on its own. In which case, I’d put some carbs with it, some lentils or pearl barley cooked in stock (that’s what I did, with a nice salad), pasta tossed in olive oil and parmesan, or even some polenta. Alternatively, fennel is often paired with fish, so a chunky piece of white fish – modestly seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon – would probably do it too.

And what to drink with it? Well, if you’re going down the lamb route, then maybe re-read Laura’s Easter post on what to drink with roast lamb, and probably plump for Chianti. For everything else, it really depends on what you’re putting with the fennel, whether it will be the main attraction or not. You could keep it Italian with a dry white, perhaps a Soave, or even venture to Riesling and Chardonnay territories...

Whatever you choose, just make sure your good intention this week is to bloody enjoy it!

Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter & Parmesan

(serves 2 as a side dish)


  • 1 large fennel bulb (approx 350-400g) trimmed, halved, trimmings reserved
  • 25g butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp dry vermouth
  • a generous splash pastis (optional, alternatively add more dry vermouth)
  • 30g parmesan (or similar vegetarian hard cheese), grated, plus extra for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
  2. Melt the butter in a casserole dish over a low heat (or use any ovenproof pan with a lid). Place the fennel into the butter cut-side down, and scatter around the trimmings. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and crank up the heat.
  3. Add the vermouth and pastis (or more vermouth). Cover with a sheet of foil loosely pressed down on the vegetables, and put the lid on top. Place into the oven to cook for 30 minutes.
  4. Remove the dish from the oven and turn the fennel halves over. Add a splash of water if it’s looking a little dry. Re-cover and return to the oven to cook for a further 30 minutes, or until very tender when poked with a knife.
  5. Preheat the grill to high. Remove the fennel from the dish, place in a shallow oven-proof dish cut-side up, cover with foil and place in the bottom of the oven while you make the sauce.
  6. Pour the trimmings and cooking juices through a fine sieve suspended over a small pan. Warm through and add two thirds of the parmesan. Blend with a hand blender until it’s a smooth and creamy consistency.
  7. Spoon the mixture over the fennel, sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and place under the grill. Cook until the surface is pale golden-brown, the parmesan should be just bubbling around the edges.
  8. Serve with an extra grating of parmesan if you wish.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Productos del Marco: Bringing the best produce from Jerez, Spain, to the UK

One of my favourite things about going on holiday is being able to pick up food, and of course alcohol, that I know I’d never be able to find anywhere in the UK.

I usually bring things home in my suitcase, and then hold on to them for ages as I know it’ll be highly unlikely that I’ll get my hands on the products again.

However, a new online business, Productos del Marco, set up by Cardiffian Graeme Hooper, could change that, at least if you’re looking for products from El Marco del Jerez, Spain.

Graeme first visited Jerez de la Frontera in Spain around a decade ago. He saw a Lipizzaner horse display in Cardiff, and traced it back to the pure-bred Andalucian horse. This led him to Jerez, which is home to the Real Escuela de Arte Equestrian (Royal School for Equestrian Art), and he fell in love with the place. He now visits four or five times a year.

During his many visits over the years, he met plenty of local people, and discovered more about the amazing food and drink culture in Jerez. Of course, that included sherry.

“I didn’t know Jerez existed ten years ago, and now I don’t really go anywhere else. It’s a very undiscovered area,” Graeme said.

Having wanted to start an e-commerce business for a while, and now having a new passion, the mix seemed obvious. Graeme met with two friends in Jerez – Antonio and Joanna – who had previously owned a boutique hotel in the town, and they were keen to get on board, along with his friend David Mitchell back in Cardiff.

“I bumped into Antonio and told him I’d had a few ideas about importing products into the UK… next thing he’s parked outside my door and we’re driving around the countryside finding amazing products,” Graeme said.

Graeme speaks candidly about the products he is selling, and the potential difficulties. “While sherry is fairly well developed in London now, I think it’ll take a while to get into the provinces.”

Productos del Marco

All the products sold on Productos del Marco come from the sherry triangle called El Marco de Jerez, between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The company currently sells sherry, brandy, sherry vinegar, wines, oils, charcuterie, cured cheeses, cured fish products from Barbate, chocolates from Cadiz, salt (which comes from a hole in the ground and is used by many of Spain’s top restaurants), and hand crafted Andalucian pottery.

