Thursday, 1 December 2016

Christmas at Kew Gardens

Despite having never been there myself, I knew from hear-say (and Instagram) that Kew Gardens is hella beautiful.

I'd been keen to go for yonks but somehow had never made it - it's quite a way out of central London so a bit of a faff - so when I was invited to the launch of Christmas at Kew I was so damn excited.
If Kew Gardens wasn't beautiful enough, it was then going to be Christmassy?! Mad keen.

And I knew exactly who else would share my excitement: my flatmate Maddy, who is just as much of a Christmas nut as me.
We were greeted upon arrival by a choir singing Christmas carols which immediately made us squeal.

And the hype was only to increase by the consumption of mulled wine, mince pies and gingerbread men.

Sugar-loaded and clutching hot cups of wine, we were ready to start the trail.
For Christmas, Kew Gardens has created a magical mile-long trail full of festive fun, and Maddy and I had an absolute ball wandering round.

The hour-long trail flew by - we stopped to marvel at incredibly beautiful and creative light installations, each one different from the last.
The trees were beautifully lit-up as they were, but we LOVED all the Christmas-inspired creations too.

Look at these!
There were fire rings of all the numbers from A Partridge in a Pear Tree (these are obviously the two turtle doves).

As we wandered round, humming along to the various Christmas tunes and carols that seemed to come from nowhere, we were also pleased to find stalls selling mulled beverages and wintry snacks like roasted chestnuts en route.
A word of advice, however: the little stalls only take cash. So take cash.

There were a couple of parts we were less keen on: there was the random elf lady at a slightly tacky jukebox-style stall, blasting out cheesy festive tunes. Somehow it seemed to bring the class-level down a notch.

Towards the end of the trail there's also a little area with children's entertainers - Maddy and I were pretty excited at the prospect of seeing Father Christmas but were dismayed to find the elf ladies totally ignored us. I get that they're mainly catering for children but still. Rude.
Aside from that, the trail was fab. Each part was so different that you never got bored.

The end was particularly fabulous too - the trail finishes with a spectacular light show, projected on to water and the greenhouse, set to Christmas songs. We loved it so much we watched twice.
Maddy and I finished the trail feeling wonderfully tingly, imbued with festive magic (and a couple of mulled wines).

I couldn't recommend Christmas at Kew more, but I would recommend checking the weather forecast, as walking round in the rain would not be fun and let's be real this is London.

But go! Go celebrate the most wonderful time of the year! Go forth and be merry and bright.
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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Eating Morocco in a day: My 24-hour foodie trip to Marrakech and back

Colleague: "How come you're not in on Friday then, Rachel?"

Me: "I'm going to Marrakech actually."

Colleague: "Oh lovely, for a long weekend?"

Me: "Nope, just for the day."

Everyone: "Wut."

I know, it sounds totally mad. And tbh it was totally mad. But I did indeed travel to Marrakech, spend the day there, and go back to London the same day.

When I got back home at around 1.30am and realised I'd actually been away for less than 24 hours, it was so bizarre - I'd done so much that I felt like I'd been away for a week!

But this wasn't just me being a bit of a nutcase. Allow me to explain...

You know Giraffe restaurants? Yeah, you know them. Often found at airports as it would happen.

Well they're - and I quote - "on a mission to explore and share wonderful foods from around the globe" to celebrate the launch of their new menu.

So to help gain some inspiration they asked if I'd like to head out to Marrakech, be shown round by a local foodie expert and essentially be challenged to discover as much about Moroccan cuisine as possible in a day.

Um, WHAT!? Is that not one of the coolest, most random but awesome things you've ever heard?

I'm always keen on crazy ideas, obviously love food, AND Marrakech has been on my 'to visit' list for yonks, so it was a no-brainer for me. Where do I sign!?

It was such a great day and I've got tons to tell you but I know you're busy so I'll try not to waffle too much. (She says, having already waffled for England in this intro.) Let me break it down...

Getting there

With a taxi booked for 3am, any sensible person would go to bed at like 9pm. But this gal? Nah mate. Was at the Cosmopolitan Influencer Awards dancing to the Spice Girls and drinking cocktails the night before, wasn't I?

(On a side not, thanks so much for your support with that, kind readers - I made the shortlist for Best Lifestyle Influencer which is kinda cray.)

Well it's fine, you can just sleep in the taxi and on the plane, said everyone. Not this gal, who is the most high-maintenance sleeper you've ever met. Lol good tired times for me.

