Thursday, 22 June 2017

Three Great Interiors Outlet Stores

There's a certain irony to writing a blog post about outlet stores when the summer sales are about to kick off, but bear with me - these three places are good to keep on your radar whenever, and can be combined with other activities if your children simply won't countenance a whole day looking at discount furniture. 

It's important to note that each of these places should be visited with an open mind - you can't go expecting to find any one specific item, but if you have more general requirements and like the idea of finding an unexpected bargain these places are worth the trip out of town (they are all within an hour of Bristol.)


 John Lewis Outlet, Swindon

If I was being mean, I might say that this place is perhaps the only reason to visit Swindon. But actually, the John Lewis outlet is right next to a rather good train museum, STEAM, which is most useful if you have children who are into that kind of thing - ie: you can shop, they can play trains for the afternoon. 

There are some serious bargains to be had at this outlet, from discounted white goods to end of line home accessories. Again, you can't come expecting to find a Miele dishwasher on display, but if you're thinking of updating your washing machine, TV or bed there's usually plenty on offer to tempt you.

Items are returned goods, end of lines or ex shop display and as such they may have the odd scratch or mark. When our washing machine conked out we rang the shop ahead and found that there was and identical one on sale - it just had a slight dent on one side. We took a chance on it and got it delivered by John Lewis without having to visit in person. 

The highlight of our shopping adventures at the outlet has to be our Halo Groucho leather sofa which to buy new comes in at a hefty £1299. The slightly scratched (but all the better for it) sofa we picked up cost just £600 and is a perfect addition to our compact living room.

The store is part of the larger Swindon Designer Outlet where you'll also find bargains from the likes of M&S, Next and Reiss.

Find out more here

Kilver Court Designer Village



I hadn't expected to find so many nice things for the home at Kilver Court, an upmarket retail village in Shepton Mallet. Synonymous with discounted Mulberry goods, we visited on a recommendation from a friend who'd had a lovely afternoon at the adjoining secret gardens. While not free to enjoy, the gardens here are absolutely stunning and a good place for shopping weary kids to let off some steam. They're tranquil and beautifully framed by an aqueduct, with a central lake and pretty rockery to complete the picture. 

Quite a different experience to other designer outlets, Kilver is a much more relaxed shopping experience, with a selection of old mill buildings housing a variety of different departments. One side is dedicated to clothing with high-end brands such as Toast, Joseph and Whistles on offer.

But the highlight for me was the charming three storey section filled with homeware, next to the Harlequin Cafe. This isn't the place to come looking for big-ticket items, but if you're after accessories, towels or kitchen ware, it's a real treasure trove of lovely stuff. 

On my visit I picked up an amazing bargain - a glass cabinet identical to one I'd seen in Graham & Green - that weekend it was reduced from £100 to £50 (the Graham & Green version costs £300.) It's a little bit scratched and a tad flimsy but it makes an ideal TV stand and receptacle for the kids' playstation and Wii games. 

Kilver is also brilliant for bargain buys for your garden. As well as stunning flowers and plants to buy, the brilliantly-named Wiggly Shed shop is a cornucopia of pretty things for your garden - pots, vases, bee houses and much more. 

Find out more here

Graham & Green Outlet Store



Located in a non-descript trading estate on the outskirts of Chippenham, this place is worth a detour if you happen to be spending a day in Wiltshire. You could combine a visit with a morning at the lovely Castle Combe or Lacock - both are within easy distances of the store. 

Very much a factory space filled with discounted and damaged stock, this is a place for people who like to rummage and can see the potential in pieces that might need a bit of TLC. We spotted a lovely large size copper floor lamp, normally £175. But it had been used for a photo shoot and was, rather inconveniently, missing its springs. 

After negotiating the price down from £100 to £80, we decided to take a punt on it (the sales assistant assured us we could find the right springs online; in actual fact, we contacted a Graham & Green store in London who very kindly sent us replacement springs free of charge - major customer service brownie points!)

I also spotted some gorgeous chandeliers, cushions and bedding - items I've often lusted over when their catalogue pops through my door, but which I didn't - on this occasion - have a requirement for. I did buy some cute pineapple candle holders (a couple of quid each instead of £8, slightly damaged), though. Bigger furniture items are available too - I spotted some lovely sofas and those stunning mother of pearl pieces that make my heart beat a bit faster every time I see them. 

Find out more here

Top photo courtesy of Kilver Court. 

