Category Archives: Food

A Cumbrian Christmas Hamper

A Cumbrian Christmas HamperCumbrian Christmas Hamper from Lakelovers (gifted).

Earlier this week, I was delighted to receive a Christmas hamper courtesy of Lakelovers, which was packed with Christmassy delicacies from the Lake District. I have never been to Cumbria, but it’s a part of the UK that has long figured in my imagination, as I grew up reading Beatrix Potter’s stories and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons series, which are set within the area.

A Cumbrian Christmas Hamper

Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, describing her life at Grasmere with her brother, the famous poet William Wordsworth, has become a more recent literary favourite of mine. I love her jottings on the small pleasures of her days set in the Cumbrian landscape: [December 5th,] Friday Morning: Terribly cold and rainy. Coleridge and Wm. set forwards towards Keswick, but the wind in Coleridge’s eyes made him turn back. Sara and I had a grand bread and cake baking. We were very merry in the evening, but grew sleepy soon, though we did not go to bed till twelve o’clock. –  Dorothy Wordsworth, extract from ‘Life at Grasmere.’

Still today, December is certainly a period that calls for ‘a grand bread and cake baking,’ and many of my Christmas traditions revolve around the delicacies of the season, from making a wish on Stir Up Sunday in November, to relishing the smell of freshly baked mince pies throughout December, to opening the traditional jar of stilton on New Year’s Eve that I buy every year from Fortnum & Mason.

A Cumbrian Christmas Hamper

I was very pleased, then, to get to include some special Cumbrian treats that I’d read about, but never tried before, in my Christmas foodie repertoire this year. The hamper featured local Cumbrian brands and contained treats such as Cartmel Sticky Toffee and Figgy Puddings, Grasmere Gingerbread, Muesli from Lakeland Mues, Pennington’s Christmas Coffee, Lakes Distillery Sloe Gin and Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes.

A Cumbrian Christmas Hamper

I was fascinated to read some of the history behind the goodies provided. Grasmere gingerbread is more like a biscuit than a cake, with a crumbly texture and plenty of spice (perfect to enjoy whilst drinking tea and writing Christmas cards!). Apparently, this unusual form of gingerbread was first created in 1854 by Sarah Newton, who lived in the small village of Grasmere in the Lake District. The Wordsworths lived in Grasmere in the early 1800s, and by the 1850s many Victorian tourists travelled to the village to follow in the footsteps of the famous poet.

Enterprising Sarah Newton sold them her special gingerbread, and the word quickly spread. Newton’s special Grasmere gingerbread is still popular to this day, and it’s sold from the same building  – the former village school where William Wordsworth taught. I wonder whether the Wordsworths would have liked the gingerbread if they’d been able to try it?

At this time of year, I love to read festive stories and tales of snow and ice. Bonita Norris’s memoir, The Girl Who Climbed Everest, definitely falls within the latter category, as it describes her incredible journey in becoming the youngest British woman to climb the fateful mountain (you may remember my interview with Bonita on Tea & Tattle podcast).

The Girl Who Climbed Everest is the perfect accompaniment to a bar of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake, as this Cumbrian classic was famously the favourite high-altitude treat of mountaineers Sir Edmund Hillary and Sirdar Tenzing when they successfully conquered Mt Everest in 1953. They’d requested 38lbs of mint cake to take as part of their rations, and apparently their only complaint about the product was that they didn’t have enough of it! I find it very strongly minty, and I must say I’m quite happy with a small piece from the comfort and safety of my armchair.

It was so much fun to experience a small taste of Cumbria this December, and it’s definitely inspired me to visit the area in person one day soon.

UK Travel | Widbrook Grange, Bradford-on-Avon

Please note: my Mum and I were guests of Widbrook Grange, and our stay was complimentary for the purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. 

Whenever I leave London for a short break, I’m reminded yet again of how many beautiful destinations there are at an easy distance from the capital. I was delighted to be asked to visit Wiltshire last week, to review Widbrook Grange, a boutique hotel in the heart of the countryside.

Widbrook Grange is closest to Bradford-on-Avon train station, only a few short stops from Bath (and also on the direct train line from London), so my Mum and I decided to spend some time exploring Bath in the morning before making our way to the hotel. We spent such a fun time browsing in the bookshops, revisiting some favourite Bath sights and having lunch at The Ivy, before hopping on the train to Bradford-on-Avon.


Bradford-on-Avon is a remarkably pretty town in Wiltshire, with golden coloured Cotswold stone houses, a canal and a river running through the town, historic buildings and an inviting variety of pubs, tea rooms and hotels.

Widbrook Grange is a 30 minute walk from Bradford-on-Avon train station, so we decided to wait until a taxi became available and have an amble around the town centre first. It had been raining on and off all day, but we were lucky it was dry as we made our way along the town’s attractive streets.

I was pleased to spot the The Bridge Tea Rooms, which have achieved instagram fame, and I’d seen its pretty facade many times on my instagram feed. Apparently the building was originally a blacksmith’s cottage and dates from 1502. The staff serve slabs of Victoria sponge and other tea time treats dressed in Victorian costume, which I would have loved to have seen, but we didn’t have time to go inside on this visit – I’ll just have to go back another time!

Widbrook Grange

After our short exploration of the town, our taxi arrived and whisked us off to our hotel. Widbrook Grange is a small luxury hotel  in a beautiful part of the Wiltshire countryside, surrounded by eleven acres of land. The hotel was once a farm, dating from the 1830s, and the elegant Georgian building has been beautifully restored in keeping with its heritage.

Entering the hotel feels rather like stepping into the hallway of a family country home. A bucket of wellies for guests to use sits by the door, and the atmosphere is instantly cosy and inviting, with flagstone flooring throughout, open hearths in the lounge area just off the hall (crackling with a fire in the evenings) and large leather sofas. There’s even a fitness and swimming pool area in one of the outhouses, should you fancy a dip during your stay.

I appreciated the quirky decor features, such as old sacks of grain and a vintage farm truck parked by the hotel entrance, that were a great nod to the hotel’s farmhouse past. A miniature dovecote in the garden was also a lovely touch, and it was a beautiful sight to watch the doves fluttering through the sky as twilight settled on the late autumn day.

The Artist’s Room

After a warm welcome by Reception, we were shown up to our bedroom on the first floor: The Artist’s Room, where the hotel’s signature attention to detail in interior design and love for comfort was also apparent. A vintage paintbox held a selection of biscuits, hot chocolate, tea and coffee, and an easel held a large flat-screen TV directly in front of the bed.