Anyway I was so excited that the adrenalin overtook the tiredness and I successfully made it to Marrakech - the flight's only about 3.5 hours so not too bad.

Interestingly, I was slightly concerned I wouldn't actually be let into the country - upon arriving at the airport, everyone has to fill in a landing card detailing where you're staying etc. I had to try and explain to the security guard that I wasn't staying anywhere because I was leaving again that night. He was highly sceptical but thankfully let me in eventually.

And there waiting for me at arrivals was my host and guide for the day, the lovely Amanda from Maroc Mama, with her husband Youssef.
Amanda is an American ex-pat who's been living in Marrakech for 15 years. She's a travel and food blogger and also runs a business doing food tours of the city, which, after spending the day eating my way round Marrakech with her, I could not recommend more.

Breakfast

Our first stop of the day was breakfast - obviously having been up for millions of hours this would be my third breakfast of the day but I was so down for that.

And pleasingly, Marrakech airport is really central (not like the nightmare that is London) so it didn't take us long to get there.

We drove down grand, big, clean streets lined by pale red buildings, opulent lamp posts and benches. There were even camels. Awesome.

Less traditionally, however, I also spied placed like McDonald's, Buddha Bar, KFC, Pizza Hut and all the big chain shops.

But our destination was an eatery of the utmost authenticity - Amanda and Youssef took me to one of their favourite spots in the French, newer part of Marrakech, Chez Outmane (obvs am using the French name not the Arabic.)
I suddenly realised I had no idea what constitutes a Moroccan breakfast. When most people think about Moroccan cuisine, they think couscous and tagines, but for breakfast? Hmm.
First, a basket of warm fluffy breads called batbout arrived. And to eat with it, a wonderful selection of dips and spreads:
There was honey, butter, olive oil, argan oil, olives and - at the front on the left there - something I'd never heard of called amalou.

Sweet Lord, amalou was amazing. My fave discovery of the day, without a doubt. It's made from almonds, honey and argan oil so is basically almost butter with a twist but sweet Lord in heaven above, I loved it.

As well as the dips, I tried another speciality: khlii.
This was essentially eggs with salted, dried lamb (sort of like jerky I believe). I don't usually go wild for egg-based dishes but this was so flavoursome, and it was extra tasty after we added some zataar. Scoop it up with some bread and prepare for a mouthful of meaty, spiced goodness.

And of course, this being Morocco, we washed it all down with fresh mint tea.
Now, obviously any self-respecting British person would never add sugar to their cuppa, but mint tea (which is the standard Moroccan tea I believe) is always sweetened. I shouldn't like it but it was so tasty. I drank gallons of tea over the course of the day.

A cookery class

The next port of call was Riad Quara to learn how to make a couple of traditional Moroccan recipes. 

Located in the medina, everything was starting to look like the Marrakech I'd seen in photos.
Riad Quara is the prettiest place - it's traditional in style but beautifully done. We were greeted with more mint tea and little baked goods, which I loved.
Amanda and I weren't just there to sit around and eat though, it was time to get stuck in. We were to make batbout (yes, what I'd just eaten!) and msemmen.
Chatting in a mix of French, Arabic and English, we got stuck in. Amazingly, I learnt that Moroccan home-cooks never measure their ingredients, they just sort of feel it. So we did the same.

All our utensils were basic, and it was so much fun.
Whilst Amanda had made everything before, as you can see, she was having a blast too.
Here are my batbout:
And here are my msemmen, which are sort of like pancakes but flakier:
Served warm with honey, they were a dream.
 
We packaged up the leftovers and I took mine home for my flatmates who I'm sure will concur that both the msemmen and batbout were equally delicious with nutella, if slightly less authentic.

Couscous

Next up, we went for a wander through the medina on to our next foodie stop.
I tell you what, I need to go back to Marrakech for a day of shopping as well as eating. It smelled of leather and spices and was just fascinating to me.
There were so many interesting things to look at and it was all so colourful, despite the fact that I was there on an uncharacteristically overcast day.

A couscous stop hadn't been in the original plan, but as we walked past one of Amanda's favourite spots, Chez Bakchich, she paused and asked me, "Do you want some couscous?"

Obviously my answer was in the affirmative. So in we went.

Guys, it turns out we in the western world are doing couscous all wrong. That stuff you buy in the supermarket that cooks in five minutes? Not legit.

Real couscous takes hours to make which is why it's only eaten on Fridays in Morocco, Friday being the holy day when people don't work.
We shared a delicious bowlful with some veggies on top. It was simple but oh-so tasty.

