Thursday, 10 July 2014

Restaurant review: Ye Olde Saracen's Head, Balsall Common

I was recently invited to do a review of Ye Olde Saracen's Head in Balsall Common. My husband had dined there once before and raved about it, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to see if he was right!

The pub has a large amount of seating for diners and has a warm and rustic atmosphere, with a lovely open fireplace. The pub has both a charcoal oven and a woodfired pizza oven, making for some delicious-sounding meals.

To drink we had a quite a sharp-tasting shiraz, which mellowed when mingled with the flavours of our food. Wines start from about £16 a bottle and go up to about £60(!), so there is a wide range to choose from.

To start, I opted for the Charcoal Oven Roasted Marinated duck skewers (£7.50). I was particularly impressed by how well the duck was cooked - so often with these types of meals you get over-cooked, dry duck; the duck in this dish was perfectly cooked - still pink inside and perfectly moist, and the accompanying sauce was sweet and sticky and delicious.


My husband chose the bread and olives (£3.50) for starters. It was presented very well, it tasted good, and was pretty sizeable - it would make a good sharer!

For my main, I had the Hot Josper smoked salmon 'Caesar Salad' (£11.95). This was on the whole a nice dish, but in some ways a little disappointing. The smokiness of the salmon didn't really come through very well - I think it got lost a little amongst the lettuce and the creamy salad dressing. I liked the anchovy croutons, though - they added good texture and flavour, and I like the addition of the poached egg on top.

My husband had the Fillet Charcoal Oven Steak (£25.95) - I tried a bit and it was heavenly. Perfectly browned on the outside and pink and juicy in the middle. The chips were nicely cooked too.
My husband had eaten some of his salad by this point...

On to my favourite course: dessert (all desserts are £5.95). I couldn't resist going for the lemon meringue pie, and I think it was a wise choice. The meringue was beautifully light and the lemon the right mixture of tart and sweet. The fruit was perhaps a little unnecessary, though.

My husband went for the chocolate brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce. He assures me that it was delicious, but sadly I didn't get to taste any.

Overall, then, we had a lovely time at Ye Olde Saracen's Head. Good food and a warm atmosphere. The service was also good, with the staff being attentive and polite. I am looking forward to a return visit to see how good their pizza oven is!

Disclaimer: This meal was complimentary for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review, and all views are of course my own.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery

For my husband's birthday, I bought him a voucher for a tour and tasting and overnight stay at Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery. We went on the trip just over a week ago and were quite impressed by the winery's products.

On arrival we were shown to our room in the B&B. The B&B consists of four bedrooms in a converted farmhouse. We were staying in the Vineyard View Room, which did indeed have a lovely view, and I can imagine it would be even lovelier in the Summer.


Then it was time for our afternoon tour and tasting. Because we were B&B guests we were entitled to free tea and coffee before the start of the tour, which was a nice touch.

The tour guide first gave us some background and history of the winery/brewery, and explained a bit about the wine side of things before we went on to the microbrewery, where we learnt how they make their beer, which includes some kind of bottle fermentation. I nodded and pretended that I understood about beer (my husband, as you probably already know, is the beer drinker).

Then we were shown the labelling and bottling machines.
Bottling Machine

It was then time for the tasting (hurrah!). Firstly we tried the Special Cuvée, which was very nice, followed by the English Sparkling Wine. They were both nice, but I was particularly impressed with the Sparkling Wine. I had never tried English wine before, but I have to say the Sparkling Wine was nicer than a lot of Champagnes I've had (although Prosecco remains my sparkling drink of choice) - it was less sharp and slightly smoother than some Champagnes.

It was then onto the ales, of which we tried: the Gold Ale, Barn Ale, Dark Roast, and Damson Ale. I'm not a beer drinker (although I have tried), so most of these went to my husband. I did taste each one, though, but the only one I could tolerate was the Damson Ale, which wasn't bad, mostly due to its fruitiness. My husband liked all the beers, though, especially the Dark Roast.

We then moved on to the liqueurs... We tried a few different liqueurs including the Blood Orange, Damson Vodka, Wild Strawberry, and Lemon Zest. All nice, although I much preferred the citrus-flavoured ones, but that's a personal preference for me in general.



The tasting and tour lasted about 2 hours in total, so I thought it was pretty good value for money (the tour costs about £15 each, although vouchers can be purchased from other sites such as Virgin Experience Days, and sometimes they have offers on... worth looking out for).

Suitably squiffy, we were then let loose in the shop. I'm not sure if this was a good thing, but we are pretty much sorted for alcohol at home for the next year now. Having had a chance to taste some things again at home, I would recommend the English Sparkling Wine with a dash of Wild Strawberry Liqueur. Also, the Irish Cream is nicer than Bailey's (I'm not really a fan of the latter, but liked Chiltern's Irish Cream).