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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Eating Out in Bath: Tapas Revolution

There is a lovely tapas restaurant in the coastal town of Calella de Palafrugell that encapsulates everything I love about Mediterranean food. Just moments from the beach, it's a simple, unpretentious place that doesn't require you to change out of your sandy sandals or beach dress to gain entry; it's the sort of restaurant you can wander into direct from your sun-lounger when the promise of an ice-cold cerveza and plate of glistening olives can be resisted no longer.

Featuring a counter top heaving with tempting morsels of deliciousness, Calau, as it's called, is my favourite kind of eating place, a restaurant where you can try a multitude of dishes and just keep on going till you're full, with a glass of rosado to wash it all down with. Forget Michelin-starred restaurants - when I imagine heaven, I imagine a limitless supply of fluffy clouds and kittens, and tapas restaurants on every corner.

As such, you won't be surprised that I was pretty excited to hear about a new tapas restaurant that has recently arrived at the thriving Southgate quarter in Bath. Having sampled a few of the other additions to this part of the city, I was interested to see Tapas Revolution adding to the mix with the promise of authentic tapas using ingredients sourced from artisan producers in Spain. 

The seventh opening in a small chain, Tapas Revolution has the rather dashing Spanish TV chef, Omar Allibhoy, as its figurehead. With fans including Gordon Ramsay (who calls the chef 'the Antonio Banderas of cooking') and a whole raft of celebs (he's made tapas for everyone from Johnny Depp to Prince William) I was curious to see if his offering would stand up to to the glitzy endorsements. 

I was also - as a bit of a gin lover - interested to hear that Tapas Revolution "honours Spain's position as the biggest consumer of Gin and Tonics in Europe." I knew there was another reason why I've always felt that Spain is my spiritual home...

Taking inspiration from the bustling tapas bars in Madrid, Barcelona and Spain, the feeling I got on entering the restaurant was certainly Iberian - despite its contemporary twist, the interior pays homage to traditional Spanish style with its wine barrel tables, Feria posters and encaustic tiles. It's always nice when the staff feel authentic too - our waitress reminded me of an actress from a Pedro Almodovar film which added an extra frisson of excitement to our experience.

But it's not just about looks, of course. Lunchtimes in the UK can't always be as unhurried and languid as they are in Spain, and we were on a tight schedule to get back to Bristol in time for school pick up. Obviously, the norm with tapas is for each dish to come as it's ready, but there were no long gaps in between and everything we ordered arrived with plenty of time for us to enjoy the merits of each dish. 

We had a pretty broad spread of tapas favourites, washed down with a 'porron' of crisp rose. With generous portions served piping hot, both me and my guest were seriously impressed with the quality and value - most dishes come in at around the £6 mark, with the most expensive tapa (a platter of jamon and chorizo Iberico) priced at £13.75. 

I took literally minutes to devour a plate of crisp calamares - some of the best I've had this side of Seville - while the boquerones served in a reduction of Asturian cider were just amazing. I tend to gravitate towards fish dishes when perusing a tapas menu, but we also had some lovely manchego with quince jelly, crispy patatas bravas, croquetas de jamon and chorizo a la parilla - this was another highlight. 

A delicious slab of grilled chorizo and pequillo pepper served on olive-oil brushed bread, this dish made we want to immediately check the price of EasyJet flights to Madrid. 

You'd think we'd be full after that line-up, but we somehow couldn't resist the lure of one of our favourite puddings - Crema Catalana. Let's just say that I made pretty good use of that "extra spoon." 

Finishing off with a restorative espresso, I could easily have meandered out into the sunshine, found a deckchair and succumbed to another favourite Spanish tradition - the siesta - for the afternoon. 

Sadly, Tuesday afternoons in term time aren't really conducive to that perfect encapsulation of Spanish languor. But I'm hoping my next visit to Tapas Revolution will be a little less hurried, with the chance to sample some of the other mouthwatering dishes - and exciting sounding gin cocktails - on the menu. 

I'm not sure Tapas Revolution is doing anything truly revolutionary but who cares - it's certainly doing Spanish classics, friendly service and warm atmosphere really, really well. And that's absolutely muy bien by me. 



You can find Tapas Revolution at 20a St Lawrence Street, Southgate, Bath. Visit the website for more info here.

With many thanks to Tapas Revolution Bath and Neil Reading PR, who kindly offered me a complimentary lunch. I have not been paid for writing this post and all opinions are my own.
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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Win a Print With Peskimo!

