poochpackage1Today I’m inviting all of my foodie and furry friends alike to join me in a special parcel swap for pooches, but before we get down to the doggy swap details, let’s talk a little about the little gem in my life…

It would be easy when reading this blog to assume that food is my number one priority and passion but there’s one thing that gets me even more excited than a big bowl of fresh pasta followed by coffee and cake and that is my dog Ruby. Ruby joined the Berg house back in October and since then the Jack Russell Border Terrier cross has been delighting us by looking consistently cute and demanding lots of playtime daily, here she is in her early days snuggled up by my laptop as I worked.

ruby helping me work

As she’s only eight months old Ruby likes to chew a lot of things – eyeliners, toilet rolls and most recently (today in fact) an iPod dock remote control. One thing she hasn’t yet chewed is her daddy’s Graze box, though she looks on jealously whenever it pops through the door onto the mat and she watches intently as he munches through his custom snacks. After seeing a review of subscription parcel for dogs over on fellow blogger Oh Gosh Em‘s site , I suggested that it might be nice if our pooches were able to receive something that was even more personal to them through the post. I’ve taken part in blogger swaps in the past and they’ve understandably been food focussed but #poochpackage is set to be even more p-awesome! It’s open to food bloggers, lifestyle bloggers and Instafans alike, just as long as you have a pooch that would like to make pals just like Ruby and Flash do!

We like to see happy dogs with waggily tails, so the swap is open to anyone with a dog(s). If you have a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account we would like to invite you to sign up and share your #poochpackage swap stories with us. We’d love to see your dog enjoying their gifts too! When you post, feel free to use the lovely logo designed by Emma, who is far more artistic than me!

All you need to do is fill in the questionnaire below and tell us some bits about your dog. We’ll be matching people up with other fun dog owners around the country so once you have their details it might be worth checking them out and finding out a little more about their pooch!

The #poochpackage

Feel free to send toys, homemade treats that are doggy safe, comforters – whatever you think your package partner will enjoy. There is a spend limit of £12 for each parcel as we don’t want people to feel like they have to spend lots to take part, but £12 seems like a good amount to create a parcel they’ll want to get their paws in to.

Dates for your dog’s diary

  • You have until the end of April to sign up for #poochpackage
  • You’ll receive details of your doggy swap partner by 6th May
  • You should post your #poochpackage no later than16th May
  • If you have a blog/Instagram/twitter account- Please share your #poochpackage with everyone taking part by the end of May by posting on your blog/Instagram/Twitter. We want to see what you’ve received and sent and plenty of waggily tails too!

It only takes a moment to sign up, just fill out the form and we’ll matching you with you (and your dog!) with own #poochpackage pal.

 

It’s Easter weekend, which makes this post eggs-pecially well timed, even if it is six months in the making. Today I’m going to be sharing a few photos and insights from a very special day back in November when I visited Hotel Chocolat in Leeds to take part in one of their bean to bar experience days. Like a good blogger, I wrote up most of the post shortly after my visit and uploaded all of my photos but then a ghastly glitch meant everything disappeared and I couldn’t quite face doing everything again, until now, while surrounded in chocolate I need to avoid eating!

I should start by saying the day was one of my standout food experiences of 2014. I was lucky enough to be invited to review the bean to bar experience while I was in Leeds on my birthday trip and have been recommending them as alternative gifts ever since. if  you’ve not yet managed to buy someone an Easter egg or want to give something a little different, I’d say this is a memorable present that gives people the gift of new skills and knowledge as well as oodles of chocolate!

Upon arriving at the Roast & Conch on Boar Street, we were invited to take a seat at the bar and choose a drink to ease us into our chocolate experience. I’m a lady that’s fuelled by caffeine 80% of the time so I had to choose a flat white rather than hot chocolate and it was a pretty good coffee too, just what I needed after a night on the tiles in lovely Leeds!

