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Orso Restaurant Regional Dinner: Veneto

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I’m really loving Orso Restaurant’s regional dinners. We’ve been to Piemonte and Tuscany and last night we were transported to Venice. As regular readers will know, Venice (aside from my hometown of London) is my favourite place and I go there about once a year. And, of course, the food of Venice is some of my favourite too: gorgeous, creamy Baccalà Mantecato, Fegato alla Veneziana served with polenta. The Veneto, lying in the Po Valley, is also the home of risotto – another favourite dish – often made in Venice with fish or ‘primavera’ – spring vegetables (as I had at Locanda Cipriani in April). And then there’s Tiramisu, that divine dessert of layered sponge fingers with coffee, brandy or Marsala and mascarpone cheese. Yesterday, after a day at the Hampton Court Flower Show in sweltering sun, the promise of Orso’s cool basement, some of my favourite food from my favourite city, plus the company of two of my best friends – Annie and Jerry – was a welcome delight. Then, added to the excitement, the evening was being hosted by the restaurateur supremo Russell Norman, known for his love and knowledge of Venice and his Polpo restaurants. His programme, The Restaurant Man, on BBC2 TV last year, in which he helped new restaurateurs build their business, showed not just his business savvy but a sensitive and thoughtful approach to truly helping people.

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Russell brought our Bellinis and talked to us for a bit. It was nice that he was being truly a host and to feel so welcomed. That’s one of the nice things about these regional dinners. Not only is it a chance to get to know how the food of the regions of Italy differ but there is a supper club atmosphere. The restaurant is full of people eating the same menu, with the same enthusiasm for Italian food, and everyone having a good time. The Bellinis were wonderful, made with white peaches, and a welcome refreshing beginning to the meal. LIttle snacks – stuzzichini – came too. The Carta di Musica – music sheets – were thin, crisp flatbreads flavoured with garlic and rosemary.

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They were delicious; wonderfully moreish. They’re similar to Sardinian carasau and their name is a reference to the size of the sheets of bread and their unusual thinness. And, of course, Venice being the home of Vivaldi and a city of music made them even more appropriate for a Venetian meal.

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Then one of my great favourites, baccalà mantecato served on toasted bread. Salted cod – a speciality in the Veneto region – is soaked then beaten to a thick creamy consistency. I eat it at least once a day when in Venice! This was excellent and these two gorgeous stuzzichini had been a brilliant way to start the meal. Charles of Ellis of Richmond Wines had also come to our table to talk about the wines they’d chosen and how they matched the dishes. This input into the wines of the region is another brilliant thing about the regional dinners and last night we were given a little booklet with wine information too. Next our Primi Piatti. Jerry had chosen Bigoli al Ragu d’Anatra – bigoli pasta with duck ragu.

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He said it was delicious and it was paired with Appassimento (2013), a rich raisiny combination of Merlot, Primitivo and Negroamaro. Meanwhile, Annie and I chose Sarde in Saor – a really classic Venetian dish of sweet and sour sardines.

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I’ve eaten this many times in Venice and I particularly liked Orso’s version, the sardines dusted in flour and shallow fried, the onions with raisins and pine nuts adding a subtle sweet-sour flavour. Too often the sweet or sour notes are overwhelming but here the balance was perfect. This was matched with Soave Pieropan (2013), a beautifully fresh but fragrant wine. Come the Secondi – main course – again Annie and I went for the same thing: Fegato alls Veneziana – calf’s liver with onions, balsamic vinegar served with buttered cavolo nero and soft polenta.

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This liver dish is another must-have when I go to Venice. I love it; it is one of my favourite dishes ever. Which makes choosing it slightly risky. Though of course I knew there wasn’t much risk involved at Orso! It can of course be ruined by overcooking the liver; getting the acidic balance of the onion sauce wrong. But this was perfection: gorgeous tender pieces of liver in a lovely sauce; nicely seasoned polenta and tasty cavolo nero. It was matched with a Ripasso della Valpolicella (2013), which is a wonderful wine with a great depth of flavour. Jerry had chosen Guance di Merluzzo, Lenticchie and Salsa Verde for his main – sautéed cod cheeks with lentils and salsa verde.