Wall art is my thing. I can spend hours online looking at prints, pictures, maps, photos - basically, any form of decorative adornment for walls. Testament to my obsession is an incriminating trail of holes that pepper most of the walls in our house - my love of moving pictures around but lack of skill with a hammer doesn't make me very popular with the other half.  But there's nothing I find more relaxing than pottering about with a cup of tea in hand, rearranging my gallery of photos and pictures.



Luckily for me (though my husband might disagree) there is a wealth of shops in Bristol to feed my obsession for screen prints and lino cuts - you'd don't have to travel far to stumble upon a window filled with gorgeous pieces for your home, whether you're looking for something Banksy-inspired and urban or a prints with a more illustrative aesthetic. 

There are some great shops on Gloucester Road (Room 212 is one of my favourites) and Stokes Croft, while Clifton is home to another of my must-go places, the Soma Gallery on Boyces Avenue.

The latter stocks one of my favourite local print-makers, Peskimo, a husband and wife team I've got to know through working at Aardman (Jodie and David regularly lend their creative talents to a variety of Aardman projects). Their gorgeous pieces combine all the things I love - bright colours, retro styling and cats (amongst other animals.) I have several of their pieces in my home and now you can be the proud owner of a Peskimo print by taking part in my competition over on Instagram!

I have two lovely Panda Riso prints (pictured above) to give away - here's how to take part:

1. Visit my Instagram page at @luisa_m_sanders*
2. Like my competition post and follow both myself and Peskimo (they are tagged in the post)
3. Tag a friend in the comments box too!
4. Competition closes at 7pm BST on Saturday 10th June 2017

Winners will be announced in the comments box on the Instagram post. Good luck! 

*Please note this competition is not affiliated with Instagram. Terms & Conditions: Two individual winners will be picked from all entrants who meet competition criteria; no cash equivalent; competition winners will be announced by Saturday 17th June 2017


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Friday, 2 June 2017

Family Camping in Devon

Things I like: walls, being warm, running water, privacy. So, based on this short but not inconsequential list, you'd imagine that I might have a bit of a problem with the concept of camping. If you add in the fact that I'm pretty useless at following diagrammatic instructions, have a very low patience threshold and don't much like insects, you can easily see that me and camping aren't really natural bedfellows.



But here's the thing - I absolutely love being outdoors. And you know what camping does? It makes you be outdoors pretty much all of the time. I don't come from a camping family but when we moved back to the West country after a decade in London, buying a tent was one of the first things we did. With access to an incredible wealth of coast and countryside on our doorstep - coupled with significantly reduced income after we became parents - I was ready to embrace a brave new world of tents, fleeces and blow-up beds. 



Some 12 years on since our first camping trip to Cornwall - an interesting experience with a sleep-averse two-year-old - I've come to really love it and truly relish that first trip of the season. Bringing down our gear from the loft provides a feeling not dissimilar to unearthing the box of Christmas decorations; while I know in reality each camping experience - just like each Christmas - will bring its own challenges, I love what that box of head torches, plastic plates and sleeping bags signifies: family time, relaxation and a temporary suspension of normal routines.

That's not to say I enjoy putting a tent up or relish cooking a family meal on a camping stove - both these activities can colour my language quite strongly. And I'm definitely a fair-weather camper - I've spent enough evenings wearing five layers of clothes and sitting in a sleeping bag to know that my Mediterranean temperament isn't suited to harsh outdoor weather conditions. But when the weather's on your side, you've got all the gear and you're sitting in a field as the sun sets, glass of rose in hand, there's really nothing like it. You just don't get the same experience in a 5-star hotel (well, you might, but I wouldn't know.)



For our first trip of this season, we headed to Devon and the lovely Strawfields camp site, just outside Ilfracombe. The antithesis of those very regimented, characterless sites filled with rows of tents and caravans, Strawfields is a much more rustic, natural affair. Limited to just a handful of pitches, there are two fields you can camp on, both overlooking the the unspoilt Devonshire countryside. 

Strawfields also offers a safari tent and shepherd's hut to stay in, as well as a couple of cottages at the other end of the site. During our stay we had a field all to ourselves - that's the kind of camping I love. With space to spill out and room to run around and kick a ball about, this was a wonderful bonus for our family of claustrophobic city dwellers. 



