How to start your own blog

How to start your own blog

 

How to start your own blog today

I’m often asked how and why I started blogging. On one hand, I’ve always enjoyed writing so that bit makes sense. On the other, I’m a total technophobe with no prior knowledge of websites, social media or anything to do with IT. So how does a girl like me end up with her own website and an online presence? I’ll let you into a not-so little secret: it’s really, really easy! Here is everything you need to know to start your own blog.

Choose your topic
The Determined Diner actually isn’t my first blog. I started off writing about something entirely different – human rights. This was my first foray into blogging and I guess it was a bit of a test run; not least of all because I realised that I didn’t really enjoy the almost permanent state of confrontation such a topic induces. I also discovered that I was more interested in all the different food and travel accounts around, so I shelved my first blog and started The Determined Diner instead. I learned two lessons from this. Firstly, it’s not the end of the world to call time on one thing and over again; secondly, you need to write about what you love. Blogging should be fun, not a chore.

Choose your platform
This is where I get the most questions. How did you start your own blog and create your own website? Especially if you don’t know ANYTHING about websites?? I had always thought it would be really difficult – that I had would have to learn how to code or pay someone else to create something for me. And how would I maintain it? I was so wrong. A quick Google search turned up everything I needed. First off, I discovered WordPress which makes life so easy. They have loads of free website templates that you can customise and the back-end, where you write your posts, is really user-friendly. As it’s so popular, there are plug-ins for everything that you could possibly want your website to do – from SEO to social media buttons. Again, these are super-easy to work with through WordPress. Oh and it’s free!

You can choose between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. If you choose WordPress.com then WordPress also host your blog – but your URL will have the WordPress suffix. If you choose WordPress.org then you can use a domain name and URL of your choosing but you will need to pay for hosting and for purchase of a domain. Which leads us to the next stage….

Choose your host and domain name
Your domain name is very important – it’s essentially the name of your blog, so make sure it’s one that you’re happy with and one that’s easy for others to remember. I chose to go down the WordPress.org route and generate my own domain name. To do this, I used GoDaddy and, again, it was ridiculously easy. Once you’ve chosen your domain name, just type it into the search bar on the GoDaddy homepage and see if it’s available. You will then have to purchase it on an annual basis but it’s usually not a huge amount of money – mine is £6.99 a year.

One of the reasons I chose GoDaddy is that they are synced up with WordPress. So if you choose WordPress as your platform, it’s then really easy to get started. You just click the WordPress option on the GoDaddy homepage and away you go. Again, if you go down this route there is a cost for hosting. I pay just over £17 a quarter but there are different plans available, depending on what you want.

Choose your social media channels
You can write a blinding article but if you don’t tell anyone you’ve done it then you’re basically shouting into the void. Admittedly, blogging (and social media) can sometimes feel a bit like that anyway, but you need to share your work because the chances of someone just randomly stumbling upon your masterpiece in Google are basically non-existent. Especially when you first start your own blog. This is where social media comes in; it’s your platform to tell the world about your awesome new blog. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat or a combination of any or more of these, you’ll quickly work out what suits your needs best and what you enjoy using most. Follow and interact with other accounts that interest you to build up a following and get to know likeminded people at the same time.

Starting this blog has not only resulted in me learning new skills; it has opened so many doors and provided so many amazing opportunities for me. It’s also given me something to focus on when my health has been poor – in fact, that was one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. Whatever your motivation, starting your own blog could end up being more rewarding than you could ever imagine.

Now all you need to do is start writing. Good luck with your new blog!

How and why did you start your own blog? What platforms do you like to use? Let me know in the comments.

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

 

Fort Kochi is the perfect introduction to India. If you’re a first time visitor to the sub-continent, the chilled out state of Kerala, with its palm trees, fishing nets and spice gardens, will gently welcome you with just enough Indian verve to make you feel like you’re somewhere truly exotic, yet with minimal hustle and hassle. If you’re an old hand when it comes to the chaos of India then Fort Kochi will seem like a a long cool drink of water. This historic, bohemian town – shaped over time by the Portuguese, the Dutch, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews and so many more – is a hub of local artists, colourful cafe culture and fascinating local life. It’s difficult to find bad food in Fort Kochi but you can be a little overwhelmed by choice. Here’s where to head to first.

