Friday, 17 February 2017

Sal's Kitchen tries... something new for 2017!

I’ve never been one to shrink away from a New Year’s Resolution – in fact, I find it a good excuse to think about what I want out of the year, set some goals and then go get ‘em. But my resolutions always take the form of doing something, rather than stopping something, because I reckon that’s a much more positive way to approach life.

This year, in January, as well as setting a few business resolutions (if you want to find out more about my blogging consultancy business, click here) I also decided that I was going to throw myself into trying a bunch of new activities and learning new skills, so the following three blog posts are about three different things I’ve had a go at so far. Have you started anything new for 2017? Write me a comment and tell me all about it!

Liqueur-Making at Combe Grove Hotel – set in a stunning location and led by one of the best mixologists in the city, during this course I learnt all about the history and mystery of liqueurs, and made my own pear, thyme & honey vodka. Highly recommended for cocktail fiends!

Lampshade-Making at Homefront Interiors – something I’ve never tried before but had a really great time doing. I came home with a gorgeous lampshade that I can’t stop admiring – perfect for interior-design aficionados who want to get a little creative.

Marmalade Make & Bake Day at Vale House Kitchen – a full day of getting cosy in the kitchen, creating the most incredible Seville orange marmalade and an armful of delicious marmalade-based bakes too. For anyone who wants to get to grips with traditional preserving skills – and marmalade fans, if you haven’t tried homemade yet, you are seriously missing out. 

Sal's Kitchen tries... Liqueur-Making, Combe Grove Hotel

This class was held in one of Combe
Grove's stunning private dining rooms
Keen-eyed readers will recognise the name of this hotel from my blog post about their fabulous tasting menu, in which each dish was accompanied by a cocktail from their marvellous mixologist, Shane Turner. I’m not really much of a cocktail person, but I have to say that these were really original and exciting, made with Shane’s own infused liqueurs and syrups, and with nary a tiny paper umbrella in sight.

With that in mind, when Combe Grove got in touch again to ask if I’d like to come to a liqueur-making workshop with their talented head barman, it didn’t take me very long to say yes. I arrived on the appointed day to find the same exquisite private dining room as before transformed into an incredible Bacchanalian feast of ingredients. Side tables overflowed with frilly bunches of fragrant herbs, piles of fat glossy strawberries, Spanish oranges wrapped in waxed paper, and golden-skinned pears.

Shane had raided the Combe Grove bar for a wide range of liqueurs (don’t worry, it was before cocktail hour) which he used to talk us through the history and practise of sweetened, flavoured spirits, from the mysterious, pale green chartreuse (made with over 130 plants to a recipe known only by two French monks, who aren’t allowed to travel together lest they perish and the secret perishes with them – true story) to Disaronno which, we learnt, is not a true amaretto (not that Disaronno claim it is) as it’s made with peach kernels instead of the traditional almonds. We sampled two different types of limoncello to compare the synthetic lemon flavouring to one infused with thick slices of lemon peel, full of fragrant oils – and agreed that the natural version, although a lot slower to make, was much deeper and more delicious.

My chosen ingredients

Then we came to the creative bit. Each of us was given a heavy glass jar and let loose amongst the bounty of ingredients to pick our flavours – I chose pears and a few sprigs of thyme, and elected to sweeten my infusion with honey, rather than sugar (a key characteristic of a liqueur is the amount of sugar added, a practice that started when sugar became widely available in the 13th century, and in a frenzy that would reduce a dentist to tears, we started adding it to everything). Finally, we topped it all up with plenty of Finlandia vodka and put the lids on tightly. Unfortunately, it takes 5 months for a proper infusion, so you’ll have to come back later to find out what it tastes like – but I had great fun on this course and would highly recommend it to any cocktail fiend. Make sure you allow time for a tipple or two in the bar afterwards.

£40 pp for a three hour course, includes your 40cl infused liqueur to take away. For more information, visit the Combe Grove Hotel website.

The finished liqueurs - ready to set down for five months...

Sal's Kitchen tries... Lampshade-Making, Homefront Interiors

Margaret's Buildings is a lovely little
street well-worth visiting
And now for something completely different! Homefront Interiors is a wonderful treasure-trove of a shop on Margaret’s Buildings, a little pedestrian street at the quiet end of town, lined with fabulous independent businesses. As well as selling all sorts of gorgeous decorative pieces, textiles, furniture and jewellery (much of it sourced locally), there’s also a space downstairs where owner Vanessa offers courses, and when she asked if I’d like to pick one to review, the lampshade-making caught my eye. It’s definitely something I’ve never done before and I was intrigued.

