Saffron – Tuscany’s secret treasure

Before I visited Tuscany I had no idea that it was one of the world’s sources for Saffron. I had stereotyped saffron with the middle east. The Saffron from San Gimignano is so good that it has actually been awarded a Denominazione di Origine Protteta, or protected designation of origin, so that it is now known as Zafferano di San Gimgnano DOP.  The red gold has long been one of the world’s most expensive foods due to its rarity and it is amazingly also cultivated and grown on the gorgeous Tuscan hills.

I had visited an Agritourism farm the last time I was in Italy, in Tuscania (not to be confused with Tuscany), but on this particular trip we were visiting a Saffron farm, called Il Castagnolino, run by a lovely couple called Ivan and Carmela, where you can also stay if you wish, or visit for a meal. This was my first ever visit to a saffron farm.

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It is located approximately 3 km from San Gimignano, on the ancient way called “Via Francigena.” The farm house has been restored using eco friendly methods and is surrounded by olive trees. Dreamy right? It has amazing views of  the Towers of San Gimignano, over the hills of Chianti and the Valdelsa valley. Hopefully you are visually transported to Tuscany now!

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As we drove through a gorgeous drive way with dramatic views, we arrived at the cutest farmhouse with the most enviable scenery.

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Carmela gave us a brief tour on the other herbs and produce they grew aside saffron, whilst we headed towards the back of the farmhouse where we sat down in a gorgeous space with a seriously fabulous view ready for a three course meal.

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Whilst we waited, Ivan told us how he used to have a career in finance but now could not be happier running the saffron farm. This was something I definitely needed to hear as I am making this very life change (minus the farm).

Saffron is very seasonal and it only blooms for a limited time, usually in October and November. As we visited in May we were unable to see the flowers. The harvest is very labour intensive as the flowers have to be hand picked very early in the morning and stigmas need to be removed quickly before the flowers wilt.

Each flower will have approximately 3 strands of saffron and so it takes a lot of flowers to make a reasonable amount to package and sell. It is this rarity and hard work which makes saffron so expensive. Luckily a little saffron goes a long way as the flavour is quite intense.

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Our delicious meal included a starter of a variety of savoury dishes made from fresh vegetables and herbs from the farm’s garden. This included bruschetta with fresh tomato, cauliflower, onion tart, strudel with pecorino cheese and pear, aubergine and grilled apple and a Chive flower. It was all scrumptious and fully vegetarian.

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Next followed homemade ravioli with a creamy saffron sauce which was just out of this world.

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It was so authentic and I loved the farm to table concept. It was a very memorable meal and we felt like we were dining in someone’s home.

Dessert was saffron gelato served with fresh fruit and was just insanely good. The saffron flavour was delicate and the gelato was so creamy and it just was so refreshing and perfect for a sunny Tuscan day.

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With lunch we enjoyed some White Vernaccia Tuscan wine and Ivan also got us to try grappa infused with saffron.

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After lunch we wandered to their shop, where they sell homemade produce and I bought some jam. They were also selling olive oil and other produce and it was hard not to pick everything up!

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The owners then brought out their dog Runa for us to meet and it was love at first sight!

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It could not have been any more perfect. The entire experience was just excellent from the minute we arrived at the farm, the couple’s warmth and hospitality, the delicious homemade dishes we enjoyed, the unrivalled views and getting to learn more about saffron and how it has transformed this couple’s life to one of utter bliss.

If you are visiting Tuscany, I cannot recommend going to visit their farm for either a meal or to spend the night as it is definitely worth it. I am still thinking of this unique experience with so much happiness and it is one I will not forget for a long time.

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I am now inspired to one day own a farmhouse in Tuscany with views like this and so it has been added to my life bucket list! I would rather have homes in places around the world that I have fallen in love with rather than one massive mansion so hopefully by the time I retire that dream has become reality 😉

For more information on visiting Il Castagnolino visit their website here. My visit was part of a full day tour with Grape Tours, who I also recommend as I had the best day with them and my tour was such good value. I genuinely loved it!

Searching for culinary diamonds in the rough – Truffle hunting in Tuscany

“Vai Vai” shouted Francesco, the Italian Truffle hunter to Two Socks, his gorgeous dog, who bounded through the woodland, sniffing the ground and wagging his tail excitedly, running from stretch to stretch examining every inch.

Within a few minutes he wagged his tail in a specific manner which indicated to Francesco that he had found a diamond in the Tuscany rough – a black truffle! Watching the pair of them and their understanding of each other was simply amazing.

Francesco dug up the truffle carefully with a special tool (pictured below) and then rewarded Two Socks with some dog biscuits for finding it.