Dal Roti
This stripped back, simple restaurant is super popular and for good reason. The North Indian food is excellent, the portions are generous and it’s ridiculously cheap. We ordered the chicken biryani and the mutton thali – both of which were incredible. I’m always a bit wary around mutton as it risks being tough and chewy, but in this instance it just fell apart. The biryani was huge and easily one of the best I have ever eaten – and believe me when I say I’ve eaten a lot. Decent lassis, warm service and a full belly for less than a fiver? Winning.
Dal Roti, Lilly Street/Elephanstone Road, Fort Kochi

Kashi Art Cafe
Like almost every tourist, we took up almost permanent residence in Kashi Art Cafe. Tucked away down pretty Burgar Street, this garden cafe cum art gallery is hot property. Their breakfasts are legendary – you can choose from the likes of French toast, turbo-omelettes, homemade granola and even cinnamon breakfast cake (yes, breakfast cake!!!) – as are their chocolate brownies. A good mix of Indian and Western dishes is available all day until 10pm. Go for the art, the vibe and the food; stay for the lovely staff, the wifi and the excellent masala chai.
Kashi Art Cafe, Dist Ernakulam, Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Oy’s Cafe
Also located on Burgar Street, Oy’s is boho, artsy and perhaps wouldn’t be too out of place in the likes of Shoreditch – only there’s no London prices or hipster wankers here! This vibrant jewel of a cafe serves up excellent all-day breakfasts and a limited, yet incredibly delicious, evening menu cooked by local Indian women. Lounge against colourful cushions, admire the art on the walls, sip on one of their powerful ginger concoctions (Cochin is known for its ginger) and pimp your social media feed at this Instagram-friendly haunt. Don’t miss out on one of their super-naughty, super-decadent milkshakes!
Oy’s Cafe, 1/390 Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel
We would never have found this place had we not asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere for a good biryani. Hidden away down the labyrinthine streets of Mattancherry is Kayees; a spit and sawdust restaurant that’s home to (allegedly) the best biryani in town. We were the only foreigners in the place, which was packed with Indian families – always a good sign. Expect no frills, maybe a few curious stares and plates piled high with THE most delicious biryani. I looked at mine and thought “there’s no way I’m going to even make a dent in this and then I’m going to look so wasteful” but funnily enough I cleared my plate. Our tuk-tuk driver asked me to marry him.
Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel, New Road, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi

Teapot Cafe
Another gorgeous gem of a cafe – Fort Cochin really does spoil you! This peaceful, saffron-coloured retreat is housed in a crumbling, high-ceilinged old building liberally decorated with different teapots from across the years. What would be twee in the UK somehow manages to be quirky in Fort Kochi. The softly-spoken, smiling staff guide you through their fabulous food and drink menu. The tea selection is extensive, and you can also get “tea bites” like Indian rarebit alongside more substantial offerings such as the local fish moilee (a green, coconut-based curry) or Kerala fish curry. A yummy cake selection is available too.
Teapot Cafe, Peter Celli Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Fusion Bay
It’s a known fact* that you cannot visit Kerala and not eat a fish curry. Kerala is known as the Land of Spices due to its historic spice trade routes, and curries here are flavoursome rather than face-meltingly hot. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala so they are frequently used in cooking, giving a milder, creamy feel to dishes. And of course, fish is a food staple around the coast. Fusion Bay feels a bit like an old fashioned curry house found in the UK but they do a mean – and great value – fish curry. Go for the fish masala or fish moilee and mop up the delicious sauce with appam – spongy bread made with fermented rice and coconut milk.
Fusion Bay, Santa Crus Basilica Junction, KB Jacob Road, Kunnumupuran, Fort Kochi

*In my world

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

 

To say that we were a bit wet is an understatement. Our hike through the verdant tea plantations of the Sri Lankan highlands was cut soggily short with the arrival of the downpour to end all downpours. As we waited for our tuk-tuk driver in a nearby cafe, the thought of returning to our chilly and damp guest house did not fill us with excitement. We were desperate to get out of our sodden clothes and have a hot shower, but we knew that nothing was going to dry at our current abode. A cheeky thought occurred to us…why not treat ourselves to a night at The Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya – former home of the Governor of Sri Lanka – is a testament to the old-fashioned British influence that still lingers in this part of Sri Lanka. The town itself is known as “Little England” and the climate is certainly very reminiscent of home! The centre of Nuwara Eliya is very much like the majority of Sri Lankan towns but the outskirts tell a slightly different story. Here, deep among the shade of cool deciduous trees and golf courses, you will find grand colonial buildings of a by-gone era. Here is where you will find The Grand Hotel.

This luxury establishment discretely whispers elegance; from the manicured lawns to the white-jacketed staff. Of course, we totally destroyed this by rocking up in a tuk-tuk with our huge backpacks, wet and covered in mud, blaring Bob Marley at full volume. Never let it be said I don’t know how to make an entrance… The staff didn’t bat an eyelid at their new, rather careworn, guests. Our bags were taken from us and we were ushered into the lounge, where we were given hot vanilla tea and handmade fudge. It was like they read my mind and knew exactly what I needed to feel 100% better.

Our room wasn’t HUGE for a five star hotel, but there was still plenty of space for two people with lots of luggage to be able to move around comfortably. Best of all there was a heater – perfect for drying wet shoes. The bathroom – yes, proper bathroom not a sodden, slippy wet room – had an actual bath and endless hot water. Hot shower, white bathrobe, dry clothes = a substantially happier me. The only niggle was that there is no wifi in the bedrooms, only in the common parts.

