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12 Nights on a Virgin Voyages Cruise

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Like many in the UK my impression of the demographic who “go on a cruise” is of people in their 70s or 80s who’re too old to travel themselves and instead go on what is basically a floating hotel to different places, then do organised excursions on land. When my girlfriend suggested we go on a Virgin Voyages cruise my initial thought was “but I’m way too young for a cruise, I know I’m getting older but I’m not that much older”. It turns out I was completely wrong and instead I had the best holiday ever! Some review style writing and a shed load of photos to follow.

What is Virgin Voyages?

Virgin Voyages are an adults only cruise company (part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) which (as of the time of writing) has two brand new, state of the art cruise ships that can house around 2700 passengers. They sail around the Caribbean and Mediterranean and we travelled on the latter. What sets it apart from the stereotypical “oldies” cruise ships my imagination made me think of is that their offering seems aimed at a much younger audience.

On board you can find several gyms (and I don’t mean just a few running machines, there is everything you’d need to stay in shape if you’re an elite level athlete, want to do yoga with an amazing view, hit a heavy punch bag or if you just want to do arm curls in front of a mirror). There’s even a running track! With countless classes from early morning yoga to HIIT sessions to one on one personal trainers to massages (all booked via the app on your phone while on board) there’s plenty to stay active. Plus you can get your haircut or even have a tattoo if you so desire (I skipped this one).

With over 20 restaurants (more about them later – spoiler: the food was amazing) you’re never stuck for something to eat and they have a full blown theatre where we saw various acts from acrobats to stand up comedy to a man who could solve the rubik’s cube blindfolded in seconds (I can solve the rubik’s cube in a few minutes so to see someone with such mastery was something to behold – very impressive).

There were pools and jacuzzis as you’d expect along with a large selection of bars. But the most striking thing to me was the staff who were absolutely delightful. They told us they were encouraged by Virgin to be themselves and it was nice to see so many of the crew being just that – there were countless nationalities, many people with tattoos, awesome haircuts and they made the trip even more fun as we got to know a lot of them.

And the demographic of the people on the cruise? I’d say they were mostly 20s-30s, fit, active and I definitely felt more towards the upper limit in terms of age (although there were people older than me). However age didn’t matter, everyone was treated the same and there was something for everyone to do.

The Cabin

Prior to departure Virgin Voyages offers a bidding process where you can bid for room upgrades to some of their “Rock Star” suites. Think business class vs economy class. I figured “what the hell”, bid on a few and ended up getting what’s called a “Brilliant Suite”. It was appropriately named.

The room was massive. It had a walk in wet room, the sort of bathroom I’d expect in a luxury hotel, a super king sized bed, balcony (all balconies have a hammock – where I spent plenty of time swinging watching the sea go by), L-shaped sofa to relax on, a record player (oh yes), a large drinks cabinet with free alcohol (almost none of it we drank but I can say the tequila was lovely) and a really handy vanity area for looking even more gorgeous (which I left to my girlfriend because it was never going to work on me).

One of the coolest features was the rooms lights and curtains were controlled from a tablet. It contained “moods” that once clicked would set the mood. One was “get it on” which closed the curtains, turned the lights to a nice shade of pink and played exactly the sort of tune you’d expect to hear if you were going to “get it on”! First time that button was pressed it was hilarious! ūüėÄ I love the attention to detail.

Having such a luxurious and relaxing cabin meant we were more than happy to spend time chilling there. It was great after a day hiking up a hill on shore to come back and unwind, watching dolphins from the hammock. 12 nights there didn’t feel like long enough, it very quickly felt like home, something I never find even in top class hotels.

Now that said, having had a look at the standard rooms while on the ship I would also have been quite happy to spend time there too. With clever design features to maximise the space and the option of having “day mode” where the bed converts into sofas it wouldn’t have been much of a hardship. Although for me having a balcony would be essential, I loved relaxing watching the world go by from it.

