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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.

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.

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

Tub 4 Grub/The Collective

Tub 4 Grub/The Collective

Raw cookie dough as part of the Tub 4 Grub campaign

I have a confession to make.  I hardly ever cook.  For someone who writes about food, this is a little embarrassing.  The thing is, I used to love cooking.  I’m a total feeder.  I cooked for friends, colleagues and loved ones, and I would always go crazy, making more food than they could possibly eat.  I cooked for my boyfriend all the time.  In fact, I became a proper little domestic goddess, enjoying nothing more than getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to cook him an amazing breakfast.  We hosted parties together and I would push myself to produce fantastic dishes to impress his friends.  I baked him cakes and pies just because.  We grew fat and happy.  Then the relationship ended and a rug was pulled out from under my feet.  As he fell out of love with me, so I fell out of love with cooking.

But sometimes life gives you a much-needed kick up the backside.  For me, this came in the form of The Collective and their Tub 4 Grub campaign.  The Collective make yoghurt.  You may have seen their tubs in your local supermarket.  Initially started in New Zealand, they were so successful that they expanded to the UK.  With interesting flavours like honeyed plum with stem ginger, Russian fudge or wild blueberry, it’s not difficult to see why they are doing so well.  But they also give a little something back.  Tub 4 Grub is an initiative that they started to support Action Against Hunger, with the goal of raising £20,000.  Once you’ve eaten your tub of The Collective yoghurt, don’t throw it away.  Wash it out, fill it with goodies (ideally ones you have made yourself), personalise it, then give it away to someone who needs a treat.  All tubs sold will raise money for Action Against Hunger and the team will donate a further 50p if you share your good deed on social media.

Tubs of The Collective yoghurt

I think this is a really lovely idea so, when I was approached about participating, I jumped at the chance.  And I knew exactly who I wanted to donate my tub to.  CARAS is a charity based just around the corner from me in Tooting.  They support refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly women and children, through a range of services such as mentoring, outreach and training.  Now, more than ever, it feels appropriate to do something, even if that’s only a small thing like baking biscuits.  Here was a reason to get back in the kitchen.

Making cookies for Tub 4 Grub

There are a few recipes on the Collective website, but I decided to make chocolate chip cookies because, well, who doesn’t like chocolate chip cookies.  Plus, biscuits are generally really easy to make and I’m more than a little rusty when it comes to baking.  I followed a great recipe from the BBC Good Food website, which was quick and straightforward.  Ok, so my cookies didn’t look quite like the photo on the BBC website…..  But they tasted good which is the main thing.  I filled up several tubs, labelled them and set off to CARAS.  A children’s group was running as I arrived.  Despite the dreary weather, the children were playing outside, running about and laughing – which is exactly what children should be doing.  I don’t know where they came from and I don’t know what they have been through, but I sincerely hope that life for these kids will only get better from now on.

Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies

The team at CARAS were so lovely and were also very kind about my slightly rubbish cookies.  What’s more, I began to remember why I used to enjoy cooking.  I guess it’s twofold.  Firstly, creating something is always pleasing.  You feel like you’ve achieved something, even if it’s some squished biscuits that you can make in a morning.  Secondly, the act of sharing food is incredibly meaningful.  Not just from the sense of pride that you get when someone enjoys your cooking, but also the connections that you make as a result.  So I’d like to say “thank you” to The Collective for giving me the motivation to dust off my pots and pans, dig out my apron and use something other than the microwave.  And my friends had better watch out because I’m going to be making you fat once again!

Thanks to The Forge and The Collective for introducing me to the Tub 4 Grub campaign.  If you want to take part then visit The Collective website for more details and remember to share your efforts on social media using #tub4grub.

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Hands up if you have ever had a “bad experience” with tequila.  Ok, hands up if you think tequila tastes pretty nasty.  Just so you know – my hand was up both times.  I may like alcohol to bite back, but tequila has never floated my boat.  To me, it’s just firewater with about as much subtlety as a house brick.  Now, hands up if you have heard of mezcal.  Until recently, this drink wasn’t even on my radar, let alone my palate.  So when I had the opportunity to go to a festival celebrating all things agave, I jumped at it.  I would get to do some mezcal tasting and maybe even learn to love tequila.

