Sunday, 16 July 2017

Baths, bars and breathtaking beauty in Budapest for the weekend

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending the weekend in Budapest. 

On a flight that was at least half hen-dos - Friday flights from Gatwick at this time of the year are always hen and stag central RIP me - we whizzed on over to Hungary, and it was my first visit to the country so I was mad excited.

Over the course of the weekend, we explored as much as we could, and guys, Budapest is beaut.
We tried to eat as much local cuisine as poss too - feast your eyes on this chicken paprikash, which was entirely delumptious.
Most people know Budapest is famous for its natural baths, but rather than go to the arguably prettier but more touristy central ones, my pals and I decided to venture out to Margaret Island - this gorgeously green island in the middle of the river - and try out the baths there.
The water was the most delightful warm temperature, but not so hot that it didn't cool you down which was great because BOY OH BOY was it a toasty weekend.
Oh, and in Budapest you can get wine spritzers in plastic bottles and we were all over that.

If you didn't know, Budapest is actually split into Buda and Pest, which are separated by the river.
Amongst all the historic buildings, there are a lot of ruins and run-down areas, but Budapest seems to make it work somehow.

You probably know about the ruin bars as they're pretty famous - we tried going to the best-known one but when we rocked up at about midnight there was a queue down the street that seemed to be made up of solely Brits, so we decided to skip it and find somewhere we thought a touch more authentic round the corner, if less famous.

Fun nightlife, has Budapest.
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And we were lucky with the weather in the daytime too.
I found that the different areas of the city had completely different feels.

The spot below, by the opera house on a beautiful big, wide, tree-lined street full of designer shops, reminded me of Paris.
And then across the river in Buda, we found this beautiful area that felt more like Prague with a touch of Bavaria.
I suppose I haven't really told you the main reason I was in Budapest in the first place, and it was both random and awesome.

The Red Bull Air Race was taking place in the city over the weekend, and I was there to interview Ben Murphy, former Red Arrows leader and current aerobatic pilot.

The race is insane and amazing - in the tiniest of planes, the pilots zoom down the river, slaloming through bollards and looping all over the shop.

Most excitingly for me, I got to fly with Ben - a proper G-flight with loop-the-loops and flying upside-down and everything!
You can see a little taster of what it was like in the video below...

Man, I bloody loved it. It reminded me that I am at heart a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and I've decided I need to make the things I've always wanted to do happen. Like sky-diving. The question is... where?

Monday, 26 June 2017

Sugar-free afternoon tea at Harvey Nichols

I know what you're thinking: sugar-free afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea, that most sweet of treats? Sans sugar?

Well, yes. Sans refined sugar, anyway.

Created by Sarah Wilson of I Quit Sugar, the sugar-free afternoon tea has just launched at Harvey Nicks. And I went along to try it out.

Sugar is public enemy number one these days, and whilst I doubt I'll ever totally quit it (because hello, sugar makes things delicious), I am trying to cut down a wee bit.

And whilst naturally sweet things - you know, fruit and honey and maple syrup and whatnot - are supposedly better than refined sugar, the general consensus seems to be that they're not saintly enough to give you a free pass to scoff loads.

Still, you can make a lot of delicious things without refined sugar, so I was most looking forward to trying out the tea. It had also been far too long since I'd had afternoon tea too.

The lovely Jenny and I made our way up to the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and sat ourself down in the restaurant, tummies rumbling.
There was a little wait for our food to arrive, but fortunately we had pots of tea and champagne in the meantime so all was well in the world really.
Champagne isn't technically part of the sugar-free tea, but let's be real here: what is afternoon tea without it? (OK yes, also good. But not as good.)

I chose pink champagne because I was wearing pink which says a lot about how I make decisions in my life.

And then came out the masterpiece.
Obviously we worked from the bottom up, we're not savages.
So, the savouries: Carrot tahini burgers, which we loved; paleo veggie bread with cream cheese and cucumber - I liked the ribbon, it was a nice twist on a classic; sardine boats (no comment as je ne mange pas fish); spring vegetable pie - warm and delicious; pork and fennel sausage roll, a definite winner; and beef sandwiches, with tasty coleslaw.