The Valiant Lady (The Ship)

A cruise ship that can house 2700 guests comfortably is pretty big. Fortunately there were just under 1000 people on board when we travelled which meant we had free rein and never felt overcrowded anywhere we went. There were plenty of places to chill out and relax in the sun, or in the shade, or in the quiet, or where there were other people, in fact you could pretty much imagine any setting you wanted and go and find it on board. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design of the ships various areas to provide different moods or atmospheres with a common design language throughout.

Staying in a rock star suite meant we had access to Richard’s Terrace, a section at the front of the ship where there was free champagne on offer in the late afternoon. It was cool, but we found our favourite spot was towards the back of the ship so didn’t spend a great amount of time there. Interestingly the average age of people on Richard’s Terrace was probably mid-60s! No conclusions drawn.

Having never been on a cruise ship before I had to keep reminding myself I was actually on a cruise ship. My brain thought I was in some luxury hotel / village and there was nothing to give away that I was floating on water. Well except when walking out on deck, obviously.

The staff were always on hand so were happy to go and get you food and drink lest you get off your lazy arse and get it yourself. Which brings me onto the next point…

The Food

Oh my. Where to begin. You know when you do your web based research about an eatery and of course all the photos of the food look amazing? Usually it’s because the photographer has used all kinds of tricks and things like hair spray to make the food look delicious and better than the reality. In this case, if anything the food was better than I expected, and I was expecting very very good food.

With over 20 restaurants to choose from, we were wondering if we’d be able to try everything in the 12 days of time on ship. Half a dozen of the restaurants need to be booked in advance – which you do on the app on your phone – but the rest are drop in. We started with “The Test Kitchen” as that looked the most interesting on paper with a selection of experimental style dishes and it did not disappoint. I’ve had tasting menus in Michelin star restaurants and while it wasn’t quite to that standard, it was pretty close. Thinking we’d already been to the best restaurant we went to “Extra Virgin” a couple of nights later (an Italian) and that was even better! Incredibly fresh seafood, delicious sauces and cooked to perfection. That high standard of cuisine was the common thread throughout our stay.

There was literally everything you could want whether you wanted to eat healthy salads, cakes, fried food, tasting menus, drink fancy coffees, etc. I can see why people put weight on when going on cruises if this is what it’s like – and the fact that all the food was included in the price made it even more of a bargain. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants over the years but few have rivalled the food I had on the ship. Here’s a selection of photos that show how it looked, but trust me, it tasted even better! (And no hairspray was used).

The Land Based Activities

Ok so a cruise is on water but eventually it docks and you can either stay on the boat or get off and go do something. While Virgin Voyages offered excursions you could book via the app, we prefer just wandering and hiking around so Google Maps combined with general web-based research gave us some great ideas for where we landed. Normally their mediterranean cruises start and end at Barcelona but we were on a one-off run from Portsmouth to Barcelona via La Coru√Īa, Lisbon, C√°diz, Gibraltar, M√°laga and Palma de Mallorca. In each place we found plenty to do and it was great spending a day wandering around, getting in the sights and then going back to the ship and relaxing. It was literally like staying in a luxury hotel that moved you from place to place while you slept. A lot easier than driving around and living out of a suitcase.

Can you tell I was coming around to liking cruises?

Anyway, as wonderful as the cruise ship was, it was nice to hit land and explore. And explore we did!

Overall Thoughts and Summary

Having previously never been the sort of person remotely interested in a cruise, I’ve 100% changed my mind. It’s a great way to see a bunch of different places without the stress of driving around, making connections, changing hotels and locations and things inevitably going wrong. When I drove around New Zealand that road trip was part of the fun, but if you want to both explore and unwind then a cruise like Virgin Voyages is an excellent way to go.

It’s basically two holidays in one. One is staying in a luxury all inclusive resort with amazing food and entertainment. The other is touring different cities on the coast. With none of the drawbacks! I’ll certainly cruise with them again, and it’s also made me want to check some of the other companies out to see what they’re like.

