Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Hotter shoes - Finding my 'perfect pair'

In which I am introduced to the world of Hotter Shoes and skip off to live happily ever after with my #perfectpair...

Reader, let me lead you away from the kitchen, away from my comfort zone, to the wardrobe, a place of anxiety, of insecurity, a place where I stand and fret - not about having nothing to wear, but simply what to wear. Particularly where shoes are concerned. I don't buy shoes that often, but when I do, it's often an impulse - shoes that I like the look of, but that don't fit me quite right, or don't quite give me the versatility that I need, and certainly aren't comfortable enough to wear more than once. My shoe wearing history is littered with footwear that my feet start to scream if I so much as look at them. "Don't put THOSE on" they scream at me. "Remember last time?" they wail. "The blisters? The back pain? The AGONY"...

Not only that, but at 43, I frequently feel ill-equipped for the various sartorial challenges life throws at me. In preparation for the occasional smart occasions I am required to attend, I find myself whispering "Don't forget earrings" to myself at increasingly frequent intervals, and panicking about whether I can get away without wearing tights, from about 5 p.m. onwards, fretting about not having the right shoes, only to pull on my boots of last resort which "will do".

Secretly, I think a lot of why I love living out in this most rural of places is that no one expects anything other than comfy clothes, and practical shoes most of the time.

But I do crave elegance, I crave style. I crave gorgeous shoes. And one day, just ONE DAY, I would love to feel both properly dressed for the occasion, and deeply comfortable not only with what I was wearing, but actually comfortable too - outfit, shoes, bag, the works.

Well, I say one day, but it actually happened, this weekend. I was at a wedding. I felt glamorous, I felt well-dressed. I remembered my earrings. And reader, I was wearing knock out shoes.

Shoes that made my feet feel dainty (I rock a wide fitting size 7). Shoes that complimented my outfit. Shoes that had a heel. Shoes I could walk in - run in even; shoes I could (exhausted children notwithstanding) have barn danced in all evening. 

Hotter Shoes.

Now you may have dismissed Hotter shoes as shoes for old ladies with bunions, and indeed, in the Hotter Shoes range, there are plenty of comfortable sandals available. However, do not be fooled. There are also a significant number of awesome shoes; shoes to totally fall in love with. Shoes that fit properly, yet look fabulous and feel great. Shoes that you can wear all day and wake up the next day without feeling totally crippled.

I was invited to attend a Hotter Shoes blogger event organised at the Carmarthen store - plenty of lush nibbles, some Welsh bloggers to meet, as well as the Hotter Shoes PR ladies, Mel and Jenny, and the Carmarthen Hotter store team - all very lovely people. A great opportunity and what's more, I knew I was going to be able to choose a pair of shoes to take home with me (yes! a pair of shoes!). Fed up with my failure to have the right shoes for the right occasion, I went with the forthcoming wedding - and a particular skirt - in mind.

Rather than struggling to find one pair that would be right (as I feared might be the case), it was actually difficult to choose only one pair.

After much deliberation, and trying on, much  marching up and down, discussion, humming and hah-ing, I chose a pair of navy patent and suede 'Michelle' shoes - a cute heel, and yes, very versatile. It was a tough decision - I did feel torn: I was also very keen on a rather lovely pair of pink Antoinette shoes, some flowery Hattie wedges and despite my determination to come away with something pretty, I did keep getting distracted by the range of sandals and walking boots available ( you can take the girl out of the country...).

Decision made, and wedding duly attended, I can honestly, hand on heart tell you that these are some of the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned. The shoes went on at 10.00 a.m. and were still on at 6. They would have stayed on longer but the kids flaked out and I drew the short straw and had to bow out of the barn dancing. But I have absolutely no doubt that my shoes would have seen me through.

But the brilliant thing is that they don't look like comfy shoes. They look like (and they are) lovely shoes. They go with trousers, with skirts and they make me feel smart and elegant, but also able to walk, run, go about everything I need to. As a trial run, I wore them last week while delivering a training course, quite a stressful scenario and not one that awkward new shoes would have enhanced, but it simply wasn't an issue. First wear - no blisters, no rubbing, no problems. And a friend who had been less then complimentary about Hotter shoes when I told her I was going to the Carmarthen event, and who I saw the day of the course, said that she had totally changed her mind and would be visiting...

Clearly there's been a huge amount of thought gone into the technical design of the shoes, including air bubble technology in the soles of the shoes, but also, to the styling. And it's also worth mentioning that the staff in store are completely brilliant - attentive, trained to fit the shoes properly, know the shoes, and committed to help you find your perfect pair, not just make a sale. Liz helped me at the Carmarthen store and quite honestly, I would trust her to find me the right pair of shoes any day.