And they’re not stopping there. Graeme is looking to expand Productos del Marco’s offering in the next few months with rare breed Retinto beef, Iberian pork, organic honey, and orange dessert wines. “It’s slightly further west of the area, but they make wine from oranges. It’s very unusual.”

The business in purely online, and sells to the public, and to delis and restaurants across the UK.

Sherry – so much more than Harvey’s Bristol Cream

If you have no idea where to start with sherry, our post takes you through each of the different types of sherry, and how it's produced.

I’ve asked a few people recently whether they like sherry, and most people referenced their grandmas at some point in the conversation.

Graeme said, “With sherry, it’s almost trying to get people to ignore what their brain is telling them. They think it’s super creamy and sweet, and are surprised when it’s bone dry. Unless it’s Pedro Ximenez of course.

“If people get through that first sip, and stick with it, within two or three glasses, their whole opinion will change.

“It’s an extremely good value product when you think about the work that goes into it. If you’re buying three bottles of wine for a tenner, you’re basically getting the wine for free and all you’re paying is duty and taxes… what are you drinking when it’s £3.20 a bottle?”

For someone that hasn’t got into sherry before, Graeme recommends starting with Manzanilla. “The lightest, coldest one you can get your hands on. Bowl of olives. Summer evening. Ease yourself in.”

Graeme changes his sherries with the seasons: Fino and Manzanilla in summer, Amontillado in autumn, and Oloroso in winter. “Those flavours and conditions go with what you’re tasting.” I would add that you have to add a Pedro Ximenez to your Christmas booze list, as it tastes like the best Christmas pudding ever!

And if you’re looking for an ideal sherry and food pairing, keep it simple. “On a sunny evening, you can’t beat sitting there with a glass of Fino eating some cured pork,” Graeme suggested.

The products

Graeme sent me a range of his products to try from Productos del Marco. Fortunately we had some nice weather in which to enjoy them too. Just like being in Jerez right? 

Unfortunately I don’t currently have a garden (the joys of renting down south), so took the Alhocen Chardonnay down to the park like the classy girl I am. The wine is fermented and aged for four months in French oak barrels, and a further four months in the bottle before being sold. I thought it was perfect for summer. You get a bit of the oak on the nose, along with grapefruit and apricot, and that stays in the mouth, too. Some people seem to still be a bit funny about Chardonnay at the moment (after it had its big moment a few years ago), but I think it’s completely rubbish and they’d likely really love this.
And of course, the sherry. I got into sherry a good few years ago, but like Graeme said, it took me a few attempts.

I roasted some almonds with sea salt and smoked paprika, and fried some padron peppers with sea salt, and drizzled with olive oil. I had these alongside the anchovy fillets, and tuna Graeme had sent, and the delicious cheese. Graeme said the majority of the region makes cured goats’ cheese, which is a slightly acquired taste. I loved it, and my friend who hates goats’ cheese tucked in (it might have been that I said it was sheep cheese... sorry). It’s very tangy, but neither the cheese or the sherry struggles to stand up to the other. The Fino went especially well with the queso semicurado pasteurizado, and the spicier one (which is coated with pimento) with the Amontillado.

And I finished all that off with a snifter of Fernando de Castilla solera gran reserva brandy de Jerez. It's a very, very good quality Spanish brandy made using the traditional method. It's matured in oak barrels previously used to make sherry, too. You get that hint of oak on the nose, but it's also very clean and elegant. It's not harsh at all, very fruity, and elegant, with a long finish.

Unless I get myself over to Jerez, or to one of a handful of very good Spanish restaurants in London, I know I won't be able to get hold of products like these, so it's great to see that Graeme has got my back. Although after trying all this, and reading about Tim's recent trip to the sherry triangle, I'm already looking at flights...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Exploring the Sherry Triangle with Genuine Andalusia

If you've been following my posts for a while, you may have picked up that I have developed a passion for all-things sherry. I freely admit that up until a couple of years ago, I would have been a little bit sniffy about the idea of sherry - it was something that older people drank, wasn't it? I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong, and when it comes to sherry I was very wrong. Fortunately I have been able to put this right over the last couple of years; in particular through going to a couple of sherry-tasting masterclasses by Beltran Domecq at the annual Wines of Spain tasting, but also through visiting the sherry-producing area as I am lucky to have a sister-in-law who lives in the area.