Latte hotel chocolat After a little tour of the Chocolat Lab we took our seats. It was a small group of just four people, so we got lots of attention, had the opportunity to ask lots of questions and all got to take part in the various stages of making. It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who is passionate about food and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about chocolate. We first learnt about tasting chocolate, identifying different flavours and textures and then talked about the processes behind growing, drying and roasting. We tasted lots of chocolate (yes!) with the most bitter hitting the right notes for me, though I wasn’t a fan of the cocoa in it’s purest form.

baba de cacaoI won’t give away too many of the facts and figures we learnt on the day but it was very interesting to learn about the different types of cocoa beans their flowers and yields and what they tend to be used for. I was also surprised to learn that 70 per cent of cocoa’s flavour is locked in by drying with more added at the roasting point. Up until my visit, I knew little about Hotel Chocolat as a company, though it’s usually my first point of call for buying things like Christmas gifts for clients because I like the quality and attention to detail shown in their products. Some of what we learnt during the Bean to Bar talk is covered in this recent interview by the Guardian – namely that Hotel Chocolat has its own growing fields and chocolate Hotel. I’ve always quite fancied visiting the hotel but it’s a bit of a pricy affair, should we win the lottery however I’ll most certainly be making a booking.

The chocolate making itself was surprisingly hard work. Grinding the beans into a paste and then mixing smoothly with sugar was as torturous as making a really good thai curry paste but took far far longer. Naturally, I decided to cheat by swapping my pestle and mortar with my boyfriend’s half way through and felt very smug indeed when my chocolate turned out to be the smoothest.

As you can see from the final photo, chocolate making proved to be a rather messy affair. The tempering of the chocolate also took a lot more skill than I imagined. Ever the show off, Steve rolled up his sleeves and smoothed the chocolate out on the bench to cool it, moving it around like a pro. It’s a shame he doesn’t leave the kitchen bench as clean when he cooks in there!

Tempering Chocolate

The final step was to put our chocolate in moulds, which I did with messy grace. Thankfully, in chocolate making messiness doesn’t appear to impair flavour. Once cooled my chocolate was beautifully smooth. Alongside the chocolates we made ourselves we also received a goodie bag of chocolates to take home and a discount for purchases made in store on the day or online after the event. I’ve been to quite a few cookery classes both in the UK and abroad and £65 for an activity that lasts a couple of hours and includes goodies to take home is quite reasonable and something I wouldn’t resent paying at all given the amount of knowledge displayed by our tutors. Until April 6th Hotel Chocolat are offering attendance for two at the course I attended for the discount price of £100, so if you’re tempted to try tempering, now’s the time to do it!

Over the past few years I’ve tried to dramatically reduce the amount of money I spend at Christmas while upping the quality of the gifts I give. This has of course meant some extra time being creative in the kitchen making items I hope people will enjoy more than an extra Boots or Body Shop gift set (i’m not knocking these by the way, please don’t stop buying me smelly gift sets as I count on Christmas supplies of shower gel to get me through the year).

Friends and family will be presented with hampers filled with fromage and chutney this Christmas, but last year was a much more sugary affair. On the menu were two very simple to make but delicious items, which you can make even a few days before. So, if you’ve not quite got round to buying for everyone or need some last minute ideas for gifts that look luxurious but don’t have a huge cost attached, you might want to give these a go….

Glitter choc cherry brownies

sparkling chocolate and cherry brownies

These might not look hugely exciting in the baking sheet but they taste amazing – rich, velvety and soft and the added sparkle means little ones feel like they’re eating something with added magic. If Santa is bored of cookies in your household you may want to rustle up a pan of these instead.

I always use the Borough Market Brownie recipe, to which I added a few large tablespoons of morello cherries in syrup. I added the edible red glitter in the last few minutes of baking so that it wouldn’t flake as much when wrapped. Although the recipe is quite expensive to make because all of the eggs, it does make a lot of brownies, which taste really decadent. I cut mine into squares, wrapped in foil and labelled. Most people who received brownies as gifts ate them straight away but the moistness means they’ll keep for a good few days.

Butterscotch vodka

This looks beautiful but is definitely one for people with a sweet tooth. Marvellously easy to make, you can serve this butterscotch vodka straight over ice or mix with milk (and ice cream) for a grown up milkshake. I used a mid range vodka from Waitrose, poured into kilner jars and added Werther’s Originals. How many you want to add is entirely up to you, I think I used just under a packet per litre of vodka, which gave a lovely caramel colour. Before decanting to jars make sure you give the jar a mix to reduce sediment. I used small stoppered bottles from Lakeland and some cute milk bottles with screw lids too.

vodkat made with werther's original

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To make things look a little fancy, I wrapped my gifts in cellophane and added some sparkly reindeers and other assorted Christmas sparkles to the bags and tied with some gold ribbon. Each vodka bottle also got a serving suggestion tag attached with curled gold ribbon. The finished packages looked a little something like this….

