Sunday, 31 March 2013

Snow, Alfie Boe and Cafe Rouge

Last weekend hubby and I went on another adventure. Through work we had the use of a Land Rover Discovery 3L V6 which was an absolute blessing given the weather.

Friday was for me the highlight of the weekend as we were amongst the 12,000 that braved the atrocious weather to see Alfie Boe at the NIA in Birmingham - but more about Alfie later.

The weather was light snow and we found our hotel - Ibis Budget -n quite easily. Much to our relief the car park was outside and plenty of spaces so no worries about the height or size of the Discovery. The rooms were very clean and identical to the Etap Hotels we use in France - budget cost so no tea/coffee but a very good shower, flat screen tv and comfy bed.

Dinner was booked for Cafe Rouge at The Mailbox - this is our favourite CR so braving the now snow blizzard was definitely worth it, although we were wrapped up ready for the North Pole.

Cafe Rouge - The Mailbox, Birmingham
I absolutely adore the salmon nicoise, especially as it's totally free on my Slimming World plan. I'm not so sure about the Ricard or mini creme brulee, both of which are a must when visiting Cafe Rouge.

Braving the snow again, and driving wind we forced our way along the canal to the NIA. It's a huge venue which disappointingly had no big screen so Alfie was a wee bit tiny. However it's his voice that I love and for most songs closed my eyes to appreciate his beautiful tenor voice. The Evening Star review summed up the opening night of his Storyteller Tour perfectly - even Alfie's little slip up !!

We are amongst this huge NIA crowd - can you see us !!
After the show we relaxed in All Bar One with some friends - I couldn't believe it was 12.40am when we left; left to fight our way back to the hotel in driving snow. It felt like New Year's Eve as everywhere was quiet apart from a few night clubs and the roads and paths were completely snow covered. Thankfully our hotel room was warm and cosy.

Saturday morning revealed 3 inches of snow - we trudged our way back to Cafe Rouge for breakfast as we were not going to miss having their French Toast and superb coffee. It was a tricky walk but not so windy; Birmingham was certainly waking up slowly as for a Saturday morning everywhere was very quiet.

Breakfast done we checked out, cleared the snow from Discovery and set off to Cardiff. The Birmingham roads were hardly recognisable but we found our way to the M5...

... and the M5 Droitwich had no snow! It was a very easy drive to Pontypridd to our daughter at Glamorgan University. We had a lovely afternoon meal at Tynant Arms - a Brains pub.

Tynant Arms
When in South Wales for the uni run we usually stay at Best Western in Cwmbran but it is a drive from Pontypridd. This time we stayed at the Legacy International Hotel just off the M4 and it was lovely. The bed was massive and the room warm, clean with tea/coffee and a spacious bathroom. Breakfast was a buffet with a variety of hot and cold food; we'll definitely be staying here again.

Our Sunday lie in was lovely before meeting our daughter and her luggage and travelling home (to snow). Another busy, exciting and very varied weekend.

We did have a challenge Sunday night - a wine tasting. I'd been chosen as one of the ten Team Tesco Taste Tasters and was sent a bottle of Piggy Bank Temparillo 2011 Extremadura to try. It's a red wine from Spain; here's the winemaker, Norrel Robertson's description:

Old, low yielding Tempranillo bush vines are grown on rich, deep red clay soils, which permit the development of extensive root systems so they can survive in a tough growing environment. The exciting region of Extremadura is located in the far west of central Spain, where the warm, dry continental climate is moderated thanks to the Guadiana River. The grapes were picked by hand, then crushed into small stainless steel fermenters. 50% of the blend was aged in American oak barrels for 5 months

Tesco Wine Community is a fabulous place to chat with fellow wine lovers and we all posted up our Piggy Bank findings. Have a read on the forum, or under the review on the Tesco Wine by the Case website - Piggy Bank. A bonus for this wine is 50p from every bottle is given to charity.

Tomorrow is April 1st and spring must be on it's way - I'm not sure what our weekends have in store for the next few weeks but I'll be filling you in so keep a look out for my next post - cheers!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Wales - after a long winter

It's that time of year again - smiles all round as it's 'caravan opening' weekend. Hubby and I do miss going to our little getaway over the winter but it would be a little too chilly.

This weekend is the moment so Saturday we'll be up early and off up the M6 before joining the windy Welsh A roads to the Cambrian coast. It's quite interesting to travel there in the winter as we see so much more when the trees are bare. Quite often we spy a small holding or cottage we've never noticed before because it is usually hidden in summer greenery.

