Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Texfest is coming!

There's a new festival in town this summer and it's being held at the Market Harborough Showground. Hot on the heels of Download, Leicestershire is continuing to keep it real this festival season with Texfest.

There's some big names playing including Example, Tinchy Stryder and The Fratellis. Yet weekend tickets are only £75.60 for adults, with reduced prices available for students, teens and free places for children under 12. This makes it one of the best value festivals around! Camping tickets must be purchased on top of this though, and of course VIP upgrades are available. VIP access also includes front row viewing area and a chillout garden space, which sounds pretty awesome to me!

There's a lot more than 3 days of live music and DJ sets on offer. Texfest has paired up with LCFC, the Leicester Riders and the Northampton Saints who will all be putting on activities and challenges to keep you occupied. There will of course be plenty of street food available in the arena too.

It's been a tough year for festivals, with a number of much loved events being cancelled in 2018. Smaller festivals like Grillstock have disappeared as the organisers 'ran out of time', whilst Portsmouth's Mutiny Festival was cancelled as a precautionary measure after the terrible news of the drug-related deaths of two people occuring on the first day. It's clearly a difficult time to run a sustainable festival so I wish the Texfest organisers all the very best with their inaugural event!!

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Chimpanzee Eden: Twycross Zoo

It was my privilege to be invited to Twycross Zoo today to celebrate the launch of their latest habitat - Chimpanzee Eden. This facility is part of the zoo's ambitious £55m masterplan which will transform it into a world class conservation facility as well as leading visitor attraction.

Chimpanzee Eden is a multi-storey £3.5m building which seeks to give the animals the same kind of stretch and challenge that they would experience in their lives in the wild. This includes carefully designed structures and environments to stimulate their natural social behaviour.

We were welcomed to Twycross with a fascinating set of introductions about the development of the space from the CEO of the zoo, along with a really interesting talk from long time supporter of the zoo, Professor Alice Roberts. In particular, a short film of the chimps being introduced to their new habitat and exploring the outside space really got me in the feels - you can't fail to be absolutely melted by their obvious joy at their new environment.

Of course, some of you reading this will be anti-zoo, but you may not realise the distinct focus on animal welfare, conservation and conservation research that is absolutely embedded in the culture there. And of course, as we were told, the major species of great apes are all currently predicted to become extinct in the wild in our lifetimes - a devastating fact which places the emphasis on world-class facilities like Twycross Zoo as a sort of 'ark', giving humanity more time to figure out how to undo the damage we have to done to our environments.

After the welcome we were treated to a fabulous afternoon tea. The venue is flanked by huge windows facing out on to the enclosure of a family of Snow Leopards, an absolutely breathtaking bunch of beautiful felines who held us all captivated as we ate. This is one reason that I think venue hire at Twycross Zoo is an amazing idea. The second is the quality of the food.

The afternoon tea was beautifully presented by a sleek, professional team of staff. A delicate selection of sandwiches, homemade sausage rolls and an enviable selection of cakes and scones was placed before us, along with piping hot pots of tea.

As if that weren't enough, additional plates of eclairs, lemon possets and vegetarian sandwiches soon followed! This was a lot of food, even for the hungry folk at our table. However, we managed and soon it was time to make our way through to see Chimpanzee Eden for ourselves.

We enjoyed the experience lubricated with a glass of fizz, which was an unexpected treat. The whole of Chimpanzee Eden is full of nooks and crannies, where getting up close and personal with the chimps is delightfully easy, but also feels like it gives the animals the maximum opportunity to escape the gazing hordes when they prefer. It was quite clear to me that the fascination of watching primate behaviour was very much a mutual activity.

There are also plenty of hidey-holes for the smaller members of your family to explore and to get a unique view of the chimps. It was genuinely a fascinating experience and great to see that classroom spaces and study facilities have been built into this space to allow for the continuing role of education and inspiration, as well as the building of our knowledge of these bewitching animals - our closest cousins in the animal world.

Sadly, there was not a huge amount of time remaining for us to explore the rest of the zoo, which was a real shame as I have never been able to visit before. The main barrier to me visiting has always been the absence of public transport and I think it's something that tourism bosses in both city and counties (Atherstone is on the border of Leicestershire and Warwickshire) should really have at the forefront of their minds. 

I'm sure that with 60,000 school visits per year a lot of Leicester's children get the chance to go to Twycross, but I fear that for families without their own transportation the amount of time it would take to get there would be prohibitive. Not to mention that a visit for a family of four would amount to something in the region of £60 (not an unreasonable charge for the quality of experience in the fleeting estimation I got from my visit) - but add on transport costs to this and I think that it would put people off. However, this is not the zoo's fault, but an infrastructure problem which I hope is considered more broadly as their Masterplan continues.