And when I am in my 70s to 80s, then I’ll know which ones cater to my age group. But for now, Virgin Voyages very much gets the John Conners Seal of Approval! Except the wifi, that was glacially slow. But I was on holiday so I didn’t care! ūüôā

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Starting At The Bottom And Learning To Cook

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Back when I was a student I wanted to earn a bit of money so I could afford to do the fun things in life. Fun things like putting petrol in my car, drinking alcohol (not at the same time) and having a bit of spending money should I need a new pair of shoes. A friend of mine was a waiter at a local hotel and said there was a job going as a kitchen porter so I inquired and got it.

A kitchen porter is basically the lowest of the low in the kitchen hierarchy – the person who washes the dishes, pots and pans and is usually the butt of all the jokes. All of which was fine with me! I was earning money and that’s all that mattered. The status of the job didn’t enter my thought – work was work and money was cash money. It was hot work (those industrial dishwashers give off a lot of steam) but I enjoyed it and learned how to get every kind of cooking stain out of every kind of cooking implement you can imagine (something that has served me well since).

In time I became good friends with the rest of the kitchen staff and when at a later point I found myself working as a waiter there I found it surprising that while they were nice and respectful to me, they would always mercilessly tease, berate and swear at the rest of the waiting staff. Looking back I now realise I’d earned their respect. I’d worked hard, rolled up my sleeves, never complained, got the job done and earned my place alongside them. I’ve been trying to do that in the workplace ever since.

Your Job Isn’t You

I never judge people by the job they have. I know often the first question someone asks a person they just met is what they do – but it’s the last thing I ever ask anyone. I almost never talk work with friends and family as it’s not something that defines them or me as far as I’m concerned. It’s a means to an end. I also know that if my glamorous life as a software developer ends and I have to get a proper job, I’ll happily do anything to bring money in and never feel I’m “dropping down”. I’d be more than happy to roll up my sleeves again if I need to.

Being a Chef Is Hard

The other thing I learned was how tough being a chef actually is. You can watch someone like Gordon Ramsay do a TV show where he puts together an amazing meal and you think it’s easy. And for him at that point in his life it is. But believe me, to get to that point was a really hard slog. It’s a super tough profession and is so much more stressful than any job I’ve ever had by a long way.

It’s easy to focus on the obvious. An order comes in, you prepare all the ingredients, cook them and put them on a plate, then make that plate of food look beautiful and send it out. Easy right?

A selection of delicious treats from the tasting menu of L’Enclume in Cartmel

Not really. Everything has to be at the right temperature at the right time. So that bit is difficult enough as it requires perfect timing, organisation, consistent delivery and an eye for artistic detail. Except a chef isn’t just putting one meal together at one time, there could be a dozen orders of different dishes with different courses all going on at once from multiple tables. There’s no use having some of the dishes for some of the tables at the same time – each table needs to be served together. And the pressure these people are under to deliver is huge – it’s a very stressful environment to be in and my policy was to keep my head down, work as fast as I could and not screw anything up. If someone was angry, that’s fine, they’re under pressure. After the service was over and they could come down from the adrenaline high, then the next part started, the preparation.

Being a chef isn’t simply about putting meals together and sending them out. It’s about everything from picking a menu that results in the minimal amount of food wastage. To preparing before a service to make sure you’re not wasting time doing things that could be done beforehand. Trying to figure out what’s going to be ordered so you don’t over or under-prepare. And managing a team of people so that everything runs quickly, efficiently and smoothly during service under intense pressure. I certainly wouldn’t be any good at it, that much I figured out quickly.

Now when I eat out in a restaurant I know how difficult it is so I have a lot of sympathy if my food takes a while and am really impressed when delicious food is served quickly.

John Conners, Recipe Follower

Like many people I decided to start cooking once the pandemic lockdown started – I mean there wasn’t much else to do and dining out was no longer an option. Early on everybody I knew started signing up to different providers of food boxes – the idea being they ship you all the ingredients and recipes and you do the rest.

I’m the sort of person who can follow recipes. If you give me a recipe to follow I reckon I can make just about anything, no matter how complex. I’ve long been a fan of baking, largely because you have to precisely follow recipes to make it work. However give me a bunch of random ingredients and say “cook something John” and I’m completely lost. Without a recipe I don’t even know where to start. I have great admiration for people who can do that, but I am not one of them. With that in mind I signed up for Mindful Chef.