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Truffles, which are also known as tuber magnatum pico, are usually hunted by specially highly trained dogs. Pigs used to be used for truffle hunting due to their excellent ability to sniff out truffles but they also ended up eating them too rendering it a wasted exercise for some truffle hunters and so now dogs are favoured instead.

Tuscany is a truffle hunting paradise as the rolling hills are abundant with them scattered and hidden amongst the roots of certain trees, such as oak and hazelnut. They are pricey to buy and difficult to find but they have the ability to transform a dish with their distinctive strong flavours.

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I had the most amazing pasta dishes with truffle shavings or truffle oil whilst in Tuscany. I especially love the aroma and have actually brought back some truffle paste and oil with me.

The type of truffles that Two Socks found during our time truffle hunting were black truffles, which are the least expensive type of truffle. They smelt earthy and not the way I imagined them to at first.

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Francesco explained that some truffles last only 10 days and others less or more and since he has been truffle hunting for a long time he is able to tell by examining the truffle what each one’s longevity is like. He stores them wrapped in kitchen towels and in a plastic container in his fridge until he finds a seller.

In terms of selling the truffles, Francesco usually goes via a middle man rather than selling directly. The prices vary upon demand and fluctuate vastly.

The white truffles are much more harder to find and seasonal and thus sell for a heftier price than the black truffles. These are favoured by chefs as they are more exclusive and precious, like a rare commodity, due to the fact that they are only available a few months each year.

He advised us that the best way to keep truffles going for longer is to use them to flavour oils or make truffle butter, which also makes it easier to cook with. We actually got to try some on bread which was scrumptious!

 

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It was a brilliant experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend in a heartbeat if you are searching for things to do in Tuscany. Our guide Jessica was excellent too.

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I am an animal lover and so spending time with Two Socks was a mega bonus for me!

The Truffle Hunting experience was one segment of a full day tour with Grape Tours and I can’t recommend them enough. They had so many different tours to cater for everyone and as this one was a combination of food and travel it was absolutely up my street!

 

 

Jazz Afternoon Tea at the Sheraton Grand Park Lane

The 1920s was synonymous with the popularity of Jazz music and it was also coincidentally the era when one of my favourite London hotels was established – in 1927 to be exact by Sir Bracewell Smith, and it is the hotel’s 90th birthday year! To commemorate the 1920s and its birthday, they have launched a limited edition Jazz Afternoon Tea, which myself, and my favourite bloggers assembled in the stunning Palm court to try.

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I have tried Afternoon Teas at the Sheraton Grand Park Lane before and it was also one of the venues for the “Tea-athon,” which was one of the best events I have been to.

This tea, however, and its theme, were so perfectly executed and it was just served so beautifully. Whilst you have your Afternoon Tea in the gorgeous art deco surroundings, you are able to enjoy music by a Harpist or a Guitarist, Pianist or Jazz Band depending on which day you choose to go.

Our server, Paulo was a real gem and he entertained us greatly and gave us snippets of history about the hotel. First things first some champagne was poured and he patiently posed for us whilst we took all our shots. A big thank you to David too for keeping us hydrated with lots of refills!

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Paulo explained the menu to us and what our choices were and then we patiently waited for our selection to arrive. The great thing about Sheraton is that they are so flexible with dietary requirements and so if you are a vegetarian you can get a full vegetarian afternoon tea selection too.

The selection arrived in a very impressive way – served in a birdcage!

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The birdcage was a nickname given to the internal steel structure that was deployed during the construction of the hotel and I love all the associations and nods to its vibrant history.

Starting with the bottom tier, we enjoyed Plain and Sultana Scones which were served with homemade jams and Clotted Cream. I am a cream first kind of girl – how about you?

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Our finger sandwich selection included Free Range Egg Mayonnaise Watercress, Chicken Curried Mayonnaise on Basil Bread, Honey Roasted Ham with Celeriac & Mustard Rémoulade on Beetroot Bread which was amazing and Smoked Trout and Pickled Cucumber, Horseradish Mayonnaise. We replaced a Salmon option with a vegetarian option.

Now the best part – the top tier!

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My favourite was the chocolate tart with basil lime ganache and topped with an edible saxophone.  The Sable Breton biscuit base topped with a light honey mousse and blackberry gêlée with a chocolate music sheet was refreshing. A coconut dacquoise with piña colada crème and tropical compote decorated with a music note took us to a far flung tropical destination and finally, a rich red velvet cake with orange butter completed the perfect pastries which definitely hit all the right notes.

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There are 27 teas to choose from to accompany your stand and I went for the Zanzibar Chai, which I have had before and love so much!

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The limited edition afternoon tea is available Monday to Sunday 12:00pm – 7.30pm until 30 July 2017 so definitely get yourself booked in to try it.