Another big advantage is that Strawfields provides fire pits - an absolute necessity if you want to enjoy being outdoors for as long as possible. Seriously, a fire pit changes everything. They truly enhance the camping experience, not just by keeping you warm but by providing a focal point to your evenings. There's something so lovely about seeing your normally phone obsessed teenager entranced by the vision of a flickering fire, plus, of course, you get to toast marshmallows on it. 



At the risk of sounding saccharine, we've had some of our most memorable family moments gathered round a camp fire - there's something so very simple about building and sitting round a fire that I defy any parent not to get a bit mushy after they've spent an hour or two sitting in its glow, children happily distracted from their gadgets.



Rustic but pretty toilet and shower facilities are provided - I was able to get a hot shower each morning, plus there are a proper flushing loos on the site. Forget concrete shower blocks, trailing the smell of strong bleach; the facilities here are made from natural materials and look out across the fields. 

Nearby you'll find plenty of things to do. While I found Ilfracombe itself a little unappealing, you don't have to travel far to find less commercialised options. Saunton Sands is a huge expanse of beach, backed by sand dunes and dotted with colourful beach huts. This part of Devon is very much surfing territory, with the famed Croyde beach also nearby should you want to get your fix of wetsuit-based watersports.



We spent a lovely day at the tranquil Lee Bay, much more my kind of beach. Located in a pretty cove about 15 minutes drive from Strawfields, this beach makes a wonderful place to explore at low tide (though you do need to be aware of tide times as some of the beach gets cut off at certain points in the day.) With just a cafe overlooking the cove, it's a quiet, undeveloped spot and I loved it. 



There are highly regarded coastal walks on offer around this area, too, though we were too lazy to countenance doing anything that energetic on this trip. Instead, we opted to travel inland to Exmoor where we spent a restful afternoon hanging out at the legendary beauty spot Tarr Steps. Characterised by an ancient clapper bridge that crosses a crystal clear Exmoor stream, it's an idyllic place for a paddle and a picnic. There's also a great tea room and pub overlooking the stream should you fancy partaking in the tradition of a Devon Cream Tea. 



En route to Tarr Steps we stopped at the Guardian recommended Royal Oak pub in Withypool, a truly authentic Exmoor pub serving outstanding pub classics - we loved it. Exmoor is a spectacular place for a drive or a walk - I'd liked to have explored this lovely corner of Devon a bit more, but we'll leave that for next time.



If you're a camping virgin or perhaps a reluctant camper who just hasn't quite got the concept - and I truly can understand why you might feel this way - I would thoroughly recommend investing in the right gear and a box of camping essentials you can stow away in your loft so they're good to go for your next trip. I can't recommend getting the best sleeping gear you can afford highly enough - cotton, duvet-style sleeping bags have transformed my enjoyment of camping. We have this one from Coleman - can't say I find it aesthetically pleasing, but it's totally snuggly while allowing your skin to breath. Good airbeds are another game-changer.



You'll need all the obvious extras - chairs, camping stove, etc - but I've found it really useful to have a dedicated box of camping essentials. At the end of each trip I top up as necessary so we always have the following items - all of which I guarantee you'll need - in our camping box at all times: 

  • Loads of torches and head torches for night time loo trips
  • Lanterns
  • tea towel
  • J cloths
  • Baby wipes
  • Melamine crockery and standard kitchen utensils and cutlery
  • Lighter
  • Corkscrew (really important)
  • Matches
  • Water carrier
  • Tea bags (also very important)
  • Food basics - salt, sugar, oil etc.
  • Tin opener
  • First Aid kit
  • Washing line and pegs
  • Dustpan and brush
  • Toilet roll
  • Bin bags
  • Washing up bowl and washing up liquid
  • Antiseptic wipes
Happy camping! 


For more information about Strawfields, visit the website here.


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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A Love Letter to Music

A couple of months' back I went on Lauren Laverne's radio show on 6 Music, for the Desert Island Disco segment. As an avid listener of the show - particularly that slot (to say it's a bit of a highlight of my working week isn't an overstatement) this was quite a big deal. I was excited. I was bloody nervous; I'm the kind of person who gets anxious about making a call to the insurance company so you can imagine how apprehensive I felt about going on a live radio show...with however many million listeners...including pretty much everyone I know.

Thing is, though, I love music. I mentally compile desert island disc playlists in my mind all the time. Sometimes, when the mood takes me, I can spend a pleasing half hour or so pondering on the music I'd like to feature at my funeral. I know - this is a slightly morbid activity. But I simply can't imagine a life lived without music in the background. Every key event of my life so far - good and bad - is completely and intrinsically linked to a particular song or piece of music. 