I was especially taken with the huge bathtub that took centre stage in the room, which was perfect for a relaxing soak after supper. The hotel even provided some books to read in the bath, including a bound leather volume of Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, showing, I think, excellent taste!

After relaxing in our room over cups of tea for a little while, we decided to go down for our pre-dinner G&Ts.

G&Ts and Supper

Widbrook Grange has an extremely impressive gin bar, with around 150 different types of gin to sample. I went with the ‘when in Rome’ philosophy and ordered a classic Bath gin, which is a botanical gin with bitter orange, kaffir lime leaf and English coriander. My Mum went for the gin of the month, which was an Earl Grey gin  by a London gin company.

Both gins were aromatic and delicious and made the perfect pre-dinner aperitif. For those who like nothing better than a good G&T, Widbrook Grange offers personalised gin tasting sessions which sound like a lot of fun.

We were lucky in having the snug bar space almost to ourselves and settled into a couple of comfy leather-backed chairs. If the bar space gets too crowded, then the next door snug room is the perfect place to relax with a  magazine in one hand and a drink in the other.

After our drinks, we made our through to the restaurant, where we had a table reserved. We’d only had a light lunch in Bath, so we were hungry by the time supper rolled around, and the menu made our mouths water even more, as it was hard to choose between the many appetising dishes.

A platter of bread, herb butters and olive oil and vinegar appeared at the table for us to nibble as we made up our minds what to order. In the end, I settled on the Fish Variation to start: a platter of pickled mackerel, cured salmon and smoked haddock mousse with pickled cucumber and olive oil biscuits.

Mum went for the Rabbit and Local Ham Ballotine with carrot and tomato chutney, pickled asparagus and honey caviar.

Both starters were delicious; mine tasted very rich (especially the haddock mousse), but fortunately the portions were delicate so the dish wasn’t too overwhelming for the start of a meal.

Next, I ordered Fillet of Beef with fondant potato, asparagus, red cabbage hash, roasted fennel and cacao jus. Mum chose Pan Roasted Wiltshire Pork Tenderloin with crispy almond pig cheek, leek and sweet potato gratin, served in wild mushroom beer sauce.

Both dishes were exceptionally good and showed a flair of culinary imagination that places Widbrook Grange’s menu above the typical country hotel fare. The service throughout our meal was also very friendly and attentive.

Although we were feeling pretty stuffed after polishing off our mains, we did just save some room for dessert, and we  both went for the Sticky Toffee Pudding with vanilla ice-cream and toffee sauce.

It had been years since I’d had a sticky toffee pudding, but it was a great choice for an autumn evening, and the one served at Widbrook Grange was just right: not too heavy, but still a decadent dessert.


Breakfast and a Canal Walk

The next morning started out raining, but soon the sunshine broke through the clouds, so we decided to have a walk along the canal near the hotel after breakfast.

We headed back downstairs again for the restaurant, which was was looking particularly bright and airy in the morning sun.

The breakfast at Widbrook Grange is very generous, so you may want to plan to linger over your morning meal!  A huge sideboard is set up with all the cold treats: yoghurt, various toppings, croissants, fresh and dried fruits etc, and then a hot menu is also provided.

I liked the way you could make up your own version of a ‘full English’ from the menu, by picking your favourite ingredients from a wide selection. I went for scrambled eggs, sausage, mushrooms and black pudding. Widbrook Grange aims to source all its ingredients from local suppliers, and our menu listed the farmers and butchers that provided the eggs, meat and vegetables for our breakfast, which I thought was a nice touch.

Our meal was seriously tasty and set us up well for another day spent exploring. We set off for a walk around the gardens, before exiting along the countryside lane that wound its way past the hotel’s Boat House (which housed another, more informal restaurant) and along to the canal.

It was a beautiful autumn morning, and we returned from our ramble just in time to check out and call for a taxi so we could catch our train back to Bath.

I’m looking forward to sharing some of my Bath adventures later on the blog, especially about discovering the city’s many glorious bookshops, so do check back to the blog again soon.


Widbrook Grange, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Room rates at Widbrook Grange are from £105 per night, based on two sharing, on a bed and breakfast basis. For further information and for reservations, please visit,  or call 01225 864750.

Widbrook Grange also has a current winter special offer: three nights for the price of two. Book any room for 3 nights and only pay for 2. The cheapest room night  is free, and breakfast is included. This offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other, and it is valid Nov 15 2018 – March 1 2019 (excludes 22/12/18 – 2/1/1914/2/19).

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

Please note: my Mum and I were guests of Abbaye de la Bussière, and our stay was complimentary for the purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. 

I woke up bright and early on my first morning at the Abbaye de la Bussière, and it was a joy to watch the dawn sky slowly turning from lavender to pale pink to blue over the beautiful gardens of the hotel.

Despite our incredible meal the night before, we all trotted down for breakfast, sniffing appreciatively at the scents of coffee and freshly baked pastries mingling in the air.

Breakfast at the Abbaye de la Bussiere

Breakfast was held in a small dining room, which had a cosy feel with copper pans gleaming from the walls and exposed timber beams. We ordered our hot drinks (the coffee came in beautiful silver pots) and nibbled at the freshly baked pastries that arrived in a little basket for our table. I’m getting hungry thinking of those pastries again – the mini pain au chocolat was my favourite – absolute heaven!

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

The food was laid out buffet style in a beautiful hallway just off the dining room. There was an incredible selection of hot food (traditional English breakfast fare – sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms etc, as well as boiled eggs and pancakes) and a tempting display of cold delights too, including the typical cold cuts, fresh fruit and cheese for a continental breakfast.

I went for some featherlight pancakes, plum yoghurt and a glass of grapefruit juice.

It was all delicious, and we felt exceedingly lucky to be starting a Monday morning in such a luxurious manner!

A Walk and Bike Ride

After our breakfast, we decided to explore the grounds of the hotel a little more thoroughly than we had the previous afternoon. The Abbaye provides bicycles for guests to use, and I had a little pedal around their gardens. My Dad was more adventurous and cycled along one of the suggested routes, which follows a canal path through the countryside. He said it was a lovely ride, especially on such a perfect blue-sky day.

Mum and I went for a walk around the lake, through the gardens, and alongside a crumbling old wall that twisted its way along a hillside that rose above the Abbaye. We’d brought our books with us and spent a peaceful time quietly reading in the autumnal sunshine.

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

After our pleasant morning walk, it was time for Mum and I to head back to the Abbaye to meet Julie, who works for the hotel and who had very kindly offered to take us for a drive in her adorable vintage car. We waved goodbye to my Dad, who had settled down on a chair by the lake with a book, and made our way to Reception to meet Julie.

