As the family get ready for the New Year’s Eve celebration – the second main celebration of three over the festive season in Spain – Benjamin and I take a trip to the jetty where the fishing boats come in with their daily catch.
Benjamin’s mother has already been here earlier this morning to buy the seafood for the family evening meal on December 31st. There are twenty-two family members coming for dinner and Carmen (Benjamin’s mother) insisted on going to the muelle (port) to buy the galeras (mantis prawns) straight from her cousin’s fishing boat. She knows they will still be alive and even fresher than in the market place.
As we roll up at the wharf, there’s a buzz of activity. A man walks out with three large nets of mussels and my taste buds start to kick into action. We walk in and inspect the fish. It’s all in boxes on the floor. The floor is wet and people have their wellies on.
The fish is laid out in polystyrene boxes. It’s been weighed and each box has its label telling us the weight of the fish or seafood in the box, it’s origin and the name of the person who caught it.
We walk around examining the boxes. The fish has just come in off the boats and is so fresh it’s still alive. We find the galeras. They are wriggling around in the box.
Little black eyes like peppercorns on their transparent coating. People come in and marvel at the lubina (sea bass). It’s a good size and would easily feed a family of four on New Year’s Eve.
We wander out on to the harbour. A fishing boat is on its way out. They wave out to me as they see me taking a photo. They have a fantastic day for fishing. The sky is a beautiful blue, the sea is calm and there’s little wind. Another group of fishermen are unpacking their catch, they wash off the fish on board and throw it into a large plastic bucket ready to hand over to be sold.
Benjamin and I wander out of the building and over to the fisherman’s bar La Cantina Marinera. The sun is warm despite the temperature of 13 degrees and the terrace is busy. We walk through the terrace and make our way to the bar. At first, I think I am the only female in this busy bar. Something that years ago would have made me feel shy. On closer inspection, I notice there are more women and one of them I recognise from earlier when I saw her organising fishing nets.
I order some tapas and a couple of beers.
Everything on display is fish or seafood. The colours are amazing. Three generous tapas and two beers come to nine Euros. We sit at a table in the sunshine. The tapas are fresh and mouth-wateringly good. The bar starts to fill up with people coming for lunch. We sit back, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the tapas.
This summer I was invited to spend an evening at Backwell House boutique hotel near Bristol with the Bristol Bloggers group. I was keen to visit this nine-bedroom country house hotel, featured in the magazine Great British and Irish hotels 2017-18, as clients ask me to recommend retreat venues. My first impression, after spotting Backwell House from the woodland driveway, was that I was in for a treat. We had an amazing evening at the event and here are five reasons why I liked it.
Attention to detail
When looking for a retreat venue, for me there must be a wow factor, something that your guests may not have expected, or even if they were expecting it, it still makes them say wow”. While Backwell House has all the style of a Georgian house set in beautiful countryside, what really makes it special as a venue are the important little touches that give added value and comfort to your guests. It’s about making the experience special and the team at Backwell House know just how to do this. For me, Backwell House is a lifestyle choice in a venue setting.
From the coffee pot and Fairtrade sustainable ground coffee in the bedroom, the fresh wild flowers on the dining table, the organic kitchen garden, local products and free-range eggs from their own chickens, it’s all about giving you the quality treatment that you and your retreat guests deserve.
2. Fine dining experience
As far as possible the food is raised or grown on the land surrounding the hotel. While this adds to the postcard image, you can also be assured that if you choose a meat dish, the herds had once been happily grazing freely in the surrounding woodlands and hills. Seafood is sourced from Devon and any other food supplies are obtained locally from farmers in North Somerset. The delicious bread that was served with our meal comes from a local baker and the butter is homemade.
The stunning Victorian kitchen garden provides chef, Ross Hunter, with the organic herbs, and vegetables he needs for his dishes. Ross is an experienced chef and brings a unique combination of fresh local ingredients, flavours and style to the table.
My three -course dinner started with Brixham Crab with beetroot, apple and nori seaweed. The combination of colour and texture were amazing.