It gave me a little taste (haha, see what I did there?) of my old days working as a kitchen porter seeing the chefs work their magic. I was inspired to buy a set of stainless steel pans, proper professional quality knives, wooden chopping board, the lot! But a set of pro golf clubs does not a professional golfer make.

It took me quite a few meals before I started to feel confident in what I was doing. The recipes are well thought out, documented to just the right level for me and having the exact amount of ingredients to hand meant I didn’t have to think, just had to follow the instructions. I was soon comfortable having several pans and the oven on at the same time knowing that everything will be finished at roughly the same time (again, those well thought through recipes helped).

Almost all of the meals I’ve made from Mindful Chef have been delicious and it’s introduced me to a lot of things I’d previously ignored – like quinoa and tofu. Many years ago I tried cooking with tofu and it was a disaster. Thankfully I now know the correct tofu to use and several different ways to cook it. Heck I’ve even managed to buy the ingredients to some of the meals and varied them a bit (only a little bit) – which for me is giant progress!

But I’m no chef. If the meal is delicious it’s because the person who created the recipe and flavour combinations did a great job. I’m merely re-assembling their creation, standing on the shoulders of giants. Plus I can never quite get it looking as pretty as the professionally shot recipe photos! But I do my best.

Anyway, I’d highly recommend something like Mindful Chef or Hello Fresh if you’re afraid of cooking. There’s no such thing as “I can’t cook”. It’s just laziness because anybody can follow a recipe if I can! Rather embarrassingly though I only recently discovered that quinoa (pronounced kee-nwa) and quinoa (pronounced kwin-oh-ah) are in fact the same thing. ūü§¶‚Äć‚ôāÔłŹ

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So I Guess I’m A Vegetarian Then

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I’ve always been a classic omnivore with a leaning towards chocolate. That means I’d eat anything from a green salad to black pudding to a juicy steak to a Linda McCartney pie to any chocolate bar ever made. Although given the choice I’d definitely pick the chocolate.

I’ve also never been under any illusion that the neatly packaged meat I buy in a butchers or a supermarket was once a living, breathing, thinking creature and it was killed so that I could eat it. I’m rather fond of fly fishing so have killed, gutted, cooked and eaten many a fish over the years.¬†The same with various other animals. So I’ve always been keenly aware of the industry that is breeding sentient animals purely to slaughter them and feed us. That bothered me, particularly the poor treatment of the animals, so my wife and I made sure we only ate free range egg (and real free range, not simply¬†chickens that live in a larger cage all their life, ones that get to roam around outside) and bought only locally sourced meat that we could see in the fields around where we live.

Then around 6 months ago my wife suggested when we ate all the meat in our freezer we should try going vegetarian. I said “let’s do it” and so it began. Here’s what I expected to happen:

  • I would¬†have a bad stomach for a¬†while as my body got used to no longer eating meat
  • I would struggle with eating boring salads all the time – I loathe broccoli for example
  • When dining out I would have to get used to eating bland¬†nut roasts as the only vegetarian option
  • I’d miss eating fish (having grown up on the east coast of Scotland I’ve always loved various types of fish and shellfish)
  • As I play football and do weight¬†training the lack of amino acids and protein would make me feel weaker over time and my fitness levels would drop off
  • I would very much miss bacon and the smell of it would ultimately tempt me back to eating meat again

However none of the above have turned out to be the true. While my wife gave up after a couple of weeks (without going into details, it did not agree with her digestive system) I’ve found going vegetarian¬†a complete nonevent. In fact I feel better than I’ve ever felt, fitter than before and while I now eat more than I did previously, I think more about what I do eat and so pick healthier options. Oh, and I still eat chocolate.