We’d actually visited The Grand Hotel the previous day, so already had a feel for what it offered. Next stop on our road to feeling human once again – high tea. This is offered every day at The Grand Hotel from 3:30pm in another nod to British tradition. Softly-spoken staff pour endless cups of tea as you nibble on a mixture of British and Sri Lankan-inspired treats. And if you want something a bit stiffer than tea, the same tea lounge also offers tea-themed cocktails or you can decamp to the subterranean wine bar for a sharpener in front of the open log fire.

There are numerous restaurants to choose from, catering to all culinary tastes. So much so that it was actually a bit difficult to find Sri Lankan food among everything else. We eventually found a few curry options in The Magnolia, but if Thai or Indian or Arabic is your bag – or even if you’re just craving a burger – you can find it at The Grand Hotel. Not surprisingly, breakfast is an event. A mind-boggling variety of food options are available, with a number of items made fresh in front of you. You can even find good old fashioned British baked beans. Go hungry!

The staff at The Grand Hotel were brilliant and helped push our laundry through (we really didn’t want to pack damp, muddy clothes) and organised a driver to take us on the long journey down to Tissamaharama the next day. Our tea plantation hike may have been a wash-out but our experience at The Grand Hotel made up for it somewhat.  If only I had an excuse to dry out in five star luxury every day…

The Grand Hotel, Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Rooms start at £138 per night, including breakfast. We booked through Booking.com for a discounted rate.

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London –  makes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.

10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

It takes a lot to satisfy the jaded palates of London. We’ve seen it all in this fair city. From restaurants that sell only crisps to boozy ball pits for adults; when it comes to “different” the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher. So it’s no great surprise that many of London’s drinking dens offer more than just a pint of beer and a packet of pork scratchings. I’ve crawled my way around the capital’s bars to seek out the weirdest, the strangest, the craziest cocktails that this town has to offer.

The cactus one – Artesian Bar
Artesian is renowned for its cocktails and rightly deserves its place on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Located in the 5 star Langham Hotel, this bar is pure class – and the price of the drinks reflects this. It’s not a cheap place to drink but it’s well worth visiting for a treat. There are many spectacular cocktails on their menu but “La Penca De La Vida” is a real gem. It’s a celebration of the agave plant and is made with tequila, a Raicilla blend, mezcal, cactus and aloe vera. Raicilla is another agave spirit but, until recently, it was unsanctioned by the Mexican government. Artesian is one of the first bars to start using it. The cocktail is presented in a flowerpot, complete with real dirt and a real cactus! It tasted surprisingly fresh, with a slightly smoky aftertaste from the mezcal, and was dangerously drinkable. If you’re not a fan of tequila then this drink is sure to change your mind.
Artesian Bar, The Langham, 1C Portland Place, W1B 1JA
La Penca De La Vida – £18

The dirty one – Untitled Bar
Untitled Bar is the latest offering from renowned mixologist Tony Coniglario and it’s pure hipster (just in case you couldn’t tell from the name…). The interior design is as minimalist and inscrutable as the list of cocktails. The abstractedly titled “Snow” is made with chalk, white clay, enoki mushroom and vodka. I really had no idea what to expect but the presentation of the drink was spartan as everything else – a small eggcup glass (a nod to those negronis at Bar Termini there) filled with a clear liquid. On closer inspection, the drink had an iridescent sheen which was really rather delightful. However, it tasted pretty much exactly as you would expect – like earth mixed with vodka. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that it wasn’t as unpleasant as it sounded on paper, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Untitled Bar, 538 Kingsland Road, E8 4AH
Snow – £7.50

The immersive one – Lounge Bohemia
Lounge Bohemia don’t actually tell you what spirits they use in their cocktails; you choose your poison based on flavour. Each drink is a carefully crafted piece of theatre so, no matter what you end up with, your eyes are guaranteed to light up with delight. I chose “Into The Woods” which was advertised as “cedar, birch, oak, spruce” like a really abstract version of those poncey menus you see in certain London restaurants. It arrived bubbling away in a little woody nest, smoke wafting everywhere as if it had been whipped up by a mad scientist, with a twig by way of garnish. Before I could even take a sip, the waitress recited a spiel along the lines of something you’d find on a mindfulness tape, about how I should imagine I’m wandering through a forest. I was invited to sniff the twig and then inhale the smoke – which went down the wrong way and caused my life to flash before my eyes for a moment. And maybe I did briefly cross over because the drink tasted heavenly. It was essentially a pine flavoured negroni and that’s no bad thing in my book.
Lounge Bohemia, 1e Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3EJ
Into The Woods – £14