I wonder if we'll enjoy another snowy view this visit - the scenery is stunning whatever the weather but I do love to see the snow hugging the mountain tops.

Snow on Cader Idris
The car will be laden with new supplies- food, household stuff, toiletries and most importantly a 'few' bottles from our cellar.

Some of our French favourites from our trip to Calais Wine, Majestic and Pidou will be moving to Wales along with a very special bottle of Willunga 100 from SH Jones when we went to the Matthew Jukes 100 Australian Wine Tasting.  I think we'll have steak or welsh lamb to go with it.

Here's Matthew Jukes' report from the Leamington Spa tasting event:

8th February 2013 SH Jones, Leamington Spa

REPORT – To my shame I have never been to Leamington Spa before. I cannot remember a more beautiful city centre, with chic shops and boutiques, all immaculately tended, and the noble Spa at their heart – I will return. I strolled past the smart SH Jones shop on Regent Street on my way to the Angel Hotel where the tables were set up, groaning under the weight of no less that 48 of this year’s 100 Best. It was great to see seven of the representatives of the various wineries/agencies arrive (including Andrew, all of the way from Brown Bros. HQ in Australia) to help the SH Jones team pour the wines. We needed the help because this event was not only sold out it seemed to have attracted a few thirsty opportunists, too. With around 100 people speeding through the wines in just two hours it was a helter skelter ride. I managed to ‘tell the story’ about every single wine which must be a record, too! Some of the Banbury SHJ squad came on the train to investigate the SHJ sibling operation in Leamington, but on the whole the audience were new to me and new to Aussie fine wine. I do hope that this event has not only ignited the passions of the Leamington SH Jones team, ably led by Tom, but also the assembled tasters. Leamington is apparently a pretty traditional place when it comes to wine habits and so it is about time that this striking town felt the thrill of great Australian wine running through its veins.

Staying with the wine theme - always a favourite of mine - Hubby and I have a very difficult task over the Easter school holidays. We need to drink 3 bottles of Champagne or sparkling wine as school are putting on The Wedding Singer and they are needed as props - I wonder why they asked me :-)

We did make a small start on Mother's Day as we had a bottle or Codorniu 1551 - very nice, quite light with a mass of bubbles. We enjoyed it just hubby and me late evening after a lovely day. Our daughter came home from Uni for the weekend (3 hours each way by train) and we took both sets of grandparents to The Abbey (Party at the Pub) as our son was working behind the bar
Bottle number 1
Thankfully I had no chocolates - still on track for my Slimming World target in time for retiring in July :-) and leaving work too means there is more time for trips, events and special occasions.

One trip definitely on our list is Tesco Wine Fair - this must be our 6th or 7th year and is an absolutely wonderful weekend. The 2013 dates are:

7-8th September - Manchester
21-22nd September - Birmingham
5-6th October - London
12-13th October - Bristol
26-27th October - Edinburgh
The venue have not yet been announced but we are so excited that the Fair is coming to Birmingham as that means a day trip on the train AND a weekend trip to either London or Bristol - yes we will go twice as it is such a good event !!

Of course Tesco Wine is available all year round and there's a great forum at Tesco Wine Community so although the Wine Fair is once a year the fun is never ending.

That's all this time but next weekend we are on a huge adventure which includes:

Alfie Boe - Birmingham - Cardiff

I'm counting down and trying not to get too excited just yet!!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

France encore !!

On our travels again – last weekend hubby and I had a weekend in France. Nothing fancy, posh or expensive just a hop across the channel to stay a couple of nights in a country I love, and maybe bring a few goodies home too.

Before I start though I will just give you a few tips and points:

although you can purchase wine and beer and other lovely goodies at a slightly cheaper price in France than here in the UK you do not ‘save’ any money if you include your travel, accommodation and food. Therefore to do a ‘booze’ run is not always economically best, but it does make a fabulous weekend break.

because the shopping, eating out and generally being in France is our main purpose we do travel and stay as cheaply as we can – if we were travelling further afield or having a luxury break where the hotel was the main focus our choices would be different (the same reasons as our first night away in my last blog). I do believe in ‘meeting the purpose’ with costs accordingly matched and saving a few pennies on one part of any holiday means more to spend on another.

So all that said here’s our Calais adventure:

6am departure from home made our trip feel almost like a normal work day as this is the time hubby usually leaves for work. However driving down the M1 with all the other commuters and watching the sky lighten (no actual sunrise) over Milton Keynes was definitely not leading to a day in the office.