Many thanks to Twycross Zoo for inviting us to this fantastic celebration. I found it fascinating to learn about the zoo's conservation pedigree, relationship with the fantastic Ape Action Africa charity and of course to come face-to-face with some sublime, well cared for and happy animals.

** If you fancy visiting soon, the zoo is offering free entry for dad's this weekend to celebrate Father's Day! Don't miss this limited time offer **

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Pork Butchery: The School of Artisan Food

Vegans, vegetarians and people who eat meat but don't understand where your food comes from, you aren't going to like this post or the pictures in it. So don't read it and no-one gets upset. I've even put a picture of flowers as the first image in the post so you don't accidentally see dead pig pictures.

I was extremely pleased to be invited to the School of Artisan Food to road test one of their day workshops recently. I have been watching the reputation of this phenomenal facility grow and grow in recent years and have always had my eye on visiting, but never quite got round to it, so this was an absolutely unmissable opportunity for me.

A peaceful welcome in the onsite refectory

The school is out in Welbeck, which means that absolutely the only criticism I can level at them is that it can be difficult to reach them if you don't drive, like me. This meant an early start for me, leaving just after 6am to get the first bus into town, to get a train, to get a taxi to get to the school in time for 9.30am. But a lot of people drive, so I guess that's my own tough luck really.

The School is located in rather splendid surroundings on the Welbeck Estate

There was a glittering array of courses for me to choose from. I'll confess that it took me ages to pick and I had to ask the helpful team at the school for help because I basically wanted to do everything! There really is everything you can imagine on offer as a short course and many items for more formal, longer training. Baking, chocolate making, brewing, curing, butchery, cheese-making, foraging, preserving... I knew that I wanted to learn a new skill that I hadn't tried before and in the end settled on the Pork Butchery: Nose to Tail day course.

Quick anatomy lesson - identifying the cheek 👌😂

You are in (quite literally) safe hands on this course with tutors Chris and Rich having decades of experience in the meat industry under their belts in a variety of roles, and both have a very visible passion for British artisan butchery. Just having the opportunity to spend a day in their company is a privilege. We were given a fascinating introduction into the British pork industry, the rearing and slaughter of pigs and useful details about the transition of those animals into the food chain.

Then it was time to get practical, and we worked in pairs at our butchers blocks with a side of pig a pair. The nose to tail element comes into effect straight away, with the head and tail being the first elements to be removed - with attendant discussion of the uses for pig's cheeks and the now rare dish of brawn, which is made from the head of the pig. It's also known as Head Cheese. Which sounds pretty horrible if I'm honest, so let's stick to calling it brawn.

I'll be honest, I was already pretty proud of myself when we got to this point!

We were given detailed instruction on knife techniques and good practice throughout the day, and soon everyone in the small group was (relatively) confidently using their boning knife, steak knife and bone saw to take the side down into the primary cuts.

After the primary cuts had been obtained, with careful consideration of how the pig was divided up to maximise the useful cuts and minimise the additional trim generated (which will still be used... keep reading) we started on looking at secondary joints and how to use them in the kitchen. This is where your more familiar butcher's cuts began to appear from the huge half a pig. The chops, tenderloin, pork belly and much more were discussed, as well as the different ways you can theoretically prepare each primary cut for different final outcomes.

Scared? I don't really blame you.

This was all pretty hungry work, and as I'm sure you can imagine, lunch at the School of Artisan Food does not disappoint! Food prepared by the students is on offer and we were treated to roast pork (very appropriate) with excellent locally sourced vegetables, as well as fresh bread, butter and cheese being on offer and a delicious selection of homemade cakes, pastries and macarons.

Back in the training room after lunch, we finished off cutting our pork chops, learning to tie our roasting joints and stripping the ribs from our pork belly. Then we packed as much as we could carry to take home. I know have half a freezer dedicated to pork I butchered myself - ✋✋✋

When this process was complete, it was time to turn our attention to the trim. This is all the perfectly good bits of meat and fat that you obtain when cleaning up your joints. We stuck it in the mincer, added salt and mixed, then added fat and pepper and mixed again (a lovely hands-on process). And yes, it was sausage making time. Which literally reduces a group of seemingly grown-up individuals into gibbering wrecks of spluttered innuendo. Not least me. Chris and Rich were very patient, even though I'm sure they've heard it all before a million times.

We all took turns in using the sausage maker to fill the casings and then were taught the bewildering art of creating links. Naturally with so much amazing fresh meat in the house, the very next day I had some friends round for a BBQ and I can confirm that the sausages were amazing.