Prior to the course, you’re asked to purchase half a metre of fabric to make your lampshade – which might sound like an extra cost, but actually is really sensible as it means you can make sure the finished product will go with the room you have in mind. I popped into one of my favourite shops, the tiny overstuffed Green St Fabrics (full of exciting finds and with lovely, helpful staff) and picked out some cotton in rich oranges and reds.

The course itself was hosted by Sally Dove, a Bristol artist, who also makes lampshades to sell and to commission, using her own beautiful fabric designs – check out Sally Dove on Facebook. As she talked us through the process, from lining the fabric with stiff PVC to hold its shape (this bit had never occurred to me) to the nerve-wracking moment where you have to roll it onto the two rings which form the top and the bottom, doing both at once and trying not to go cross-eyed, Sally was creating her own lampshade, which meant it was all really easy to follow. She was extremely kind and patient, and we all ended up with something rather fabulous – my lampshade now sits on my bedside table and I must admit, every time I look at it I feel proud of how neat and professional it looks. This was a delightful thing to do and you come away with a beautiful souvenir, so I can’t recommend it enough. Sally also sells lampshade kits, if you want to have another go at home – and of course, if you don’t fancy doing the hard work yourself, you can buy her beautiful lampshades in the shop upstairs.

£48 pp for a three hour course with tea and cake provided, including your own lampshade to take away. For more information, visit the Homefront Interiors website.

My finished lampshade
And the real deal, from the fabulous Sally Dove

Sal's Kitchen tries... Marmalade Make & Bake Day, Vale House Kitchen

Courses at Vale House take place in a beautiful
airy classroom converted from an outbuilding
Regular readers may remember that I’ve been on a couple of Vale House Kitchen’s courses before – way back in 2014, I visited this charming cookery school for a Jams, Jellies and Cordials course with preserving champion (and WI judge, no less) Vivien Lloyd. I had a fantastic time and felt so much more confident about jam-making (which I’d previously found a little intimidating), so when Vale House got in touch again and invited me to try another of Vivien’s courses, I was immediately keen.

At this point, dear reader, I must make a terrible confession: prior to this course, I didn’t really like marmalade. I was too ashamed to mention this and felt that if anyone’s marmalade could convert me, it would be Vivien’s – and it turns out I was right. We actually started the day with a tasting, comparing a popular supermarket brand of marmalade with Vivien’s own homemade jars, and I was blown away by the difference. Shop-bought stuff is often rubbery (indicative of over-boiling) and lacking in flavour (a symptom of the aforementioned over-boiling), so you’ve just got to try the real deal – rich, tawny orange-gold, made with Seville oranges, with the peel cut so finely it melts in the mouth.

Having been converted, I was eager to create my own. Unfortunately, as I discovered, marmalade this good comes at a price – it requires time, care and the patience of a saint. Following Vivien’s instructions (with regular stops for demonstrations) we started by juicing and finely shredding our peel, which took around an hour. I felt like I was going slightly mad by the end of it, but it was worth it when we’d simmered our ingredients right down to make a gorgeous, vibrant mixture full of saffron-like threads of peel. Next, we added the sugar and learned to test for the setting point the old-fashioned way (using a sugar thermometer is apparently not 100% reliable) and then transferred our marmalade to clean, warm jars and screwed the lids on tight. The day ended with a little marmalade-based baking, from gorgeous deep-brown tea loaves to miniature marmalade muffins.

I always recommend Vale House because the whole experience is delightful – from the location, a gorgeous old manor house tucked into the side of a hill, surrounded by lush gardens, to hosts Bod & Annie (who are just lovely, providing constant cups of tea), to the delicious two-course lunch we enjoyed while our marmalade was simmering. As well as a whole range of cookery courses in the beautiful classroom Bod and Annie have converted from an old outbuilding, they also offer shooting & fishing weekends, foraging walks, and much more – check out the full selection here.

£120 pp, for a 7 hour course, including lunch plus your own marmalades and bakes to take away. For more information, visit the Vale House Kitchen website.

My finished marmalade - look how fine that
peel is!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Valentine's Day Mosaic Cake

I won’t lie to you, I am so delighted with how beautifully this cake turned out. Inside, it’s a light, moist chocolate sponge, layered with pink buttercream, and then the outside is a full-on mosaic of everything from the pick and mix counter.