What do you think? Have you made any edible gifts this Christmas? Feel free to share any links below, I’m always on the lookout for ideas for the year ahead!

In my time as a blogger I’ve been given the opportunity to do some pretty awesome things in some interesting places. The latest of these unlikely scenarios took place a few weeks ago and saw me and the boy invited to attend a special festive feast prepared by Jean Christophe Novelli at a beautifully and seasonally decorated Jesmond Dene House. We were dining at the invitation of Aldi who with the help of the celebrity chef and his team were showcasing their Christmas range in one of the most festive settings I’ve ever seen. We were greeted with a fizz reception and then shown into the dining room, where we were seated next to this gorgeous roaring fire.

christmas decorations on fireplace, Jesmond Dene, NewcastleI’m already a pretty big fan of Aldi and a mild addiction to their mini stollen means I was already pretty sold on their Christmas range, which is why we snapped up the invite but I was still a little blown away by the meal we were presented with. We started with meli melo – minute sun-dried vine tomato with king crab and caviar, which looked a little something like this…. crab and caviar starter at Jesmond dene houseThe dish was a lovely mix of colours and textures and despite the luxe element of the caviar the standout element on the plate for me was the tomatoes – full of flavour and showing how you can stretch the most basic of ingredients. Next up was the main event a Turkey Wellington with garlic, parsnip and sweet turnip mash and stuffed cabbage. I must confess that I didn’t notice how phallic the photo I took looked until I started getting some quite risque comments on Instragram.

Turkey Wellington, stuffed cabbage and garlic, parsnip and swede mash

My favourite bit of this course was the Wellington, which is something I’d never really considered doing with turkey before. If you’re going to mess with a classic like Christmas lunch it needs to add something extra and I’m real fan of introducing new textures as well as flavours. Next up was dessert, traditionally the final course but two whole courses away from our finish point. On the menu was an award-winning 12-month matured Christmas pudding with Cornish clotted cream, unfortunately it’s colour combined with the atmospheric lighting meant my pud photo is not as tip top as it could be. Still, here’s a peek at my pudding…

christmas pudding and clotted cream aldi

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas pudding for the reasons most people love it – namely the fruit and nut content and I found this pudding very nutty so if you’re a fan of a packed out pud this would be a good choice. By this point we were seriously searching for room in our growing tums but I must admit to getting rather carried away when we were presented with a rather beauteous cheeseboard…oh..how..I..love..cheeeese!

cheeseboard at aldi festive feast There wasn’t much of any of these lovely specimens left by the time they cleared our slate. I demolished a fair chunk of the blue and the brie and washed it all down with a lump of mature cheddar, pushing to the back of my mind the likelihood of pains resulting from dairy over consumption. Since I’d eaten my body weight in cheese I found the mince pie course quite hard to tackle. So hard in fact, that I forgot to photograph it, though I can recall the mince being rich and the pastry crumbly.

The AldiFestiveFeast was a really lovely way to start our holiday season and we had a fantastic time even though we left a little early to check on the puppy. This meant we didn’t get to meet and greet the Chef who spent an awful lot of time chatting to guests. At the end of our meal we were presented with a receipt that totted up the cost of what we’d eaten for the night, with more than a splash of wine included it came £20.35 per person. While Aldi’s mini stollen will always have a special place in my heart I think I’ll also be making some room for some of their cheese selection this year and I’m keen to pop back to lovely Jesmond Dene House too.

At the end of September I’d been following the Slimming World plan for one year. In that time I’d lost one and a half stones and successfully fit into the bridesmaid dress I ordered a size too small the year before. I planned to share my thoughts on the plan back in September but have been a tad distracted thanks to performing said bridesmaid duties then working a seven day week filled with overtime, freelancing, puppy training and working on a cheese farm. So, instead I’m sharing my hints and tips today – a little conscious that I’ve had a pretty synful fortnight as I’ve been too busy to go to class and that I may have gained a few pounds but without too much guilt attached to that.

Why I’m sick of explaining why I’m on a diet and listening to other people tell me about my body
I thought I’d start my Slimming World review by explaining why I started the plan. Since the age of 11 my size has bounced between a size 10 and a size 16. Over the last ten years I’ve lost and gained the same three stone twice and then gained an extra half a stone on top. I’ve become a lot more at ease with my weight and how I look as I’ve gotten older but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to return to a weight a found more comfortable. When I get fatter or thinner and particularly when I start to make changes to how I treat food, the way I’m treated by strangers, friends and even family changes. I sometimes wonder if that’s the reason I’ve put weight back on in the past. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the different treatment I’ve received while a size 10 versus a size 16 just ordering a drink at a bar.