A Drive Through the Vineyards

Nicknamed la Grenouille  (‘the Frog’), Julie’s Citroen 2cv is available to rent from the hotel, and a drive through the vineyards in such a gorgeous car makes for a memorable outing. Fellow drivers and pedestrians smiled and waved at us as we chugged along the roads, and I felt like I’d travelled back in time by a few decades!

I was utterly awed by the beautiful views of Burgundy’s famous vineyards which Julie drove us through on our way to Beaune. She very kindly stopped the car several times so I could get the perfect Insta shot. I was awed by the spectacular scenery and felt blessed to be seeing Burgundy for the first time in such glorious autumnal weather. The colours of the vineyards, with their changing leaves, were astonishing. I wish I could paint them, but being useless at art,  I make do with photographs.

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

Julie moved from Britain to France several years ago, and it was marvellous to get all her insider tips to the area. She organises wine tours in the region, and I hope I get to go on one someday when I travel back to Burgundy. Julie suggested we drive through her home village, Pernand-Vergelesses, which is generally considered to be one of the prettiest (and most unspoilt) villages in the Cote d’Or. I can see why! The above photo is from a viewpoint above the vineyards, looking down on Pernand-Vergelesses. Picture postcard perfect!

A Tour of Beaune

Julie also took us to Beaune, which is about a 30 minute drive from the Abbaye and is a must visit if you’re ever in the area. Beaune is a town literally, as well as figuratively, built on wine. Old wine cellars lie beneath many of the buildings, wine shops flank the streets, and a famous wine auction is held every November at the Hospices de Beaune.

I loved the town’s beautiful golden stone buildings, pale shutters and tranquil atmosphere.

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

We didn’t have too long to spend in Beaune, but Julie pointed out the main sights and suggested a place for us to go to lunch the next day, when we were returning with my Dad on the way back to Geneva. I’ll blog about that return trip soon!

Supper in the Bistro Restaurant

Travel | A Day at Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

After our drive, we met my Dad for pre-dinner drinks on the hotel terrace and told him all about our adventures. For supper that evening, my Dad treated us to a meal in the Abbaye’s Bistro des Moines restaurant. The Bistro is more casual than the hotel’s 1311 restaurant, but it still has a fabulous menu, and the setting is also beautiful, with warm red accents and a polished wood floor.

We all went for the 3 course set menu, and I chose duck foie gras, followed by trout with chard and seasonal vegetables and a melting chocolate fondant for dessert. I love fish, so even though I’d had trout the night before, I couldn’t resist ordering it again! My Mum went for a traditional boeuf bourguignon and my Dad ordered grilled ham, served in a cream sauce with mushrooms, pasta shells and vegetables.

We sipped some lovely Burgundian white wine, and our waiter brought round a little platter of nibbles (charcuterie and slices of brioche) as we waited for the first course to arrive.

The food was excellent, as always, and the hotel surprised me again with another treat for my birthday, which was a very gracious gesture. Our after dinner drinks were also accompanied by a dish of gingerbread and blackcurrant jam cakes. A perfect end to a fabulous day!


Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

Room rates at Abbaye de la Bussière are from 225 Euros (approximately £200) per room, per night. For further information and for reservations, please visit You can also email, or call +33 3 80 49 02 29

Rental of La Grenouille (Julie’s car) may be arranged for those with a valid driving license. Simply contact the hotel  prior to arrival.


For my other posts about Burgundy, see here.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Please note: my Mum and I were guests of  Abbaye de la Bussière, and our meal and wine were complimentary for the purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. 

We’d arrived at the Abbaye de la Bussière in Burgundy earlier that afternoon (see my post about it here), and, after a brief exploration, we all went upstairs to change into clothes for our evening meal in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, 1131.

The Abbaye isn’t in the least pretentious, so no more than smart-casual attire is needed in the restaurant, but I always like an excuse to dress up a little. I slipped into a favourite green velvet dress with a Matthew Williamson shawl, dabbed some Coco by Chanel pefume on my wrists, and made my way down the beautiful main staircase to the equally stunning restaurant.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Burgundy is renowned not only for its wine, but also for its incredible food. Burgundian food is not overly ‘fussy,’ but instead elevates good, simple ingredients to outstanding meals. Classic French dishes such as boeuf bourguignon and escargots de Bourgogne originated in this part of France. The beef of Burgundy is legendary, and of course Dijon is internationally famed for its mustard. Lightly spiced gingerbread and crème de cassis (a sweet blackcurrant liqueur) are also well known delicacies of the region.

The famous food and travel writer, Waverley Root, wrote, ‘The most refined professional Burgundian cooking never gets far from the soil in which it is rooted.’ In this sentence, Root speaks to Burgundy’s heritage of hearty, rustic dishes and the importance of the Burgundian terroir.

Guillaume Royer, head chef at the Abbaye de la Bussière, has a clear love for the traditional cuisine of the region and the rich bounty that springs from Burgundian soil. Royer produces highly seasonal menus starring local ingredients (and when I say local I mean it – the trout we ate came from the lake in the grounds of the Abbaye!). He is exceptionally skilled at turning basic produce into the most sublime meals; in his hands, a cabbage (generally one of the duller vegetables) was transformed into one of the most amazing dishes I’ve had in my life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you through our meal at the 1131….

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Situated in the heart of the Abbaye, the restaurant is exceptionally beautiful. Cloistered walls swoop up around you and arch over head. Intricate chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, and candlelight flickers around the room. The attention to detail is exceptional: the coral roses adorning each table matched the orange flame of the waiters’ ties. I marvelled at the beauty of some the crystal vases on the tables, which Clive told me were Baccarat, and that he was gradually collecting one for every table.

Mum, Dad and I were all having the Signature du Chef menu, with each course paired with a glass of wine suggested by the sommelier. To start off, we were given flutes of sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne, accompanied by gougères, which are airy cheese puffs (somewhat reminiscent of the best Yorkshire puddings, only with cheese – yum!) that are traditionally served alongside a glass of bubbly in Burgundy. We gave a toast (it had been my birthday the weekend before, so we were celebrating it again all together) and felt very much in a celebratory mood.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, BurgundyTravel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Gougères are absolutely wonderful, and I can’t wait to make them at home. I found a recipe for them in my Cook’s Atelier cookbook, so I’ll definitely be giving it a go soon. The  Crémant de Bourgogne was delicious too and the perfect aperitif. This sparkling wine is a great alternative to champagne, with its own distinctive but very pleasant taste. 