So my heartfelt thanks to the School for inviting me to enjoy such an educational and entertaining day! I learned an incredible amount and now want to become a butcher or learn to cure meat, or do the venison course... Basically I'm giddy with excitement about the whole thing and am looking out a way to practice my new-found skills. I really cannot recommend the School of Artisan Food highly enough, either for the quality of the courses they offer, or for the role they are playing in promoting food culture in this country. Wonderful.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

St Martin's Square Gin Trail

It's World Gin Day in a week's time and Leicester always has some good events on offer. This year is no exception, with St Martin's Square offering a Gin Trail!

Five of the bars in the Square have teamed up and you can sip your way around the Square by purchasing a wristband for the trail, which costs £18 for 3 gin-based drinks. If you love a classic gin and tonic, then try those offered by Bodega. If you prefer something a bit more experimental, then how about the Betty Brown at 33cankstreet, which is also helping to raise money for charity with every sale.

The trail is running from the 8th to 10th of June, so you've got a whole weekend to enjoy World Gin Day, which sounds extremely sensible to me!

The full T&Cs for the trail are on the St Martin's Square website and the full list of drinks are below! Have a great time, gin lovers...

Image courtesy of 33cankstreet


Betty Brown {aka Gin-Dependant-Woman}

Brockmans Gin//Homemade Quince cordial//Campari//Italicus Bergamot liqueur

{Strong,Feminine, Silky}


Gin Refashioned 45

50ml Burleighs Leicester Dry
Blue Curacao
Passionfruit Syrup
Angostura Bitters
Orange Bitters

BODEGA - choose one option from:

Bombay Sapphire served with lemon, juniper berries & Fentiman’s herbal tonic
Hendrick’s served with lemon, rosemary & Fentiman’s herbal tonic


Summer Smash

A refreshing, summery blend of Brooklyn gin, Pimm’s, strawberries, mint, muddled together and topped with a lemon and rose fizz. There will also be a signature gin and tonic available which is King of Soho gin paired with Fevertree Indian tonic, grapefruit and rosemary.

Image courtesy of The Bottle Garden

GRILLSTOCK - choose one option from:

Chattahoochee - pomegranate cordial, gin and tonic with fresh cucumber
Emperors Memoirs - gin, dry vermouth, ginger beer, sours and fresh lemon
Cheekwood Garden - gin, elderflower cordial, ginger beer, fresh cucumber and fresh mint

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Enthusiastic Amateur: WSET Level 1

As some of you may know, I enjoy a drop of wine. And I like talking about wine. And I like writing about wine. I do as much volunteering at the vineyard as I can, helping care for the vines, harvest and make the wine. I do the odd wine tasting session, or host wine and food pairing evenings (always available for bookings!)

Recaredo - you are now entering Cava country...

It actually took me a long time to build up the confidence to start writing anything about wine at all. I can remember being deeply intimidated at tastings by the knowledge and expertise of the people I met at wineries and events. But then I suddenly realised that it's like art - sure you can spend a lifetime learning about it, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion and can take whatever they like from the experience.

The food and wine tasting with Caro Feely in Saussignac left an indelible mark on me

So then I got on it, writing more and more (and then recently, as time is tight, less and less) about wine, as well as making sure I took as many opportunities to get involved in the wine world as I could. Here's an early post from 2012 when I visited the magnificent Ceja Vineyards in Carneros, CA.

It's only Randall Grahm! The old Santa Cruz Bonny Doon tasting room

Now, several years down the line, I've decided that it is time to put my money where my mouth is and actually get accredited. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust are globally the leading wine educators and their courses are widely respected in the industry, so this seemed like a good place to start. I always describe myself as an enthusiastic amateur when I run wine tastings, and I don't think that will ever change. There's so much to know, but also so much to love. I'd hate to make wine into a chore, or even worse, a competition!

If you remember Argentina, you weren't there.

So last month I was delighted to take my WSET Level 1 at the Hanwell Wine Estate in Nottinghamshire. It was a lot of fun to visit a new vineyard and taste some new English wines as well as taking the course.

Beautiful Barolo

I'll be honest, level 1 is not the hardest thing to pass - but I was still a bit terrified that I might fall at the first hurdle! It's a 30 question multiple choice exam and basically if you learn all the stuff in the course book then you can easily pass - there are no trick questions. You learn about the main styles and types of wine, wine producing regions, how to store and serve wine, get an introduction to food and wine pairing and learn to describe wine using the Level 1 systematic approach. It's all very interesting.