This was followed by a tasty 60-day Hereford Sirloin, Alliums, King Oyster Mushroom, Beef Jus with ox cheek which was cooked to perfection. Ross had obviously taken his time preparing this dish. While the ox cheek, a difficult dish to cook, was a perfect melt-in-your-mouth texture, I felt that it would have benefitted from more sauce. However, that maybe due to the fact that my experience of ox cheek is in rich Spanish sauces.
The meal ended with some delicious freshly made desserts, which were much appreciated by the group, and the cheeseboard with local cheese, which was a perfect choice to finish off the meal with a glass of red wine.
Each room is unique and decorated differently, adding charm to the visit and making guests feel special. The rooms are named after someone who had either lived at the Georgian House or was in some way related to it. An extra touch of charm and luxury can be found in some of the rooms as a free-standing bath allows you to take a dip while admiring the view through the French windows. The rooms are imaginative; the headboards are upcycled from the wooden floorboards, and luxurious at the same time.
Rooms are clean, comfortable and well provided with tea and coffee making facilities and have an impressive view of the surrounding area. Natural toiletries are provided by local ethical company Bramley.
The woodland area is ideal for walking while the back of the house leads you out to the flower and organic kitchen garden. There’s plenty of space for outdoor activities, a marquee or tepees.
If space is needed for workshops, activities or therapies, the dining room is available as well as a small cinema room in the old cellar. The breakfast room is a bright, airy and spacious room that could easily be converted into a space for workshops. There are plenty of tables, comfy chairs and seating areas making it ideal for a writing retreat where participants might need individual space.
Local coach Sarah Clark, from Mariposa Coaching, has participated in one of Backwell House’s events. Sarah said,
Backwell house is a beautiful venue steeped in history. Mariposa Coaching has been lucky enough to have a stand there on a regular basis at The Art of Wellbeing, a pop up wellness event. I have offered coaching tasters at a stand in their beautiful dining area with Georgian charm. Plus, talks on sustainable wellbeing, positive thinking and harmonious relationships in their cinema area which provides a relaxing and cosy event space. They even have a walled garden with doves in the dovecote.
4. Location / Easy access
Looking out over the countryside, you would have no idea that Backwell House is so well connected by road and air and is only 15 minutes’ drive from the bustling city of Bristol. Tucked away on the A370 in North Somerset, it’s easy to miss the beautiful wooded driveway that winds up into the grounds, taking you away from the main road.
The M5 and the M4 are both within easy reach and there is ample parking space. While Bristol International airport is only three miles away, making it easy for guests to arrive from many destinations, the venue is not on the flight path, meaning you can enjoy time here without aeroplanes flying overhead. It’s a ten-minute walk to the local pub and shops and a bus to Bristol stops on the main road if you’d like to visit Bristol, but don’t fancy driving.
5. Labour of love
The story of this hotel is an interesting one as director Guy Williams spent three years living in a caravan in the grounds of the Georgian house as the project developed. His love for the hotel and grounds shines through as he talks about how it was restored. Where possible, things have been upcycled and reused in the project. Very little has gone to waste. The bar contains reclaimed wood from the floorboards and the mosaic pattern was carefully put together by Guy. It seems he has got everyone involved – his mother made the curtains for the venue – and his passion has infected the rest of his team.
Guy has chosen his team well. He wants the best when it comes to providing a homely and comfortable, yet sophisticated and luxurious ambience. Guy has plans to make Backwell House bigger and add more rooms. I just hope that the expansion doesn’t mean losing the quality that he’s built up so far.
Would I hold a retreat here?
The answer to this question is yes. All in all, I loved the way the team looked after the personal touches at this boutique hotel. At the time of writing this post, the hotel has only nine rooms and there’s definitely an air of relaxed sophistication here. Local products always score a high for me and the chef is more than capable of catering for all requirements.
I feel like it’s the sort of venue where you could leave your walking boots by the front door and change into your indoor shoes as if it were your own home, while enjoying the luxury of being looked after. The team would like you to feel at home and will happily provide drinks on the lawn on long summer evenings or cocktails around the fireplace in the winter.
If you decide to hold a retreat here, bear in mind that unless you book the whole venue, you may come across other guests either staying or dining at the hotel. I recommend that you, or your retreat event manager, visit any venue before booking to get a feel for the place to make sure that it’s right for you and your guests.