Some Mushrooms

What I have been surprised by are the following:

  • Virtually everyone I¬†inform I’m a vegetarian assume I still eat fish. News flash: FISH IS MEAT TOO!
  • A good percentage of my friends feel the need to try and tempt me back to eating meat as though¬†it’s some sort of club to which¬†I really should belong – the primary argument is that “meat tastes great”, but¬†most people have the palate¬†sophistication of a burger-eating teenager so are no experts on taste!
  • I don’t miss eating meat at all and haven’t had a single craving to eat any. Given that I spent 39 years eating the stuff¬†I expected to struggle giving it up. If I had to give up chocolate I know for a fact I’d be crying myself to sleep at night!
  • As soon as you stop thinking “ok, let’s¬†make this meal but replace the meat with some veg” and start thinking “let’s make a delicious meal” it turns out there are loads of tasty¬†options out there
  • I actually feel a sense of relief that I’m no longer a part of the meat industry and no animal is slaughtered so that I might eat it

It’s that last point that’s surprised me the most. By not eating meat I’ve had a chance to reflect on why we humans eat meat. Why we’ve turned the production of meat into an industrial process hidden away from public view to the point where a great number of people don’t associate a chicken breast in a supermarket with a chicken walking around a field. It’s a dirty secret we don’t seem to want to acknowledge and I was no different.

I think it rather sad that a¬†technologically advanced species with its sights set on interplanetary travel still¬†has as its primary food source living creatures that are bred, grown and killed.¬†Take bacon. It’s no secret that I love my dog and dogs are¬†intelligent, social¬†creatures capable of recognising human emotions and¬†I would never consider eating one. Yet pigs are as intelligent and social as dogs – arguably more so – but they’re food for a group of even¬†more intelligent animals (us).¬†That’s not tackling the fact that if population¬†growth continues as it’s projected to do then farming animals is completely unsustainable. Not that us humans think further than 5-10 years in the future.

In the unlikely event that an alien species was to cross the chasm of space and visit us on Earth I would be very disappointed if their spaceship had a compartment containing¬†animals they used as food for their vast journey. Surely they’d have left that behind aeons¬†ago.

But one thing that hasn’t happened is developing a burning desire to stop other people eating meat. Heck, you can eat what you like! But me? I don’t see any reason to go back. So I guess that makes me a vegetarian. And I feel a lot better for it on many levels. Much to my surprise.

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My Birthday Baking Photo Casebook

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Today is my birthday – happy birthday to me! As has become tradition I’ve put together a photo casebook to announce the availability of baked goods to my lucky colleagues and this year was able to combine my three main passions:

  1. My dog Billy.
  2. My love of baking.
  3. My fondness for making myself look like even more of an idiot than I already am.

My Birthday Cakes Photo Casebook

Don’t worry, no Lhasa Apsos were harmed in the making of this photo casebook. And before you ask, it was icing sugar, definitely not cocaine!

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Pictures From A Few Weeks In London

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I’ve spent the past month or so trotting back and forth to London and have been rather enjoying myself. Since I take photos everywhere I go I’ve been taking lots of pictures. However looking at them, they’re not exactly what your average London visitor photographs. No sights, no London Eye, no House of Parliament. No, they seem mostly of food. Not sure what that says about me, but here’s a random assortment of pictures from London! I’m sure I’ll add more to this album over the coming weeks.

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Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals

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I was having a look through some recent photos taken on my phone and noticed a pattern. Just recently we’ve been cooking a lot of meals from the latest Jamie Oliver book ‘Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals‘¬†(almost all of it delicious) and I’ve gotten into the habit of photographing our creations.

The idea is you can cook a 3 course meal in just 30 minutes. You see him do it on TV but the reality, as it turns out, is a little bit trickier. You need a good sized kitchen, everything laid out in advance and you don’t tidy up as you go. But with practise it can be done. Anyway, enjoy!

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The Very Serious Pursuit Of A Cup Of Coffee

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If you know me you’ll know I love coffee. If you know me and don’t realise how much I love coffee then the next time you bump into me ask and I’ll be happy to bore you for hours about it. If you don’t know me then take it from me – I love coffee.

Not just any old coffee mind. I can just about tolerate Starbucks coffee (aside: if you think Starbucks coffee is good coffee then let me assure you it’s the junk food of the coffee world – it’s ok but not a patch on the good stuff), I don’t drink instant coffee because it’s all universally terrible and if I find a place that makes great coffee – such as Bean Loved in Skipton – I stick with it.

