London Town

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On a recent two day trip to London I experienced a real mix bag of food and drink.

Not for me the heady pleasures of the high roller in the West End of London or Knightsbridge. Oh no. I left the chrome finish S5 back in Leeds and headed for the big city. This time it was two days spent in Canary Wharf where practicalities meant a local hotel was easiest. Fortunately there’s some good restaurants in Canary Wharf servicing the business crowd meaning there’s not too much travel to the centre, which is a good job as it’s a fair old journey by cab and even the underground is tiresome.

We stayed at the Britannia International Hotel which is literally five minutes walk from the heart of the business district of Canary Wharf. My colleague described the hotel as shabby chic but without the chic. It looked tired and in need of some TLC with the only saving grace being that we didn’t have to eat there apart from breakfast, although that was bad enough.

What is it about hotel breakfasts these days? It seems we have to pay a kings ransom just to get a freshly cooked affair. Is there anything sadder than the ubiquitous hot hotel buffet?  With it’s rock hard fried bread, appalling quality of sausage, frankly disgusting bacon and fried eggs only the starving would touch. But still I ate it, albeit with plenty of tabasco.

On a more positive note, we had dinner at Jamie’s Italian in Canary Wharf. I can report that there are some very, very good people working under Mr Oliver delivering consistently great food across multiple sites. This is the third of the Italian chain I’ve eaten in and I can report that the attention to detail is off the scale. I’m loving his work and the work of I’m sure hundreds of people behind Jamie.

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After a full day it was dinner for one as I’d opted stay over for another day of meetings whilst my colleagues headed back North. Always a tricky choice when you’re dining by oneself – do I admit defeat and go sit in the hotel restaurant with a book of iPhone? Or do I venture out and see what I can be bothered with?

The malls underneath Canary Wharf also contain a lot of ‘light’ eateries – Pizza Express, Leon, Nando’s etc -so there’s plenty of choice. These places offer a single diner a relatively speedy dining option too, which I preferred on this occasion.

I opted for a new ‘gourmet burger’ place called Byron. I’ve noticed the proliferation of these gourmet burger gaffs and I did wonder whether it’s a thinly veiled excuse to sell you something ordinary at an extraordinary price. Not so on this occasion. The quality of the simple, but delicious food was a real surprise and it was a pleasurable diversion for billy no mates. Bright, breezy and recommended.

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London is a hard place to eat out because the choice is sooo huge. It’s doubly hard when you’re there on business, on your own and because after a hard day working for the man, sometimes all you’d like to do is chill out with a bottle of wine and eat something comforting. It also helps to have a dining partner who knows the lie of the land and the local places, but they’re not always around.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about a website/blog where you put in where you’re staying and there’s recommendations by local foodies on where to go for food and drink, each categorised by what kind of mood you’re in and how much cash you want to spend. Just a thought.

Swinton Park

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Last weekend J and I went to Swinton Park, just outside Masham in North Yorkshire. We had been bought a ‘Wine Appreciation Lunch’ as a gift and  booked a weekend away around it. We’ve not been to many wine tasting events, but those we had been to tended to be carnage (in a good way, obviously) so we didn’t know what to expect really.

We’d not been to Swinton Park before but it’s spoken of very highly so we were looking forward to a weekend of foodie appreciation and luxury. We weren’t disappointed. The lunch was great fun – informative and enetertaining with Graham, Swinton’s Sommelier, taking us through a delicious range of summer wines from Prosecco to Sancerre and Chilean Rose to Dessert wines. Following the tasting was a light lunch to accompany the light headedness I was feeling after tasting on an empty stomach.

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I would highly recommend the wine appreciation lunch largely because I probably learnt more about wine in a couple of hours than I’ve learnt in the last two years. It covered the basics well and answered a lot of the questions that you daren’t ask like why is Rose pink when it’s made out of red grapes?

The answer, if you don’t already know, is that the red grape skins are left in the juice for a fraction of the time than in the making of red wine.