What you need to know
Room prices from £95 to £245 per night B&B
Menus start at £29 for 2 courses. £35 for 3 courses
The white village of Trebujena is perched on the top of a hill overlooking the estuary and surrounded by marshes. It’s not generally on the tourist path, but if, like me, you enjoy excellent tapas, then I recommend adding Trebujena to your go-to-list when eating out in the province of Cadiz.
About 30 minutes from Jerez de la Frontera and 20 minutes’ drive from Sanlucar de Barrameda, Trebujena is a quiet, unassuming and friendly village. If you are in the area in the summer, it’s best to go in the evening as it can get incredibly hot here during the day.
So, where should you go when you get there?
One of the great things about Trebujena is that each bar has its own range of tapas and by that, I mean you won’t find the same standard menu in each one. They all have their own charm and delicious tapas. Whether you choose Bar El Litri, La Escalerita de Ana or Bar El Cura, you won’t be disappointed. While I recommend all three for their excellent tapas and service, in this post I’m going to tell you about my latest experience in Bar El Cura, which you’ll find in the plaza Antonio Cañada.
What we chose
We came here on the Sunday evening of a busy weekend during the Trebufest; Trebujena’s annual music festival. Knowing how busy they had been all weekend, I was half expecting the kitchen to be closed and the tapas to be of a lower standard than normal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The selection of tapas in Bar El Cura is varied and elegant. Whilst most bars in and around Cadiz serve the traditional pescaito frito, (fried fish) El Cura has a menu of original tapas at very reasonable prices. We started the evening with a cold tapa of ‘salpicon’ a seafood salad with tomatoes, pepper, onion and a dressing. Salpicon varies from place to place and the amount of seafood you get can sometimes be outweighed by the salad, but fortunately, El Cura is generous with the seafood.
Next came the exquisite Taleguitas de alcauciles y patanegra; beautifully wrapped parcels with artichokes and cured ham wrapped in filo pastry and deep fried. Artichokes are commonly known as ‘alcafchofas’ in most parts of Spain, but here in Cadiz they are known by their other name ‘alcauciles’. A deliciously warm mixture of textures and flavours, this tapa won my vote immediately.
We followed this with a dish that still makes my mouth water every time I see the photo. Milhojas de mango, queso de cabra y jamon from the specials board was a tapa I had never tried before. Filo pastry topped with a layer of mango and goats cheese, a slice of cured ham and a tiny drizzle of olive oil on the top. Biting into this was like disappearing into food paradise.
Next came the other half’s choice which, of course, being the more carnivore of the two had to include meat. He ordered magret de pato sobre timbal de patata – duck on a bed of potato. The duck was moist, and the potato melted in my mouth bringing out the wonderful flavour of the duck.
We finished the savoury dishes with another one from the specials board ‘pulpo al horno’ – oven baked octopus. I am not exaggerating when I say that every mouthful of this dish was accompanied by an ‘ooh’ or an ‘mmm’. The dish was served hot and with papas panaderas (potatoes fried and then baked in the oven)and roast peppers.
El Cura also has a great selection of wines and local sherries to choose from. It was impossible to leave without a homemade chocolate dessert, a café bombon (coffee with condensed milk) and a peppermint tea.
Two of us ate and drank for around 22 Euros. This bar gets a sobresaliente (ten out of ten) from me for its original selection of tapas, taste and excellent value for money. The service is great and the professional dedication from the owner is amazing. As a family run business Bar El Cura closes on a Tuesday, so remember to choose another day if you want to go here.
Top tip A tapa will give you a saucer size dish while aracion will give you a larger portion. Tapas vary in size from restaurant to restaurant. If you have never been to a particular restaurant before and you aren’t sure whether to order a tapa or a racion, start with a tapa to judge the size of their portions. Some tapas are extremely generous and are great for sharing, whilst in other places you will need to order a racion (a large portion roughly about a plateful) or media racion (half a portion ) for sharing. As tapas and raciones can be ordered as you go and don’t need to be ordered all at once, you can judge the size on your first order and take it from there. Buen provecho – enjoy your meal!
* I have been to this restaurant more than once and I love it. Every time both the food and service has been excellent. Bar El Cura had no idea that I am reviewing them and all opinions are my own (and of those who shared the meal with me!).