The breakfast one – London Cocktail Club
The bacon and egg martini by London Cocktail Club has been knocking around for a few years now but, despite a few young pretenders, it remains one of this city’s more unusual cocktails. And everyone knows that pretty much anything can be improved with the addition of bacon. This madcap martini is made with Jack Daniels that’s infused with smoked bacon and mixed with maple syrup, orange bitters, lemon juice and egg white. Last, but not least, it’s garnished with a slice of streaky bacon and a Haribo fried egg. The egg white gives it a lovely creamy mouthfeel rounded off with a rich kick of booze from the Jack Daniels. The slight hint of lemon keeps everything from getting too heavy. It would be very easy to chug down a load of these but at least you get some bacon to line your stomach.
London Cocktail Club – various locations (I went to the Covent Garden branch)
Bacon & egg martini – £9.50

The tree bark one – The Gibson
I think this one wins my fictional award for the most bat-shit crazy cocktail in town, although I suspect pretty much everything on The Gibson’s menu would vie for that trophy. This vintage-style bar divides up its theatrical cocktails according to months of the year. My cocktail – the wonderfully titled “Scandal in Bohemia” – wasn’t actually made from tree bark. That was just part of the garnish – which also included a chocolate playing card, a licorice pipe and a cherry. Apparently they were all meant to represent different flavours found in the drink, which was made with sweet grass steeped Woodford Rye, absinthe, hemp cannabis, poppy “opium” oil, preserved oriental lemon brine, French confetti candy syrup, forbidden jelly ice and smoking wood mushroom. Phew! It was served in a goblet that was dusted with red sandalwood and rimmed with truffle-infused white chocolate. Oh and it came with a side of Parmesan cheese. Despite the plethora of ingredients, I was only getting the truffle that was around the edge of the glass. So perhaps it was just as well that I had the art installation style garnish letting me know what I should have been able to taste.
The Gibson, 44 Old Street, EC1V 9AQ
Scandal in Bohemia – £12

The insect one – Nightjar
Believe it or not, this was not the first insect cocktail I have tried. However, while the my first foray into insect imbibing was a bit of a let down, the Inca Cocktail from Nightjar was insect-tastic. Made with tequila, hazelnut oil, fresh tomatillo, tonka puree, fino sherry, Guajillo muscat, lime, Mexican oregano, epazote and buffalo worms, this Mexican melange is powerful stuff. As you would expect from a cocktail that’s bold enough to incorporate bugs, this drink packs a real punch – and not just when it comes to the booze. It’s seriously spicy, with a peppery hit that borders on acrid yet manages to be totally delicious at the same time. The worms arrive by way of a garnish, in a little paper cone, but they also make an appearance in the cocktail mixture. They’re crispy and don’t really taste of anything much; maybe slightly popcorn-esque, However, their soggy presence at the bottom of the drink is quite disconcerting!
Nightjar, 129 City Road, EC1V 1JB
Inca Cocktail – £12

The custard one – Swift
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a flagrant love affair with custard. I have been known to eat a whole tin of the stuff just on its own. But custard in a cocktail? Not too sure about that. I had visions of gloopy custard suffocating the life out of everything else in the drink. However, the Rhubarb and Custard Milk Punch from Swift demolished all my expectations by appearing as a translucent pale pink drink in a martini glass. No custard to be seen anywhere. This cocktail is made with calvados, rhubarb, custard and lemon, and the rhubarb and custard bit is actually clarified in-house resulting in the clear pink drink that was served to me. Although apparently the colour depends on the colour of the rhubarb – it might be pink one week and yellow the next. Even the flavour surprised me; it was really refreshing, with a hint of creaminess on the back of the palate from the custard.
Swift, 12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ
Rhubarb and custard milk punch – £10

The balloon one – Purl London
Purl is yet another speakeasy bar. However, it differentiates itself with its fantastical cocktail menu. Its signature drink – the Mr Hyde – is the one that graces most of its promotional photos; smoke billowing out from a cauldron like a witches brew. However, my magpie-like attention was caught by another drink altogether – the Cerez Joker. I watched the bar staff churn out drink after drink with a balloon tied to them, and I knew that I had to try one. This cocktail is made with vodka, Cherry Marnier, Krupnik, honey, lemon and egg white and is served in a jar with a balloon tied to its handle. The balloon is then sprayed with orange blossom, the string that ties it to the glass is set on fire and the balloon eventually pops, detonating its orange mist everywhere. As if all that wasn’t enough, the cocktail itself tastes absolutely gorgeous.
Purl London, 50-54 Blandford Street, W1U 7HX
Cerez Joker – £13

The carrot one – The Walrus Room
The Walrus Room is a brilliant addition to Clapham Junction. Yes, it’s another one of those speakeasy sorts but it’s so gorgeous that you can’t begrudge the fact that it’s one of a zillion speakeasy bars in London. It’s inspired by Lewis Carroll and it certainly feels like you’ve wandered into a Victorian drawing room. Their cocktail list also follows the Lewis Carroll theme, such as the Rabbit Hole which is made with purple carrot Bols Genever and purple carrot cordial.  It’s served with an oyster on the side and is designed to be sipped after you’ve slurped down the oyster. The saltiness of the oyster perfectly compliments the vinegar sourness of the drink. In fact, I was surprised that the cocktail wasn’t sweeter considering it’s made pretty much entirely from carrot. If you want to get drunk AND get one of your five a day then this is the drink for you.
The Walrus Room, 40 Battersea Rise, SW11 1EE
The Rabbit Hole – £10