Tequilafest was organised to educate us non-Mexicans about tequila and mezcal.  For most people in the UK, tequila is something that you slam down when you’re already pretty drunk.  Or perhaps when you need a helping hand to get pretty drunk.  Or for a drunken bet.  Whatever your motivation, chances are you’re not drinking it because you want to savour its flavour.  So the team behind Tequilafest want to help us understand that, actually, there’s more to tequila than just cheapo shots. For a start, it has appellation of origin status.  This means that its production is tightly controlled, so you can forget about those plans to set up a boutique tequila distillery in your shed.  Furthermore, there are three different classes of tequila: blanco (unaged), reposado (rested, i.e. aged for between two-twelve months) and anejo (vintage, i.e. aged for at least twelve months ).  I’ve only ever tried the blanco variety and, in fact, wasn’t even aware that there were other grades.  This was going to be a steep, and possibly very wobbly, learning curve.

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Mezcal may also be made from agave, like tequila, but we now start to enter the realm of all things artisanal.  For one thing, it was historically made in the poorer Mexican states where people were just distilling it for their own use.  So whereas tequila is traditionally more popular and is now mass produced, mezcal is much more niche.  It also tastes different – and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  It has a smokey flavour reminiscent of some whiskies.  This is because it is heated over a wood fire during the distillation process.  The process of making mezcal is steeped in tradition, with no two versions being the same.

Tequilafest was a celebration of all things Mexican, not just alcohol.  It coincided with the weekend after Mexican Independence Day and was aimed at demonstrating that there’s more to Mexico than pinatas, sombreros and tequila slammers.  The organisers want us to understand the culture of Mexico – the music, the history, the produce.  And I get that.  Having visited Mexico several years ago, one of my happiest memories is of sitting outside a restaurant in the main square of Merida, sipping on a turbo-strength margarita, listening to a mariachi band play while the locals danced.  It was one of those sublime moments that I wheel out whenever anyone goes on about how dangerous Mexico is and how you should never step foot outside your Cancun resort.

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Upon entering Tequilafest, we were given a wristband with ten tokens.  These were for the ten shots of tequila or mezcal that were included with the price of entry.  I’ll just repeat that.  TEN shots.  Fortunately, there was plenty of stodgy Mexican street food available to soak up the alcohol and prevent me from blowing a hole in my stomach lining.  Here is a quick summary of what I learned:

  1. There is nothing good about unaged tequila.
  2. If I’m going to make a sober decision to drink tequila then I’m going straight for the anejo.  It still burns a fiery trail straight through your digestive system, but it at least tastes slightly more palatable.
  3. There is such a thing as chili liqueur and it is amazing.  Check out Ancho Reyes.
  4. Mezcal is extremely interesting and I would definitely drink it again.  I’m a fan of whisky so I appreciated the wide flavour range and the craft behind it.

I think I got through, maybe, six or seven tokens before I had to admit defeat.  One esophagus-searing encounter after another just got a bit too much, so I  called time before I had another “bad experience”.  I may not have learned to love tequila but I do have a new respect for it.

Thanks to the team behind Tequilafest for giving me the opportunity to attend.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

A Mexican adventure with Yelp

A Mexican adventure with Yelp

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Everyone’s a critic these days.  And with so many apps and websites around, having your say on a bar, restaurant or hotel has never been easier.  But how do you pick your weapon of choice?  Really, what’s the difference between them all?  Well, most of you have probably heard of Yelp.  But what you may not know is that they also organise events and reward their members with something other than a virtual badge.  If you write lots of reviews, you eventually get made into a “Yelp Elite” which gives you access to all sorts of goodies.  I’m not a “Yelper” (as they like to call themselves), but I was recently invited to check out some of their events so I could see for myself what all the fuss is about.

As it happened, these events all had a Mexican theme.  Now, I have a slight confession to make here.  I’m not really that keen on Mexican cuisine.  I’ve spent time in Mexico and found the food extremely boring.  So would this foray into Mexicana change my mind?  Was I just eating all the wrong things when I was in Mexico?  The first event, Mexifest, certainly gave an all-round flavour.  This was open to everyone, not just Yelpers, and was held in conjunction with the Mexican Chamber of Commerce.  It felt a bit like a village fete, only with tacos, tequila and luchadors.  This was compounded by the fact that it rained.  And did it rain….   Huddling under a canvas awning while clutching some soggy nachos did give it all a bit of a British feel, despite all the sombreros and pinatas.