If you have ever been to Spain and wondered what type of coffee to ask for, then this guide to ordering coffee that I came across recently is just for you.
Spanish coffee is strong and down to earth. You won’t find a menu with lattes or cappuccinos. So, whether you choose to drink it hot, with ice, decaf, with or without milk or very sweet with condensed milk, this guide will hep you decipher the lingo when it comes to ordering coffee in Spain.
If you prefer not to drink caffeine, you can order all the coffees in the guide with decaf coffee (descafeinado). So, a decaf coffee with condensed milk becomes ‘un descafeinado bombon’.
While the guide refers to a café manchado as either an espresso with a splash of milk or a ‘glass of milk flavoured with coffee’, I have always known it as the latter – hot milk with a splash of coffee. Coffees do vary from region to region though, so it’s worth checking.
If you are visiting Spain in summer, a café bombon con hielo (coffee with condensed milk and ice) is a great way to drink something cool if you don’t fancy an ice cream or would prefer a cool, but sweet alternative to a dessert after a meal.
One thing that is still not common everywhere in Spain (although Madrid may be different) is soy or other alternatives to dairy milk. However, lactose-free milk is generally on offer in most coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
Don’t be surprised if your coffee served in a glass in Spain, but one thing you will rarely find (and let’s hope it stays that way) is coffee served in a plastic or polystyrene disposable cup therefore, making coffee drinking an environmentally-friendly affair as well as a sociable one. As the guide to ordering coffee says “the last thing to note is that most Spaniards do not take their coffees ‘to go’. Instead, they sit down to enjoy their drinks with friends or family”.
Semana Santa, or Holy week, is a week of processions and traditional food leading up to Easter in Spain. If you have never seen a Semana Santa procession, it’s quite something. In the larger cities, people come out in their droves to watch the religious effigies passing by accompanied by sombre music. The procession goes on for hours at a time and consists of a paso – large wooden statues of Jesus and Mary on a float along with other representations of the Christian portrayal of Easter. It’s impressive, not only because of the decoration, fresh flowers and the robes and candles of the penitents that follow the effigies, but also because the representation is carried on the shoulders of people, generally men, who have been in training for weeks.
In the villages, it’s often a challenge as they move the ‘paso’ around tight corners and along narrow streets. Probably, the one that impressed me the most was in the smaller town of Salobreña in the province of Granada. The effect of the colours against the background of the white village was breath taking. This was also the first time I experienced La Saeta– a religious song sung a capella in which the singer shows his devotion to the statue in the procession. A band playing through the streets is always enough to make me want to watch any procession, but the saeta was something else. A powerful voice reaching out across the square was the only sound you could hear amongst the crowd.
Semana Santa is also a week for eating and dining out with friends and family. While there are various traditional sweet dishes during Holy Week, one of my favourites is Torrijas – a type of sweet French toast.
While the recipe varies slightly all over Spain, typically Torrijas are made from bread left to soak in milk or wine, dipped in egg, fried and covered in a sweet syrup.
Torrijas are widely available in Spanish cake shops during Lent and are often made at home too. It’s a simple process to make these delicious treats. You’ll find the Spanish either eating them for breakfast or with an afternoon coffee.
How to make Torrijas
I’ve been told the trick is to use day old bread and whole milk. In Chipiona the local sweet wine Moscatel is often used to soak the bread rather than milk. The Torrijas are fried and then bathed in syrup producing a rich, sweet and filling treat. While some people make the syrup with hot water and sugar, Benjamin’s mum, Carmen, uses hot water and honey with a pinch of salt creating a sweet syrup called meloja. The quantity of each ingredient depends on the amount you wish to prepare.
Soak the bread in milk with a pinch of salt or wine for at least 30 minutes
Beat some eggs with milk
Dip the bread soaked in milk or wine into the egg mixture
Fry the bread in hot oil
Remove each slice carefully from the frying pan and place on kitchen paper to cool and drain off any excess oil.
To prepare the syrup – heat a pan of water, add plenty of honey and a pinch of salt. Once the mixture has reached boiling point, lower the heat and keep stirring until the syrup thickens.
