Christmas treats in St Albans & Harpenden

Published in The Herts Advertiser 7 December 2017

I love this time of the year, when I can share with you some of the special Christmas foodie treats that are on offer in our local area. We need plenty of things to cheer us up when the weather gets cold, so here are some of my favourites!

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I hope you have been to the beautiful Christmas market in the Vintry garden, next to the Cathedral. In a stunning location, you can pop in to buy a cup of mulled wine, cider, Winter Pimms or hot chocolate from Hatch. I like that there are now tables tucked away in corners (two with an amazing view of the Cathedral); it’s a fab place to stop during your Christmas shopping. When I visited a few days ago, you could also buy toasties, roasted chestnuts, noodles, pulled pork and Bratwurst. Stalls were selling chocolate kisses, fudge, preserves and whisky, and I plan to buy stocking fillers from local company I am Cocoa who make beautiful chocolate lollies and trees. The market is open Saturday and Sunday 10-6, Monday to Friday 11-6 with extended opening until 8 on Thursdays. It is free entry.

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As you leave the Christmas market wander up Holywell Hill and pop into Rock Pop Candy, which has a fantastic advent calendar window display this year. You will be able to find lots of retro sweets (maybe for a grown-up stocking?), including imports such as Stateside chocolate, Hersheys, Reeses and Brachs.

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If you are lucky, the Beer Shop on London Road might still have bottles of Farr Brewery ‘Brewdolph’ beer left. I bought three, and they were selling out! You can also visit the Farr Brewery shop on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd December (11-5).

Sopwell House is serving a really pretty afternoon tea this year (see photograph) until Saturday 30th December (not 24-25 Dec). It is 29.95 (with mulled wine 34.95 and champagne 39.95).

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Parker and Vine in Harpenden make delicious Christmas cakes and mince pies, and you can also buy preserves, pickles and chutneys; they sell them in small gift sets and hampers, or individually. I like the look of the Santa Special Rolla Granola, with pecans, walnuts and orange, which would make a lovely Christmas morning breakfast.

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For your essential vegetables and fruits, the Charter Market in St Albans is on every day from Saturday 16 December until Christmas Eve. We also have the St Albans Farmers Market on Sunday 10 December and Harpenden Farmers Market on Sunday 17 December, where all our regular favourites will be selling.

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The Abbots Kitchen has moved into a marquee while the redevelopment takes place, which now means you get a nice view of the park! If you would like to book for Christmas lunch will be available on weekdays between Monday 4th and Friday 22nd December.

Bookings for Christmas Lunch must be made in advance. For more information or to make a Christmas Lunch reservation, call 07813 343033 or email abbots.kitchen@elior.co.uk #21 for two courses.

Carols till Closing is a great excuse to go to the pub and join in with some festive singing. Join Father Richard from St Saviours for carols at The Boot (Weds 13th December), The White Lion (Thursday 14th December), The White Hart Tap (Monday 18th December) and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks (Tuesday 19th December) all from 8pm.

Finally: I feel very fortunate to be able to eat delicious food all year round for my job. I am also very lucky to be able to share lovely food on Christmas day with my husband and two children, but not everyone else is so fortunate which is why I have donated to Crisis this year; they offer a Christmas meal to someone in need for #26.08. If you are able to do the same please go to http://www.crisis.org.uk/get-involved/reserve-a-place-at-crisis-at-christmas.

Hatch

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Cafe Trio, WGC

Published in WH Times 29 November 2017

The big chain coffee shops and restaurants tend to grab the most prominent locations in Welwyn Garden City, but I am always on the look out for an interesting independent, who offer something special. Overshadowed by the enormous Sainsburys, Cafe Trio is tucked away on a pedestrian street, yet has managed to attract and keep many loyal customers, so I popped in last week to find out why.

outsidecafetrioIt was a chilly day, but we were welcomed with a smile and shown to a cosy corner with bright orange seating; it was busy even for an early Monday lunchtime, which is a great sign. I liked the upbeat, but not intrusive music, and service was quick and helpful.

The menu is long, with breakfasts, soups, sandwiches and more substantial main courses with a Turkish and Mediterranean focus. I love Turkish dips and falafel so asked the waiter about the hot and cold meze plate, which she described well, and a few minutes later showed it to me as one passed by on its way to another customer! For under 7 pounds, it was a generous and delicious plateful with hummus sprinkled with sumac, a herby falafel, a light courgette fritter, white bean salad, fresh tzatziki and a very good tomato and couscous dip. It came with a bowl of warm Turkish bread.

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My partner chose a vegetable moussaka which was full of flavour, with lovely layers of aubergine, potato, spinach and tomato. One negative note: the plates could have been cleaner; mine was smeary with fingerprints which I had to clean, but the food was so delicious and good value I can forgive them that.

Cafe Trio is now also open in the evenings Wednesdays to Saturdays, and I like the sound of the evening menus, which include Turkish pizza, meze platters, oven-baked lamb, grilled fish dishes and authentic kebabs. They do cocktails in the evenings and have a good range of wine, and they make it clear on their leaflets that they welcome families and groups. Cafe Trio recently won ‘highly commended’ at the WGC Business Awards, and I can see why it is well liked; it isn’t the most sophisticated place in WGC, but it is friendly and offers great value, which is very welcome on a cold day. Call 01707 322121 to book for the evenings.

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A taste of Vietnam

Published in The Herts Advertiser 23 November 2017

Every now and then I find a place to eat that is so good that I don’t really want to tell you about it. It can be very tricky to get a table in some of our best local restaurants, which is great for them, but not so good for us; giving more publicity only makes it harder to get in!