I'm in no way unique - everyone has an aural soundtrack to their life, a patchwork of songs that trace our personal stories and experiences, from the music we grew up to to the song we chose for our first dance. 

Just as a whiff of Body Shop White Musk transports me back to the summer of 1989, so does hearing a snatch of Soul II Soul's Keep on Moving. I'm instantly transported to the afternoon I finished my GCSEs and the elation I felt at knowing I'd never have to do maths again. Soulful and uplifting, it's a track that reminds me of being young and optimistic, of feeling that real life was about to begin. Almost thirty years on, that youthful verve might have been replaced by middle aged fatigue, but I still get tingles of excitement when I hear that song played.

A cliched image it may be, but was there a child born in the '70s that didn't spend a boring Sunday afternoon prancing about to ABBA, hairbrush in hand, miming along to SOS as a means of cheap and pleasing entertainment? It's might not be cool but I have no shame in admitting that the first single I bought (in Boots! How strange to think that in the olden days you could buy a 7 inch at the same time as your plasters and Savlon) was either by ABBA or Bucks Fizz.

Like most children, my early musical education came via my parents' record collection, an eclectic mix that wasn't particularly cool (I can't claim to have grown up on Woodstock-era folk or genre-defining rock) but it did include some gems - I spent a lot of time in the family dining room playing the Beatles and The Mamas and The Papas on repeat. The poignancy of some of those Beatles song wasn't lost on me even then; I'd get a lump in my throat listening to She's Leaving Home at age 13 and I still do now. 

It's this music, mixed in with my own discoveries, that takes me right back to childhood and access to seemingly endless free time. As a time-pressured adult, it's lovely to recall those hours dedicated to the important task of recording the Top 40 (a highly stressful activity that - pre Hi-Fi systems - called for absolute silence and a lightening quick finger) or lovingly crafting a mix tape for a best friend. As the grateful recipient of such tapes myself, it felt truly special to have something tailor-made to your tastes.

My other musical memories are too many to list, and not all of them happy (The Miseducation of Lauren Hill will forever remind me of sad coach trips to visit my mum who was poorly with breast cancer at the time of its release). Then there's the sound of London and house music, of listening to Dave Rodigan in my university halls when Kiss FM was good and there was a whole raft of pirate radio stations to tune into (I even DJ-ed on a one such station once, transmitting out of a shed in Staines, a life event that still makes me chuckle to this day.) 

There are the cassettes my boyfriend - who later became my husband - filled with music heard on the decks of the Hacienda and the Ministry of Sound, tracks that encapsulate the euphoria of a night spent sweating it out next to a pounding speaker; play me Todd Terry's Weekend and I'm immediately back on that dance floor.

There's the music of first jobs and stuffy common rooms; Prince's Sign of the Times was played on repeat by the cool, older girl who I worked with in a shoe shop on Saturdays, while Raspberry Beret is the song I associate with hanging about round the jukebox (yes, the JUKEBOX) and drinking horrible coffee during free periods at sixth form. It reminds me of that wonderful sense of liberation that comes with teetering on the edge of adulthood, just before real life - with all its mess and responsibilities - really kicks in. 

And then, of course, there's the music of love, music that soundtracks a first kiss, a first dance, the birth of a child. One of the most joyous aspects of parenthood for me has been sharing my love of music with my children - I suspect when I think back to their childhoods in years to come, kitchen discos and car journey sing-a-longs will feature strongly in my recollections. Hearing my eldest play Hey Jude on the piano makes my heart sing, and whilst my youngest may currently favour music I can't abide, I love watching my boys embark on their own musical voyages of discovery. 

When I was choosing my tracks for the Desert Island Disco show, I realised how difficult it is to really pinpoint the music that encapsulates defining moments in your life. The list I created for the show - which you can take a look at here - is very much focused on the house and disco I love, but that's just one side of my personality. So I got to thinking about all the other stuff that makes up my musical DNA; here are just a few tracks that really mean something to me: 

Stevie Wonder: I don't Know Why I Love You

What an expression of unrequited love, filled with emotion. It's an impossible task to choose just one Stevie Wonder track, but the way his voice cracks with such genuine feeling on this song breaks my heart.

New Order: Thieves Like Us

This one encapsulates my love of everything Manchester. Discovered before The Smiths or Stone Roses, New Order were my first introduction to a city with an amazing musical scene. 