The foie gras one – Peg + Patriot
The cocktail menu at the Peg and Patriot won the most creative menu in this year’s Time Out Bar Awards and it’s easy to see why. The cocktails are inspired by well-known chefs or cooking techniques. You won’t find anything like a Long Island Iced Tea or Sex on the Beach on this menu. Instead you get “Foraged Berries”, “Buckwheat” or “Peanut”. I tried the one called “Foie Gras”, made with a foie gras and dark chocolate distillate, rum, sugar, dry raspberry, hazelnut dry port, Peychaud bitters and saline. I didn’t pick up any of the foie gras whatsoever, but it did taste very strongly of raspberries with a hint of chocolate. This is a drink designed for sipping; there’s a thumping great boozy kick to it. It wasn’t unpleasant but I wonder if they’re trying to be a bit too clever?
Peg + Patriot, Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, E2 9NF
Foie Gras – £10

Have you tried any of these cocktails or have you got any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

BRGR.CO IS…REFRESHINGLY ORDINARY

Have we reached peak burger? Is that even possible? I don’t know about you but I’m starting to get a little weary of it all. Once upon a time, when your fast food options were McDonalds or Burger King or a greasy van on a roadside, the likes of Meat Liquor and even Byron seemed daring and exciting. But now those trendy burger joints are as ubiquitous as the fast food chains that they once stuck two fingers up at. So where now for the once humble burger? In the case of BRGR.CO you go back to basics. You make it all about the meat.

BRGR.CO isn’t pretentious. There’s no loud music or graffiti. The decor isn’t “distressed” or “shabby chic”. There are no quirky names or gimmicks attributed to their burgers. It’s the Ronseal of burger bars – it does what it says on the tin. You want a cheeseburger? You get a cheeseburger. You want to wash it down with a milkshake? You can choose from all the classic milkshake flavours. However, at BRGR.CO you also get to choose your burger as if you were in a steakhouse. That’s right – you can choose which cut of meat that you would like. There are three options available: Blade, Hanger and Rump. Blade is their entry level burger; a mixture of bavette (blade) steak and brisket. Hanger is exactly that – 100% hanger steak, and Rump is a blend of juicy rump (obvs) and prime rib.

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

The burger toppings are all pretty straightforward, although there are two slightly more unusual options: the chilli burger, made with red chillis and chipotle mayo, and the bacon and guacamole burger. We played it safe and ordered a couple of solid bacon cheeseburgers. The burgers were presented, deconstructed, on a tray with the salad (lettuce, tomato, gherkins, red onion) and top half of the bun off to one side. I wasn’t sure about this at first but actually it’s a pretty good idea, as it allows you to pile on your preferred choice of dressings and add any salad-y bits as you see fit – rather than dig around in a pre-assembled and invariably messy burger to extricate elements you don’t like (such as gherkins…).

The burgers were refreshingly ordinary. The meat was juicy; a couple of rashers of bacon were unceremoniously slung over the top of the burger, like a pair of discarded trousers, but that was fine because…you know…bacon. The menu promised a choice of cheese but no-one asked us what our preference was so I’m guessing we ended up with cheddar. Which is no bad thing, although the greedy little cheese beast in me would have liked a bit more. But what I liked most of all is the fact that they BRGR.CO use a demi-brioche bun. I’m kind of over brioche buns. They once seemed a bit posh but in reality all they add is an increased risk of indigestion. So a demi-brioche bun was a welcome change; being neither too rich nor too plain it was, like the porridge of littlest bear in Goldilocks, just right.

Parmesan truffle fries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

Burgers aside, there were two other items on the menu that made my heart skip a beat – Oreo milkshakes and parmesan truffle fries. We were told that there was no vanilla milkshake available, for which read “there was no vanilla ice cream” (more on that later) so my Oreo milkshake was made using chocolate ice cream instead. Oh the humanity…(*sarcasm*) As for the fries….I’m just so grateful that I live in a time where parmesan truffle fries are a thing. I mean, I thought cheesy chips were the bomb when I was younger but now they seem hopelessly quaint and old fashioned. Unlike the burgers, the cheese here was gooey and plentiful – almost like a ridiculously decadent cheese sauce.