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This looked good (unfortunately my photo is a bit out of focus) and Jerry said it tasted very good too. It was matched with a Pinot Bianco from Friuli-Venezia but Jerry opted to stay with red.

There were two desserts to choose from as well. On a note of pure indulgence I opted for Tiramisu. Well how could I not!

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Although again, like the Fegato, the choice comes with risk for there are many bad tiramisus around and I’m not very tolerant of them! I make a pretty mean one myself, courtesy of an Antonio Carluccio recipe. Orso’s was brilliant; quite simply one of the best I’ve had. It came with Recioto della Valpolicella, a superb dessert wine. Annie and Jerry went for the more refreshing option of Sgroppino – prosecco, lemon sorbet and limoncello.

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I was given a taste and it was delicious but I’m very glad I had the Tiramisu because it was so good. We finished with coffees. It had been an excellent evening. Good fun, wonderful food, great atmosphere. And what a great way to ‘travel’ around Italy!

The menu was priced at £39.50, including wines.

For more information about Orso and the regional dinners visit their website at: www.orsorestaurant.co.uk

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2015

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The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show celebrates its 25th birthday this year. They even made a flower cake to celebrate:

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I went for the first time a couple of years ago. I’d been to the Chelsea Flower Show a few times and while that’s always inspirational for the gardener, it’s also horrendously crowed. A little akin to being on the Tube at rush hour. And I hit a couple of years on the trot when it was wet and cold so not much fun. The trip to the Hampton Court show a couple of years ago was a birthday treat from my friend Nina. The weather was kind, it was great to spend a leisurely day with my friend, and it was only a short bus ride from home!

With its 20-acre site, the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the largest flower show in the world. Though not within the show, the palace’s famous maze is also the largest hedge maze in the world, built more than three hundred years ago in the time of William and Mary, and has half a mile of pathways. It takes most people about 20 minutes to find the middle. I gathered this information from BBC 2 coverage of the show last night; they didn’t say how long it takes most people to get out again and whether they rescue you if you get seriously lost!

People have said to me for years – even before I finally got there – that the Hampton Court show is much nicer than Chelsea. I would in many ways agree – but not all. Its larger site means that although it gets busy there are plenty of quieter places to hang out when you want to slow down or rest. I’m not sure I could spend a whole day at Chelsea, it’s too frenetic, but a whole day at Hampton is a happier prospect. It’s more relaxed; less serious. There’s masses to do and, unlike Chelsea, you can actually buy plants to take home. Apart from show gardens and the wonderful Floral Marquee, there’s a Cookery Theatre with guest cooks like James Wong, Alys Fowler and Gregg Wallace giving demonstrations. In the Celebrity Theatre there are talks by well-known TV personalities like Simon King and Christine Walkden. There are endless stalls selling anything garden related that you could possibly want or dream up, including a Honda robot lawnmower – if you have £2,000-£3,000 to spare.

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There are loads of food and drink stalls too, from preserves, cheeses and other things to take home to Pimm’s, Champagne, G&Ts, or coffee to sustain you on the go and all kinds of things to eat there: fish & chips, pulled pork baps, healthy falafel & hummus pitta breads, gorgeous cakes. But, of course, the flowers are the thing. If you’re a gardener, then that’s why you’re there. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful flowers and different varieties at their perfect best. They may never look like that in your garden, but it’s so nice to see how they should look. Thus the Floral Marquee, with pretty much any flower you could think of, is a magnificent affair. Here are a few photos. First some beautiful peonies:

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Fabulous dahlias:

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Gorgeous clematis:

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Majestic alliums:

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Pretty pelargoniums:

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And many wonderful displays:

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The show gardens are always fun to see:

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They lack the cutting-edge magnificence and inspiration of the ones at Chelsea, I think, although this Circle of Life garden was interesting:

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But even the more ordinary ones can still provide some good ideas for your garden. I liked these Alice in Wonderland themed topiaries:

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The Hampton Court Flower Show is a great day out and – especially with it being local to me – I’m sure to go back again next year. Though it also made me feel I must go to Chelsea again because the show gardens there really are a wonder. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about it and other Royal Horticultural Society shows visit: www.rhs.org.uk