And in fact it was so hard to choose that I availed myself of a promotional 20% discount that was kindly available to us on the night and bought the wedges too...

And if you're feeling like you'd like to chuck out your preconceptions about Hotter Shoes (you should do), you can receive a 10% off discount, valid until 31st July 2015, if you purchase online  and enter voucher code PMATEN at the checkout. 

The code entitles you to 10% off plus FREE delivery for first orders only. You are entitled to 10% off the total order value of any full priced items in the Hotter range (excluding shoe care products) plus FREE delivery.  This offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other promotional offer or on Sale or Factory Clearance items and gift vouchers.

The discount code can be used on our website from Friday 22nd May and ends on 31st July 2015. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


Meet Larry... Larry the Lobster

As birthdays go, I'm not one to get that worked up about them, or presents. There's not much I want and I certainly don't hope for or expect lavish gifts that seem to be de rigueur these days. I'll always remember being asked if I knew I was getting the eternity ring the Husband gave me for Christmas several years ago - as if it was somehow something I'd asked for and was expecting or felt I had some kind of right to. I was completely gobsmacked by the question to be honest - I mean, it was a lovely, gorgeous present, but I would never have expected anything like it. And now that I'm on the right side of 40, honestly, what I enjoy about birthdays is the little things, time with family & friends, an excuse to have a little trip out - to a gin distillery perhaps.... I mean if people want to give me awesome things like a ghillie kettle, then that's all well and good, but presents don't matter to me in the same way that they seem to to some people (and I exclude children here - children are perfectly entitled to get excited about presents - I'm not such a miserable humbug...).

A ghillie kettle - the best 43rd brthday present agirl could get.

I wouldn't normally talk about birthday presents except that 10 days before my birthday, I received an early present, and a very surprising one at that. Imagine, if you will, the scene: I am taking 5 minutes out on a Sunday morning. My mother in law and her new husband who are visiting for the weekend have taken themselves off for a little excursion, and the Husband and the children are engaged in various bad weather day activities. I am crocheting (rock & roll).

My mother in law and husband return and I hear them asking where I am. "Are you sitting down Sally? You'd better put that crochet down

And the next thing I know, there's a plastic carrier bag being placed on my knee it feels heavy. Something shifts. I peer into the bag, and see dark shell. At first I think it's mussels, and then, a more vigorous shift - vigorous enough to make me jump and utter a most un-RecipeJunkie-like shriek: for I pride myself on my ability to deal with spiders, slugs and all many of creatures normally assigned the 'fear factor'....

in my defence, I defy anyone who wasn't expecting it not to react in a similar way to having a live, and rather angry, lobster dropped in their lap...

Fortunately, I didn't drop the bag, for if I had, the rather magnificent and indignant (justifiably so) Larry would have been allowed to get loose in our sitting room. His claws were rubber banded together, but he was fluttering the curious flaps he has on his belly in a rather aggressive manner, so I put him back safely in the bag on the kitchen work surface, and went to consult Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (well, his Fish book - our hotline isn't working at the moment...).

Angry and magnificent - could I really bring myself to plunge him into boiling water? Well, depending on your point of view, I'm sorry to disappoint you/pleased to say that I rose to the challenge. Based on Hugh's advice, I popped Larry into the freezer for a couple of hours, and then found the biggest cooking receptacle I could find, which turned out to be the jam pan. 

The theory about putting them in the freezer is that the lobster will drift off into a chilly coma and, when you plunge him into the boiling water, won't have time to come to and realise what's happening before it's all too late and you've got a beautifully pink ready to eat lobster ready for nothing more than some lemon juice and a slather of mayonnaise.

Water appropriately salinated, then, I applied the gas and waited for the water to boil - my VEGETARIAN mother in law looking on all the while. And reader when the time came, I did it. Larry went into the water.

How do I feel about this? I did feel slightly queasy about the whole thing, I must admit, but I'm not a vegetarian, and really, I should be prepared to kill something if I'm going to eat it. I felt there was a lesson to teach the children too - something about putting your money where your mouth is...

I have no such qualms about mussels - but they don't look like living things in the same way as Larry the lobster did, all his indignation intact before his swift consignment to the freezer. There was an element of 'face' going on too - I mean, presented with a lobster by your mother in law, what would you do? Wimp out, or rise to the challenge? I'll say no more.