My Trusty Gaggia Classic Coffee MachineSo a few years ago we bought a Gaggia Classic coffee machine. It’s one of those ones where you get some freshly ground coffee, put it in a holder, twist it in place, hit a button to run the hot water through into a cup, put some milk in a jug, flick a switch to heat the machine up more so it can generate steam, put the jug under a pipe, fire some steam through it until it runs out of puff, wait, then run some more through until the milk’s up to temperature, then pour into the mug and job done – you have a latte. As you’ll gather it was a time consuming process, you could only make 2 cups at a time, but it made a hell of a good cup of coffee (once I figured out how to get the best out of it).

A few years and many cups of coffee later and the amount of effort it took to make a cup of coffee was starting to take its toll. If we had friends round and I made a coffee for everyone it would take an age (2 at a time you see). Sometimes I’d screw up the milk frothing or overfill the coffee loader and blast ground coffee all over the kitchen. But most importantly I’m not a morning person and when I get up bleary eyed and grouchy I find a delicious fresh latte is the only thing to bring me to the land of the living. However as I spend every second I can in bed, the last thing I want to do is have to get up 10 minutes earlier just to make a cup of coffee. Things had to change.

A couple of years back a good friend of mine (who likes coffee even more than I do) decided to buy a fully automatic Jura coffee machine. If you take a look at their range you’ll see that they are very expensive. At the time I thought that while I’d love to have one, I just couldn’t justify spending what would buy two round the world airline tickets and only made a hot beverage. However I do feel very rough and get very grumpy in the morning so I started, foolishly, by asking my friend if he thought his coffee machine was worth it. Turns out it’s a brilliant piece of kit that makes the perfect cup of coffee every time, is very well engineered and can easily handle making the copious amounts of coffee he drinks.

I then resorted to the web and found the Seattle Coffee Gear channel on YouTube where I watched loads of reviews and demonstrations of many different machines. I wanted a fully automatic one that ground the coffee, heated up the milk, and basically did it all for you at the touch of a button. Oh, and preferably one that wasn’t expensive. Turns out that there is no such coffee machine and you get what you pay for. And that the Jura ones are very highly recommended.

Normally my wife would be the voice of reason and talk me out of such an expensive appliance purchase, but you see if anything she’s more of a coffee addict than I am so it was like asking a car salesman if I should buy a new car. Soon after we found ourselves in Peter Maturi in Leeds (the only place around that stocks such hideously expensive coffee machines) trying out the various Jura machines (we needed to see if the top of the range one really was that much better than the bottom) and several cups of coffee later walked out with a shiny new Jura Impressa J9 machine.

My Jura Coffee Machine

This was a couple of months ago so we’ve had a good time to see if it really is worth the money and if I’ve been able to make myself a cup every day. The bottom line is yes and yes! So to make a perfect latte you get a milk bottle out of the fridge, run a tube from the machine into the milk, put a cup under the nozzle and press a button. Walk away for a minute, come back and you’ve got the perfect latte ready to drink. My wife prefers stronger cappuccino’s – no problem! You can program each button to your exact tastes and job done. Switch it off and walk away while it cleans itself out. Fantastic!

It does seem a bit more demanding though as it tells you when to put more water in, when to empty the drip tray, when to put more coffee beans in, when to give it a deep clean (you just put a tablet in and press a button though) and when to replace the filter (no limescale here). However it doesn’t do it very frequently and is a small price to pay for one-touch operation. The only problem is that it’s so easy to make a great cup of coffee that you end up drinking more than you used to. Still, it keeps our local coffee bean shop in business and I’m all for supporting the local economy!

So next time you’re round my way, drop by and I won’t grimace when you ask for a cup of coffee – it’s only the press of a button away!