And you know what, I got 100%! Couldn't believe it! So now I have my little WSET Level 1 badge and a little boost of confidence... Which is great because my WSET Level 2 course starts tomorrow!! And it is nowhere near the cakewalk level 1 is... So I'd best stop blogging and get back to cramming in preparation. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

New menu at Boneyard

We were invited to the new menu launch at Boneyard recently and were delighted to accept. Boneyard has been open in the city for a year and a half now, although it feels like it's been around for much longer as it's such an established part of Leicester's food scene. Their Asian American fast food menu is a pretty unique offering in the city and with their new gin & fizz bar they are only adding to a dining experience that is live and loud!

We were treated to a cocktail masterclass when we arrived - a new part of their offering which can be wrapped up with private hire and party nights. Whether there are two of you, all the way up to 40, their bar area can accommodate you for a fun masterclass. We really enjoyed the energy and bouncy attitude of the masterclass leader. Once our Gin Coolers were muddled and shaken and mangled, we took our seats to check out some of the new menu items.

We were seated in the bustling restaurant, with fast paced service and bangin' choons. I opted for the lamb burger, which was massive like pretty much everything on their menu! All of their meat comes from local butchers and the veg is from Leicester market, so I give two thumbs up to this independent being so vocally in support of their local producer network!

Sadly, I found the burger a little dry, which seemed a shame for their signature dish - but there was plenty of slaw and sauces on it to make up for this, and I particularly enjoyed the addition of baby spinach. The skin on fries served alongside it were absolutely spot on, really liked those.

The Boy opted for a couple of dishes from the street food menu - chicken wings (as usual) and paneer. The Boneyard Paneer is served in a lightly spiced tomato sauce, and for my money is by far the best thing on the menu (I've had a few conversations with other people who have visited recently since we went along and they agree!)

So, I think it's safe to say I'd happily recommend a trip to the Boneyard. They are a larger than life independent with a unique food offering and a combination of flavours that you won't find elsewhere. The addition of a bar area means that they can accommodate a much wider range of celebration events and trust me, you will not go home hungry!

Thanks to Boneyard for their hospitality!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Club 1967: Hospitality at Leicester Riders basketball games

We were invited along to test out the Club 1967 offer at Leicester Riders this week. Luckily for us this was during the game where the Riders lifted the BBL trophy for the third successive season.

On a stiflingly hot day, we came to the Morningside Arena and were seated at our table in the first floor suite. The space is a flexible one with many daytime and night time uses and the red carpet was out for honoured guests and sponsors, with table carefully set for dinner.

The main issue we experienced was that there were very low staffing levels in the suite which meant that service was extremely slow if you wanted a drink or had a question. However the staff that were available were all very personable and helpful and were doing their best despite the heat! It was a convivial, family friendly atmosphere pre-game with everyone enjoying a drink and a chat in anticipation of the game ahead.

We were treated to a two course buffet along with an introduction to the game that we were about to see. The food was a hot meal, presented self service. That evening there were a selection of pies, which made excellent sporting event fare, but perhaps a little on the heavy side given the weather. There were a good selection of vegetables to accompany the beef or chicken pie, along with vegetarian and vegan options and healthy dollops of mash or freshly made wedges to go with your dish. I found the chicken pie to be very flavourful and moist and the pastry topping was nice and  crisp despite its time under the heat lamp staying warm.

It would be rude not to partake in a pint of Everards Tiger too, since they are one of the Riders' key sponsors. After a choice of fresh berry cheesecake or crumble, the guests dispersed - making their way down to their seats in the arena in anticipation of the tip off.

It was another four quarters of fast paced basketball action as the Leicester Riders took on the London Lions. Sadly captain Tyler Bernadini was not able to lead his team to victory on this occasion, with the Riders losing 81-95 to their strong opposition, in a game that was filled with thrills and the odd bit of over-exuberance from the Lions (imho!)

It mattered little though as at the end of the game we had the honour of watching the team lift the BBL league trophy for their third successive league win. As ever, the Riders fans were in strong spirits and strong voice, making a trip to watch the Riders play a really entertaining evening out for all ages, but being particularly special on this occasion, watching each member of the team getting the recognition they so richly deserved.

After the game, it was back upstairs for cheese & biscuits, a spot of post match analysis from the Captain, and the chance to see the trophy, proudly brought in by ace coach Rob Patenostro. All in all, a trip to the 1967 Club is a great night out and very family friendly, but even if you don't fancy splashing out on being wined and dined but just want to get stuck in with watching the game I would highly suggest heading on down to the Morningside Arena. It's the last home game of the season tomorrow against the Surrey Scorchers. I will be there and am very much hoping to see the Riders take victory - and I'll see you all down there for the 2018-19 season from September!!

A very happy coach and Chairman!

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