The dessert menu at BRGR.CO is limited and – like the main menu – is made up of fairly ordinary dishes, like warm chocolate brownie or ice cream sundae. The crumble on offer was apple and banana, which I considered to be a slightly odd combination but perhaps that’s just me. It was supposed to have been served with vanilla ice cream but, as they didn’t have any, it came with chocolate instead – which made the whole mix of flavours even weirder! Nonetheless my friend seemed to like it. The baked vanilla cheesecake that I ordered was less of a success. It was a dry, dense door stop of a cake; unsalvageable even by the strawberry sauce that artfully decorated the plate. The fact that the word “cheesecake” is spelled incorrectly on their website probably says it all. It’s a dish that no-one cares about, including the person who made it.

Baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

You can’t really go wrong when it comes to burgers. Actually, no, you can potentially go very wrong; however, the burgers from BRGR.CO are a safe pair of hands. The meat is good quality; you can save or splurge, depending on your choice of meat; they’re generously proportioned; and the toppings err on the safe side. In a city that’s overflowing with gimmicks, a no-nonsense burger joint is a breath of fresh air.

BRGR.CO, 187 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZB or 127 King’s Road, SW3 4PW

I was advised that BRGR.CO will soon be making some exciting changes to their menu and venues so watch this space!

Many thanks to Lioneye Media and BRGR.CO for inviting me to dine at their Soho branch. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

A seafood platter with rice and peas at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

Cottons is…sun drenched and rum drenched!

There are rare moments, when the British summer is playing ball, that London can feel fairly exotic. When the sun beats down and Londoners pour outside, noise levels rising, the scent of grilled meat in the air, music streaming out from cars and bars, it’s easy to pretend that you’re in an entirely different country. This is helped along with a spot of world cuisine from London’s diverse restaurant scene. I was recently transported to the Caribbean thanks to a balmy summer evening, jerk BBQ and copious amounts of rum at the new Cottons restaurant in Shoreditch.

When I first moved to London I lived around the corner from the very first Cottons restaurant on Exmouth Market. I had never tried Caribbean food before and, at that point in my life, it was both exciting and slightly intimidating. Curried goat? Oxtail? These were all things that I had never even thought about eating before – which meant that we were straight into Cottons for dinner at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, their Exmouth Market branch has now closed, but Cottons continues to thrive and have now opened their third restaurant in Shoreditch.

Sticky jerk pork ribs with fried plantain crisps at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

In true Caribbean style, we started our evening with a rum tasting session by Angostura. You may have heard of Angostura bitters already; that indispensable little bottle behind the every bar in the land. However, like me, you may not have realised that they also have a range of rum. To me, just the name “Angostura” conjures up images of sun drenched islands, lazy days and music-filled nights, so of course they make rum too! We sampled 6 different varieties – from the wonderful Amaro di Angostura with its Christmas-rich flavours of cloves and oranges, to their citrusy Reserva Blanca, their sweet and buttery 7 year old and and their caramel-soft 1824. I’ve never been much of a rum drinker and, if I do partake, it’s usually mixed in with something else. However, I would happily sip on a few of these rums neat and get very drunk in the process. Check out the Cottons website for their schedule of FREE rum masterclasses!

Saltfish fritters at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The menu at Cottons is vast and diverse – and a great intro to Caribbean cuisine. I would easily walk barefoot over the scorching sand of a Caribbean beach just to get at their crayfish and lobster mac n cheese. Assorted patties and fritters are great to nibble on and the jerk pork ribs were sticky, spicy and easy to pick clean. You are totally spoiled for choice when it comes to mains; being able to choose from “Timeless Classics” like oxtail and bean stew, signature platters or a range of meat from their jerk pit. Oh yeah, and they do burgers too! The seafood platter was a particular delight. I loved being able to graze on a generous range of seafood, including huge juicy king prawns. The addition of a mini pot of octopus and squid stew was a lovely touch too. It’s easy to pretend that you’re on holiday with food like this.

As I’m very much a carnivorous sort of girl, I was surprised that I enjoyed the Ital vegetable curry as much as I did. “Ital” is a variation of the word “vital” and is a strict vegetarian diet followed by certain members of the Rastafarian movement – and something I had not heard of before. This is why I love doing what I do and – in fact – it’s the whole philosophy behind this blog! I’m determined to learn more about the world in which we live, and trying food from other countries and cultures is a great way to do this.  The curry itself was rich with peppery heat, as well as big chunks of veggies. I felt a thousand times more wholesome by eating it. Whether it cancelled out all that rum I had drunk, however, is another matter….

Vegetable stew at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The British summertime is notoriously unreliable – you don’t need me to tell you that. Although we do have days when the sun streams down upon us, more often than not we get stuck with grey skies. Luckily we have restaurants like Cottons to provide us with an escape route to more tropical climes.

Cottons, 130-132 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AR

Many thanks to Cottons for inviting me along to sample rum and food at their Shoreditch branch. All views are, as ever, my own,

The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

 

Travel in Nepal: A man in a boat sailing across Lake Fewa in Pokhara, Nepal

Giving it all up to travel

I’ve done something very uncharacteristic. Something reckless. Something bloody terrifying! I’m nearly 40 and I’ve given up my job, my home and my life here in London to set off on the travel adventure of my life. WTAF am I doing?