The emphasis at Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery is on quality rather than quantity and their products are definitely worth a look if you're into wine, beer, or indeed liqueurs. We enjoyed the chance to try English wine, as well as the other products that Chiltern Valley sell.

After a comfortable night's sleep in the Farmhouse, we awoke to glorious sunshine and the smell of cooked breakfast (included in the price) wafting up the stairs. All in all, a lovely weekend!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Microwave Blog Challenge Round Up

The deadline for the microwave blog challenge was Friday and I was delighted to have three entries in total (including my own) - not bad for a first-time challenge-setter! Here is my round up of the fabulous dishes:

1) Sarah from Simply Cooked made this wonderful Microwave Mustard Cauliflower - never has a cauliflower looked so tasty:

2) Janice from Farmersgirl Kitchen made Steamed Seabass with Chinese Style Vegetables - healthy and delicious!

3) And, finally, I made a microwave mixed bean chilli. Yummy!


I think these three dishes show that microwave cooking can be quite versatile, and indeed healthy. Thank you very much to Sarah and Janice for taking part - I hope this inspires others to experiment with microwave cooking.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Garden Update: First Signs of Spring

Well, it's been a wet Autumn and Winter to say the least! It's been difficult to find a dry day to get out and do the general gardening tidying up jobs that you're supposed to do other the last few months. We've managed it though, and trees have been chopped back, roses have been pruned (in a fashion...), and leaves have been raked.

You may remember that round about December time I planted some broad beans and peas in one of my raised beds. I was slightly heart broken to discover a month or so ago that they had been munched to within in an inch of their lives by slugs. I never really had a massive problem with slugs during Spring and Summer last year, but as soon as the wet and mild weather of Autumn arrived, they came out in force. I like to garden as organically as I can, mostly to protect and encourage wildlife, so any kind of chemical pest control is out of the question. I'm also far too lazy to adopt the go out at night and find and kill as many slugs as you can method - especially not with the weather lately and I generally don't like to kill stuff. So I took evasive action using these Slug Gone wool pellets (which is supposed to stop slugs getting at your plants) in an effort to save the few plants that hadn't been completely mutilated. I can't 100% say that this is down to the wool pellets, but they definitely must have helped, because 2 weeks later here is one of my broad bean plants:

From an almost crushing defeat, I have returned victorious! The grey stuff is the wool pellets. They were easy to apply and it also acts as a mulch and releases nutrients into the soil. The peas are still not looking quite as good - they were munched much more in the first place - but a couple of them have picked up, so fingers-crossed.

A couple of weeks ago I also dug my green manure into the soil, so I will be planting in that bed as well soon. I'm going to have a go at parsnips and kale this year and hopefully have some things growing over Winter this time around.

Generally stuff is coming to life again and it's lovely to see. Here is my so far unidentified tree, which is always an early blossomer, but was particularly early this year with the mild weather:


If anyone can tell  me what this tree is, I would be very grateful!

And here is my Winter Jasmine, which is just starting to flower:

I'm also making more efforts to encourage more wildlife into the garden this year. I already have a few bug houses, but am going to buy some ladybird food to try and encourage more into the garden. I have purchased this hogitat in the hope that it will encourage some hoggy slug-eating friends into the garden. Apparently my long grass and piles of unraked leaves are also a good environment for hedgehogs. Slightly slapdash gardening has its perks!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Birmingham Whisky Scene

I had my first taste of whisky at the Future Foodies preview event in Birmingham last summer (I wrote about it here) provided by Amy Seton of the Birmingham Whisky Club.

I was surprised by how enjoyable I found my first whisky - it's the sort of drink that makes you go, 'Hmmm... that's interesting' (in a good way), and of course you don't need a huge amount in order to appreciate it.

Since then, I've tried a couple of whiskies at home. My husband bought me Jura Superstition (which is really rather lovely) for Christmas along with Whisky: A Definitive World Guide by Michael Jackson (no, not that one, apparently). So, I think I am beginning to appreciate whisky more and am definitely learning more about it, although I am perhaps still lacking some of the vocabulary with which to describe it (if it's a peaty and/or smoky whisky then I am fine!), but I am getting there.