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There were a few rays of sunshine though.  Cafe Pacifico were serving up great margaritas and the cheese from Gringa Dairy was sooooooo good.  Seriously people, you need to check these guys out because not only do they make award-winning cheese, they make Mexican cheese.  In Peckham!  This is just so quirky and niche that I actually love them for it.  They create three different – and distinctive – varieties of Mexican cheese, all of which taste fab (although my personal favourite is the queso Chihuahua).  Also, the event was free if you checked in on the Yelp app, which is a small price to pay.  Wait, actually it’s no price to pay.  Never a bad thing in my opinion.

The next event was solely for Yelpers.  It was a “secret taco takeover” at the recently opened Soho branch of Chilango.  The fact that I’m not a Yelp Elite and didn’t even really use the app made it particularly secret for me.  So with no idea what to expect, I arrived at Chilango and joined a group of around 15 people for a quick briefing from the Yelp community director before we got straight into the food.  Chilango is very much a “quick and dirty” kind of place.  The menu is brief – tacos, burritos, nachos, salads.  You go up to the counter and the team builds your meal in front of you, adding your choice of meat (chicken, pork belly, steak, prawns), salad and sauces.  You pay at the till and off you go.

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Chilango is perhaps best known for crowdfunding their restaurants and, to be honest, this will probably define them more than their food.  Not that there is anything especially wrong with what they are churning out.  The food is edible and the portions are generous.  But it’s all just a bit average.  The canteen-style approach shows through in the quality of the food – chewy meat, lots of extraneous lettuce, lack of any interesting flavour.  As they can probably now be considered a chain, with 12 restaurants under their belt, perhaps my expectations should have been lower.  I was drawn in by their cool decor and neon lights, both of which are infinitely more exciting than their food.

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The group of “Yelpers” were lovely, excitable and clearly very proud of being members of the Yelp Elite squad.  And why not?  They get free food as a result of writing “it was good/it was bad” 300 times over.  I don’t think anyone could complain about that – not even the restaurants who benefit from the heaps of publicity they get through Yelp’s enormous user base.  In all seriousness, it’s actually pretty cool that Yelp give back to their community of users and it is a fantastic incentive to keep posting and sharing through their site.

If you need some inspiration when it comes to fun things to do around London, then you could do a lot worse than checking into Yelp.  However, have I changed my opinion on Mexican food?  Ermmmm…..no…..  Maybe I should actually look at my Yelp app for a few recommendations.

Mercato Metropolitano

Mercato Metropolitano

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Every now and then, a magical night happens in London.  They are little gems, strung together like a Swarovski bracelet, that remind you why you love living in a big, chaotic city.  I recently experienced one of those nights at, believe it or not, a disused factory down the road from Elephant and Castle station.  Sounds a bit odd?  Well, this old factory has been transformed into the most wonderful food market called Mercato Metropolitano.  If Italian food is your thing, then this is the place to be.  And if Italian food just makes you yawn and shrug your shoulders, then this is definitely the place to be, because your mind will be changed.

Mercato Metropolitano originated in Milan, which pretty much says it all.  You know the quality of food is going to be outstanding before you take your first bite.  Luckily for us, Mercato Metropolitano has now opened its first UK site, in an empty paper factory between Elephant and Castle and Borough.  It’s a mixture of lots of lovely things.  Firstly, there is a supermarket, but please don’t make the mistake of imagining something along the lines of Tesco.  This is the supermarket of dreams, rustic and beautifully lit, with every kind of Italian ingredient you could think of.  Fresh fruit and vegetables piled high, shelf upon shelf of wine, more varieties of meat and cheese than I could count.  It’s a little slice of heaven for any foodie.