We ate him, Larry. And he was delicious. Caught that morning, my mother in law & hubbie had acquired him from the fisherman who operates off Aberporth beach as he came in from his morning's work. Apparently, as the boat came in, a number of people appeared to select goodies. I've never seen this, and I'm pleased that it happens, because did you know that most of the fine and delicious sea food caught in these beautiful waters around Wales and the rest of the British Isles is all shipped to Europe? It's criminal, but apparently there's no market for it over here. They paid £10 for Larry - which makes me think, I need to get to know the fishing schedules a little more intimately...

Friday, 8 May 2015

Lemon & Poppy Seed Cake

So, there it is then (as they say around here).

We have bought a house here in West Wales. 

A wonderful house. A house that I have carried around in my heart since I stepped over the threshold in January, through the stress and embuggerance that is buying houses in England and Wales (it may be the same else where - I don't know - I understand that in other places it is a lot easier), through the initial silence between our offer being accepted and anything actually happening, through the last minute boundary issue and the changing of completion dates (which also coincided with me doing my back in and Blue sustaining a minor head injury, all while the Husband was back in England for a series of meetings. Never a dull moment, I tell you),,the mysterious missing document (not ours) on completion day a couple of days ago, to moving day.

The bottom line is that my home will always be where the Husband and the children are, but to be able to live in a house like this and call it ours, for it to coincide with where the Husband and children are, so making it home, well, it makes me very happy.

There is work to be done, and I'm sure there will be much cursing and swearing as we go, but for now, it's all good. Busy, but good. And you know me well enough by now to know that in amongst the hectic pace of life, there is always time for cake, especially a lemon cake. 

Loosely based (isn't it always) in this case on yet another of Mr Dan Lepard's fine creations, this came about more as the result of having another purge through the cupboards in advance of moving day than anything else. I seem to have a selection of opened packets of poppy seeds in my cupboards yet no recollection of using them in anything, I didn't have enough lemons, my oatmeal was medium and not fine, and yet, this is a divine cake. More texture than your classic lemon drizzle, good flavour, and a good keeper (it actually makes quite a lot of cake). It also tastes fantastic with a cup of tea - great for keeping removal men incentivised...

Lemon & Poppy Seed Cake

250g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
75g medium oatmeal
30g poppy seeds
225g golden caster sugar
125g unsalted butter at room temperature
100ml vegetable oil
zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp lemon extract
4 large eggs
50 ml hot water

150g caster sugar (doesn't have to be golden), plus extra
juice of 2 lemons

Line a 20cm square, high sided tin with greaseproof paper, and pre-heat the oven to 180 C (160C fan).

Sift together the flour  baking powder then add the oatmeal and poppy seeds, stir to combine, and set aside.

Beat together the sugar, butter, oil, lemon zest and extract until the whole thing is  pale and light, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Once the eggs are all combined, beat in the hot water until everything is smooth.

Beat the flour, oatmeal and poppy seeds into the batter, then transfer into the prepared tin and bake for around 45-50 minutes.

Make the lemon syrup by combining 150g caster sugar with the juice of 2 lemons in a small saucepan and gently heating till the sugar is dissolved. While the cake is still warm, poke holes all over it with a skewer and pour the syrup all over it.

Leave the cake to cool, then sprinkle over a couple of extra spoons of caster sugar. Yes, I know it's a lot, but sometimes, it's necessary. Cut into generous pieces and put the kettle on.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Chorizo & Chard risotto

The joy and the curse of the veg box is that you never know what you are going to get. Potatoes, carrots, onions are usually a given, but then what. Just as you've getting used to a steady stream of turnips, celeriac, beetroots, cabbage and the like, when (I assume) the polytunnel starts to bear fruit (well, veg) and the green veg starts its assault. Chard, cavolo nero (posh kale), delicious, punchy salad. We get delicious mushrooms in our box on a reasonably regular basis, and cauliflower too. A joy indeed, but really, it means waiting till the box comes before you start meal planning (if that's how you roll, and I do), even if it's only a loose nod to the contents of the cupboards, the freezer and, yes, the box, before replenishing as necessary. 

Otherwise, I'd end up with lots to cook and nothing coherent to eat.

There were a number of reasons I was keen to get back to a veg box - in our rented house, there has been limited scope for veg growing and as it's always been a temporary measure, the Husband has restrained himself from too much planting. I much prefer buying from a local organic farm too, and veg box schemes mean you can get your veg delivered - much as I'd like to spend my days flitting from farm shop to farm shop, it's just not practical. Finally, if I buy from shops where I make the choice, especially in supermarkets, I tend to steer away from anything I know the children will turn their noses up at. I know, it's weak, but you have to pick your battles... 