Choosing to lose weight is a personal thing, but I always get a lot of comments on what I should be doing to lose weight from slim friends and acquaintances. Sometimes they’re helpful (and occasionally invited) but sometimes I get a little annoyed. The truth is we all know our own bodies best and that’s why I don’t necessarily appreciate it when you tell me that I shouldn’t be eating after 6pm or that I need to quit refined sugar or stop eating out or that my diet is too restrictive and I should let it go and find my ‘natural weight’. When I joined Slimming World, a few people insinuated I must be a bit of a numpty for not being able to eat healthily on my own and being stupid enough to spend money going to a group.

Those three stones I lost and gained twice? I did that on my own. So yes, I do know how to at healthily. I initially went along to Slimming World because losing weight this time round was harder. I keep going because I like the people that go there, I like chatting about food in a positive way (though I do wish they wouldn’t use the word ‘syns’). Even before Slimming World I followed a fairly healthy diet – I cook my meals from scratch, eat a lot of fruit, veg and fish and rarely eat dessert (though I have found a sweet tooth in recent years). This meant in my first week following the plan I maintained, but I stuck with it and while I’ve not lost as much as I would have by following the plan 100% all of the time, I’ve done the things I wanted to, maintained a social life and a food blog and I fit into that sodding bridesmaid dress (at least I did before it shrunk in the wash, sorry Ames). In the time I’ve been going another member of my group has lost about ten stones, so there’s no doubt that this can really work.

What are the plus points of Slimming World?
The best thing about the Slimming World plan is that you don’t need to go hungry. That’s not to say you shouldn’t wake up feeling hungry or that you ought to eat if you’re not, simply that you always have the option of eating something and that really helps you stick with it. You may need to alter how you cook your favourite recipe, make a cleverer choice at a buffet bar or turn down a slice of cake but you don’t need to become totally preoccupied with food by denying yourself it. The other main plus points are the support – whether it be in group or online. I’d recommend using Pinterest and Instagram to find recipe inspiration. Search for Slimming World or use hashtags like #extraeasy and #swmafia on Instagram to find other Slimming World people sharing their journey. It’s also possible to eat out on Slimming World and I’ve lost a few pounds even when eating out a couple of times a week by making considered choices but I’ll often choose what I want from a menu and just make sure I’m not as indulgent the rest of the week. You’re encouraged to eat 30 per cent fruit or veg at each meal and this is easily stuck to at a restaurant by swapping chips for salad or unbuttered veg.

What are the negatives?
You won’t necessarily lose weight every week on Slimming World, so you need to remain aware of the bigger picture. I follow the extra easy plan which means I keep my consumption of milk or cheese within a certain level every day and also make a choice of a fibrous food daily – selecting cereal or brown bread or maybe nuts (again at differing weights depending on what you select. Because you can eat as much lean meat, fish, fruit and veg as  you want along with lovely, lovely carbs (potatoes, rice, pasta) and fat free dairy, it can be difficult to define your portions. Because you need to stay within certain limits with some foods and I work long days as part of long weeks, I do need to take a planned approach to eating, which means batch cooking and knowing which snacks I can grab and go with. This isn’t really a negative as I enjoy cooking and the times I do go off plan tend to be because I’ve not had time to go shopping to stock up on things to make meals with.

At first I was probably eating too little, I find if I have carbs for lunch I don’t lose as much and I don’t really like to eat bread at all as it makes me feel bloated but all in all, if you listen to your body your portions begin to regulate themselves. At the moment I’m eating more, probably because of the cold weather and doing so and staying full means I’m less likely to succomb to over-synning. Syns being the values attached to foods outside of these food groups or over and above the foods you follow a daily allowance with.

Slimming World friendly food I’ve eaten

I had the good intentions of posting the recipes for some of the foods pictured below when I made them but time constraints mean I just ate them instead! if there are any you particularly like the look of just leave me a comment and I’ll run through the recipe and method.

I plan to lose another stone and a half by following Slimming World, this might take 6 months or another year, depending on how many times I decide to over do the G&Ts or choose a sticky toffee pudding instead of a black coffee for dessert. I’m in no position to say that Slimming World is right for everyone or to say that you should follow it if you want to lose weight but for me it seems to work most of the time.