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Beyond the supermarket, there is a sprawling street food market.  You can easily lose a few hours meandering around the various stalls, which are scattered throughout several rooms as well as spilling over into an outside area.  There are stalls catering to every taste, but my personal highlights were:

La Latteria
These guys make the creamiest, dreamiest cheese you could ever hope to put in your mouth.  Specialising in soft cheeses, like mozzarella and ricotta, La Latteria have their dairy in central London so they can ensure the freshest possible product.  You can order snacks like bruschetta or the intriguing rollatina (a thin sheet of mozzarella rolled into a wheel with things like bresaola or tomato).  Or just dive straight into a plateful of fresh stracciatella and let your cares melt away, along with your waistline.

Fresco
Pizza-lovers rejoice!  “The best pizza maker in Naples” is at Mercato Metropolitano.  The man behind Fresco, Alfredo Forgione, was made a Knight of the Republic by former President of Italy Giorgio Naploitano.  So you know you’re getting the really good stuff here.  We ordered the pasqualina which came with mozzarella, Italian sausage and friarelli – a green vegetable similar to broccoli.  The pizza is made fresh and served piping hot, with lots of oozy cheese.  I’d never had friarelli before but was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked as a pizza topping.  Plus it meant I could count pizza one of my five a day…

Badiani
Yet another world-class artisan producer…  You’re spoiling us Mercato Metropolitano!  Badiani won the top prize at this year’s London Gelato Festival and is frequently described as the best gelateria in their home town of Florence.  Their Buontalenti gelato (named after the 16th century Florentine architect) tastes ridiculously good for something that sounds so simple.  Made only from cream, milk, sugar and eggs, it was created for a competition to commemorate Buontalenti.  Of course, Badiani won the competition (yes, another one) and the rest is history.  The Buontalenti is the obvious choice to fill your cone, but their other flavours like pistachio and black sesame are worth checking out.

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I could wax lyrical all day about all the great things to try at Mercato Metropolitano (the sour beer, the fried gnocchi, the enoteca…), but really you just need to visit and go on a culinary adventure of your own.  There’s more to discover than just food.  The market is currently host to Backyard Cinema and will also feature concerts and exhibitions.  You might think that London doesn’t need another food market and, with Borough Market just up the road, Mercato Metropolitano does have some stiff competition.  However, not only does it offer a different variation on the theme, you can also find some really, really interesting produce.

As for me and my magical night?  Eating a huge tub of gelato beneath fairy lights and a fat golden moon, surrounded by friends and live music, is a pretty decent way to spend the evening.  It felt like one final fling with summer, complete with fizz, fireworks and fond memories.

Mercato Metropolitano is at 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR (www.mercatometropolitano.co.uk)
Thank you to the team at The Tom Sawyer Effect, as well as the market vendors, for giving me the opportunity to write this post.  All views are, as ever, my own.

10 Food Brands You Need In Your Life

10 Food Brands You Need In Your Life

A selection of Basque food from Zooteek

I’m guilty of being horribly lazy when it comes to food.  There are so many new brands coming onto the market every day that working out what’s what can sometimes feel like way too much hassle.  Recently, however, I’ve dragged myself out of my food rut and complied a list of speciality food brands which will amuse your bouche.

Zooteek
With the arrival of restaurants like Pix and Eneko, Basque food is finally having its moment here in the UK.  It’s perhaps best known for pintxos – small snacks such as slices of bread topped with meat or fish and held together with a toothpick – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that Basque cuisine is just a tiny open sandwich.  San Sebastian, on the Basque coast, has more three star Michelin star restaurants than London, so we’re talking about some pretty incredible ingredients here.  Zooteek import Basque food and wine to the UK, and I was fortunate enough to try a small selection of their huge product range recently.  The variety of cheese alone was fantastic; I basically ate myself into a cheese coma because it was all so damn good.  At the moment they only supply to trade but hopefully we’ll all be able to buy from them in the near future.
http://zooteek.co.uk/

Bottles of Picnic Gin from Poetic License distillery

Poetic License
Gin is in right now and there are hundreds of boutique distilleries opening around the country.  Which is great if you’re a boozehound like me, but the sheer volume of choice can also lead to what I like to call “decision paralysis”.  A good place to start would be with Poetic License.  This tiny distillery in Sunderland is turning out some lovely spirits.  Their pink Picnic Gin is as sweet and summery as the “strawberries and cream” title suggests, yet with a freshness that makes it dangerously drinkable.  Likewise their Graceful Vodka, which has a mellow flavour making it taste deceptively innocent, particularly when mixed with cloudy lemonade.
http://poeticlicensedistillery.com/