Book Review: A Change of Appetite – Where Healthy Meets Delicious by Diana Henry

IMG_9314 I’ve been wanting this book for about a year; pretty much since it was published in 2014, but I was trying to be good and not spend £25 on a new cookbook when I already have about 200 on my shelves. Then I looked at it again in a bookshop recently, fell in love all over again, and discovered I could buy it for £15 from Amazon. Deal done. My order went in and it arrived yesterday. My good friend Linda bought Diana Henry’s Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons for me about three years ago and it has become one of my favourite books. Shortlisted for the Glenfiddich Cookbook Award when it was first published in 2002, I have the revised 2012 edition. (My family’s favourite ice cream – Lemon and Basil Ice Cream – is one of the most-used recipes in it.) Henry is a cook after my own heart and this new book confirms that first impression. Firstly because, like me, her great love is the food of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa and these influences dominate the new book but with a bit of Georgia, Scandinavia and the Far East thrown in too. Also, her attitude towards healthy eating is one I connect with: ‘I can’t think of meals as sets of nutrients. A meal is a colourful assembly of foods … that should be, first and foremost, enjoyable,’ she writes. I remember the rather grim advent of ‘health food restaurants’ in the 1970s with their nut roasts, lentil rissoles and bean casseroles; carob instead of chocolate and margarine instead of butter. Henry talks about the change in attitude we see now, that eggs have turned out to be good for us after all and butter is much healthier than low-fat margarine. Like me, her emphasis on healthy eating is a balanced diet. ‘The main thing you can do for good health’, she writes, ‘is to eat proper home-cooked food, limit anything processed … (and ) refined carbohydrates … and up your vegetable intake.’ A Change of Appetite reflects the changes Henry has made to her own diet: a move towards a lighter, fresher way of eating. She started by deciding to eat foods that were ‘accidentally healthy’ – foods that were delicious but healthiness was an added bonus. She also researched current advice about what’s healthy and cut back on the things that were ‘less healthy’, saving them for treats. She followed her common sense and experience and in the end, while initially thinking this new way of eating was for midweek and she’d revert to less healthy eating at the weekend, she found instead that it was so delicious that it was food for all days of the week and entertaining as well. One thing of crucial importance to healthy eating, I think, is going with what’s in season. There is often a ‘right’ time to eat certain foods, not just because they are at their best (English strawberries in June, for instance) but because it seems to suit the body better too. Henry has organised the book into seasons. In Spring, she says, ‘we find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavours.’ Summer is the easiest season to be healthy when you don’t have to do much cooking and meals can be assembly jobs of fresh ingredients, enhanced by the ‘scented quality’ of summer herbs. ‘Autumn is the best season for the cook,’ she declares, while winter still brings much needed splashes of colour with crimson blood oranges and jewelled pomegranates. ‘Everything Diana Henry cooks I want to eat,’ is a Yotam Ottolenghi quote on the front cover, and I share his view. The book is a treasure trove of bright, colourful, exciting recipes full of deep flavours and freshness. I made a couple of things today to try out before writing the review. The book is already gathering those little sticky markers of recipes I want to try but today I went for Roast Tomatoes and Lentils with Dukka-crumbed Eggs. IMG_9336 This is actually an autumn recipe but I thought it would make a nice simple supper and it was really delicious. I cheated by using ready-made dukkah that I bought in Waitrose but sometime it would be great to try out her recipe.  I also made Greek Yogurt and Apricot Ice Cream. IMG_9342 This recipe is in the Spring section and uses dried apricots. I love apricots and fresh ones are starting to come into the shops, though it has to be said it’s quite difficult getting really good fresh ones in London. However, the dried apricots in Henry’s recipe give the ice cream a full, deep flavour; the Greek yogurt is healthier than cream and the result is really good. I see another family favourite coming on! It’s a really wonderful book and I know I’m going to enjoy trying out lots more recipes from it over the coming weeks. (A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley at £25.)