Though it looks pretty impressive, it’s actually quite easy to put together too – all you need is a bucketful of sweeties, and a little bit of patience. This one is themed around Valentine’s Day, but you could of course go for whatever colours (and sweets) you fancy – a range of sizes and textures is best, to make the whole thing really pop. I used the following: Haribo Starmix & Strawbs, teeth & lips, ice cream cones, white chocolate buttons, Wild Berry Skittles (better colours for Valentine’s Day), Smarties, Dolly Mixtures, sugar pearls, sugar hearts, and Gummy Bears. Keep in mind that with things like the smarties and the skittles, you might not want to use all the colours, so you need to buy more than you think.

A note on my cake recipe – if you’ve made one of my cakes before, you’ll know that I always recommend margarine instead of butter (it gives a much lighter cake) and that I always suggest weighing the eggs, in their shells, and then using the same amount of margarine, sugar and flour. This means no matter what size the eggs are, the cake is never dry, and it’s why my measures for those ingredients are approximate. For the flour, use the weight of the eggs minus 25g, to allow for the cocoa powder. Finally, for a cake this big, you need a hell of a lot of buttercream – better to have too much than not enough.

For the cake:
4 eggs
Approx. 240g margarine
Approx. 240g caster sugar
Approx. 215g self-raising flour
20g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
For the buttercream:
550g margarine
275g icing sugar
Pink gel food colouring
To decorate:
Loads of sweets

First of all, make the cakes. This is a three layer cake, so you’ll either need three sandwich tins, or you can just do what I did and bake in two batches. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan). After you’ve weighed the eggs and made a note of the amount, break them into a bowl and mix with the margarine. Add the caster sugar and mix again. Finally, add the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder, and beat again until you have a smooth mixture.

Grease the sandwich tins and line the bottom of each one with a circle of greaseproof paper. Divide the mixture equally (remember, if you only have two tins, that you need to divide the mixture in three and bake another layer in a minute) and bake for 20 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tins for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

Don’t try and cover the cakes until they’re stone cold, or you’ll end up with a mess. When you’re ready to make the buttercream, simply beat together the margarine and icing sugar until smooth, then stir through enough pink gel food colouring to get the right colour (by the way, I always recommend gel colouring instead of the water-based stuff, which can cause your buttercream to split).

Sandwich the three cakes together with a thin layer of buttercream, to form a tall stack. Next, cover with more buttercream as evenly as possible, using a palette knife to spread it out. Top tip – if you haven’t got a palette knife, I find a plastic card such as an old library card or something (wash it first) works brilliantly. Try it before you laugh.

Finally, gently push the sweets into the buttercream to create the mosaic. Use smaller items (like the sugar pearls and hearts on my cake) to fill in the gaps, and try not to group the same sweets together in one place. It’ll take a little while, but it’s totally worth it. Ta da!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Review: The Free-Range Chef's Pop-up Pizzeria

If you follow me on Twitter @sal_godfrey (and if not, why not?), then you’ll know that last year I set up a Twitter community for Bath’s independent businesses, @bathindiechat. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to meet all sorts of amazing people, including the lovely Beth, also known as the Free-Range Chef. A fabulous foodie, she started out freelancing for FareShare South West’s Surplus Supper Club, which gave her a taste of catering for large numbers but also opened her eyes to the huge problems of food waste. Now she’s committed to seasonal ingredients and sustainability. When she started her business she also made a commitment to try and say yes to whatever she was asked to do, and it’s taken her on all sorts of adventures cooking for exciting events across Europe. When she’s not gadding about, she organises pop-ups and supper clubs in and around Bath, and when she invited me to her latest event – theme: pizza and puddings – it didn’t take me very long to say yes.

For January’s pop-up pizzeria, we made our way to Holt, where the village hall had been transformed into a cosy little restaurant for the evening, full of nice touches. Bright mismatched vases on the tables were filled with daffodils and pussy willow, while tealights in jam jars were placed on stacks of old hardbacks. The much-anticipated puddings were already laid out amongst fairylights and scattered physalis, and the air was full of delicious smells. We started out with three different pizzas – Somerset goats cheese & balsamic mushroom, classic margherita, and marinara with purple sprouting and pesto. They were all tasty but the goat cheese was the standout for me – a gorgeous combination with the balsamic mushrooms.

Although I loved the pizzas, it’s the puddings that stole my heart – in fact, it’s very hard to pick a favourite. We had crisp, pale pink meringues flavoured with rose and pistachio, mini pasticciotti (little filled tarts) with bergamot custard, dreamy sherry syllabub and Seville orange & cardamom brownies which tasted like they were almost pure chocolate. In keeping with her no-waste policy, Beth provided us all with little takeaway boxes to fill with our favourite delights, and I’m not ashamed to say our whole table got stuck in.