Whisky seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and it is becoming more accessible, with more people (myself included) beginning to discover it. In particular, the whisky scene appears to be thriving in Birmingham with the aforementioned Birmingham Whisky Club holding a fabulous-looking whisky festival (Whisky Birmingham 2014) on Saturday 1st March 2014, as well as various events throughout the year, including 'Whisky Women' events to encourage more women to discover and appreciate whisky.

http://www.designmynight.com/birmingham/the-bond-birmingham/whisky-birmingham
Whisky Birmingham 2014 from the Birmingham Whisky Club


I was also delighted to find out recently that there is a whisky shop in Birmingham. The Whisky Shop have 22 shops throughout the country (including Birmingham), as well as selling their vast array of whiskies online. We visited the Birmingham store at the weekend, and were very impressed by how helpful and knowledgeable the staff were - and I got to try a couple of small measures of whisky before buying, and got a free magazine. Bonus. We came away with a bottle of Talisker 10 year old and a bottle of Aberlour 12 year old. So far I've tried the Talisker - it's quite smoky... and peaty.

Hurrah for Birmingham and it's various whisky-related things! If only Coventry would follow suit... :)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Hairy Bikers Bloggers Know Best no. 5: Lean Lamb Hotpot

Jo's Kitchen
I had some diced lamb leg in the fridge as it was on offer on Morrison's (my new online grocery shop of choice!), and thought I'd like to make something like a lamb hotpot. Fortunately, the Hairy Bikers came to the rescue with this scrummy but healthy Lean Lamb Hotpot from their Hairy Dieters book. And also I could finally enter one of Jo's Kitchen's Bloggers Know Best linkies!

This recipe is actually very simple; you just need a couple of hours or so to make it, although most of that is just letting it bubble away in the oven - perfect for a lazy Saturday like today!

I halved the amount of meat, carrots and potatoes (actually I overestimated a bit on the amount of potatoes... oops) as I was only serving two, but stuck with the same amount of stock and flour - the pot I was using doesn't have a very tight lid, so I was expecting it to reduce a fair bit (which it did). I did chuck in a sliced leek though, as I happened to have one in the fridge and it never hurts to up the veg content of a dish!

Anyway, here is the result:
Hairy Biker's Lean Lamb Hotpot - I am not the neatest of potato slicers...
Yummy, right?

We certainly found it so. Everything had cooked wonderfully and was meltingly tender. Even the slices of potato which I had not sliced all that thinly had cooked through ok. It probably could have done with a little longer or a slightly higher temperature towards the end of cooking to brown the potatoes a bit more, but it didn't really affect our enjoyment of the dinner. I do love the addition of Worcestershire sauce to this dish - it really beings out the flavours.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Microwave Challenge: Microwave Mixed Bean Chilli

This is my entry into my Microwave Blog Challenge.



I have taken inspiration from this recipe for vegetable & bean chilli and this recipe for Mexican bean soup - I particularly needed the latter recipe to help me work out timings, as I didn't have a clue how long everything would take to cook in the microwave.

I was surprised by how well this turned out. Apparently, when microwave cooking you're supposed to try and chop everything very evenly so it all cooks evenly. I don't do chopping evenly and it was still fine. I'd say it was probably a bit soggier than if I'd cooked it on the hob, as there's no scope for frying the veg, but the texture wasn't too bad on the whole.

I have put the cumin and paprika as optional, but I do recommend them for a more chilli-like flavour.

This should be about enough for 2 portions - it should be fine to reheat any leftovers. Wait for the leftovers to cool for an hour or so and then store in a sealed container in the fridge. Use within 2 - 3 days and make sure it is piping hot once reheated.

(As an aside, as I've mentioned serving with rice below, I personally wouldn't reheat left-over rice as I worry too much about food poisoning!).

Anyway, on with the recipe!

Microwave Mixed Bean Chilli


Serves 2

Ingredients
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red pepper, de-seeded and chopped
1 tsp vegetable or olive oil
1 tsp mild or medium chilli powder (depending on how hot you like your food)
1 tsp ground cumin (optional)
1 tsp paprika (optional)
1 400g can chopped tomatoes
1/2 tbsp tomato puree
1 400g can of mixed beans (or 1 can of red kidney beans), drained and rinsed
a handful of frozen or tinned sweetcorn

Method
1. Place the onion and garlic in a microwaveable bowl and cook on full power for 3 minutes.
2. Add the red pepper, the oil, and the spices to the bowl and stir well. Microwave for 1 minute.
3. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree, loosely cover the bowl (I use one of these) and microwave for 15 minutes.
4. Add the beans and sweetcorn to the bowl, cover again, and microwave for 4 minutes.

Serve with rice (instructions on how to microwave basmati rice (or alternatively buy some microwave rice)) or a jacket potato (instructions on how to microwave a jacket potato) or wraps or pitta breads. You could also add grated cheese, sour cream, guacamole, etc. if you wish.