It was a LOT of food, but it was great. Very creative and nice to feel a bit healthier than the standard finger sandwiches.

Whilst the sugar-free angle was pretty irrelevant with the savouries, the next level up was where it got interesting.
The strawberry scones were good. They were served with raspberry chia seed jam which was pretty tart - noticeably less sweet than real jam - and a touch lemony for my taste. There was also no cream which was a shame.

Next up was carrot cake with cinnamon frosting. They looked super cute and the flavours were great, but the texture of the cake was not good, I have to say. It was so dry and crumbly it was practically powdery, I'm not sure why. The cream cheese frosting was divine though.

On to the top tier.
The lemon posset topped with a chia seed crumble was lovely - very creamy and a particular hit with Jen. It wasn't noticeably less sweet than a regular one either.

I absolutely loved the cheesecake - it was classic vanilla with a coconut base and utterly delicious. Very sweet too.

The chocolate cherry tart was a bit meh. The base was a bit dry and bitter and the cream was fine but not super exciting. The cherries were delicious and juicy though, which was lovely. And to be fair, we were pretty gosh darn full by this point so the tart may have gone down more favourably before we'd filled our faces.

That said, we saved the best till last by finishing on the chocolate ganache tart. Rich, smooth chocolate with a hint of cardamom on a nutty base with a sprinkle of sea salt - I was so full but it was so good I ate the whole thing.

So all in all it was a slightly mixed afternoon tea, with some real winners and some not so much. To be honest though, I love the concept of a lighter, sugar-free afternoon tea. And if you are watching your sugar intake, it's a rather nice treat.

Jenny and I were guests at Harvey Nichols but all opinions are honest.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

A vegetarian dinner with a view at OXO Tower Restaurant

Oh, London. You beautiful, exciting, welcoming, fearless, fun, brilliant, nutty and wonderful city.

I have loved London ever since I first visited as a young girl, and I am so proud to call the capital my home. The longer I live here, the more I love it.

And I recently had one of those evenings where the sheer beauty of the city blew me away once more.
If you look closely at the above photo, you'll see where I was fortunate enough to spend an evening: the OXO Tower Restaurant on the South Bank.
See it?

Up on the eighth floor you'll find the restaurant, and if it's a warm enough evening, you should sit outside and admire the insanely beautiful view.
Meet my date for the night, the lovely Ciara.

It was a balmy early summer's evening and the setting couldn't have been more perfect. Being Friday night, it was definitely time for cocktails (lol as if I need the excuse of Friday).
Don't they look pretty!? Mine was the Due South - vodka, elderflower liqueur with lemon, raspberry ripple and champagne. Divine.
I know it's very remiss of me but I'm afraid I can't remember the name of Ciara's cocktail. I can remember, however, that it was super delicious. We both enjoyed each other's drinks as much as our own that we had to have the other one later on.

The reason I was there was to sample the restaurant's new vegetarian menu. Whilst not strictly veggie, I do eat vegetarian about 80% of the time. I'm not actively trying to, I'm just not that fussed about meat. I love veggie food! So I was excited.

After a spot of bread each - oh my days, the rosemary potato bread was BEYOND - we tucked into our starters.
I went for the smoked burrata with grilled apricots and fresh almonds. Sweet Lord, it was tasty. The burrata was smokey and creamy and the apricots were perfectly grilled. It was a delicious summery plate.
Ciara had the sweet potato pancake with Cornish Brie, courgette flower and kumquat marmalade. To be honest it wasn't really a pancake but rather a disc of sweet potato, but to quote Ciara, it was: "So delicious I forgot what the ingredients were. A plate of deliciousness."

So there you have it.
With a glass of light white wine and the view to admire, it was heaven.

For my main, I chose the cheese crumble.
According to the menu, it was: "Walnut, tofu and Spenwood cheese crumble, pickled red cabbage, radish and spring onion salad." Now those are all foods I like.