For two delicious courses, the evening was just £25 a ticket, or £20 to Holt residents (a lovely little touch I think), and you can bring along your own tipples. Beth’s menus are usually vegetarian and offer vegan and gluten-free options too, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy.  We had a fabulous time and I’d thoroughly recommend getting a group of friends together for one of Beth’s events! Check out the Free-Range Chef website for more information as well as great recipes and, of course, stories of all her latest adventures…

Coming up on the 17th of March: #bathindiechat and The Free Range Chef are collaborating on a fabulous supper club at Barton St Wine Bar! It's going to be a delicious event with three courses of feasting boards inspired by European cuisine, for just £30 a head. Get more info and book tickets by clicking here.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Review: Radiance Wellbeing Day Spa

Treatments from Radiance are about feeling
good, not looking good
January has to be the worst month of the year to be a woman. I know the summer months can get pretty intense, but January is a positive onslaught from all sides. Not only do you have to completely overhaul how your body looks (because you had far too much fun at Christmas, and now you WILL PAY), but you must give up meat, dairy and booze, turbocharge your exercise regime, declutter the house, sort out your career, and finally learn that language/musical instrument/martial art, all while the weather is utterly miserable and you have absolutely no money.

Frankly, this year I’ve simply opted out of these requirements (along with, I can’t help feeling, the majority of men). I’m going to stick with my usual exercise habits and dietary regime, whilst also cutting myself some slack based on the fact that it’s cold and grey and sometimes you just need a big bowl of comfort food. Surely, in the most depressing month of the year, it’s the ultimate time to be a little kinder to yourself.

Which is why I was delighted when Radiance Wellbeing invited me to review a massage at their lovely central Bath day spa. Radiance is light years away from your usual spa set-up, because there’s no ‘beauty’ here – which means no long list of treatments for things you didn’t even realise were a problem, and no painful procedures disguised as ‘pampering’ – yeah, spa guys, we’re on to you. Instead, the focus at Radiance Wellbeing is on treatments to make you feel good, which we could use more of at any time of year.

Ed on duty
I love a day spa. While a spa break at a manor house deep in the countryside is always fabulous, there’s something about strolling down a city street and opening a door into an unexpected Narnia of fluffy towels and gentle pan pipes that feels like a genuine, thrilling escape from the world outside. Not that Radiance subscribes to the usual clichés – while there are towels (very fluffy) and soothing music (not pan-pipe-based, at least while I was there), the décor combines a soft, muted palette with fabulously funky artwork by Bristol artist Alex Lucas – from the vibrant mural of birds and flowers splashed all over the chimney breast in The Drawing Room, to the natty jacketed hare (think Alice in Wonderland) who beckons you up the staircase with the words ‘and relax…’ There’s a luxurious free-standing roll-top bath tub complete with rubber duckie (called Ed), and a Snug filled with outsize bean bags and mementoes from Roger & Emma’s travels in Morocco. Magazines for your perusal range from Bath Life to the Big Issue (four copies purchased every other week, always from four different sellers). The whole place is bursting with personality, and I absolutely love it.

Alex Lucas' amazing work in The Drawing Room
So what was my massage like, I hear you cry? Well, dear reader, it was exquisite. Having made me a honey and ginger tea, masseuse Abby took me upstairs to The Drawing Room (Radiance’s biggest treatment room, with enough space for a couples’ massage, if that takes your fancy, and complete with a beautiful double shower), where she explained Radiance’s approach to appointments, which has obviously been thought out at some length. Treatments are booked and paid for in advance, so there’s no fumbling with your wallet to ruin the glow afterwards. Time for you to have a consultation, undress, and relax is built in, so that my 45 minute massage (the Radiance Rejuvenate package, £44.95) took up a 60 minute appointment. If you go for something longer, or book several treatments, you get even more chill-out time, so there’s never any rushing or clock-watching. Having chosen my massage oil (Relax, by the Oil Hut, a Devon-based company with a fabulous touch for fragrances) I shut my eyes and drifted off while Abby worked on my back, neck, shoulders and scalp.

Afterwards, I floated downstairs to say goodbye and was presented with my Radiance Wellbeing loyalty card – no messing about with points, simply have four treatments (scanning each time) and your fifth will be free. Yes please!

Frankly, I’m finding it hard to think of anything about this experience that wasn’t perfect. If you’re suffering from the January blues, I am officially giving you permission to get down to Radiance Wellbeing and treat yourself. If you don’t have time to stop, or you’re after some goodies to take home, you must also check out their shop on the ground floor, which is full of treats from super-local companies like Bath Spa Skincare, to popular favourites like Elemis and Floris of London. And relax…