The journey passed without incident although we both nearly had a heart attack crossing the Queen Elizabeth II bridge as the charge for a car is now £2.00 – we remember using the Dartford Tunnel both directions seeing the bridge grow more each time, waiting for our chance to drive over (1991).

Traffic being kind to us resulted in arriving early at the Port of Dover where P&O Ferries put us on the next boat; thank you. Our booking was with Direct Ferries who we have used many times – this time our return crossing was a bargain at just £49.50 return !!! 
P & O to France
The Pride of Burgundy sailed across to France in 90 minutes with just a few sways and less than 2 hours from leaving England we were happily wine tasting/browsing in Calais Wine Superstore

It’s an amazing store with 'over 32 wines available every day to taste in their state-of-the-art temperature controlled tasting machines and another 40 wines at the bar’ . We buy our cheaper favourites here – wines we love that are easy drinkers for an impromptu glass in the evening. These wines are our ‘laid back’ favourites as they do not need any planning or food matching – they can just be enjoyed.
Here are some favourites that are now living ‘chez nous’:

Blossom Hill Signature Reserve Chardonnay
Jacob's Creek Three Vines Shiraz Grenache Sangiovese
Merlot Ca'Lunghetta
La Roche Brut
Chardonnay Ca'Lunghetta
Cabernet Sauvignon Ca'Lunghetta
Pinot Grigio Ca Lunghetta

Just next door – well ok to be precise round the corner - is Pidou. This supermarket is a newbie to us discovering it last summer. It has wine, beer and other goods; nothing in size to the big Auchan or Carrefour but it does have a good range of brand labelled glasses and gift sets. I found a beautiful Courvoisier glass and a Disaronno tumbler.
We always stay at the B&B Hotel in Coquelles just south of Calais. It's a travel hotel but is always clean with comfy beds and a small but very adequate bathroom. Towels and showergel are provided and each room has a flat screen tv which receives BBC channels. The double rooms were a very good price at just 39 Euro with breakfast and additional 6 Euros each. It's definitely worth having breakfast; a buffet with bacon and scrambled eggs, a variety of bread, pastries, cereals, yoghurts, fruit juice and hot drinks.
We started using this hotel many years ago was they have four bedded rooms on the second floor; double bed and ensuite bathroom with an added mezzanine homing twin beds; superb for travelling with a family. From the top floor too you can see the tops of the ferries as they sailing and out of Calais - this caused great excitement in the early days. 
B&B Hotel - Coquelles
The hotel is next to a Centre Commercial with a large Auchan, a great bar Le Blierot and most importantly a Flunch. For being a supermarket cafe Flunch is a fantastic place to eat. It's self service for starters, puds and drinks; at the service till you say which main you'd like for which you are given a ticket. After settling ourselves at a table with our starter and bottle of Bordeau it was mains time - hubby took our two tickets, Bavette and Gallette Americane, to the grill where the meat is cooked right in front of you to your preferred liking. A large variety of vegetables, some in delicious sauces, rice, mashed potatoes, chips and pasta are all 'a volonte' - help yourself. It is perfect being able to have different mains and chose what you would like to eat with them. Flunch do Menu Enfant too for younger visitors - a favourite with our two in the past.
Perfect cosy night - well it was minus lots outside with snow - and a good breakfast set us up for a quick trip to Majestic Wines. They also have a very good selection with many of the usual supermarket choices available at a few pounds cheaper than home. We only bought a few bottles which now rest in our 'reserved' rack for special moments.
Robertson Winery Chenin Blanc
Robertson Winery Merlot
Lindauer Brut
Brown Brothers Orange Blossom and Muscat
Our Saturday afternoon was spent driving and mooching around Boulogne - it was bitterly cold but it didn't spoil our plans,if anything it made us walk even quicker to Buffalo Grill for our evening meal. Did it feel strange to be escorted to our table by a clown, with a sheriff and can-can dancer serving at tables ??? no of course not it was Carnival Night - although we didn't join in the quiz or singing !! Staying at the B&B entitled us to a free aperitif which went down well with our complimentary salad starter. Our mains were perfect - similar to our Harvester restaurants and pub was perfect - Cafe Gourmand - mini creme brulee, mini brownie with creme anglais and an espresso coffee. A great meal with a fun atmosphere for a Saturday night.
Cold walk back, another cosy night, waking up to snow, yummy breakfast and a 'choppy' boat home completed our weekend away. It's one of our favourites to do - not too expensive for travel, hotel and food - car full of goodies and time to be in FRANCE !!!
If you get the chance do it :-)