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The Cheesecake Comes Full Circle

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When my brother and I were youngsters my parents would often organise dinner parties. My memories of these dinner parties start with my mother cooking lots of lovely looking food, which we weren’t allowed to touch. As the time people were to arrive neared my brother and I would be lectured on how we were to not make any noise while we were upstairs and to leave them alone – and absolutely not to fight. We could stay downstairs to say hello but then we were off to bed! My mother would, for reasons we couldn’t understand, get more and more tense as the clock ticked closer to arrival time (not helped by my brother and I fighting of course). She’d be making sure the food was going to be ready, would get changed into smart clothes and ensure that the house was spotlessly tidy and all our toys were away. I don’t remember my father having much involvement with proceedings at this point, but it was another era where women generally ran the kitchen and men generally went out to work, so that may be why. Or perhaps he was sensible enough to go down to the pub to avoid my mother’s fretting.

Anyway, my mother would often make a special cheesecake for these dinner parties. The cheesecake was special for two reasons. One: she would only ever make this cheesecake for dinner parties and not for us to eat at normal times. And two: it was absolutely, positively, magnificently delicious. I mean unlike any store-bought cheesecake you could ever have – it was heavenly. These two factors tended to conspire against my brother and I since by definition the cheesecake would be eaten by those attending the dinner party – and that meant no leftovers for us to eat the following day. So we’d beg her to please, please, please make sure some was left for us and if not could she please, please, please make one for us next weekend?! We promise not to fight and to tidy our rooms! Being the wonderful parents that they were there most often were leftovers and we’d eat every last drop of the cheesecake and then crave more.

So fast forward 20 years (actually it’s more than that – but 20 years sounds better than the truth) to last Saturday. I’m attending a dinner party with my other half and in this particular case one couple is making the starter, one the main course and another – that would be us – the dessert. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to make a cheesecake! Now it’s a proud Conners tradition (that I made up) that only a Mrs Conners can make my mother’s cheesecake, and since I’m Mr Conners (to you), I thought I’d make a white chocolate cheesecake instead – a recipe from a friend of mine who has a sweeter tooth than I – knowing from making it in the past that it was delicious. I don’t actually like white chocolate but love this particular white chocolate cheesecake – which says it all. Except of course I’d lost the recipe and my friend lives in New Zealand and the only other person who has it isn’t around!

In an ironic twist I had a document called ‘Torrie’s White Chocolate Cheesecake’ that was in fact my mother’s cheesecake recipe mis-titled! Anyway, I had a look through several cook books for a similar white chocolate cheesecake recipe and finally found one that was more elaborate, but seemed to fit the bill. So cut to me on Saturday morning at 1am taking the cheesecake out of the oven (they take quite a while to make) and worrying if it was going to set, was going to taste nice, how I was going to decorate it and so forth, hearing my mother’s voice in my head laughing “see John, it’s not as easy as it looks, and you’re only making the dessert!”.

I decorated it with some white and milk chocolate and finished it off with some raspberries from the garden:

My Cheesecake

And you know what? It tasted bloody delicious! And even better, there were leftovers for the next couple of days which I happily polished off. ūüôā

I always used to think dinner parties were formal affairs, somewhat posh and a bit pretentious. But they’re not. When you’re young you meet out at a pub, maybe get a burger or kebab if you’re hungry. As you get older your taste improves and you dine out at a restaurant. Then kids come along and you can’t get out as much (babysitters and what not) so instead meet up at friends houses for dinner – and voila, you have a dinner party. So while we were out on Saturday night at our friends I couldn’t help think of their young daughter upstairs and remember that being my brother and I. Sitting, hoping there would be some cheesecake left over in the morning. And there I was downstairs eating exactly as my parents would have all those years ago (albeit dressed a lot more casually). And so the circle of life – and cheesecake – is complete!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, when we’ve made my mother’s cheesecake since it still does taste just as good as I remember. Although it’s never quite the same without her telling me I’m not allowed any of it!

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Dinner At Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant In London

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Pain is something that’s very difficult to describe. Many years ago I got a filling and decided to have it done without anaesthetic. My thinking was that the pain of a dentist drilling into my teeth would remind me to brush my teeth so I wouldn’t need another one (plus it wasn’t a deep filling so I was assured it wouldn’t be too bad). It was, perhaps predictably, very painful. I remember realising at the time why torturers liked drilling holes in teeth as the pain was excruciating and there was no escape from it. But trying to describe that pain – what it felt like – to someone else proved particularly difficult. No amount of description could really do justice to the sound and sensation of the drilling and the electric shock-like shooting pains that you just couldn’t prepare yourself for.