Prince: Raspberry Beret

One of my favourite lyric writers, though this isn't my favourite Prince song. But it reminds me so much of being 16 and indulging in fantasies of being the kind of cool person who would 'walk in through the out door'.

The Beatles: Here Comes the Sun

A song that encapsulates the summers of my childhood - sunshine, paddling pools and melting ice lollies.

Massive Attack: Unfinished Sympathy

I literally stopped in my tracks when I first heard this on the radio. Realising there was a 'scene' in my very own home town takes me back to a very exciting period of musical discovery.

Madonna: Borderline

Nothing beats early era Madonna for pure pop joyousness - this song reminds me of a time when the most pressing thing on my to do list was purchasing the latest edition of Smash Hits.  

Joe Smooth: Promised Land

A perfect encapsulation of everything I love about house - anthemic, inclusive and soul-lifting. This song reminds me of dancing in crap clubs in Bristol and hoping that one day I might make it to Shoom. 

The Stone Roses: I Wanna Be Adored

Menacing yet danceable, there is something so stirring about the opening of this track. It makes me think of the North and my special connection to Manchester. But most of all it makes me think of my other half, singing his heart out and dancing with abandon in a rain soaked Heaton Park, and just forgetting, for a few moments, everything else but the music. 

Which tracks make up your musical DNA? I'd love to know - please share a comment below...


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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Making Pasta With Exeter Cookery School

In the space of six months, I've gone from never having been on a cookery course to doing two. That's one of the reasons being a blogger is - despite its sometimes icky connotations - a good thing: it presents you with opportunities that might not have otherwise come your way. I'd often thought that doing a cookery course would be nice but there'd always been some barrier to actually making it happen: time, money, or simply plain old inertia.

So when the opportunity came up to create a recipe and blog post in return for the chance of winning a cookery course, I decided to be a little more proactive than normal...and I only bloomin' won the competition. It was this serendipitous course of events that led me to Exeter Cookery School a couple weeks back, to take up my prize of an afternoon learning the craft of pasta making.

I've always been intrigued by the idea of making pasta. It conjures up romantic notions of black-clad Italian nonnas sitting in sun-soaked piazzas, trays resting on laps, fingers nonchalantly rolling up delicious-looking tortellini and ravioli. The idea of making pasta ties in with the whole concept of 'slow eating', a wonderfully life-affirming approach to preparing and enjoying food which offers an important counterpoint to our busy, 24/7 lifestyles where food is often seen as nothing more than fuel. 

I love anything that calls for a truly manual approach to making food - for kneading and rolling, pinching and crimping. Making pasta is all of these things, and, as I found out on my course, not as tricky as you might imagine.

The school is located on Exeter's quayside, a lovely corner of the city close to the centre where you can have an amble along the waterfront and enjoy a Devon cream tea before your course. It's run by chef Jim Fisher (a Masterchef semi-finalist) and his wife Lucy who ran a cookery school in the Dordogne for 16 years before returning to the UK and opening their new venture in Devon. With experience of working alongside Rick Stein and Alistair Little, I'll admit Jim's credentials did make me worry he might be in the scary chef mold and that if my pasta failed to make the grade I might find myself expelled. 

Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth. Our small group was assured that we'd all go home with a box of successful ravioli and no cross words were spoken during the two and a half hour course (even when I couldn't work the pasta machine in a logical fashion.) 

In between demonstrations on making dough and kneading, as well as using the aforementioned pasta machine, we were let into a few tricks of the trade and shown that the key to a good ravioli is making sure there are no air bubbles in your parcel. I was also interested to hear that it's definitely worth the effort to drain your spinach properly - you need around an hour, not the hasty few seconds I though sufficed - when making a spinach and ricotta filling.

After a quick cuppa and a chat, Jim added our pasta to the pan and offered us some delicious fresh basil dressing to drizzle over our cooked ravioli. They were, I'm pleased to report, exceptional. There's something very, very satisfying about eating pasta made from just a few ingredients by your own fair hands - you simply don't get the same feeling from ripping open a packet 0f pasta from Tesco.

