I eat out more than the average person. Once or twice a week is pretty standard, which does admittedly make slimming a little hard sometimes but it’s a habit that I’m not willing to give up. Not every trip out makes it onto the blog because more often than not I’ll head back to places I’ve been before or, if the food or service somewhere is very disappointing, I don’t tend to give it a feature. St Mary’s Inn is one of the places I know I will visit again and again because on our first visit we were planning a return even before we’d finished our main course.

Based in an old hospital building at Stannington village on the outskirts of Morpeth, St Mary’s Inn isn’t too easy to find. We went along on a Friday evening in March when the night sky was pretty damn black. We had to navigate through the housing estate the gastrob pub is based in without too many signs to guide us. If I had a criticism of the place it would be this, though if too many people start being able to find St Mary’s, it may well become one of those venues where it’s impossible to get a table!

We’d been invited to review St Mary’s by the owners and had heard many good things before our trip, which is to be expected when you consider the place is owned by the same people as Jesmond Dene House (as featured in our Aldi Christmas post). The building itself towers above the houses of the estate, which I’ll give to you as a tip to find it. Inside, the old hospital has been divided into different areas – a bar, some little cosy corners where you can sup a pint mid dog walk (dogs are welcome and bar snacks are available, which means Ruby is definitely going to St Mary’s at some point too) and of course, several larger dining areas complete with large tables and some booths. Ooh, not forgetting an outside patio I spyed that will be lovely when the sun finally springs up in Northumberland! It was a fairly chilly night and we were pleased to find the staff stoking the fires when we arrived. Despite the size of St Mary’s Inn there are lots of cosy spots and there were many of family groups and couples dining when we arrived.

Our menu choices weren’t easy to make – there are lots of locally inspired plates on the menu and while meaty choices caught our eye on this occasion, the vegetarian options seemed equally appetising and it was nice to see more than one token veggie choice available. You can take a peek at the menu, which also features an afternoon tea option here.

Service throughout our meal was excellent and while our waitress may well have known we were there at invitation of the owners, we observed attentive service at all tables and at the bar area too. We were particularly impressed with our servers’ knowledge of the menu as she recommended different side selections based on what would come with our main course automatically and was able to talk about all elements of several main courses to help me make my decision. It sounds like a simple thing all waiting staff should be able to do but I’ve been pretty depressed by how little some restaurant staff seem to know about the food they are serving recently. Anyway, I digress.

For starters we chose chicken liver parfait, onion jam and truffle brioche (£7.20) and a rather awesome looking piece of pork pie with homemade picalilli (forgot to write the price down but think this was about £6). There was pease pudding elsewhere on the menu, so the other half was extra cheeky and asked if he could try some with his pie.

The  very generous portion of pate was beautifully smooth, complemented by the sweetness of the jam. The pork pie was meaty with lovely jelly and thick crumbly pastry. I didn’t feel the truffle element of the brioche was particularly necessary but the bread was delicious all the same.

We’d chosen some very meaty main courses – I selected the mince and dumplings (£12.00) and Steve chose the maple glazed pork chop (£15.00). We both got some delicious roasted root vegetables (Steve as a side and mine as part of my main). The herby dumplings came in a deep bowl with some top class mashed potato and cabbage on the side. The massive chop came with vine roasted tomatoes and a pot of wholegrain mustard.

I liked everything about my comforting main course and could happily have drunk the rich meat gravy through a straw had I not been in public and the gravy itself not been so deliciously thick. The pork chop was lightly glazed and well cooked, though Steve did lament that the fat wasn’t cooked quite so much on one side, which was a really minor thing all in all. I must confess, we decided to have dessert not because we were hungry but because the previous two courses led us to believe we’d be in for a treat. Still, lack of free stomach capacity dictated we would have to share a dessert and we opted for a warm almond and apple tart with ginger ice cream (£6). It came served with an apple crisp.

Frangipane style apple tart with ginger ice cream and apple crisp The apple tart was frangipane style but not over sweet. The ice cream was very creamy with small pieces of stem ginger folded through. I’m not quite sure how, but we cleared the plate rather quickly.

It’s been a while since I raved about a place as much as I have St Mary’s following our visit. A friend who lives on the estate recently confirmed my suspicions that the food is consistently good and recommended I try the afternoon tea next time I visit. There are rooms above the pub and restaurant and we are almost tempted to book one just so we can both sample the best of the menu and the bar in one evening. Along with 40 whiskies on the bar, that outdoor area that will soon be coming alive for spring and the little nooks where we can relax with a pint of Apsall without leaving Ruby the dog at home, we have many reasons to return to St Mary’s Inn.

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 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.