In what felt like no time at all, more delights appeared at our table with two rounds of amuse bouche. First, a little platter each of dainty and delectable nibbles arrived, which were then followed up by snails cooked in a delicious savoury broth.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

I’ve only ever had snails in their shells before, and although I’ve enjoyed them thus in all their buttery, garlicky goodness, done this way, in broth, was far and away the best tasting snails I have ever had in my life.

Our first course arrived: braised cabbage with Morvan bacon, local truffle and Comté cheese, paired with a fabulous white wine from the Côte-d’Or (Guy Maugey Auxois Thorey-sous-Charny, Domaine De la Ruee De la Calo).

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

I think we all rolled our eyes heavenwards when we tasted this dish, which was packed with flavour. Morvan is apparently a hog-breeding center of France , and so the ham and sausage from this area are particularly prized. The bacon was certainly delicious, and I’ve honestly never tasted cabbage so good!

Next was the fish course, and plates of fillet of trout arrived under silver domes, which our waiters whipped off in perfect synchronisation. The sommelier arrived and filled our glasses with another Burgundian white wine (Chassagne-Montrachet, Premier Cru Abbaye de Morgeot, 2013), which was my favourite wine of the night. I loved its buttery notes, which paired perfectly with our trout.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, BurgundyTravel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

The trout was simmered with coconut, mushrooms, spring onions and walnut oil, and its delicate taste was extraordinary. The  freshness of the fish, caught right from the lake outside, couldn’t be beat!

An example of Burgundy’s famous beef was our next course, but this was certainly no run of the mill boeuf bourguignon. Instead, having all agreed we’d just enjoyed the best snails, cabbage and trout of our lives, we now said that surely this was the best beef we’d ever eaten too.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Cooked to melting perfection in a red wine and onion sauce, the taste was sublimely rich, and our glasses of Pommard (Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley, 2014), a classic Burgundian red wine, stood up well against the hearty flavours.

You know you’re in France when a trolley laden with eye-popping cheeses rolls around pre-dessert! My Mum, Dad and I all adore cheese, so despite our already substantial meal, we all eyed the cart with a good deal of excitement.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

I went for a few slivers of local cheeses, which were all wonderful, but the standouts for me were a soft, creamy cheese coated in red mustard seeds and an exceptionally good Comté. Alongside the cheese, we sipped on glasses of  a Fixin Premier Cru wine (Domaine Bart Les Hervelets, 2013), a smooth and subtle red.

As always, I somehow managed to find room for dessert. After a palette cleanser of sorbet and nut brittle, we had ‘fleurs de Cao,’ which was a dark chocolate meringue shell encapsulating a delicious chocolate mousse. Paired with a sweet red wine (Grand Cru Président Henry Vidal – the only wine from outside Burgundy we were served during the meal) that went perfectly with the slight bitterness of dark chocolate, this was a delicious ending to our unforgettable meal.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

Or almost ending, as when we ordered coffee and camomile tea (me!), a plate of the daintiest cakes I’d ever seen appeared. They were incredible, bite-sized bursts of flavour of lemon, gingerbread and chocolate. And then, to top it all off, a little birthday surprise for me appeared from the kitchen.

Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy Travel | Supper at 1311 Restaurant, Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy

The almond brittle finally defeated me, and I couldn’t manage more than a tiny piece, but my Dad managed to polish it off and pronounced it delicious. It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture from the hotel, and I certainly felt that, so far, 32 was looking pretty great!


Abbaye de la Bussière, Burgundy, France

1131 Restaurant

For further information and for reservations, please visit You can also email, or call +33 3 80 49 02 29

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee’s, Oxford

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's Oxford

Last weekend, My Mum and I took a trip to Oxfordshire to visit an old friend. We planned to spend the afternoon in Oxford, then our friend would pick us up from the Botanic Garden and drive us back to her home near Wantage.

With a few hours to enjoy before we needed to be at the gardens, I had a lot of fun drawing up a small itinerary, starting with lunch. Our train from Marylebone had pulled into Oxford at midday, just as our stomachs felt the first pangs of hunger, and I suggested we hop in a taxi to Gee’s (pronounced like the ‘gee’ in ‘gee whiz’), a restaurant I’d been eager to try for ages.

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford

Situated a short walk from Oxford city centre on the Banbury Road, Gee’s serves a fusion of British / Mediterranean food in a tastefully renovated Victorian conservatory. The restaurant reminded me of Petersham Nurseries in London, with its abundance of potted plants and incredible natural light. It’s a truly gorgeous venue – just take a look….

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford

We arrived just before the crowds did, so I was able to whip around and snap a few photos before studying the menu. We ordered a carafe of rose to share, enjoying the sunshine streaming through the glasshouse and planning out the rest of our afternoon.

I realised we were only a 10 minute walk from Jericho, a popular suburb of Oxford known for its dynamic mix of independent shops, cafes and bars. I was keen to explore the area a little and to drop by Illyria, a pottery shop in Jericho that I’d discovered through instagram.

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford

Before pottery shopping, however, it was time to enjoy a good lunch! We went for the incredibly reasonable set menu (2 courses at £13.95 and 3 courses at £16.95), which is served Monday-Friday, 12pm-6pm.

To start, Mum and I chose a pea and mint soup, which was beautifully flavourful with just a hint of creaminess. Chunky slices of sourdough placed alongside our bowls were perfect for dipping.

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford

Compared to what you usually get in London for a fixed price menu, we were both astounded by the portion sizes, and we could only eat about half the soup to save room for our mains. We’d settled for wild mushroom tagliatelle for our second course, which was also delicious and extremely plentiful.

UK Travel | Lunch at Gee's, Oxford

Too stuffed to even contemplate dessert, we ordered a pot of tea (me) and coffee (Mum) to sip as we digested our a meal before setting off for Jericho.


I’ll be sharing further posts about my adventures in Oxford throughout the week, so do pop back soon for more!

UK Travel | High Tea at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny

UK Travel | High Tea at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny

Last Thursday, I travelled to The Angel Hotel in Abergavenny, Wales, to enjoy their fabulous High Tea menu in collaboration with The East India Company. Considering I have a podcast called Tea & Tattle, it’s unlikely that it would come as a shock that I adore a good Afternoon Tea, and High Tea is even better! But really, is there a nicer way to spend a warm summer afternoon than sitting on a shady roof terrace, sipping on various drinks (lemonade, cocktails, gallons of tea) and wondering which cake to try first from the piled-high plate in front of you? If so, I’ve yet to find it! For anyone who is confused, by the way, a High Tea is simply a more substantial form of Afternoon Tea and is served with a greater selection of savoury dishes.

