Over the past year I’ve developed a real thing for afternoon tea – it’s like a really posh mini buffet all of your own and I friggin’ love a buffet. I’ve snaffled a few I’ve not had a chance to post about at venues including Malmaison and Linden Hall Hotel and I held my own Slimming World-friendly afternoon tea too. By far the best of the bunch was the afternoon tea I ate a few weeks ago at the Mercure George Washington. The new afternoon tea menu only went live this month, but I was invited for a sneak preview by the chef and was blown away by the quality of the food served in their lovely orangery.

I headed along to the George Washington with my friend Hannah, who often gets a feature on the blog, here she is getting into the festive spirit in a Christmas hat. When we arrived at the hotel we were really pleased to find there was a Christmas dance going on, so along with our afternoon tea we were treated to some classic Christmas choons, as well as some beautiful decorations.

Hannah Mattinson at the Mercure George WashingtonWe ordered coffee and tea respectively, which was served right away. Not long after arrived a festive feast to end all feasts. The afternoon tea starts at £14.95 per person and while I think we were treated to an extra layer of treats for Christmas that may not come as standard (including a Yule log each and some seriously yummy mince pies with a good whollop of citrus), there was certainly a lot of food to devour.

An afternoon feast of sandwiches, patissserie and scones at the George Washington

Along with salmon, ham and egg sandwiches was a standout savoury star of the show in the form of a mini cheesy scone with a hint of spice, this came topped with cream cheese and strips of ham and was the favourite item of all for both Hannah and myself. I was supremely pleased to find mini eclairs (butterscotch no less) and fruit tarts on the cake stand. The chef at the Mercure Washington was previously a specialist patisserie chef and it really shows – each and every cake offered something different in terms of texture, flavour and skill in making it. Surprisingly, we each managed to squeeze in a scone, which you’d have to when they look like this….

a cream tea

Even if the afternoon tea had been half as big, the quality of everything we ate and the friendly service would have made it well worth the usual £14.95 price tag. After tea we made use of the hotel’s spa facilities (another bargain at £5 for use of the swimming room, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna) and I treated myself to a head massage. Unlike the spa rooms at some other hotels the treatment area was clean, beautifully decorated and smelt scrum-diddly-umptious thanks to some scented candles. After the trip I’ve become a bit of a Mercure mega fan, along with recommending the place to everyone in office I’m planning to take Ma Berg for Mother’s Day too.

Do you have any local recommendations for afternoon tea? What do you think makes a good afternoon tea?! Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

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.

I’m prone to Mariah Carey outbreaks from early November onwards and though I never need much of an excuse to commence mulling, I start to take spicing my drinks rather too seriously once December arrives. Since I’ve been working seven-day weeks lately  I feel like I’ve not quite managed to get into the full festive swing of things just yet.

Thankfully, there have been one or two nights of Christmassy-ness including an evening spent sampling the Christmas menu at Sohe and sinking more of their delicious cocktails, the devouring of an Aldi festive feast prepared by Jean Cristophe Novelli, which took place at the extremely festively decorated Jesmond Dene House (up on the blog soon). Finally, there have also been a few hours spent experimenting with some fun ingredients from the M&S Christmas range and getting a little tipsy in the process.

When I do finally throw myself into a full Christmas bonanza, I’ll definitely be making more of the items developed during the course of that M&S evening. The night itself was fuelled by plenty of rum along with some samples donated by M&S for review. Rather than eating everything directly out of the jar with a spoon (which I must admit we’ve been doing a fair bit of since) we decided to explore additional Christmassy potential by turning the goods into some of the key components of the season: boozy drinks and desserts.

We started with this little lot of goodies:Festive goodies from M&S

As you can see, we were working with brandy butter, crystallised stem ginger curd, raisins in dark rum syrup, peaches in brandy syrup and mulled fruit tea. And here’s what we created…

Peach tarte tatin

Peach tarte tatin with brandy caramel and vanilla

Method:  drain syrup from peaches and reduce until golden(add lemon if you fancy) add 2 tbsp of brandy butter add peaches and vanilla cover with puff pastry, tuck in the edges and bake for 20mins. Turn out from tin and decorate with vanilla. Serves 4-6.

Hot buttered rum

Hot brandy buttered rum with raisins

Method: combine a tsp butter, tbsp of raisins, 25ml dark rum and 125ml hot water (small cup), serve immediately.

Mulled jelly

M&S Mulled fruit tea jelly with forest fruit

Method: add1 tea bag, 300ml hot water and tsp sugar or some sweetner to 2 sheets gelatine. soak gelatine in cold water for 5 mins first, make tea and add soaked gelatine to fridge to set. We also added a spoonful of frozen winter berries. Serves 2.

Ginger curd creme brulee

Creme brulee topped with M&S crystlised stem ginger curd

Method: follow vanilla brulee recipe before topping with ginger curd and a few raisins. Our torch was out of action so we ended up eating these as set custards, they were still pretty yummy. The curd is amazing on toast and has made it’s way into a cocktail or two since.

Buttered rum is fast rivalling mulled wine as my favourite festive drink – it’s incredibly simple to make but smells super Christmassy and you can make it as boozy as you like, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be downing around a dozen on Boxing Day!

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.