The rest of the day at Swinton was spent enjoying the fabulous country house surrounding and quite frankly having a bit of a lie down after the boozy lunch (although curiously we actually felt relatively sober). By the way, there ‘s a fully fledged cookery school at Swinton with Rosemary Schrager teaching alongside Swinton’s own head chef. So there’s another reason to come back.

Dinner we had booked in the main restaurant and the high quality of the service and the food continued. We had the tasting menu which consisted of 3 main dishes, with a seemingly endless raft of Amous Bouches, which were all superb. Essentially the dishes were pork, fish and lamb with each dish served up in true modern cuisine style with foams and trickery that were of the highest order. Good job I’m not a restaurant reviewer as I’d get the sack for not taking notes. The sommelier provided a couple of well chosen wines to accompany the meal – both Italian and excellent.

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It was typical country house ambience – quiet and subdued, but in a good way – and there were a good number of people dining and I suspect this is to do with the dinner bed and breakfast rate on offer. The kitchen was clearly efficient and the restaurant staff were well drilled and very hard working (one girl working dinner service who had been on breakfast).

Swinton Park is a short distance from Leeds, around an hour and a half by car, and you really do feel like you’re in the lap of luxury. The old style country house vibe makes you feel like you’re a Victorian philanthropist on a shooting weekend at the country pile. The enormous gardens are super cool two with the four acres walled garden well worth a pootle around – apparently there’s a victorian druids circle on the state too, so yet another reason to return.

A wonderful place to go if you’re looking for a treat and a pampering weekend with great food, attentive service and terrific ambience. I’d say Swinton Park is definitely not a budget weekend – DB&B in a superior room is £350 for two – but it is the perfect location for an anniversary or special birthday.

Andalucia

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Rather than a full blown review of every place that we ate at on our  recent visit to Andalucia, I thought it would be more interesting to talk about more generally about the food that we encountered.

Our holiday was all about escape and relaxation and the location in the mountains near Comares was absolutely perfect and although the roads were pretty hairy, it was well worth being off the beaten track, away from the tourists.

First things first – this is meat country. The Spanish have mastered how to eat an entire pig without it getting boring and very menu proudly displays the evidence. Suffice to say my vegetarian sister struggled somewhat when eating out. Combined with the fact that we were eating essentilly in the countryside, it meant the food was simple, traditional and rustic.

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In the mountains the food is probably just as it was fifty years ago, if not more, and that’s just how the local like it. Down nearer the coast – where all the tourists are – then it’s way more accessible with English food (and language on the menus) and lot more seafood. Personally I quite liked the rustic nature of the food on offer in the local places and we ate very well in the villa with fantastic Jamon packed with flavour, amazingly vibrant fresh salad and super local cheeses.

Given we had to drive 15 minutes to the nearest supermarket and restaurant, we minimised our time on the hairpin bends and rationed our drive times. The local food and drink was cheap and very plentiful. The non-tourist nature of the area was borne out with great local vino on sale for around 2 Euro (and it wasn’t vinegar either although it did benefit from a chill).

Special mention has to go to the Padron Pepper – the vegetable I ate every single day. Man, I need to get some of these in the UK, even if every fifth one turns out to be a full blown chilli and kicks you right in the tastebuds.

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On the last day of the holiday, heading back to the airport we happened upon a very cool and down to earth resort just outside Malaga that was full of Spanish day trippers eating fantastic looking seafood. The ubiquitous sardines were cooked right there on the beach over embers and it would have been both rude and ridiculous not to try some (they were sublime and very, very good value at 3 Euro for a bundle).

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From a food perspective, I think this part of Spain struggles to compete with the choice and sophistication of some of the more cosmopolitan cities or the Michelin littered Northern areas. What it is though, is unpretentious and down to earth food, that’s easy to get on with and all about the ingredients.

I don’t think we fully explored it by any means, and I’m only offering a snapshot of a couple of weeks’ eating, but I definitely would recommend it unless you’re a vegetarian.