Spain 2015: Day Trip to Benidorm

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I’ve gone to Spain to visit my lovely friends Linda and George every year bar one (when we instead went together to Istanbul) since 2006. On the hour’s drive from Alicante airport to their home, about halfway into the journey, the towering buildings of Benidorm stretch along the coastline and in their own way they are quite awesome. Maybe not the kind of ‘awesome’ one is immediately looking for amongst the stunning scenery in this southern part of Spain with its dramatic rocky landscape but there’s no missing it. Last year, I took a bus from the airport to Benidorm where Linda picked me up but I didn’t see much of the town. This year, going on holiday with Jonathan, Lyndsey and Baby Gale it was decided we’d take a proper look at this famous seaside resort and hence the four of with Linda – also kindly acting as our guide and interpreter – took a day trip there on Friday.

Until the 1960s Benidorm was a small fishing village; now it is Europe’s largest holiday resort with over 5 million visitors a year and has the most high-rise buildings per capita in the world. It has been called the birthplace of package tourism and earlier this year announced it was to apply to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on this history. With its huge long stretches of beautiful fine sandy beaches its immediate attraction is obvious, as well, of course, as the wonderful weather. In UK it’s known for having once attracted rowdy crowds of Brits seeking cheap lager and fish and chips but over the last couple of decades Benidorm has mellowed and the town is popular with families as well as a large number of elderly people.

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On the promenade behind Poniente Beach (one of three main beaches) is a park where locals as well as holidaymakers sit in the shade of palm trees to talk; dogs are walked and games played. I saw tables set up with people playing chess and there was a nice sense of community.

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Yes there are the high-rise buildings – and it has to be said, many very ugly – but once you’re in the town the perspective is very different to the one you see from the motorway.

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We wandered along the promenades a bit before heading into a quieter part of town just above the Poniente Beach where Linda’s research had found a restaurant that seemed to have mainly Spanish reviews on Tripadvisor and thus suggested we might find something more authentically Spanish. And we did! Bar La Cofradia was great.

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We opted to sit outside where a welcome breeze gently blew along the narrow road. Inside though it was attractive with its Moorish tiled walls.

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They were so friendly. And they didn’t really speak English so it was very fortunate we had Linda to translate for us while Jonathan also searched the depths of his memory to recover some of his Spanish GCSE. They showed us the lobsters were still alive so we would know how fresh their seafood was.

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We ordered seafood paella and there was a bit of a discussion about it and what they would put in it. It seemed to be a family-run business and the ‘mother’ cook came out to discuss what vegetables she’d bought at the market that day and could put in the paella. It takes some time to make a paella from scratch so we ordered beers and wine and some little complimentary tapas came with them to keep us happy while we waited.

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While our paella was being cooked the restaurant started to fill up. There were older guys who sat down for just a beer and a tapa; families shared plates and tucked into larger meals. They were all Spanish; we were the only visitors there. Baby Gale, who is very sociable at not quite 4 months, was in his element smiling at everyone and receiving smiles back. The Spanish love children. Lyndsey was stopped by elderly men a couple of times wanting to look at her baby; one was concerned he’d be OK in the heat (even though he was being very well protected by his mother!). When our paella came it looked excellent and tasted good too.

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It was definitely a long, leisurely lunch – just as it should be on holiday – and we enjoyed the peace of the location. The Bar was a great find and definitely a fun place with good food and friendly service. Afterwards we went in search of the Old Town for a glimpse of how Benidorm once was before the high rises arrived.

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We made our way to Plaça de la Senyoria …

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… and Plaça del Castell …

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… that lie on a promontory that juts out between the two main beaches. The Moorish influence was clear and it was quite pretty. However, there were lots of English bars and tearooms and some bars opened from 9pm till late, so it might be a very different place at night.

We made our way back to the car via an air-conditioned café where we drank Cokes or coffee and cooled off while Baby Gale had a feed before the journey home. We’d had a really lovely day and I enjoyed the trip to Benidorm and finding out what it’s really like. The highlight of the day was definitely lunch – the food and the friendly owners – but it was also nice to have a good walk along the top of the beach in the sea air. Back home in the tranquil setting of Linda and George’s home we settled down to enjoy the beautiful evening with glasses of cava and recounting our day to George (who’d gone to a music group practice; he plays saxophone).

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And as the sunny day gently slipped into night …

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… we saw a bright star and a crescent moon hanging in the sky …

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What a beautiful ending to a lovely holiday.