The Jazz afternoon tea is priced at £39.00 per person plus a discretionary service charge of 12.5%.

Disclaimer: Our Afternoon Tea was complimentary but all views and opinions are my own.

Dinner at Rick Stein, Barnes 

Without a doubt Rick Stein is the most loved Television Chef in our home and I absolutely adore my copy of his book Rick Stein’s India, which I purchased after watchinf the series. It has been recorded permanently and every now and then we re-watch them along with all this other shows. I’ve heard he has recently been filming in Mexico so am excited for the next instalment of shows.

We have always wanted to go to one of his restaurants but they were outside London so hadn’t had a chance yet. However, he has now opened a restaurant in Barnes by the River Thames which we had to go and try out for dinner.

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I knew I was going to love it as soon as we arrived and saw the water bowls laid out with “Chalky’s Pals” on them. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog who sadly passed away and we felt like we experienced his grief with him as Chalky used to feature in all his shows.

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The decor inside was gorgeous with shades of green and enviable views of the river. Definitely the kind of restaurant that is family friendly and has a more casual feel compared to other celebrity chef restaurants.

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The service was excellent from the moment we walked in and we were greeted with lots of smiles and enthusiasm and immediately felt welcome and relaxed.

For drinks Amit went for a glass of Rick Stein’s Spanish white wine and I went for Jill Stein’s Mint Julep. Absolutely delicious cocktail and Amit really enjoyed his wine.

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We were brought some bread and olive oil to nibble on whilst we pondered what to order from the menu. There were so many brilliant choices we were finding it tough to make a decision.

I settled for the Asparagus which was sourced from  Cobrey Farm, Wye Valley and poached in olive oil and served with a scrumptious hollandaise sauce. It was beautifully cooked and the sauce was so lovely.

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Amit went for the stir-fried Salt and Pepper Squid garnished with red chilli slices, spring onions and served on a salad of watercress, beansprouts and cucumber with drizzles of a sesame and soy dressing. He adored his starter.

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For mains, I was intrigued by the Ravioli filled with sweet onion, Parmesan and fennel seeds and in a sauce of Porcini mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and hazelnuts. It was definitely one of the best and unique Ravioli dishes I have had.

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Amit went for the Hake Alla Carlina which is pan fried hake fillet cooked a Venetian way with a sauce of tomatoes and capers. He really enjoyed his main dish too and I did try a little and thought it was excellent.

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Desserts are always my favourite part of a meal and I have to say the desserts we had at this restaurant were just outstanding. I went for a Sticky Toffee Pudding topped with Cornish Clotted Cream and I am still dreaming about that dish to this day.

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Amit went for the Salted Peanut Butter and Chocolate cheesecake which was UTTERLY DIVINE.

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Our entire meal was highly enjoyable and so reasonably priced too. We will definitely be back and make the most of the gorgeous river views. The menu was also very well balanced and although Rick Stein is known for his seafood dishes, there was a fantastic range of choices for vegetarians and other meat eaters too. I highly recommend it and we are so pleased we now have a London venue to visit.

For more information and to see menus visit the website here.

 

A luxurious breakfast at The Lanesborough

When I walked into Céleste at The Lanesborough I was so wowed by the interiors that I couldn’t stop staring at the walls. The ornate details, the classy chandeliers and the grandeur absolutely took my breath away. It was the most magical venue for a long overdue catch up with a dear blogger friend over breakfast.

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My friend’s blog name is Planes and Champagne so of course we had to have some Champagne to kick off our breakfast date. The charming waiter brought over a bottle of Tattinger and patiently waited whilst we took our various photos of him pouring 😉

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Toasting to fond memories and exciting times ahead we excitedly caught up on all of Maggie’s travels and adventures and my transition in the months to come from a banker to a blogger. The dining room was magnificent and perfect and just the right amount of opulence to avoid being gaudy.

To re-hydrate whilst we sipped on our bubbly we both ordered fresh juices. Maggie went for Carrot juice whilst I went for Grapefruit juice. They were so refreshing and delicious.

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The breakfast menu is incredible and I was torn between Truffled Scrambled Eggs or Boiled Eggs with soldiers and decided on the latter as if you know me you know that what I call “Dippy Eggs” are my absolute breakfast favourite.

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The presentation was absolutely adorable and I had ordered a side of sauteed potatoes and Avocado, which were seasoned with a little bit of chilli.

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I love and constantly need coffee so I also had a Cappuccino for the caffeine hit.

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Maggie opted for the Lanesborough breakfast and for her eggs she went for Eggs Benedict after being stuck between getting poached or the former.

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I loved the simple yet elegant presentation with the garnish of the vine tomatoes. I did have a little envy as I do love Egg Benedict!