I turned up at Paddington Station far too early, but I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to collect my tickets, and as Great Western Railway had provided me with first class return tickets for the journey, I got to spend time in the first class lounge at the station. I’d done this once before, when GWR gave me tickets for my journey to Penzance last Spring, and it was just as fun the second time around! The first class lounge is filled with comfy seats, free WiFi, newspapers and complimentary refreshments. I helped myself to tea and a couple mini croissants and thought this is the way to travel!

In what felt like no time at all, the train platform was announced, and I made my way to my seat, feeling a little thrill of excitement as I stepped into a 1st Class carriage. I found a comfy seat, plugged my phone in to charge and pulled out the book I’d selected for the journey: The Private Patient by P.D. James. Mysteries are my favourite genre of books  to read when I’m travelling, and this detective story featuring the charming sleuth, Adam Dalgleish, was satisfactorily gripping.

Countryside flashed past the windows as the train sped further and further away from London, and, after one change at Newport, I arrived in Abergavenny at about 12.45. The Angel Hotel is a 15 minute walk from the station, so I made my way there, meeting another blogger on the way who had spied me coming out of the train, and thought it likely that, given my flowery dress and overnight bag, we were both there for the same reason!

UK Travel | High Tea at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny

The Angel Hotel is in the centre of Abergavenny, a pretty little Welsh market town, just a few miles over the border from England. As I wheeled my baggage through the big entrance doors, we were greeted warmly by the hotel receptionist and shown up to the hotel’s large roof terrace, where our tea would be served. On entering the roof terrace, I was immediately handed a glass of freshly made, ice-cold lemonade: the perfect refreshment after my train journey and walk from the station!

The different teas we’d be trying were already laid out, as were some menus so we could anticipate our meal ahead. I was astonished by how lavish The Angel’s High Tea is, especially considering the extremely reasonable £30 price tag (I shuddered to think what a similar feast would cost in London!).

I was also very impressed that every course on the High Tea menu is paired with an East India Company tea. I do think it’s lovely to be able to try lots of different kinds of tea, and it was really interesting to see which teas had been selected as a good pairing choice for each course. The East India Company had invited their Tea Master to talk us through the teas offered, as well as to give a little history about the company and the tea trade, which was fascinating.

The East India Company specialise in gin as well as tea, so after we’d finished our lemonade, we were handed a ‘Welsh 75’ cocktail (a geographically appropriate twist on the classic French 75), which combined gin with bubbles, crème de cassis, lemon juice and sugar. Delicious!

By this point, our appetites were definitely whetted, so we were all excited when the first course on the High Tea Menu appeared. To start off, we enjoyed freshly cut sandwiches: poached and smoked salmon with lemon and dill; cream cheese and cucumber; ham and whole grain mustard and egg and cress, paired with Royal Flush tea from Sri Lanka.

The sandwiches were very traditional and were extremely tasty. I also appreciated the occasional unexpected twist: the cucumbers used were pickled, and I  enjoyed the combination of both poached and smoked salmon. Royal Flush was a richly flavourful black tea, perfectly served with a splash of milk. It would be just the kind of tea I’d choose for my first cup of the day.

Next were more savoury treats: spinach and ricotta parcels; coronation chicken tarts; sausage rolls; bacon, onion and cheese quiche and finally feta, sundried-tomato and pesto parmieres. The tea served alongside was Da Hong Pao Oolong from China, a beautifully amber coloured tea that had a delicious mellow taste.

UK Travel | High Tea at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny

I enjoyed all of the savoury course: the sausage roll and quiche were particular favourites of mine. The pastry of the sausage roll was perfectly crisp and flaky, and it was satisfyingly meaty on the inside – yum!

In between the savoury and sweet courses, we were given a palate cleanser: ice tea made with Dragon Well Lung tea from China. It was delicious! I’m not always a fan of ice tea, but this drink was heavenly! Green tea works very well iced, and some mint leaves were stirred in as well, which made the drink even more refreshing.

After finishing our iced teas, the sweets came round: raspberry cheesecake served on its own little dish, then plates filled with bakewell tarts; chocolate and nut baskets; custard slices; profiteroles; lemon and poppy seed fairy cakes; coffee and walnut cakes and lemon and raspberry tarts. The tea served alongside was Darjeeling First Flush 2018 from India.

UK Travel | High Tea at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny

I was too full to sample everything, but I tried the fairy cake, bakewell tart and raspberry cheesecake. They were delicious, particularly the raspberry cheesecake, which was smooth, creamy and fabulously decadent.

The Darjeeling First Flush was a highlight too. It’s an expensive tea due to its rarity and was beautifully light, with fruity and floral notes – a perfect match for our cakes.

There was more sweetness to come! Individual pots of Eton Mess arrived, paired with Black Vanilla tea from Sri Lanka. Oh my, this tea was incredible! I’m usually not a huge fan of vanilla tea, but this one has converted me. I want to go to the East India Company shop in London just so I can buy some to have at home! The tea had the most wonderful aroma, and it was surprisingly sweet too, although I was assured there was no added sugar. I think this vanilla tea will be my new favourite evening drink!

Have you been thinking, but what about the scones? Never fear! They arrived, rather untraditionally served last, but definitely providing a wonderful finale to the meal (although I could only manage half of one by this stage!).

These were some of the best scones I’ve tasted, and everyone around the table exclaimed over them. Still warm from the oven, they were well risen and light, the perfect vehicle for the lashings of jam and clotted cream provided alongside.

Our tea pairing for this final course came in the form of a ‘Gin and Tea’ cocktail. We were treated to a little gin tasting and lesson as another member of the East India Company team whipped up the cocktail in front of us. I thought it was charming to serve it in a teacup, poured from a pot!

The drink was made with gin, Earl Grey tea and ginger syrup- an unusual, but to my mind successful, combination and a wonderful end to a truly dazzling spread!

After the High Tea (which had lasted the whole afternoon and lingered into early evening!), I checked into my room at the hotel. I was immediately enraptured by the blissful air-conditioning. The current heat wave in the UK means I’ve been sleeping badly for weeks on end, as my bedroom gets very stuffy, so I was extremely happy at the thought of a good night’s sleep before me!

My room was huge, with a large double bed, desk, two-seater sofa and a good sized bathroom with a walk-in shower as well as bath. The hotel had also kindly provided me with a thoughtful welcome card, a bottle of sparkling Daylesford Apple Juice and dishes of olives and almonds.