Presented with a box of veg means that the kids are, in turn, far more likely to be presented with something that they wouldn't neccessarily choose, but sometimes I reserve the goodies - things I know they will be sniffy about but I love - to cook with just for the Husband and I - and this reflects the sort of cooking that really sums me up - not really following a recipe and just seeing how it turns out. It's not quite as free and easy as it might seem though - I nearly always have chorizo or bacon in the fridge, which makes it much easier to produce a meal rather than a plate of deliciously cooked veg.

I've been getting my veg from the Troed y Rhiw organic farm based a little further up the coast from us, and it's been a pleasure. A good variety of great quality, reasonably priced, organic vegetables turning up every week - what's not to like?

To call this risotto is stretching it, but I used risotto rice, so risotto it is. I also made use of what I think were scallions in the veg box, larger than spring onions, and delicately garlic flavoured and scented, as well as some delicious chard and lovely mushrooms.

Chorizo & Chard 'risotto'

For 2+ (depending on how hungry you are)

125g dried mushrooms (extravagant, but they were hanging about and needed using up - don't go out and get  them especially)
75g diced cooking chorizo
a splash of olive oil
2-3 scallions, trimmed and chopped
2 large fresh mushrooms, sliced
a couple of handfuls of chard, stalks and leaves separated, stalks quite finely chopped, leaves sliced up
150-200g risotto rice
around 600ml good quality chicken stock
salt & pepper
grated parmesan, to serve

Put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl & just cover with some warm water. Leave to soak for half an hour or so.

In a large frying pan, gently cook the chorizo till the fat starts to run, then chuck in the scallions & the chipped chard stems (leave the leaves for later) and cook for a little longer - a couple of minutes, maybe. If it looks a bit dry, splash in a little more olive oil.

Drain the soaked mushrooms - add the liquid to the stock - and add the soaked and fresh mushrooms to the pan. Stir a couple of times, then add in the rice, cook for a minute or so, then start doing the risotto thing with the stock - add a little at a time, about a ladleful, and gently cook away till the stock is absorbed before adding another ladleful. 

After about 15-20 minutes test the rice to see how it's doing. You want it to have a little bite left, but for it all to be creamy and delicious. When you think it's nearly done (sorry, can't be more specific - just guess. I do), add the chard leaves to the pan and stir them in so that they wilt down, and add a good grind of black pepper too, and salt if required.

Once everything's cooked, serve your risotto with grated parmesan. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dà Mhìle Gin (and other things)

A couple of years ago, a friend turned up at a party we were holding with a bottle of gin. Welsh gin. Organic gin. There was about a quarter of a bottle left when she arrived, none when she left. "Pretty good gin", I thought. So imagine my surprise and delight when, not long after we arrived in this most westerly part of Wales, that we were a mere couple of miles away from the Da Mhile gin distillery...

You don't have to look too hard on here to know that my tipple of choice is a G&T. I don't know when it first wheedled its way to the top of my list of alcoholic refreshment - certainly not during my student days when Mad Dog 20 20 and pints of 'Blastaway' topped the list (cheap, effective); nor during my time living in France, where red wine, sold by the litre and decanted direct into your own plastic bottles at the tabac, and tequila, were the drinks of choice. Perhaps it was while the Husband and I were dancing around each other in the early days of our relationship, mostly at various military black tie 'dos' where a G&T was de rigeur 'before dinner' (unless it was the summer when Pimms was OK)....

As I have tasted different gins, I have come to appreciate that there is gin and there is gin. A green bottle, once something I considered to be the height of sophistication, would now be something of a last resort, and I am half alarmed to find that I now classify gin, secretly (although clearly not so secretly now I've shared), quietly, into 'everyday' gin and 'special gin'. There's also gin for adulterating (sloes, bullace plums...). A quick recce reveals that I have no less than 7 different gins knocking around at home at the moment, clearly covering every eventuality. And let's not even start to talk about tonic.

Which brings me neatly on to Dà Mhìle.

There's been a huge upsurge in the craft gin movement over the last few years which only serves to fuel my interest: a highlight of going to CarFest South a couple of years ago was meeting the Warner Edwards boys and cracking open a bottle of their elderflower gin to drink with some fever tree tonic in the late afternoon sun with a great friend before Scouting for Girls appeared on stage; a  trip to the Good Food show 18 months ago now sticks largely in my mind for the variety of different gins I had tasted before 11:00 a.m. (a girl has to make the most of these occasions...); my epic trip to the London Gin Club last November...