Once the bread has cooled, you can dip each slice into the hot syrup using a pair of tongs. It’s important that the bread has cooled otherwise it will disintegrate in the syrup. Put the bread slices onto a plate or a container and pour the rest of the syrup over the top so that the slices remain moist. Once they have cooled, they are ready to eat and will last for a few days if kept in an airtight container. I don’t know about other Spanish families, but here the Torrijas don’t usually make it to the air-tight container however many Carmen makes!
While this might sound overly sweet, the bread gives it a savoury touch. I’m not very sweet-toothed but I have to admit I love home-made Torrijas.
Variations on the recipe include adding cinnamon to the milk when soaking the bread and lemon peel to the oil when frying.
If you are looking for an energy boost Torrijas are ideal. Apparently, before they became associated with Semana Santa they were given to women in labour to recover their strength after giving birth.
If you have enjoyed reading this or make your own Torrijas, I’d love to hear about it in the comment box below.
As I sip my spicy hot chocolate, the flavour hits the tip of my tongue. Cinnamon, cloves, chilli and star anise. It’s warm, exotic and luxurious. Just like hot chocolate should be.
I stir my chocolate and think of Nicola Eaton. When anyone mentions living the ideal life and having the dream job to Nicola, she shrugs and smiles to herself. She considers she already has her ideal lifestyle.
“I don’t need to go up Everest. I’m very happy with the life I’ve got.”
As the owner and creator of The Really Expensive Chocolate Company, it might be easy for some of us to see why Nicola is so happy with her choice.
So, how did she make the transition from children’s nurse to running her own chocolate company?
At the workshop
As I sat down and got ready to interview Nicola, she whipped me up a hot chocolate. She used cacao powder from her new source. It’s the same powder that she uses for her hot chocolate cubes.
I first met Nicola at a network meeting, so I know a bit about her already, but I was keen to find out more.
We settled down with our chocolate and some almond and lemon curd biscuits that Nicola bought at the Doynton market on Saturday. I was feeling rather privileged to be spending an hour of a Monday morning sipping hot chocolate and listening to Nicola’s story.
Nicola has converted her garage into her workshop. It’s bright and light. There’s a table in the middle, two chocolate making machines and a small kitchen area. A corner with paperwork and a printer where Nicola prints transfers to go directly onto white chocolate.
Nicola has been making chocolate here since 2009. In this quiet, tranquil room this is where it all happens. The chocolate gets designed, made, tasted, packed and sent out. She also runs adult workshops here.
How it all started
It might be fair to say that chocolate-making found Nicola rather than the opposite. Although chocolate has always had an influence in her life, as Nicola’s great uncle used to work for Cadbury at Bournville. She remembers going there as a child and her great uncle would bring home misshapes for her to eat.
“Chocolates with caramel in them; they were bashed about, but they were lovely.”
In 2006 Nicola’s family gave her a voucher for Betty’s in Harrogate. Betty’s, a well-established tea room with a cookery school, offers a wide range of courses. Nicola chose to spend her voucher on a chocolate-making workshop. She had a lovely day there and came back with a big bag of chocolates she had made. Wanting to make the most of her new skill, Nicola began making chocolate as presents for family.
From children’s nurse to chocolate maker
At the time Nicola began making chocolate, she was involved in research for palliative care for children. She started her working life as a children’s nurse in Great Ormond Street, moved to Wales to study a PHD and then taught nursing and computing at university.
People liked the chocolate she was making and started to ask her if they could buy it.
“Would I make some for them to buy?”
There’s a slight hint of amazement in her tone, as though she still can’t quite believe it.
From her kitchen, Nicola started making chocolate by hand. She approached a local village market in Doynton and started to sell her chocolate there on a Saturday morning. In 2007, she set up a little business using the smallest of the three machines that are now in her workshop.
Nicola began to understand her clients and what they would buy. In 2008 a three-day business course helped her with branding. She had called herself Nicola’s Chocolates, but decided that, if she was going to make this work, she needed a name that sounded more business-like. She chose The Really Expensive Chocolate Company.
As Nicola began to sell more, she took the decision to give up her day job to concentrate on making chocolate full time in 2009.