I hung up my dress for the next day in the wardrobe, applied some fresh lipstick, then went out to explore a little of Abergavenny. As it was already well into the evening, none of the shops were still open, but I made my way along to the ruined castle (just making it in before the gates were locked) and then had a wander in the gardens, admiring a beautiful display of hydrangeas in full bloom.

After my stroll, I returned for a glass of rose in the Hotel’s courtyard and a long, relaxing soak in the bath before sinking into bed for a solid 8 hour sleep. I awoke the next morning feeling thoroughly refreshed and made my way down for a breakfast of croissants with jam and butter, followed by scrambled eggs and a sausage, all washed down with orange juice and tea. The whole breakfast was very tasty, but I particularly admired the croissants, which were fresh, perfectly flaky on the outside and soft and buttery within.

I was told that the hotel runs a bakery next door, where baked goods, including croissants, are sold daily and also made for the hotel’s guests. I just had time to pop by the bakery before I had to catch my train, and was lucky enough to be shown into the kitchens to see some croissants being handmade for a second batch that day!

I was tempted to buy another croissant for my train journey, but they were sold out already. I’ll just have to go back to enjoy croissants and High Tea all over again someday!


The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny:

The Angel Afternoon Tea is served:

Monday – Friday; Afternoon Tea and High Tea are served in the Wedgewood room from 2.00pm – 4.00pm.
Saturday & Sunday; High Tea only (£30.00 per person); served in the Wedgewood room from 1.00pm – 5.00pm.

You can book online or call 01873 857121.


Specially paired Teas and London Dry Gin used in the Angel High Tea are by The East India Company.

Trains to Abergavenny run from London Paddington and may be booked through the Great Western Railway.

Best Sunday Roasts in London | The Hero of Maida

Best Sunday Roasts in London | The Hero of MaidaSunday Roast at The Hero of Maida

Two questions I get asked with increasing regularity are: ‘where should I go for Afternoon Tea in London?’ and ‘which is your favourite place for a Sunday roast dinner?’

Afternoon Tea and a proper English Sunday roast are two quintessentially British meals that are delicious, steeped in tradition and certainly shouldn’t be missed by anyone visiting the UK. To my mind, a highlight of the weekend is always a roast dinner, but I’ve mainly lived in apartments with tiny kitchens, so it’s not a meal I often cook myself. Over the years, then, I’ve enjoyed tracking down some of the very best Sunday roasts in London. Many of my favourite pubs in Hampstead do an excellent roast, but a few weeks ago, when my Dad was visiting, we went to a pub in Maida Vale that soared straight to the top of my list.

The Hero of Maida is a beautifully restored Victorian pub that opened earlier in the spring, and its menu is overseen by the chef Henry Harris (formerly of Racine). The pub is a short walk from Warwick Avenue tube station, located on a quiet street in the heart of Little Venice. A walk along the canal would be a great way to work off those Yorkshire puddings after your meal!

Best Sunday Roasts in London | The Hero of Maida

Downstairs is the bustling bar – a stylish space with exposed brick accents, wooden floors and a gallery wall. We arrived on a hot day, so the large doors were thrown open to let in a refreshing breeze. As I’d booked a table in advance, we were seated in the dining room upstairs, which was quieter and air conditioned (much appreciated, as it was one of the warmest days of the year!).

We quenched our thirst with glasses of Pimms (Mum and me) and a beer (Dad) as we looked at the menu.

My Dad (who’s Canadian) makes a point of enjoying English sausages and beer whenever he’s in the UK, as he says they’re the very best! A Sunday roast is generally on his list too, so it was no surprise that all three of us ordered the Roast Beef.

Best Sunday Roasts in London | The Hero of Maida

Oh my! Aside from my Mum’s cooking, this was definitely the best roast dinner I’ve ever had! Our beef was beautifully pink and succulent, and I loved that the sides arrived served in sharing platters, so we could all help ourselves, which made it feel more like a family meal at home. The gravy and horseradish sauce provisions were extremely plentiful, with extra jugs of gravy provided, and we all got a second serving of Yorkshire puddings (beautifully light, not in the least dry). We all enjoyed the selection of sides, which were very traditional: roast potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli cheese, cabbage and roasted root vegetables.

My Dad ordered a spectacular red wine, which paired perfectly with the meal, it’s full-bodied smoothness standing up robustly to the richness of our beef.  We raised a glass to our lovely long weekend together and my Mum’s return to good health.

Best Sunday Roasts in London | The Hero of Maida

Despite feeling rather on the stuffed side, none of us could resist a glance at the dessert menu. I gave way to temptation when ‘lemon posset and blueberry trifle’ caught my eye, Mum plumped for an Eton Mess (it’s hard to resist English strawberries this time of year!), and Dad chose two cheeses as a savoury end to his meal. Dessert was just as delectable as our mains, and we lingered over our plates as we finished the last of our wine and chatted.

Honestly, that’s a Sunday roast that’ll be hard to beat!

Tea & Tattle Podcast: Skye McAlpine Discusses ‘A Table in Venice’

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle Episode here or on iTunes.

Today on Tea & Tattle, I’m in conversation with the food writer Skye McAlpine, who recently published her first cookbook, A Table in Venice. Although originally from Britain, Skye’s parents moved to Venice when she was a young girl, and she now splits her time between London and Venice.

For years, Skye wrote about her love for Venetian home cooking and simple, fresh ingredients on her blog and instagram account, building a large audience of  followers who appreciate her delicious recipes and exquisite photography. 

‘A Table in Venice’ by Skye McAlpine

I’ve been a fan of Skye’s blog for many years, and I was so excited to get my copy of her cookbook. It doesn’t disappoint! A Table in Venice is a thing of beauty, with marbled end papers, pale pink pages and full-page photographs featuring the very best food and scenery Venice has to offer.

Skye McAlpine

In our chat together, Skye tells me why she thinks Venetian cuisine is Italy’s best kept secret, how to avoid the common tourist traps of Venice, her favourite morning ritual and so much more.

This is the perfect episode to get you in the mood for long summer evenings spent lingering over dinner tables in the garden, and it’ll definitely make you want to hop on a plane to sample some of those special brioche buns yourself!

Listen to learn more about Skye’s cookbook, A Table in Venice.

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses ‘What She Ate’

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses 'What She Ate'

One of the non-fiction books I’ve most enjoyed lately is What She Ate by Laura Shapiro. As a journalist and culinary historian, Shapiro has long been fascinated by what a person’s appetite says about who they are.