Here’s the deal. At the beginning of August I shall vacate my beloved home and get on a plane to Sri Lanka. And that’s about all I know for certain. I don’t know where I’ll travel to after my first few nights. I don’t know how I’m going to spend my time when I arrive. But I do know that my time here in London was – sadly – becoming unsustainable. Work stress, monotony, money worries and a generally unhealthy lifestyle have chipped away at me and I began to realise that drastic action was needed.

Travel in Morocco: Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech at night

So here I am doing something else that’s very uncharacteristic. I’m actually writing a personal article. I mostly write about “stuff” – food and cocktails and travel. But today I’m going to write about me and I’d like to share something with you all: I suffer from crippling depression and anxiety. I’m not going to opine at length here about what it’s like for me to live with this. However, I’m “coming out” for two reasons. Other people feel this way too and I would like to use this platform and this voice to say – repeatedly – “you’re not alone”. Secondly, my mental health is a key part of this story as it frames my decision to leave, as well as how I’m now dealing with it. Change and uncertainty is not something I handle very well. Those two little words, “I’m leaving”, have set in motion a whole whirlwind of OMFG. Here are my five stages of coming to terms with this seismic shift, as I set off on my Big Travel Adventure:

1. Leaving my job
Ok so this one wasn’t too difficult really. Yes, it’s very unsettling to give up my main source of income without having another branch to swing to. But my job was actually extremely detrimental to my mental health. While I did receive a huge amount of support from my immediate colleagues, who were exceptionally kind and patient each time I went through a bad patch, the overall atmosphere at work is one that sucks the joy out of everything. The office is flat, soulless and miserable and, eventually, I started to feel that way too. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life sat at a beige desk in a beige office with beige people. I didn’t want to start every day squished underneath someone’s armpit with someone else’s elbow in my face (i.e. the London tube commute, not my office). And these days things like a mortgage and a pension are pretty much off the table for me, so it begged the question: what was I doing this for?

Travel in Cuba: Street musicians in Trinidad

2. Leaving my house
Now this was hard. I rent, like a lot of people in London, and most of my monthly salary translated directly into living costs. However, in the grand scheme of things, I had got lucky. I had a house, my landlady was adorable and – best of all – I lived by myself. Over the last 8 years that house became my sanctuary. I knew that I could retreat there and hide from the rest of the world when things were bad. It was so much more than just another rental property so giving it up was a real wrench – and made me feel hugely unsettled. Doing this has removed probably my most important layer of security – the knowledge that I can always have my own space. However, renting means that you’re always at the mercy of someone else and, no matter how lovely that someone else is, they could still increase the rent beyond your means or even sell the property. And I don’t really want that uncertainty for the rest of my life.

3. Leaving London
Oh my god. The breath shortening, gut twisting panic attack that this induces. 12 years in and this love affair shows no sign of diminishing. Unlike so many of my friends who upped sticks for more suburban climes, I have yet to fall out of love with London. Sure, it frustrates me immensely at times and it’s certainly not the city it once was. But…and but…there is so much to adore. Its vibrancy, its diversity, its strong pumping heart. And like most love affairs, there is so much that I also took for granted. Being able to go to the theatre any night of the week and see the best actors in the world. A myriad of restaurants offering a wider range of cuisines than you could ever hope to try. World class galleries and museums – many of them free. And the convenience factor. Being able to buy a pint of milk without getting in a car (yes, I’m lazy). The solidity that living in a big Western city gives you. Well I’m whipping that rug right out from under my feet.

Travel in Singapore: Marina Bay after a storm

4. Finding the cash
Saving money while living in London is challenging, to say the least. Finding enough money to cover all the essentials and yet still have enough to play with was a constant battle. A weird quirk of fate, however, led me into a second job – one that I could fit around my day job. Sure, it would have been nice to spend my free time doing free time-y sort of stuff but I very much liked having the extra cash. And, eventually, that extra cash turned into actual savings. It began to dawn on me that this job could be my key to fulfilling my dreams of travel; it created a financial buffer and I could keep doing it while on the road. And once I realised this, I started selling off a few of my things online. I can’t take any of them with me after all!

Travel in India: Village women and a Buddhist monk in Thiksey monastery, Ladakh

5. Finding myself
Yeah I am cringing so hard right now. That hippy klaxon is at full volume. But, in all seriousness, I do actually need to do this. I’ve spent so many years living a life that I thought I was supposed to. Get a degree, get a job, take the money, settle down. The whole Trainspotting “choose life” shebang. Be a “normal person”.  God knows, I’ve tried so hard to be normal and it’s damn near killed me. Because that’s not who I am – and it’s taken me until nearly 40 years of age to own that fact. I’ve accepted that I don’t suit life in a corporate environment; that I’d rather be single than settle down with just anyone; that I want to create something for myself, not someone elseFrom now on I want to live life on my terms and try to do what makes me feel happy, instead of forcing myself into a more “socially acceptable” lifestyle that only makes me miserable. We only get one life. I’d like to live it well.