Spain 2015: Moraira

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The nearest towns from where we’re staying in Spain are Benissa (inland) and Calpe and Moraira on the coast. Moraira is by far the prettiest and one of the most unspoilt towns on this part of the Costa Blanca.  Backed by mountains it offers some dramatic and often stunning views all along the coastal roads and with a choice of two routes from here we’ve taken to always driving along what we’ve come to call the ‘scenic route’. I always like going down to Moraira. There are lovely cafes, a great paella restaurant and some interesting little shops.

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This morning on the way in we stopped at Algas cafe just outside Moraira for coffee which, as you can see from the photo above, has a wonderful location. The coffee was good and so were the tostadas we ordered, mine a simple tomato one and a typical Spanish breakfast choice. Jonathan and Lyndsey had Serrano ham with theirs too and it was all delicious. There was a nice sea breeze so Baby Gale was happy too, protected in the shade of one of the large umbrellas. The view out is beautiful and we happily sat there for a while.

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That’s me above when I was there with Linda a couple of mornings ago. It’s been a regular haunt when I visit, either for morning coffee or early evening drinks.

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Now The Single Gourmet Traveller can’t come to Spain without having a paella at least once. I just love paella. And Raco de l’Arros in Moraira is one of the best places to go. Family run it’s an authentic place serving a good choice of paella. The Spanish only eat rice at lunchtime; they think it’s not good for one’s digestion to eat rice at night. Lunchtime suited us fine as with Baby Gale it’s too difficult to go out at night. He obligingly slept through the meal and then woke in time to say hello to friendly staff and admire the colourful wall tiles. We ordered a meat and a seafood paellaimage

It was fabulous. Such a deep, gorgeous flavour; tender prawns, langoustines, mussels and white fish. Linda and George told us the Spanish like their paella quite dry here but it was still nicely moist.

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Jonathan chose a classic Valencian paella with rabbit, chicken and vegetables which was very good too. There was excellent house wine and some nice simple desserts. It was a lovely outing.

Another favourite place in the town is the shop Hendrika & Co., an interior design-gift ship. I discovered this last year and by chance the lovely Dutch owner, Rita, is a follower of my blog as I discovered when I asked to take photos. I paid a return visit on Monday with Linda and couldn’t resist buying a couple of small things.

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Moraira is an ideal place for me: good restaurants, nice cafes and shops and a lovely walk along the seafront from the marina at one end to the beach at the other with some nice shaded ‘park’ areas in which to cool off.

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Of course it can be very busy in high season so, much as I like a trip down to Moraira, it’s always lovely to return to the quiet and tranquillity of the house and have a swim in the pool.

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Spain 2015: The Summer Kitchen

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I love the outdoor living here in Spain. In common with many Spanish homes, Linda and George have a summer kitchen. Situated near their swimming pool it makes good sense, especially when family and friends come with children but in the heat, it’s just so nice to cook and prepare food outside. We eat outside for every meal. In all the years I’ve come here to visit, I can remember only one time the weather forced us to eat inside. image

The day begins with freshly squeezed local Valencian oranges. The best, according to aficionado George, come from Paco’s stall at Calpe market on Saturday morning. They don’t look perfect. Grown organically they have their blemishes but they are quite simply the best I’ve ever tasted, sweet and full of flavour.

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George likes to use an old fashioned juicer, squeezing them by hand for us each morning. It’s such a treat. Valencia is of course famous for its oranges and you won’t find better anywhere. Then at the little table just outside the summer kitchen we sit with the glorious view across the pool and the valley beyond.

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Sometimes – if we’re in – we’ll eat lunch there too: Spanish hams, Manchego cheese, salads and breads and a glass of chilled San Miguel beer. In the evening we often move round to the other side of the house and sit in the naya – a covered terrace – as the wind can get up a bit.

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However, if you want to barbecue there’s a wonderful one in the summer kitchen.

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On Saturday night Jonathan barbecued some chicken and Iberico pork loin for Lyndsey and me as Linda and George went out to see some friends. We sat at the small table where we have breakfast to be near the barbecue.

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It was wonderful to enjoy the views and quiet of our location as we ate. Then Jonathan cooked for us all a couple of nights later. He bought some fabulous T-bone steaks.