Nicola now works with Julie who helps her taste, make chocolate and pack, and she regularly works with freelancer, Jo Rymell, photographer and graphic designer from Hot Hibiscus Design. Jo designs the personalised labels that are Nicola’s speciality, making the chocolate bars an ideal gift.
At busy times of the year she also employs local students looking for some extra income to construct boxes for her.
She goes regularly to local markets and craft fairs. She also does talks and demonstrations at Women’s Institute meetings, friendship groups and Rotary groups. She had just received a phone call before I arrived to book her again for next year.
“I take a lot of chocolate samples. I take champagne truffles ganache and I make truffles while I’m there and I dip them in chocolate.” No wonder they keep inviting her back.
“I give them a history of chocolate, how it’s made. Just a few facts I’ve picked up along the way,” she said modestly. The audience also get a 10% discount to spend on her products. She told me about the Mayans and how the Spanish took cacao beans back to Spain and made a thick chocolate drink with them. Nicola liked it when I told her the Spanish still make this drink. I made a mental note to bring Nicola some Spanish hot chocolate on my next visit to Spain.
We talked about the importance of finding support at networking groups. Nicola regularly attends a local ladies networking group, Ladies Who Latte .
“When I met the group about two years ago, my business sort of turned a corner. It was really helpful. Through Ladies Who Latte, I had the impetus to set up a new website. I met Jo, she did lots of photos for me. We’re friends now.”
She often takes samples of her work with her for us to taste. At meetings Nicola tells us how wonderful it is to work with Jo. She’s very generous when it comes to recommending the people in the group that she has worked with.
Nicola has also been approached by the National Trust to make spicy spoons from a 17th Century recipe found at Dyrham Park, near Bath.
“You have to get all the spices right. Julie and I spent ages drinking hot chocolate, just to try and get the flavour right”
She laughed as she remembers that one sample had too much chilli.
“We couldn’t taste anything for the next hour!”
She told me that the volumes of spices used vary, depending whether the spices are in the powder or in the chocolate itself. When milk is added to the powder it affects the quantity of spices.
“So, we had to taste quite a few of those too,” she added.
Nicola likes to be able to identify all the spices, “I don’t particularly like very strong chilli, but actually, in chocolate it’s very nice.”
I have to agree.
“When you are making things like this, you have to try a lot of hot chocolate” joked Nicola.
The feel-good factor
We talked about the benefits of chocolate.
“It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s good for your heart. It’s good for senile dementia. It reduces stress” It also contains iron and magnesium.
The Really Expensive Chocolate Company uses Belgian chocolate. Nicola uses only cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and milk (if it’s milk chocolate). All her chocolate is gluten free and the dark chocolate is dairy free. She makes a range of Moo free chocolate and the 80% dark chocolate has very little sugar.
As well as the health benefits, Nicola understands how chocolate connects to others. It’s a way of showing you care.
“Of course,” she reminded me, “the three Quaker families (Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry) who advocated the drinking of chocolate in the U.K., instead of alcohol, were philanthropists who looked after their workers.”
Show you care with chocolate
For businesses who are looking for something special to give their clients or members of staff, Nicola can “make chocolate to help their business.”
Nicola’s speciality is personalisation. She makes bespoke labels for her bars, making them ideal gifts for events, place names at weddings and dinner parties and thank you presents. Or, have your logo printed straight onto white chocolate with edible ink. It’s a bit like putting a transfer onto chocolate and looks fantastic. A great touch for business. She also makes letters and numbers and is currently exploring with Lego®.
The philanthropist and chocolate fits. While Nicola has changed her career, she’s still very much involved in caring for children. She’s a trustee of the Jessie May Trust, a volunteer at a messy church play session and sometimes looks after some local children. Until recently she was also a school governor.
Time to go
I left with a spicy spoon and instructions to report back. The sort of homework I like. I have enjoyed talking to this warm, generous and unassuming lady. Later as I drink my spicy spoon, I realise that Nicola’s nature is reflected in her chocolate. I feel peaceful, relaxed and content.
It would be hard to say which of Nicola’s chocolate is my favourite as it is all so good, but as a dark chocolate lover, I am going to go for the 80% dark chocolate. And, I highly recommend the spicy spoon.