So this is it. It’s really happening, even though it still doesn’t feel all that real. I can’t even begin to comprehend what lies before me but I have this gut feeling that it’s going to be good.

Who else has had – or is having – a Big Travel Adventure? Who else is planning one? Let me know in the comments.

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Roast potato, pesto and pine nut pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

FIREBRAND PIZZA IS…CARB ON CARB ON CARB

I don’t need any excuse to stuff my face with carbs. I do it on a daily basis. The Atkins Diet? Forget it. Cauliflower rice? WTAF?? I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to be Giselle Bundchen and, having seen what she eats, I wouldn’t want to be. Bring me all the bread, pile high the potatoes and pass me the pasta because I am carb-tastic. So when I saw that Firebrand Pizza use roast potatoes as a pizza topping, I knew that I had found my place.

Firebrand is located just a few minutes away from Marylebone Station, in one of those strange parts of central London that has managed to resist the inexorable steamroller of gentrification. Officially their thing is sourdough pizzas made with caputo flour from Naples. Caputo flour is very much on trend as far as London pizzerias go. It’s considered to be the Godfather of pizza flours and lends an air of Neapolitan authenticity to a Marylebone pizzeria. It also gives your pizza base that all-important crunch. However, in reality, Firebrand’s thing is roast potatoes. On pizza.

Bechamel stuffed mushrooms from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

There are a handful of non-pizza items on the menu at Firebrand, such as lasagne and sea bass, but none of them were particularly interesting or exciting. It’s all about those pizzas. We decided to order a couple of antipasti to start with – béchamel stuffed champignon mushrooms and parmigiana. Ok, so it may have been a little risky to order such rich dishes before tucking into a couple of pizzas but you know, YOLO. I needn’t have worried. The mushrooms were watery and totally devoid of flavour, each containing a serving of béchamel sauce that can be politely described as “miserly”. They were served with a salad that basically tasted of nothing; its only contribution to the dish was to make it extra watery. The parmigiana fared better; arriving at our table shimmering with heat, molten cheese bubbling away between each layer of aubergine, with yummy crunchy crozzled bits around the edge.

Aubergine parmigiana from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizza is such an ubiquitous dish that I automatically love anywhere offering a slightly different variation on the theme. It’s easy to be bold and to experiment with pizza toppings, as long as you know what flavour combinations do and don’t work. The Coach and Horses, for example, pulled it off with the likes of their breakfast pizza. Firebrand’s twist on this is roast potatoes. There are no less than TWO roast potato topped pizzas on the menu and there was a third on the specials board when we visited. And who doesn’t love roast potatoes, right? It was inconceivable that I wasn’t going to order one of these, so I chose the pesto, pine nut, rosemary and mozzarella version. In the interests of diversity, my friend begrudgingly ordered a non-potato pizza – goats cheese, caramelised onion and black olives.

Goats cheese, roasted onion and black olive pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Yes, I know carb on carb is not particularly healthy. Yes, I know it’s rather high up on the stodge scale. But who bloody cares because roast potato pizza is the marriage of two of the best food groups ever. Actually, no. Make that three of the best food groups ever because, of course, there is the addition of cheese. It wasn’t elegant, even with the artsy spiral of pesto swirled around it. It was down and dirty, honest to god, don’t give a f*ck comfort food. It was like a rosemary coated, cheesy chip buttie with a squirt of pesto for that token bit of greenery. The goats cheese pizza was also rather lovely thing. The combination of creamy goats cheese and sweet, jam-like roast onion is a classic and rightly so – it’s bloody delicious. I did have to pick the olives off though because they are the devil’s snack.

There is a limited list of desserts, although we were both so stuffed that eating a third course seemed almost impossible. Almost… We shared the salted caramel cheesecake, which arrived in one of those clip top jars that you see everywhere. It was a smart way of presenting a cheesecake, which is a fairly simplistic dessert and can often look like a sad sloppy slice on a plate. As far as flavour goes…well, it’s difficult to go wrong with salted caramel and cream to be honest. We hoovered it up.

Salted caramel cheesecake from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizzerias in London are a dime a dozen; from the monolithic chains like Pizza Hut and Pizza Express to a plethora of independents across the capital. It can be difficult to differentiate yourself when everyone is doing kind of the same thing. This was the first time I had ever seen roast potatoes as a topping, so kudos to Firebrand for offering something a bit different. It may not be the place to visit if you’re on a diet, but if you’re in training for a marathon or just love a bit of stodge then Firebrand could be your place too.

Firebrand Pizza, 41-43 Lisson Grove, NW1 6UB

Many thanks to Captivate Hospitality and Firebrand Pizza for inviting me to dine there. All views are, as ever, my own.