To accompany our breakfast choices we had a basket of various breads and pastries which were freshly baked and all so heavenly. Out of sight in this basket was a pastry topped with fruits which Maggie and I shared which was absolutely divine.

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Our breakfast was superb and the service was exceptional. Our waiter was even worried that my cappuccino was getting cold and offered to get me a new fresh one but I had to admit that I am one of those people who wait till their coffee is luke warm before downing it.

The choices are on the high end/pricier side but the location, service, choices make it a wonderful venue to toast to a special occasion or for a lovely treat. I absolutely adored every single moment we spent there and definitely want to come back to try some more dishes. The hotel itself is absolutely beautiful and the definition of luxury!

If you are looking for a fabulous breakfast venue I highly recommend Céleste at The Lanesborough.

The Lanesborough can be found at Hyde Park Corner, Belgravia, London SW1X 7TA. Exit 4 of Hyde Park corner tube station is the closest.

 

Contemporary Fine Dining at Lotus, London

Hidden away from the hoards of tourists that flock Leicester Square is a fabulous luxurious award winning fine dining Indian restaurant called Lotus, headed up by Chef Patron Bhaskar Banerjee. The food takes influences from various parts of India and the restaurant has a lovely upmarket modern feel and the ambience is vibrant and warm. The Lotus flower is actually the national flower of India so a really fitting name.

Whilst it appears spacious inside, it only hosts approximately 60 covers so is nice and intimate without feeling claustrophobic or too close to another table.

We started off with ordering drinks. I decided to go for a Lassi which was flavoured with Sea Salt, Roasted Cumin, Ginger & Coriander. Amit went for a Cranberry and Lemongrass Lemonade which was really refreshing. We did have a look at the cocktail list and there were some really good choices on there but we had both already had cocktails elsewhere before so just wanted to hydrate.

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To kick of our meal we were brought a Tomato Rasam which is similar a tomato broth, which was so warming and delicious. I could have had the whole saucepan it was that scrumptious with the right level of spices.

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Then followed a Rattes chickpea, sev and yoghurt chaat which was so refreshing, light and full of flavour. I loved how the menu had a combination of street food and classic dishes with fusion twists. The menu also had suggestions for wine pairing if you fancied doing that and I found this unique and impressive too.

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While we waited for the rest of our starters selection to arrive we nibbled on an assortment of Poppadums with different textures and flavours such as Rice, Potato and Finger Millet and which were served with Mango, Apricot, Mint, Red Chilly and Green Tomato Chutneys.

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Now my favourite street food which I know as Pani Puri and which is also known as Golgappa or Puchkas had a little twist and had the additional ingredient of sweet corn. They were called Corn Chaat Golgappa and were accompanied with Jaljeera and a Tamarind Chutney. It was so much fun eating them and I loved the explosion of flavours in my mouth.

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To complete our starter selection, we also tried the Fried Chicken Wing Tulips which was accompanied with a Tomato Chutney. The flavour was just perfect and I loved these. They reminded me of an upmarket and spicier version of chicken drumsticks.

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Amit had been excited that the menu had a whole section dedicated to Kebabs and he selected the Red Snapper and Cobia Kebabs which were flavoured with Mustard essence, Crisp Bengal Gram and served with a cooling Dill yogurt. This was such an unusual offering but it really worked.

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For mains we were recommended the Prawns Narkel Shorshe which is prawns cooked within a Dehusked tender Coconut and Served with Organic Rice, Indian Lemon and Chillies. Not only was the presentation of this dish rather special and impressive, it was absolutely divine. I was instantly transported to coastal destinations and if you visit Lotus for a meal this is a must order dish.

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I love breads so we had a selection of breads alongside the rice to eat the Prawn curry with and the breads were exactly how I like them – thin, fluffy and buttery.

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All our savoury dishes were incredibly tasty, full of flavour. perfectly and delicately spiced and presented beautifully. Now it was time for dessert!

For dessert we went for the Raj Bhog, Clementine and Basil Doi which was a very novel choice of flavours and beautifully plated. Raj Bhog is similar to a Rasgulla and this was my favourite out of the two.
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As an after dinner treat we were presented with these chocolate balls filled with a fruit filling. They were a nice change to the Mint chocolate thins you normally get handed at the end of an Indian meal.

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The service was amazing and the restaurant is a lovely hidden gem away from the manic-ness of Leicester Square. It has a lovely vibe so fantastic for date nights or a venue for catch ups. It is priced slightly higher end and is fine dining so really special. My highlight was definitely the prawns cooked in the de-husked coconut and I loved the sound of all the dishes on the menu so will be back to try some other dishes.

For information about the restaurant and to see menus visit their site here.

Disclaimer : Our meal was complimentary but all views, photos and opinions are my own.