At the end of June we paid a visit to this sister-in-law and had an absolutely splendid time (including visiting a 2* restaurant in the area which you can read about here), in particular spending a day with a travel-company that she works with called "Genuine Andalusia", who specialise in bespoke tours for people with a focus on uncovering hidden gems and putting you in contact with real Andalusian people and businesses. One of Genuine Andalusia's areas of particular expertise is their sherry tours, so we were very keen to get along and check out what they had to offer.

Visiting small-scale producers

We started our trip with a real treat, we visited a small-scale producer by the name of Domingo whose vineyards are in the Macharnudo Pago (think sub-appellations) of Jerez. Domingo's family own a relatively sizeable set of vineyards, most of which produces grapes that go in to a local co-operative who produce sherries on their behalf (thus sharing the cost of production between a larger group of people). In recent times Domingo has started keeping some of his grapes for his own production and has started his own small-batch solera system, which allows him to produce  a little of his own sherry as a project. Now, you can't buy Domingo's products as he doesn't sell any bottles, this is purely for his own enjoyment.  

We started our visit with a walk through Domingo's vineyards. He took us around the site and explained how the different vineyards are laid out differently according to the topography of the particular site - for instance the best sites are laid out in what is termed the "royal layout" with a vertical orientation (perpendicular to the hill) with a wide-enough gap between the vines to allow horses to go through; manual intervention is preferred on Domingo's sites to mechanical (even though hand-picking costs five times as much as mechanical). The abundance of grapes on the vines as you explored really served to show how well these vines were being tended to, even in the punishing Andalusian summer sun and it was very evident that Domingo was exceedingly proud of these vines.

After the vineyards we were taken to Domingo's small bodega on the site, which contained his solera systems producing sherries and sherry vinegar. Domingo explained to us a little bit of the solera system and how we used it to make his wines, then we got into the important business of the day - tasting his wines! We tried several Fino-style sherries along with a couple of darker, oloroso-style sherries. The Finos were unlike any sherry that I had tried before, the second a young Palo Cortado style sherry had juicy Amalfi lemon notes; if you served this to my blind I would have sworn that it was a Mosel Riesling! After this we tried another Fino that was slightly cloudier, but again had surprising floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose; this one had more "heat" on the palate, reminding you that it was a sherry and hence had a decent whack of alcohol to it. The Olorosos were similarly interesting with the second of these being my favourite, it was a light caramel colour, with a pleasingly exotic nose; on the palate it was beautifully sweet with touches of caramel and dried fruits to it, but there was also an intriguing savoury side to the wine which added balance on the long finish. Very impressive!

Along with these beautiful wines, Domingo (or more accurately Domingo's mother) prepared a delicious lunch, which was certainly needed as Domingo is a generous pourer and there were no spittoons! We had some local beans, a tuna and potato salad (slathered with local olive oil) and, of course, those fantastic Spanish tomatoes - which every time I taste them make a more and more convincing case of the need to move to Spain.

Domingo only takes visitors that have been organised through Genuine Andalusia, but this was a really fantastic opportunity to meet a producer (especially a small-scale one who is basically having to do everything himself) and learn about the realities of sherry production.

You can see that this is a real passion for Domingo and this really comes through in everything that he does.

From small-scale to LARGE-SCALE!

After visiting a small-scale, local producer it was time to check out one of the big boys - we headed to Jerez de la Frontera to go to Bodegas Tradicion, one of the most famous sherry producers in the Triangle. We were treated to a private tour by Genuine Andalusia's Diana who took us around the Bodegas starting with their very impressive art gallery, which featured some very interesting art works (the family who own Bodegas Tradicion made a lot of their money in dealing in art), including a lot of middle-age and early modern European religious paintings and artifacts. My favourite was this picture of a bullfighter by J. Jimenez Aranda (below left) - this guy just oozes attitude. We also saw some small pieces by a very young (I think he was 10 or so) Pablo Picasso depicting that favourite Andalusian activity of bull-fighting (below right).