And it’s exactly the same with the other end of the spectrum describing intense pleasure. Like, for example, eating an amazing meal.

This weekend to celebrate my birthday, my brother’s birthday and our anniversary, my good lady, brother and I went to Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant in Grosvenor Square, London (England) for dinner. We’d given my brother a voucher for Christmas to go for a meal there and he reported afterwards that the whole experience was superb and the food was sublime so it was time to find out for ourselves if that was the case.

The first thing to note is that while the restaurant may bear Gordon Ramsay’s name, the executive chef is Jason Atherton so really the menu is designed, selected and created by him. Anybody who follows the world of chefs knows that Jason (a Michelin star chef) is straight out of the top drawer, and the fact that he’s a Yorkshireman makes him even better since that’s where I live!

Anyway, the restaurant itself was beautifully decorated, a real quality look without feeling overly posh (i.e. I didn’t feel completely out of place!). The service was probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Having been a waiter myself during my student days I can appreciate a slick operation when I see it and at the Maze they were like a well oiled machine. You never even thought about topping up your glass as it was perpetually filled, the food seemed to appear and disappear, we never felt like we were being hurried out at the end and there was none of this spending 15 minutes trying to attract someone’s attention to pay the bill!

And so to the food. This is where it gets tricky to articulate. We all went for the set 7 course meal where you had a choice of a couple of options on 3 of the courses. Each course was small, beautifully presented (like pieces of art on a plate), the ingredients were all top quality and the flavours were out of this world! Each course seemed to complement the previous one and we kept marvelling at how ingredients were put together in unexpected ways to create a taste sensation. Heck, one of the courses had mini shepherd’s pie and I’ve never tasted one like that in my life!

We quickly lost count of how many courses we’d had and how many were left. It was like eating the most amazing tapas one dish at a time and soon enough we got to the dessert (which I really should have taken a picture of) and our culinary adventure was over. As is always the case with tapas-style food I felt I could have eaten more but when I stood up later I realised I’d actually had enough.

Overall the experience was fantastic. The ambiance, the service and the wine were all tip top. But the food was indescribably good. It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was more like being injected with a cocktail of pure class A drugs. No wait, that’s a terrible analogy! Let me try that again… It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was like… Eh… You see, it’s not easy to describe what it was like, nothing I could say would do it proper justice. Let’s just stick with a single word – divine. If you find yourself tempted to go to one of Ramsay’s restaurants but think “that’s a lot of money”, I can assure you it was worth every penny!

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Our First Proper Harvest

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In the continuing saga of us growing our own veg we’ve hit a major milestone. While we’ve been eating more lettuce and other greenery than you can shake a stick at (we’ve had to give some to our neighbours such is the amount we’ve grown) we’ve been really looking forward to our ‘proper’ veg being ready. I’m thinking traditional stuff like carrots, beetroot, onions and of course potatoes.

We’d been growing potatoes in bags – the sort you add more soil to when the potato leaves have found their way to the surface, bury them and let them break through again and so on until the bag is full. We knew that you’re supposed to wait until they flower before harvesting but ours hadn’t and the first couple of bags we planted were starting to go yellow as if they’d been hit with blight. Turns out that in fact this also means they’re ready for picking so we tipped the first bag out to see what we got – and personally I’m pretty impressed!

To a farmer growing potatoes is as trivial as breathing in and out, but since I’d never done it before it felt like a real novelty. We went with anya potatoes which are small, thin and tasty. We planted two in each bag starting back in March and that was long enough to wait! Anyway, have a look at the photos below to see what we did and ended up with:

This plant growing is definitely a learning experience and there are lessons we’ll be applying next year such as thinning the carrots and beetroots out more, what to plant from seed and what to grow indoors first and many other things. It’s been fun so far and it just makes me want to buy a house with a huge garden so I can fit poly tunnels and grow grow grow! I think I’ll need that lottery win first though…