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.

Now I work in the Toon a few days a week I seem to be eating out in the city centre less – I’ve been visiting a lot of super local Northumberland restaurants lately and also heading to eateries in Jesmond and Gosforth. One such venue is Jam Jar, where I headed a few weeks ago at the venue’s invitation after a change of chef.I’ve never actually been to Jam Jar despite several attempts to visit – awkward things like catching colds kept curtailing trips at the last moment. I’d heard mixed reviews but approached the table in the relaxed looking Osborne road venue with an open mind. Jam Jar run a few specials on different nights, so we’d already scoped out the menu online and were a bit disappointed to find the nights were not as advertised on the website and we needed to make another selection. It was in fact steak night – where you can get two steaks for £15, which is a pretty good deal. The website has since been updated so the correct days are now showing for the right deals and there’s some snazzy photos on there too.

However, my dining partner and I didn’t think it would be too insightful if we both ate the same thing, so he asked for a burger while I chose the steak. We also selected one of the seriously jammy drinks from the cocktail menu – I had a Tea Time Jam and he opted for a Mexi Jam.

apricot jam and amaretto cocktail from jam jar jesmond

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Jam Jar has a bit of a backroom, which was filled out with a rather large birthday party. There must have been around 30 dining in total and it’s always tricky for a kitchen to cater to such a high volume at once. With this in mind, we did have a bit of a wait for our food, though we were happy enough to sit and sip our drinks as there was genuinely a nice atmosphere I was pretty taken with my cocktail. As someone who still regularly drinks wine and spirits out of mugs (much to my mother’s disgust), I’m a fan of sticking drinks in jam jars – whether it’s trendy or not, it’s a good size glassful for me!

When our food came it did look good and my steak was a decent size and cooked perfectly to medium rare. Unfortunately the burger wasn’t quite as good – the patty itself was well done – rather than the medium rare we were expecting. It was also quite hard to track down the smoked cheese sauce that had us salivating when we first read about it. It was however a plentiful plateful and the fries that came with the meals were also an ample portion. Looking around the other tables our portions seems to be the standard and we certainly did not go hungry. If I was being picky I would say some of the fries were a little overdone – all crunch and no potato, though they were well seasoned and presented. Jam Jar do run a limited desserts menu, but we were already feeling pretty full, so we chose to share an alcoholic milkshake instead.

The milkshake really hit the spot as a replacement pudding and I probably stole more than my fair share. Overall we felt that Jam jar was a place with a nice ambience and decent drinks, it’s not necessarily somewhere I’d choose just for dining but I will definitely call in for another drink while our burger was not perfect they did have a large party to battle when we were in and maintained good service levels.

As a restaurant-bar combining an Asian fusion menu with a serious cocktail selection, Sohe was always going to attract my attention and I was pretty darn delighted when I was invited along to the place a few weeks ago to sample their wares for myself. Unfortunately, on the cold, dark, evening in question I was reminded, as I am from time to time, that atmospherically-lit restaurants and iPhone photography are not the ideal match. Our table, lovely as it was in the middle of the room, was not well lit – or lit at all really and so I’ve taken the decision not to include or review the food at Sohe in this post. The food itself was good – the favourite of what we ate being the crispy beef salad starter – but what really shone on our first visit were the cocktails and these photographed slightly better, so I’ve decided to focus a little on those instead.

While I don’t pretend to be a cocktail aficionado, I am in the lucky position of having a boyfriend who happens to be a pretty good maker of cocktails (i’d say great but his head will explode), so I do think I can recognise a well-made beverage. As I’ve grown older I’ve also firmly moved away from my student days of drinking whatever happens to be on offer into the more mature (but often more drunkeness inducing) habit of selecting just a few good drinks to see out my evening. You’d think this would make it easy to tell you about the drinks we had on that first visit to Sohe and a good blogger would definitely have written down the name of the cocktails consumed, so on this occasion I must admit to having been a very bad blogger indeed. I do remember sipping quite a lot of a Wor Lassie, which incidentally was what my dining partner had ordered for himself but the pineapple+gin+mango combo made it the perfect dessert choice and jealousy led to me stealing more than my fair share. Here’s what we ordered first time round (the photographs of which are the best of our first Sohe visit by far).

Admittedly, these shots are not my finest photography moment but the cocktails themselves were impressive, so much so that we decided to pop back to Sohe the following week just for drinks, when we were lucky enough to catch the bar manager, Amy, in action. I should point out that on our second visit Amy had no idea that I was a blogger but she totally blew us away with her cocktails and her customer service. Just as a true mixologist should, she was able to recommend drinks based on the first drinks we chose and descriptions of flavours we like and she even went a little off menu to please our palates. We didn’t photograph many of the drinks we had that night because it soon became clear that Sohe is just not made for photography – the venue itself is beautiful but the dim lighting makes it impossible to take good photos with my below par smartphone, so until I upgrade to something a little more fancy schmancy I only have the following photos to serve up.

Now, I’m embarrassingly going to say I can’t remember the name of the dreamy selection on the left, which featured some lovely Japanese Choya, on the right was a special creation finished with a little dragonfruit. The star of the evening however was a non-photographed gin cocktail that featured a fizzy sherbet finish.

While I’m obviously not imparting much wisdom to you here by forgetting the names of the cocktails, I’m pretty confident that should you venture into Sohe they will be able to fix you up a drink that’s just what you wanted. In the meantime, check out the cocktail menu, I’m fairly confident you’ll find your new favourite on it!