Milkboy
I eat a lot of chocolate.  And by “a lot”, I actually mean “a LOT”.  As a result my chocolatey palate has become slightly jaded.  Then I discovered Milkboy and OMG!  It was like an old married couple suddenly remembering that they fancy the pants off each other.  Milkboy do Alpine Swiss chocolate that blows Lindt out of the water.  Their white chocolate with bourbon vanilla was so superb that it made me want to slide to the floor and do a Meg Ryan.  Even their dark chocolate got me going, particularly the 60% cocoa with pine tree oil.  Pine with food is always a risky combination, perhaps due to the obvious association with household cleaners, but this really worked.  Not only that, it made dark chocolate actually taste interesting, which is an achievement in itself.
http://www.milkboy.com/

Gluten free chocolate chip cookies by Doughlicious

Doughlicious
Doughlicious provide bags of ready made cookie dough, already rolled into individual cookie-sized balls, for you to cook in your oven, microwave or even just to eat raw while binge-watching Netflix in your pyjamas.  My personal fave is the “Nutty”, because peanut butter cookies are basically a no-brainer in my world, but they also do an amazing gluten-free chocolate chip variety.  My experience of gluten-free products has not been particularly positive (shuddering at the memory of mushy, collapsible bread), but these guys have nailed it.  I could honestly not tell the difference between their gluten-free and their gluten-full cookies.  The company is just starting out so be sure to show them a bit of love on Instagram – and by buying their cookie dough of course.
http://www.doughlicious.co.uk/

Aphrodites
Londoners may already know of Aphrodites through the food market scene, where they sell Eastern Mediterranean food from their van at various locations.  However, they have also been working on creating their own sauce for customers to use at home – the distinctive Pomegranate Ketchup.  Made with pomegranate molasses, tomato puree and spices, this is a great Middle Eastern twist on a very traditional British condiment.  The spices give it a vaguely Christmassy flavour, making you feel all warm and cosy inside.  It goes great on a bacon sandwich, but you can also use it in some of the more exotic recipes found on the Aphrodites website.
https://aphroditesfood.com/

Duke of Delhi
Bombay mix conjures up images of 1970s dinner parties and dusty newsagents shelves.  However, the Duke of Delhi have up-cycled this rather passe snack and transformed it into something a bit more interesting.  The secret ingredient is….chocolate.  They have a range of chocolate bars in numerous Indian-inspired flavours, like cardamom, cinnamon or lime, all including Bombay mix.  However, perhaps their most fun product is actual Bombay mix with chocolate chunks.  It’s so simple but it really does taste great.  They also produce a version with orange peel, for the non-chocolate lovers among us.  Personally, I’m all about mixing the two together for a spicy, crunchy chocolate and orange snack-fest.
http://www.dukeofdelhi.com/

Belinda Clarke
Marshmallows have never floated my boat.  Sure, they look pretty but the flavour rarely lives up to expectations.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I tried Belinda Clarke’s marshmallows and suddenly found a little party going on in my mouth.  They come in seven different varieties but the raspberry ones are heavenly.  Not only do they actually taste of raspberry – so many marshmallow brands just taste synthetic – they manage to be fluffy and juicy all at the same time.  It takes some doing to impress me with a marshmallow but Belinda Clarke did it.  The marshmallows are also all gluten-free.
http://www.belindaclark.co.uk/

Chase Distillery
A potato farmer in Herefordshire does not necessarily make you think of glitz and glamour.  But potatoes can turn into all sorts of fun – and profitable – things, as William Chase discovered.  The founder of Tyrrells crisps has turned his hand to booze, and done a pretty good job of it too.  Chase offers a range of top notch gin and vodka, which stands out in a very crowded market.  Alongside the usual plain spirits, you can also buy slightly more eccentric delights like gin made with apples and oak smoked vodka.  My personal fave is the pink grapefruit gin, which is a perfect marriage of flavours.
http://chasedistillery.co.uk/