Oh, another thing we're doing wrong: serving tagine with couscous. Apparently, tagine should always be served just with some bread. Couscous is a meal in itself and should only be eaten with some simple veggies or meat. Who knew?

MEAT!

Having had our carbs and veggies, it was time for some meat. Amanda took me to this little place right in the middle of the medina, on Mechoui Alley, where we sat at a table on the rooftop, out of the hustle and bustle below.

Oh, but before we get on to the meat, I have to tell you something else hilarious: as we walked through the streets, multiple men on multiple occasions shouted "Hannah Montana" at me. So there's that.

Anyway, to the meat. We tried two different dishes, the first of which was Tangia:
Tangia is lamb (well, sheep actually, as they only ever eat the animal after it's at least two years old), cooked in a clay urn with olive oil, garlic and cumin amongst other spices. The pot is buried in the ashes of a hammam and left over night to cook. How cool is that?

It was tender and tasted to me, well, just incredibly Moroccan.

The second meat was Mechoui:
It was also sheep but served with the most delectable cumin salt. We ate both with more batbout (I was learning it's a real staple) and despite not being a huge lamb fan, I really enjoyed them, particularly the Mechoui.

Olives

I simply couldn't walk past these amazing dishes full of plump, juicy olives without stopping to try some.

And look! Just look at the pink ones! I'd never seen any like it.
So preeeeetty.

The green ones on the very left couldn't have been more freshly-picked, and it turns out all the olives were from the same tree - the pink ones had been left on the branches a little longer, and the black ones even longer than that. Who knew?! (Maybe you did, but I didn't.) 

We bought a bagful for me to take home (and eat as plane snacks, oops).

Henna

OK, not strictly food I'll admit, but when Amanda asked if I'd like to get some henna done I couldn't say no.
We did at least drink yet more tea as we had ours done.

I'd never had henna and found it both incredibly therapeutic and relaxing but also mesmerising to watch - the intricacy was incredible.

I also liked that the designs on offer were quite unusual and the henna itself was all natural and additive-free too.

Safe to say I thoroughly enjoyed feeling like a Moroccan princess back in London for the following week.

Smoothies and sweet treats

It had been, like, a whole hour without eating anything which quite frankly was outrageous so we went off in search of sugar.

Amanda took me to one of her favourite little cafes for a smoothie - Great, I thought. Something light and healthy.

I couldn't choose between the two on offer so Amanda kindly said she'd get me a mini one of each.

What does Amanda come back with? Two full-size smoothies (both for me), a plateful of traditional cakes and biscuits, and a sizeable slice of millefeuille.
Not quite the light, healthy snack I had in mind but unsurprisingly I was OK with it.
I mean, really.

The green smoothie was avocado and almond and was so thick I swear there must've been about three whole avocados in there. At first I was like hmm this is a bit weird but then I decided I loved it and oops, drank the whole thing.

The second smoothie was mixed fruit and yeah, managed to drink all that too.

The plate of delicacies was incredible - I can't remember everything we ate but there were little almond biscuits, sesame creations, chocolate dipped biscuits, chewy aniseed thingies and what was essentially a Jammie Dodger. 

As any good foodie would, I tried them all.

Quote Amanda: "You're the first person I've ever met who can keep up with my eating." What can I say? Eating is one of my best skills.

Spices, nuts and dried fruits

Our final stop of the day was one of the many little shops selling tea leaves, dried fruits, nuts and tons and tons of spices.

And look at all the dates!
Almost as many as I've been on this year waheyyyy.
I loved how the spices were presented and thought it was so lovely that the kind shop-owner let us try lots of different things before deciding what I wanted to buy and take home (cumin, medjool dates and peppermint tea leaves).

The end

And just like that it was time to head to the airport and wave farewell to Marrakech, Amanda and Youssef!
What an incredible, delicious, fascinating, fun and educational day it had been.

I feel overwhelmingly lucky to have been given the opportunity to go to Marrakech, eat all day and hang out with the awesome lady that is Amanda.

Massive thanks to Giraffe for inviting me, Wildcard PR for arranging everything, and Amanda for showing me round, feeding me and teaching me so much. 

It just goes to show you really can do a lot in a day. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling somewhat inspired to take advantage of living in a city like London where it's so easy to get to tons of interesting places.

I had eaten so many tasty things and learnt so much about Moroccan food, and in my books, food is pretty much the best part of travelling. I can't wait to see how Giraffe work some worldly inspirations into their new menu.

And if you only take one thing away from this post, I implore you to try amalou whenever you get the opportunity. You won't regret it.
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