I visited Dà Mhìle (pronounced "da-vee-lay" - it's Scots gaelic for 2,000 - I'll explain later) with a friend a couple of weeks ago - a beautiful sunny day, which also happened to be my birthday - great timing, don't you think! 

After a couple of false turns on the road, it being much harder to follow google maps on a phone round here where the roads are small, twisty and mostly unlabelled, we turned off down the mile long track from the main road, signed for Caws Teifi - the award winning, and frankly delicious, cheese also made here - and landed up in what first appeared to be a largely deserted farmyard complete with scratching chickens and a couple of old tractors. Still, our host, Mike, met us and took us into the distillery which is housed in what was previously a cow shed.

The place itself has a great history - it's been home of Caws Teifi award winning cheese since 1982, although production moved to a purpose built facility on the farm in 2004, freeing up space for the distillery. The farm and land was purchased by Dutch cheesemakers John & Patrice Savage-Onstwedder and Paula Vanwerkhoven who moved to this part of Wales from the Netherlands in the 70s. Cheese making established, John wanted to make whisky, and commissioned the first organic whisky, distilled from 11 tonnes of organic Welsh barley he had delivered to the Springbank Distillery in Scotland. The resulting single malt, 7 years old, 2,000 bottles for the millenium, hence 'da mhile' is much sort after by collectors and incredibly delicious if you're a whisky fan, but this is all about the gin. 

Once the cheese operation moved to the new facility, the distillery could become a reality. The operation is still in the early days - the licence having been granted in 2010, and it taking another 3 years to start production. Gin, with its relatively quick turnaround from alcohol to bottle, is where it's at today, although some whisky is made available every year.

Mike explained the history of the operation at Glynhynod Farm - from cheese to gin, and then took us to meet the beautiful still and explained the distilling process to us

At Da Mhile, they focus on small batches of gin - and other spirits -the distillery licence is for only 350 litres. But while the batches may be small, they are unfeasibly delicious. The first product of the distillery, an orange liqueur, won a True Taste Award for its first batch.

The distillery now produces 3 gins: the botanical gin which my friend brought along to the party I mentioned, a seaweed infused gin and an oak-aged gin which has the smoky hints of the fresh 2013 single grain  whisky barrels that the gin is kept in before bottling.

If you visit the distillery, you can taste these beauties in the amazing gallery that's been constructed over the distillery - a beautiful warm light space used to art exhibitions as well as gin drinking, with views across the lush wooded valley - a Welsh paradise. However, it's well worth looking Da Mhile gin out wherever you are because it's wonderful.

The botanical gin is smooth, infused, I'm told, with 20 botanicals. I'm not gong to flatter myself that I know how to describe gin in high faluting terms, or insult you, so I shall leave it to the tasting notes from the website "The nose is subtle fresh rose petals, then spice and a hint of juniper. The initial palate is floral with bitter, fresh notes of dandelion and peppery cloves. The texture is silky, exuding a superb botanical mouth-feel finished by intense juniper tones and peppermint cool." Whatever, It's lush.Try it with Fever Tree elderflower tonic. You'll thank me.

The seaweed gin, a delicate pale green, is a less complex gin, and is then infused in seaweed, which comes, dried, from the West coast of Ireland. Apparently, seaweed gathered on the local beaches on the West Wales coast can't be classed as organic because of the possibility of pollution, so farmed seaweed from the West Coast of Ireland is the next best thing - and makes for a different and very enjoyable gin., designed to compliment seafood and lay the ghost that says you shouldn't drink gin with oysters- this is something I intend to address myself at the earliest opportunity, given that I remember necking a G&T in a smart restaurant once before my starter of oysters turned up for this very reason...

The oak-aged gin is something very different, akin to a Dutch Jenever. The fact that it's aged in whisky barrels is apparent both from the colour, a pale gold, and the taste. I can confidently say that it's unlike any gin I've ever tasted, and really delicious, although the smokiness may not be to everyone's taste. It's a warming drink, definitely one for winter evenings. 

So which to choose? Well, in the end, and because it was my birthday, I bought a bottle of each. All special gin, each different. We bought some cheese too. Then my friend and I headed off for a late lunch...

If you're close enough to visit, or on holiday in the area, you're welcome to go along and check out the distillery for yourself, although this is no slick visitor centre operation - you'll get up close to the process (and the odd chicken), shown round by the people actually involved in the distilling process who can answer all your questions. The best times to visit are 11 and 3 p.m. - best to get in touch with them first.