Goats cheese salad from The Salad Kitchen

The Salad Kitchen
You don’t make friends with salad according to Homer Simpson, but if you give me a salad from The Salad Kitchen then I’ll be your friend for life.  You can forget all about limp leaves and sad tomatoes here.  These guys do “proper” salad, salads that actually feel like a meal.  I was very impressed with the goats cheese salad that I tried – and for me to say that about a salad is praise indeed!  Besides the creamy cheese, I particularly liked the addition of lentils and cous cous.  They are based near Old Street so be sure to check them out.  Even if you’re not a salad-lover, I guarantee that you will be converted.
http://www.thesaladkitchen.co.uk/

BBQ Gourmet
When deciding whether to feature a product, my main criteria is something along these lines: does it make me groan with pleasure when I put it in my mouth? Just one mouthful of the evocatively named Blues Hog Smokey Mountain Sauce and I was groaning more than Keith Vaz on a night out.  The sauce was supplied by BBQ Gourmet, a provider of “real” BBQ sauces, rubs and marinades.  This is hardcore, badass American BBQ.  BBQ Gourmet aim to bring competition-winning BBQ condiments and accessories to the UK, giving us a taste of the US in all its smokey, meaty, testosterone-fuelled glory.  Fans of cremating meat over a large flame will be really spoiled for choice when visiting this site.
http://www.bbqgourmet.co.uk/

Thanks to all suppliers mentioned above for giving me the opportunity to try their products either at the Speciality and Fine Food Fair and/or the Food Sauce birthday event.

The Polish Bakery

The Polish Bakery

Loaves of bread from The Polish Bakery

In the murkiness of a post-Brexit world, there is one thing for certain.  Living in London has allowed me unparalleled access to a huge array of cultures and new experiences.  I feel so lucky to be able to choose from cuisines as eclectic as Eritrean or Ecuadorian, Swedish or Swiss.  However, I do have a weakness for food from one area in particular – and that’s Poland.

I travelled to Krakow last year where I engaged in acts of unspeakable gluttony.  It’s very difficult not to overindulge when you are confronted with delights such as pierogi, boar steak and apple cake. Fortunately the large Polish community within London means that I am able to continue stuffing my face while saving on the air fare.  Most recently, I was introduced to The Polish Bakery who offer a range of breads and cakes vast enough to satisfy even the most dedicated carb-loaders out there.  The Polish Bakery is a family-run business based in Wembley, and is the oldest Polish bakery in London.  Their bread is based on traditional recipes, with many ingredients imported from Poland.

I tried three different breads from The Polish Bakery: chia seed, rye, and rye with cranberries.  Chia seeds are very much in foodie fashion at the moment; my Instagram feed is full of photos of chia seed pudding.  Chia seed bread, however, is a new one on me.  It tasted like a lighter version of sourdough, slightly nutty with a hint of yeastiness.  It also makes fantastic toast!  I’m not a proponent of superfoods or “clean eating” but, for those who are, chia seeds are alleged to be full of antioxidants, Omega-3, fibre and protein.  So this is a way to get a relatively guilt-free carb fix.

Both of the rye breads were delicious.  I tend to avoid rye bread as it’s often like chewing on a bit of carpet underlay.  However, the rye bread from The Polish Bakery was surprisingly light and soft.  The rye bread with cranberries was a particular delight; a combination that I have never tried before but that worked really well.  Again, it makes great toast.  Loaded up with butter, it would give a quirky twist to a traditional afternoon tea.

My carb-fest didn’t stop with bread, however.  I also tried two of the many cakes available from The Polish Bakery: a fruity cheesecake and – hurrah – apple cake.  Both cakes came supplied as huge doorstop-style slabs, in true Polish fashion.  The cheesecake wasn’t overly sweet, which I liked, and the fruit cut through the density of the cream cheese.  However, it was the apple cake that really got me going.  I had some stunning apple cake when I was in Krakow, warm and rich with cinnamon, so my expectations were already high.  I decided to warm up the cake from The Polish Bakery and the smell that filled my kitchen was heavenly.  The apple filling oozed out onto the plate like the best kind of comfort food.  It tasted exactly as I expected it to: apple crumble in cake form.  Delish!

Fruit cheesecake from The Polish Bakery

I have one – very minor – criticism.  Both the cheesecake and the apple cake used the same thin sponge base, which tasted a bit inauthentic and seemed out of place in both cases.  I would have preferred the cheesecake with the more traditional “buttery biscuit base” to add a bit of texture, and the apple cake really didn’t need a separate sponge base at all.  However, this wouldn’t stop me from buying more cakes from The Polish Bakery, especially now that I have seen the drool-worthy range available on their website.