After the gallery we started exploring the Bodegas' cellars, which were vast and labyrinthine and really served to illustrate the scale of their production versus a small producer like Domingo. I am always reminded of a cathedral when I visit Bodegas, the buildings are so tall but there is a stillness and a sense of timeless tranquility within. Perhaps this translates itself to the reverence that wine-lovers treat their beloved wines with (or maybe I'm taking this analogy a bit far...!).

The Wines

After exploring the Bodegas for a little while, it was time for the main event - to taste their wines! We made our way to a tastefully decorated and rather comfortable study, where Diana led us on a tasting (as you can see below).

We started with the Fino Tradicion which had a properly sherry nose with a slight salinity to it. On tasting it was fresh with again a slight saltiness to it. There was some citrus fruit acidity (lemon), which gave it a pleasing elegance and brightness.

Next up was a VORS Amontillado. Most of the sherries from Bodegas Tradicion that we tasted fall into the "VORS" categorisation, which means "Very Old and Rare Sherries", i.e. the wine has received at least 30 years of ageing on average (I say on average because of the nature of the solera system). This wine had a very interesting nose which I noted smelled like "glue and pineapple"...! On tasting, however, this wine came into its own - it had tremendous breadth to it with a touch of woodiness, combined with a juiciness and had a tremendous complexity to it.

We continued our tasting with a VORS Palo Cortado which had a slight sweetness to it, which reminded me of butterscotch. On tasting it had a taste that reminded me of salted cashews - that's got to be a good thing, right?! This was a beautiful wine, which I bought a bottle of because it was so good (although it wasn't cheap at €70 a bottle).

Moving on up (as Heather Small from "M People" would say), we next tried a VORS Oloroso which had a more perfumed (but less complex) nose than the previous wine. I found this to be an interesting wine, but didn't quite hit the heights of the previous wine in terms of complexity or profundity.

Time to move on to the sweet stuff! First up we tried their VOS Cream (which is made from 70% Oloroso and 30% PX), which was full of delicious butterscotch and hazelnut aromas. On the palate the texture was very full-bodied, the wine really coats your mouth nicely. The tasting notes are of bright, tropical fruits, with a decently long finish. It wasn't overly complex, but it was certainly a pleasing tasting experience.

Last up on our tasting flight was the VOS PX. This went even deeper on the nose with rich coffee, burnt caramel and some herbal notes. Once more on the mouth there was a luxuriating mouth feel to the wine with some delicious chocolate and coffee notes that went deeper than the previous wine. The last wine was more of a crowd-pleaser, but this was a real purists wine - it  showed the depth and complexity that a good PX can have. A beautiful way to finish a lovely tasting.


As you can probably tell we had an absolutely brilliant day with Genuine Andalusia - I can certainly recommend their services if you are looking to organise a trip to the Sherry Triangle. They can adapt their tours to your particular requirements and would be happy to discuss these with you. You can contact the team by emailing them at:

I must say a huge gracias to Ivan and Diana from Genuine Andalusia for organising a wonderful day for my wife and I - we had a great time.

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this tour as it was gifted to me. Nonetheless, the opinions contained within this article are my true opinions and were not swayed by the hospitality offered.  

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Mixologist's Garden: a botanically-brilliant cocktail infographic from Bloom&Wild

Floral cocktails are all over the place at the moment. Whether it's frozen orchids in ice balls, pretty edible accompaniments floating on the top of your G+T, or any number of 'English Garden'-esque drinks, you'll struggle to avoid them in a cocktail bar.

My most recent experience of flowers in cocktails was at The Gibson - an amazing cocktail bar/experience in London - and the first drink I had came with a mysterious Electric Daisy I was told to eat first. I don't know if any of you have experienced Szechuan peppercorns before, but this was like that, in flower form. It's quite hard to describe, but your entire mouth and lips go tingly and numb at the same time. It's not painful, it's just a very weird thing to experience. I'm probably not selling it well here am I? Try it once. It's not like anything else.

Anyway, Bloom&Wild,  the lovely postal flower company, have been busy making a floral cocktail infographic for all your floral cocktail needs. You can find it below featuring tips and tricks to make a floral cocktail, ten flowers you can use for cocktails, and four cocktail recipes to try. 

Your path to botanical brilliance starts right here.