What She Ate explores the food stories of six very different women: Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to her famous brother, William; Rosa Lewis, who cooked for the most distinguished of Edwardian society; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Hitler’s consort, Eva Braun; the British author Barbara Pym and Cosmopolitan editor (and chronic dieter) Helen Gurley Brown. These women were important influencers within the realms of literature, society or politics, but little else connects them, apart from a shared seat at a table. What She Ate highlights the complex relationship women have long held towards their meals, and shows that a person’s food story is rarely straightforward.

As someone with an eager interest in the domestic minutiae of people’s lives, I found What She Ate a compelling read and was delighted when Laura Shapiro agreed to answer some questions about her book.

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses What She AteLaura Shapiro, photographed by Ellen Warner

MN: Would you tell me a little about yourself and your own food story?

LS: My mother was a wonderful cook — she taught herself to cook after she got married, and became so good at it that eventually she started catering. My own cooking is much more haphazard, but what I did inherit was a fascination with food in all forms and at all times.

My favorite food memory from childhood is waking up early, the morning after my mother had catered a party, and going downstairs to find the refrigerator full of leftovers. She loved making hors d’oeuvres, so there were always lots of those packed up and put away — “party rye” with onion, mayonnaise and parmesan, little cream puffs filled with crabmeat, sauteed mushrooms on squares of toast — all cold, of course, and all so delicious. That is still my idea of a perfect breakfast, ideally eaten standing at the open door of the refrigerator in pajamas, picking out just what I wanted from each tidy package.

MN: In your book, you say ‘food talks’ and what a person does or doesn’t eat can say so much about them. In general, though, a person’s culinary history is largely ignored by biographers, even though all other aspects of famous people’s lives are examined under a microscope. Why do you think what people are cooking and eating so often gets left out of their personal histories?

LS: Traditionally, of course, food would not have been considered a dignified subject to include in the biography of a great man — and great men were the ones people wrote biographies about. Food had to do with the body, it came from women’s world or the world of servants, and it couldn’t possibly have any significance beyond nourishment.

And the second reason, which today would now be the first reason, is that there’s so little information out there. Until Instagram and food blogs came along, most people writing about their lives — writing diaries, letters and memoirs, that is — rarely mentioned what they were eating. So even if a historian or biographer is dying to know what someone ate, it’s going to be very hard to find out.

MN: It was reading about Dorothy Wordsworth eating black pudding that first sparked your idea for ‘What She Ate.’ Would you explain why that particular meal interested you so much, and how you came to write your book?

LS: When I stumbled across the mention of black pudding in a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew a little about her, and nothing in that picture even hinted that she would eat such a thing. Her social class, her own cooking as she described it in the Grasmere Journal, her history of colitis — black pudding for dinner would have been an affront to all of that. It was basically a sausage of blood and oatmeal, and although it had a longtime place on upper class breakfast tables, even that was starting to fade by the time this mention came along.

So I started to wonder, and I realized that if I could get a grip on this mystery, maybe I would learn something about Dorothy Wordsworth that I hadn’t known before. Maybe food would give me access to someone’s life in a new way.

MN: I loved a passage in your book when you wrote ‘our food stories…go straight to what’s neediest.’ You chose to examine women who in general had a complicated, and in some cases very insecure, relationship with food. How did you settle on which women to write about? Were you especially drawn towards food stories about women who saw food as troubling, more than delicious?

LS: So much of the food writing that’s appeared in the last ten or twenty years — popular writing, I mean, as opposed to scholarly — is about the same thing: Food is love. Food is emotional support. Food brings us together. Of course all those things are true — I’ve written them myself, many times — but I really wanted to get to something else in this book. I think all kinds of things happen at the dinner table, and plenty of them are not about food-brings-us-together. So I chose women with complicated, hard-to-decode relationships with food, women whose food stories lurked below the surface.

MN: Do you think men and women eat in a very different way? Would men’s food stories be largely different from women’s?

LS: I’m absolutely positive men’s stories would be different — but I have no evidence for it at all. I do think women have an immediate and instinctive relationship with food that comes from a billion years of physical nurturing of babies, so that’s one big difference between women and men, but I would never give myself the imaginative freedom to explore men’s food lives the way I’ve always explored women’s. For me, it would be like writing in a foreign language. There certainly are writers who can imagine other sexes — in fiction and in non-fiction — but for me it’s difficult.

MN: During the majority of the history you wrote about in ‘What She Ate’, a woman’s place was very much considered to be within the domestic sphere, and yet many of the women you wrote about wielded food as a weapon to gain power in worlds beyond their kitchen. I thought it was especially fascinating to read about Rosa Lewis’s incredible career. Would you tell me a little more about how food completely changed her life?

LS: Rosa Lewis was an amazing example of a woman who made food her career for a very specific reason that I don’t think had anything to do with food. She wanted to climb from working class to upper class, and she could see that in Victorian/Edwardian London, cooking would help her up the ladder.

What complicates the picture is that she didn’t really want to change who she was. What she wanted was to be accepted at the top of the ladder as exactly who she was — a former scullery maid named Rosa Lewis who could cook as well as Escoffier. And she succeeded, but only as long as she kept cooking. When she hung up her apron, after World War I, she lost her place on the ladder.

MN: Your book shows that there is a great deal of emotion – both positive and negative – attached to food, and yet Eleanor Roosevelt seemed most comfortable with food during her time at the White House when she could strip meal time from any emotive resonance and think of food as simply fuel for living. Why did she serve such dreadful food at the White House, and why did she seem to enjoy eating so much more later in life?

LS: Eleanor’s story is very much about her marriage to FDR. After his affair with Lucy Mercer, she was devastated, and from then on their marriage was basically a political partnership. She shared his ideals, but what she couldn’t bear was his luxury-loving side, the cocktails and fine meals and enjoyment of life that he had known while growing up and still relished when the workday was over. That was the side of FDR that gave rise to his flirtatious attentions to other women and of course the affair with Lucy Mercer. She didn’t want to feed that side of him — literally, I believe. So she made no effort to change the terrible food served by the mean-spirited housekeeper she had hired. But when she was out of the White House — travelling, or with her own friends, or pursuing her second career after FDR’s death — she was free to eat with pleasure.

MN: Two women in your book seemed to derive the most pleasure from food by simply not eating it at all. Would you tell me more about how a lack of food shaped the stories of Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown?

LS: These were, of course, the two dieters in the book. I hasten to add that they had nothing else in common, but they did share a fixation on staying slim. They felt very competitive with other women, and they desperately wanted to appeal to what neither of them knew yet to call the male gaze.