So my love affair with Polish food continues and doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon.  I’m grateful that – for the time being – I live in a world where I can get my greedy mitts on amazing, fresh European food.  It’s not just about eating, it’s about a growing understanding and appreciation of the communities and cultures around us.

The Polish Bakery very kindly supplied me with a selection of their products but all opinions are, as ever, my own.
http://www.thepolishbakery.co.uk/

Gold Rush

Gold Rush

IMG_1849[1]Channelling my inner Yosemite Sam isn’t something I tend to do very often.  Yet last Friday night I found myself  “yee haw”-ing to my heart’s content, whilst downing shots of buffalo juice.  This was not some marathon session of Looney Tunes, however.  It was Gold Rush.

Gold Rush is the latest pop up from Django Bango.  Sounding like a cross between a Tarantino film and a 90’s dance tune, the team have previously held successful events such as Wild West Town in Shoreditch earlier this year.  Gold Rush sticks to the Wild West theme; this time transforming a steel yard in Vauxhall into a gold mine worthy of the Klondike.  A cast of cowboys and saloon lovelies, including hostess Miss Trixy Dixy, are on hand to welcome all of us potential prospectors.  However, it’s not just all eating, drinking, and carousing in this here gold mine.  We were also going to be doing a spot of mining ourselves.  Some pesky varmint had stolen the gold and stashed it around the mine.  Including in the food!  Anyone who finds any gold will win a mystery prize so, with five courses on the menu, it was time to get digging.

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The set dinner commenced with muffnuts.  Muffnuts sound vaguely naughty – and that’s exactly what they were.  I had to keep reminding myself that there were another four courses to come, otherwise I would have eaten far more than my fair share of these buttermilk muffins filled with pulled pork and covered with melted Monterey Jack.  Course number two arrived in the form of a washing line with dinky metal pails dangling from it.  These contained crocodile tempura bites, and were accompanied by a sauce boat of salsa verde.  The crocodile was a bit on the chewy side, sadly, and the salsa verde was overly oily.  All was forgiven, however, when the next course of BBQ beef short ribs was served.  These had clearly been in the slow cooker for hours and the meat fell apart with a gentle prod of the fork.  The addition of a hefty dollop of BBQ sauce and slaw made sure that this dish ticked all the boxes.  I’ve always been a sucker for American comfort food and this was definitely doing it for me.

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Three courses in and still no sign of any gold!!!!  Was I going to end up empty handed, albeit full bellied?  The arrival of course number 4, a cast iron pot containing smokey sausage gumbo, certainly guaranteed the latter.  I was beginning to flag by this stage in the proceedings, but the gumbo still went down a treat and the inclusion of a jambalaya “arancini” provided an interesting nod to fusion food.  The feast then concluded with a decadent slab of Rocky Road.  This was perhaps a little on the heavy side after four other fairly rich courses but who cares?  I had already fully surrendered myself to the inevitable food coma and it tasted utterly delicious.  And then….my spoon clanged against something suspiciously hard.  There, glinting out of the chocolatey darkness, was a shiny nugget of gold.  Yee haw!!!!!!

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As if all the food, gold and general mine-y fun isn’t enough, there is live music throughout the night and a drinks menu that is more comprehensive than you’ll find in your average saloon.  The cocktails are particularly good (my personal fave was the MineyMcMineFace – a potent brew made up of mezcal, fresh lime juice and hibiscus syrup).  Giving the event a shout out on social media can also net you a shot of the mysterious buffalo juice, which does taste a lot better than it sounds.  So dig out your stetson, pack your pick axe and stake your claim on this hugely entertaining night out.  The London Gold Rush has begun.

Gold Rush is on every Friday and Saturday until October.  Tickets cost £35.
(http://www.djangobango-goldrush.com/)
Use the discount code ‘goldenprosecco” when booking, for a free glass of prosecco upon arrival on the 24th and 25th June.

I would like to thank the team at Django Bango for inviting me to join them at Gold Rush but all opinions are, as ever, my own.