But the thing that I enjoyed most about the course was finding myself completely absorbed in the simple process of mixing ingredients, kneading and feeding the dough through the machine. It's pleasingly tactile, repetitive work you can really lose yourself in, the kind of activity that really does help to ease away stresses and calm an over-active mind like mine.
The school runs all sorts of courses so if pasta doesn't appeal there are plenty of other options to choose from - how about trying your hand at spun sugar, butchery, or French boulangerie? There are course for all abilities, whether you fancy learning the art of Indian cookery or just want to learn some kitchen basics.
Great fun, sociable and a really different way to pass an afternoon, my course here was everything I wanted it to be: friendly, absorbing and informative. The fact I could justifiably stuff my face with pasta at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon was just an added bonus... 

Find out full details about Exeter Cookery School here.


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Monday, 8 May 2017

A Family Trip to Venice

"Venice is like eating and entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." So said legendary writer Truman Capote and while I might swap the liqueur bit for, say, a packet of Rolos, the analogy is spot on. A trip to Venice makes you feel like you've gorged on previously unimaginable beauty - it's such a confection of pure loveliness you can't really believe it actually exists. I mean, it's a city built on water, a place filled with vistas that take your breath away around every corner. It's certainly the most exquisite, atmospheric place I've ever visited.

I first came to Venice when I was on an Italian exchange at the age of about 14, then a few years later on a family holiday and more recently on a day trip from the Venetian Riviera. But day trips and school exchanges don't really make for a meaningful experience and I'd been longing for a repeat visit, both to see the city with my own, adult eyes and to introduce my own children to a place that captured my heart all those years ago.

However, you don't need me to tell you that romantic ideals about travel don't always work out when you've got a teenager and a nearly 9-year-old in tow. Then there's the niggling suspicion that your rose-tinted memories might not equate with a city that's now moved into the 21st-century. You'll have forgotten just how busy it gets. But still - you got cheap flights and a convenient Airbnb so there's no need for over analysis. And when I say cheap, our 4 night break with flights came in at just shy of £750 for all four of us (I think that compares very well with a break at Center Parcs.)
We enjoyed a wonderful 5 day break in the city over Easter, admittedly perhaps one of the busiest times to go, but despite the hordes of tourists clogging up St Mark's Square, we managed to navigate our way around the busier areas, taking refuge in places off the beaten track when it all got too much. It's perhaps good to go with the mindset that some of the key sights - San Marco, the campanile and the Doge's Palace, for example - might prove too tricky to tick off the list, but you might strike lucky. We were able to pretty much walk straight into the basilica, though the next day the queue was round the block.
If you can make it inside, though, this is a must-see - a gorgeous confection of gold and glittering jewels that will make your eyes pop out. Piazza San Marco, the pretty Palazzo Ducale, the Bridge of Sighs and the glittering Rialto are also must sees, but you will have to navigate the crowds to experience them.
If you're feeling flush, I can't think of a nicer place to recharge than the legendary Caffe Florian, located underneath the porticos that run along the square. It's a jewel-box of a cafe, founded in the 1700s and filled with ornate features: gold cornices, marble floors and Murano glass chandeliers. But do expect to lose around 10 euros per person to enjoy a coffee amidst is splendour.
The real pleasure of Venice, though, isn't the expensive attractions and queues. It's about getting lost in its complex maze of streets only to stumble upon a light-filled square where you can sit in the sun with an Aperol Spritz. It's about swapping ordinary modes of transport for water buses and gondolas - a much nicer way to navigate a city. Water buses can be quite costly for family travel but you can buy 24-hour tickets that allow you unlimited travel on certain routes. Gondola rates have been standardised so there's no quibbling over prices - currently it costs 80 euros for a daytime half hour canal ride. Even if you're on a budget I'd recommend you just suck it up - it's a special experience you can't get anywhere else.
With five days at our disposal we were able to visit pretty much every sestiere (quarter) in Venice. Our Airbnb was based in a quiet canal-side street in Canareggio, an atmospheric and authentic district with access to some of the city's best cicchetti bars. It was also close to the useful Fondamente Nove water bus stop, offering easy access to the boat that takes in three lagoon islands: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
This trip is a must-do. You can watch glass-blowing on Murano and visit the ancient cathedral on Torcello. But my favourite was Burano - an Instagrammer's dream of tranquil canals lined with multi-coloured fisherman's houses. It's outrageously beautiful and thought it attracts a steady stream of visitors, it doesn't feel over-run with tourists.
Further (relative) tranquility lies across the water from San Marco at the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the most photographed landmarks in the city. Designed by Palladio, you won't find queues snaking out the door, plus its campanile offers just as amazing a view as that from the bell tower at St Mark's (again, without the queues and for a cheaper entrance charge.)
Don't miss the fish market at Rialto to see working Venice in action - it's a bustling, noisy place where tables are loaded with glistening fish and seafood fresh off the boats. At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed a lovely couple of hours at the Fenice Opera House, a much more sedate experience where you can take a pew in one of the boxes and feast your eyes on a gorgeous, glittering interior and frescoed ceiling.
Another interesting sight a little off the beaten track is the Bovolo Staircase, off a little side street near St Mark's. It's a real architectural delight that harks back to 15th century Venice and was used in the famous Orson Welles film adaptation of Othello. On reaching the top you're rewarded with gorgeous views across the rooftops of Venice.