Most peculiarly, however, the crumble turned out to be seemingly 80% mushroom. And I don't like mushrooms. Why did they not mention mushroom on the menu? I don't know. It was disappointing.

Speaking of mushrooms, Ciara went for the mushroom lasagne.
It was a huge portion, and even as a big meat-eater, Ciara loved it. It wasn't too saucy and the mushrooms were nicely sautéed.

Fortunately for me, we'd ordered a couple of sides.
Tenderstem broccoli with flaked almonds and delicious skin-on chips. Perfection.

As we ate, the sun starting making its way to bed and the view just kept getting better and better.
And the staff came round with blankets too to save us from getting chilly. Top-notch service.

Even though we were quite full, both Ciara and I definitely wanted pudding.
Behold, the OXO chocolate plate. It was pretty dreamy: a milk chocolate tart, white chocolate semifreddo, orange chocolate mousse and sour cherry chocolate fondant. It was, quite simply, excellent.

I would know because even though it was meant to be Ciara's pudding I definitely ate at least half.

I also ate my own pudding:
Rhubarb, custard and gin sorbet. It wasn't quite what I was expecting - the custard element was like a panna cotta in texture - but sweet baby Jesus it was heavenly. The slightly sharp rhubarb with the sweet vanilla custard was perfection.

We watched London light up and sat talking till late.
It had been one of the best dining experiences I'd had in a while, despite mushroom-gate.

Ciara and I were guests at the OXO Tower Restaurant but all opinions are our own.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Living like Beyoncé at Hotel Cala di Volpe, Sardinia

I know. I KNOW! I've kept you hanging from the cryptic cliffhanger at the end of my last post. It must have been an unbearable week for you. And for that, I apologise.

BUT. Today is the day I shall put you out of your misery.

I thought I couldn't love the Costa Smeralda any more after my stay in Porto Cervo. Then I went to Cala di Volpe.

Guys, this hotel is legendary. Like, genuinely iconic. Beyoncé and Jay Z have stayed there, Grace Kelly and Princess Di used to stay there back in the day, and it was where The Spy Who Loved Me was filmed (with Roger Moore as James Bond, RIP).

You walk in, and it just feels magical. The style is completely unique - the hotel was designed to look like an ancient fishing village which makes you think it's a lot older than it is. Cala di Volpe was in fact built in 1962.

The walls are painted ombré shades of pale terracotta, pink and yellow, the hotel looks out on to the sea in a huge bay and there's even a little bridge over the water.
You feel like you're in another world, completely separate from everyone and everything outside your charming, luxury bubble.
Although the hotel is undoubtedly luxurious - Acqua di Parma toiletries, fluffy robes, Lindt chocolates at bed turndown - it's understatedly so and certainly isn't flashy.
It's safe to say the view from my balcony was nothing short of breathtaking.
As the swallows darted around, the work I had to do took ten times as long as it should have done because I couldn't take my eyes off the view. A spot of prosecco didn't hurt either.
We spent our time at Cala di Volpe swimming in the saltwater pool, lounging by the water and - thanks to the private shuttle boat - chilling out on the private beach round the corner.
Obviously I went in because, well, how could you not?

"You're so brave!" my friends said. I'm not brave. Even if it was cold. I just love the sea (and yes, may be slightly nuts).

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It was dreamy.

We also ate - and drank - incredibly well, making sure to sample all the local specialities.
Wasn't a bad breakfast setting.
I never learnt not to pig out on nibbles before what was always a huge dinner. Oh, and the bellinis at Cala di Volpe may just be the best in the world - they're made with fresh white-flesh peaches and are this beautiful sunset pink shade.
I ate burrata at breakfast, lunch and dinner one day and have no regrets.
Truffle risotto is life.

With possibly more waiters than there were guests in the restaurant, we were treated like royalty. Well, if it's good enough for Bey..!

You may not be surprised to learn that I was fortunate enough to be a guest at Cala di Volpe and yes I do indeed feel incredibly lucky.
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