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He cooked them to perfection: well done but not burnt on the outside, still pink and rare in the centre.

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They were wonderful: really melt-in-the-mouth and so tasty. Supper had been a bit of a joint effort with Linda preparing some delicious vegetables; I marinated some tuna steaks which we were also barbecuing and roasted some new potatoes, sprinkling sesame seeds over them near the end. We sat at the large wooden table under the pergola by the summer kitchen. It’s just such a treat for us Londoners to be able to live and eat outside in this way, from breakfast until bedtime. Especially with such lovely friends and in such a beautiful location.

Spain 2015: And Baby Came Too

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I’ve been visiting my lovely friends Linda and George in Spain regularly for a few years but this year I’ve come with Jonathan, Lyndsey and Baby Gale. There had to be a few changes to the normal routine. No train to Gatwick but the car and long term parking plus hiring a car at the other end. Of course Baby Gale had more luggage than the three adults put together. I’d booked a ‘Golf or similar’ car and had a momentary worry a couple of days before we left that it wouldn’t be big enough until I remembered that we had to fit everything into my Peugeot 207 to get to Gatwick. It required a bit of cunning organisation but we JUST did it.

I had managed to secure us seats together via BA when I added Baby Gale to the booking just over 3 months ago when he was born for no extra cost. Arriving at Gatwick early Friday, Jonathan dropped us off with 4 suitcases, 1 pram, 1 baby car seat and hand luggage and then went off to the long term car park, which turned out to be a quick and easy drop off and he was soon back with us.  British Airways were wonderfully helpful whizzing us through the checking in of our luggage, advising on keep the pram until the last minute when they’d take it from us and eventually letting us on to the plane first. The Gatwick staff stopped us as we were heading towards security, opened a roped area and said through this way with the baby. With barely a queue we were soon through and on our way to Jamie’s Italian for breakfast – my favourite place to eat in North Terminal. We joked we felt like VIPs being rushed through with no queues or fuss. I decided Baby Gale should be my new regular travelling companion.

At Jamie’s while I settled for a pain aux raisins and flat white, Jonathan couldn’t resist the Full Monty breakfast, complete with black pudding as well as all the usual English Breakfast components.

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So filling was this he wasn’t able to eat the BLT offered by BA on the flight, which turned out to be a surprisingly decent sandwich. Baby Gale obviously thought it was all a great adventure. Sleep on the flight wasn’t something he wanted to contemplate at first when there were all these exciting new people and he was happy looking around and smiling at everyone. Fortunately for his parents (and other passengers) he eventually had a nice long nap.

There was no one around to check our passports at Alicante. We streamed through a deserted security. It felt as it does when you arrive at an airport very late at night but in fact it was only 3pm local time. At arrivals a man from FC Car Rentals (who we’d booked with via Economy Car Rentals) was slightly alarmed by the amount of luggage we had. He called for a 2nd car to take us to their nearby office. A friendly young German woman greeted us. They’d given us their largest car (for no extra cost) she told us and was duly impressed when I told her we’d fitted everything in to my 207 earlier in the day. They were so friendly and had obviously been concerned we’d manage OK. Soon we were heading north on the motorway to Valencia, coming off at Benissa where Linda would meet us so we could follow her for the final part of the journey. Their house lies inland from the coast in quite a remote area.

I’d never travelled with a young baby before and had been, it has to be admitted, a little anxious about how things would go. But as it turned out the whole journey was wonderfully easy and smooth. British Airways were brilliant as were the Gatwick staff. The staff in Jamie’s were great. Then on our arrival at Alicante the car rentals people were helpful and friendly too. Of course Baby Gale played his part by remaining good humoured throughout and not crying. (May the return journey be as easy!!!)

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It’s always a joy to arrive at Linda and George’s. Mostly because they are such good friends but also because their beautiful home lies within stunning scenery. Once Baby Gale was settled In his cot, it was time to sit and enjoy the views in the dying light with glasses of cava before eating a gorgeous chicken meal Linda had prepared.

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It it had been a long day but thanks to all the kindness and help we’d received on the journey and then the warm welcome of our friends we were already relaxing and very much looking forward to a week of sun and Spain.

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