Helen Gurley Brown’s single-minded focus on eating as little as possible throughout life did quite a bit of damage to her readers, since she was promoting an ideal of the female body that was unnatural and essentially unattainable. Eva Braun’s effect on her moment in history was subtler but more terrible. Sitting at the table with Hitler and his entourage, she was so sweetly and stereotypically feminine that her presence created, in effect, a guilt-free zone for Hitler and his entourage.

MN: In terms of my own attitude towards food, I most identified with Barbara Pym. I liked the unpretentious, but still appreciative, approach she took towards food, both in her books and in real life. Would you tell me more about how the food she wrote about reflected the world around her?

LS: Barbara Pym had a wonderfully healthy relationship with food — she just loved it, and it caused her no problems whatever as far as I can see. When it was delicious, she enjoyed eating it, and when it was awful, she enjoyed thinking about it. When she started on her life as a novelist after World War II, a whole spectrum of food was spread out in front of her — tinned soups and flabby blancmange, and perfectly roasted duck with peas from the garden.

All of it went into the books, which is why it’s possible to read her novels as a revisionist history of British cooking after the war. Pym was no fantasy-writer: her novels emerged from the world around her, and if she saw plenty of good food along with the stereotypically awful food of that time, I think we can believe her.

MN: Finally, Laura, what’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’re able to share at the moment?

LS: I wish I knew! I’m in that nerve-wracking state of testing new ideas, discarding and revising and fiddling and re-discarding and re-revising.

MN: If people would like to keep up with your news, where can they find you online?

LS: My website is


What She Ate by Laura Shapiro is available on Amazon and all good booksellers.

Find me on instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase

P.S. You may also be interested in my interview with Annie Gray on Queen Victoria’s life in food on Tea & Tattle Podcast. 

The Best of London Set Menus | Sardine, Hoxton

Sardine Hoxton | London RestaurantsPart of a series in which I bring you the best set menus on offer in London.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an event at Daunt Books, with Signe Johansen in conversation with Diana Henry about the latter’s just-released cookbook, How to Eat a Peach. Diana’s new book is based on her love for menus; not fancy, slaving for hours in the kitchen affairs, but simple dishes thoughtfully put together to create unforgettable gatherings around a table. It’s just the sort of cookbook I most enjoy: chatty, imbued with a strong love for culture, travel and literature (all of which influence Diana’s menus), and with recipes that inspire, rather than intimidate.

I also share a passion for a truly great menu, and not only for those served by the home cook, but also when dining out. I mean in particular the set menu. Set menus have so often enabled me to try the very best of local cuisine when traveling, and – always friendly to a limited budget – have been my ticket into many of London’s pricier foodie destinations. I love the element of surprise in a set menu, which are changed daily in the best places. The lack of a great deal of choice never bothers me: I like the fact that a limited range generally pushes me to try something new.

Before attending the How to Eat a Peach Event, I’d enjoyed just such a brilliant set menu at Sardine in Hoxton (there was a wonderful moment of serendipity during Diana’s talk when she mentioned Sardine as one of her favourite restaurants in London!). It was a particularly wet day, and, as the strong gusts of wind tried to tug the umbrella from my hand while I walked the 15 minute stretch from Old Street Underground Station, the thought of Sardine’s southern French dishes spurred me to hurry even more.

Sardine didn’t appear particularly prepossessing from the outside. Ironically, it looks directly onto a large McDonald’s, and road works have currently dug up the street in front of the restaurant, so it’s caged in by cones and trucks. As I neared the door, though, a delicious smell filled the sidewalk, which promised plenty of gastronomical delights in store. I met my friend, and we walked in and were shown to our table. 

Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants

Being in a celebratory mood, we ordered two Lillet Spritzers and chinked our glasses, before turning our attention to the menu. Sardine’s set menu is available Monday-Friday 12-3pm and 6pm-7pm. It’s terrific value with two courses £16 and three £20, and I was told by the attentive waitress that they update it regularly, depending on the season and what looks particularly good in the markets. The food is unpretentious, relying on the best quality ingredients to make each dish shine, and is inspired by the South of France.

Our starters arrived quickly: radicchio, radishes, creme fraiche and herbs for me, and purple sprouting broccoli with anchoïade (a classic Provençal dip, made with anchovies, good olive oil, white wine vinegar and garlic) for my friend.

Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants

Every bite of my dish was a tribute to the fresh vitality of spring. The bitterness of the radicchio balanced well against the peppery sweetness of the raw radishes, and the perfectly seasoned creme fraiche provided just the right touch of richness. I didn’t taste the broccoli, but was assured it was exceptionally tasty.

Uncharacteristically, I’d gone for the vegetarian option when choosing my main course: artichoke, spinach, white beans and aioli. It wasn’t a choice I regretted, though! I was amazed by the robustness of flavour from such a simple dish, and it was a real treat to have artichoke. I had a nibble of my friend’s choice too – simply described as ‘braised lamb and lentils’ on the menu, but we both agreed it was one of the tastiest lamb dishes we’ve ever been served.

Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants

Although the dessert choice for the set menu was tempting (poached pears and nougat parfait), I couldn’t resist suggesting we go off piste when I saw tarte tatin on the à la carte. I always find tarte tatin is a good test of a restaurant, and to my mind it’s one of those desserts that’s classic for a reason: when done well, it’s perfection.

I took advantage of the fifteen minute wait to prepare our tarte to observe my surroundings a little more closely. I liked Sardine’s communal, comfortable feel, with its open plan kitchen, showing off stacks of glazed clay bowls and gleaming pots and pans. There’s a long communal table that stretches the length of the dining area, with other tables clustered around the walls. The sandy tones of the decor, offset by grey and mixed with pops of orange and blue and darker browns, reminded me of the café au lait coloured buildings and brightly painted shutters that I’d seen in the towns I’d explored on my last visit to Provence.

Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants

Our tarte tatin arrived on the table, ice-cream and caramel oozing into the cracks of the pastry and pooling on to the plate as we cut into it, slicing it up and helping ourselves to quarters. Is there anything that beats an exceptional tarte tatin shared with a friend on a cold, wet day? To my mind, it’s hard to better the combination of caramelised apple, hot pastry and vanilla ice-cream.

Sardine Hoxton | London Restaurants

Finishing our meal with chamomile tea and coffee, we chatted into the late afternoon, and then made our way back to the tube, where even severe delays on the Metropolitan line couldn’t upset my contented spirit.