Another little known and free way to experience hidden Venice is at the exquisite Casino Venier, currently the headquarters of the French Alliance but once the home of a decadent 18th-century casino, a meeting place for Venetian high society and a den of drinking and debauchery. A fairly non-descript exterior belies the splendour inside where you can explore two lavish rooms almost untouched since the 1700s. Feast your eyes on the most incredible tiles, stucco walls and ornate ceilings. Look out for a loose tile in the main room's floor and watch passing pedestrians as the Casino's former clientele would have done to check out visitors before allowing them entry.
Other free must dos include a visit to the Dorsoduro area and a wander around the church of Santa Maria Della Salute, a baroque masterpiece built to celebrate Venice's deliverance from the plague. Do not miss the chance to capture the stunning view of the church and canal from the Accademia Bridge - I guarantee your photo will look like a Canaletto painting. If we didn't have two tired kids in tow we'd have stopped by the Peggy Guggenheim gallery too - I'm reliably informed this is a must-see for aficionados of modern art.

Do also take a wander through Venice's old ghetto, the first ghetto in the world and a tranquil, fascinating quarter which offers an alternative side to the city. And for something totally different, we followed a friend's recommendation to visit one of Venice's most curious locations - the Acqua Alta bookshop in Castello. Overflowing with books on every subject you could possibly be interested in, this weird and wonderful place leaves no surface untouched by stacks of books - there are even full-size, book-filled gondolas shored up in the middle of the store...your local branch of Waterstones it ain't.
When it comes to eating out, sampling a plate of cicchetti washed down with a glass or two of Aperol Spitz is a non-negotiable. It would be all too easy to find yourself lured into the many restaurants peddling boring Italian standards but to do that would mean missing out on Venice's authentic eating experience - essentially enjoying an Italian-style bar hop, with delicious fresh food thrown in for good measure. The Italian answer to tapas, cicchetti are small plates of local specialties with a strong leaning towards fish and vegetables.
The Canareggio district is a good place to sample this typically Venetian institution, with a good variety of bacari (the name given to cicchetti-serving bars) to choose from. We really liked Ca D'Oro Alla Vedova,  on a little side street off the busy Strada Nuove, where we tucked into crispy fried courgette flower, salt cod croquettes and perfect arancini. A stand-at-the-bar kind of place, it does get busy but has a very authentic vibe and traditional interior - you can see where Russell Norman of Polpo got his inspiration from here. The great thing about this kind of eating is it's relatively budget-friendly and you can move from place to place for a bit of variety.
We also had a really good and - considering the location - inexpensive lunch at Ristorante Cherubino, a stone's throw from St Mark's. A great place to fill up on good quality pasta and pizza, I had a delicious Penne All'Arrabiata here, while the boys tucked into very good pizzas. There were two gondoliers eating alongside us which I took as a reassuring sign.
There are numerous places for drinks with our without the accompanying cicchetti all around Venice - you won't need to stumble far to find a glass or Prosecco or Aperol. The lively square of Campo Santa Margherita is a good place to watch the Venetian night unfold, or if you're feeling super glam (and a bit spendy) then you could treat yourself to a cocktail at the legendary Harry's Bar, much loved by Ernest Hemingway and birthplace of the Bellini.

Venice isn't really a place to take very young children - the crowds and the canals aren't conducive to a relaxing city break - but it's a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives, with older children (ours are 13 and 9) as likely to fall under its spell as the grown ups. 
You'll do lots of walking, and the crowded streets around the main tourist areas will certainly get on your nerves from time to time. But it's testament to Venice's inimitable atmosphere and breathtaking splendour that these irritations fail to cloud your view of this truly unique place. I'm already dreaming of my next visit...

We flew from Bristol to Venice with Ryanair and stayed at the ARTE 2 apartment via Airbnb.

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