A Taste of Vietnam is one of these “places”, although it isn’t anywhere you can book a table; it is a little trickier than that. A one-woman business, A Taste of Vietnam is properly home-cooked food, only available on a Friday evening, and you have to go and pick it up. There isn’t a website yet, and you have to find the menu via facebook, but once you have navigated all that, you are in for the best takeaway you have ever had.

Hoang NguyenI met Anne Harvey (also known as Hoang) when I went to pick up our order, from her home in the Fleetville area of St Albans. Anne learned to cook from her grandmother and mother, and really missed the food when she moved to the UK. Anne started the business in June, inspired after a trip to Vietnam where she met chefs and family members and really took note of how they prepare classic dishes. She advertised on St Albans Mums facebook page, and business spiralled from there. Anne dreams of opening her own cafe serving Vietnamese food, so watch this space. I think Anne’s food would also be hugely popular for anyone needing private catering; you will just need to give a lot of notice!

IMG_6974So, to the actual food. We unpacked the parcels and as instructed reheated the pho (I used a saucepan rather than a microwave, all fine). It all looked incredibly fresh and beautiful, with wedges of lime provided to squeeze over, and plenty of fresh herbs. The fried lattice rolls stuffed with minced pork, glass noodles and cloud ear mushrooms with dipping sauce were amazing; they are lighter and crispier than spring rolls and incredibly more-ish. Anne told me that she can’t buy the lattice papers in the UK and her mum sends them from Vietnam, so I think it unlikely that you will be able to get these in many places. Four rolls cost just 3.50.

Summer rolls were stuffed with wafer-thin vegetables, prawns, fresh herbs and noodles, which we sliced into rounds like sushi to share, but you can just eat as they are. The papaya prawn salad with fish sauce, crushed peanut, crispy onion and fresh mint was divine and so fresh – if you ate this every day you would be very healthy.

Pho (pronounced more like “pha”) is the classic Vietnamese soup with noodles and poached chicken topped with beansprouts. Anne explained that she cooks the oxtail broth all day to get the depth of flavour and to keep the pho broth clear. If you prefer a non-meat option, just talk to Anne about the options.

We also had a delicious coconut-based chicken curry, with lemongrass, potatoes, onions and spices that are a family secret. Grilled fish curry was amazing too, with the fish keeping its delicate and firm texture in the coconut sauce. Portions were very generous and great value, with mains around the 7 pound mark, with rice.

To find out what is on the menu for the coming Friday, and for the easiest way to book, go to the facebook page tasteofvietnamstalbans or email tamnguyenfpt@hotmail.com. You collect from Anne’s house which is near Clarence Park, St Albans between about 5 and 8. But please don’t all rush at once!

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The White Hart, Welwyn

Published in WH Times 14 November 2017

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The White Hart is one of the most well-known buildings in pretty old Welwyn; it curves around the corner as you drive into the village, perfectly located for visitors to find it, as they have done for hundreds of years. The oldest part dates to 1681, and you can see the archway to the right where coaches would have entered for stabling. The White Hart has seen many changes over the years, and I went to try lunch under its relatively new ownership, brothers James and Tom Bainbridge.

James and Tom took over in 2016, and they run it alongside The Tilbury in Datchworth. James has a background in hospitality including Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray. Older brother Thomas is a self-taught chef and oversees the two restaurants, and was cooking when we went in for lunch last week.

The duo have transformed the interior, and tried to make the space as light as possible, with pale walls, exposed brickwork and stone floors. The bar and restaurant is a warren of rooms, with a huge fireplace in the centre, making it a cosy place to visit in the colder months ahead.

I was pleased to see that the menu was seasonal, with walnuts, kale and pears on the menu for example; I chose the Jerusalem artichoke soup with welsh rarebit as James had explained that a local grower in Bengeo had just supplied them. It was delicious, and really only needed some toast rather than the hearty welsh rarebit alongside. I loved the baked pumpkin cake with walnuts and cauliflower, which was as light as a souffle and contrasted well with the caramelised walnus. It probably didn’t need all the cheese sauce as it made it quite a rich dish for lunch, but it tasted great and was accomplished cooking. My friend had the ham hock terrine from the set menu, which he liked and commented that it had been made with the natural fats rather than with added butter. Pork tenderloin with black pudding, kale and chestnuts was a great autumn dish, and was cooked perfectly; maybe some green vegetables on both plates would be welcome contrast. Meat is supplied by local favourite Bridget Bs, and I was pleased to see they also use Dawlicious icecream from Hertford and The Cheese Plate from Buntingford. Fruit comes from their own family gardens.

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photo by Cathal

We chose across the menus, but the two-course set lunch for 15 pounds must be one of the best deals around. You can also get good pub classics such as fish and chips, fish stew and steaks, and you are very welcome just to pop in for a drink in the cosy bar, making it a great local’s pub, as it has been for years.

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Social shopping

Published in The Herts Advertiser 9 November 2017

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I’d like to talk about food shopping this week, and in particular, food shopping when you are older – if you don’t use a car or do your shopping online, how are you getting on?

The University of Hertfordshire got in touch to tell me about an exhibition they are hosting at the Jubilee Centre in St Albans town centre (7th, 8th, 10th November) aimed at older shoppers and their families, as well as supermarkets, food stalls and shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Called Twenty-five: Lives seen through food, it explores food in later life in 25 households, and reveals some really interesting findings.

Staying in control of your own food shopping is considered key by older people determined to retain their independence and sense of community belonging. With one in 10 people aged over 65 in England and Wales suffering from, or at risk of, malnutrition, regular trips to the shops can ensure older people continue to have access to the food they want to eat. Crucially, food shopping provides older people with opportunities for social interaction as the risk of loneliness increases. Places that introduce creative, practical measures to improve the buying experience for older customers can help protect older people’s ‘food security’, and appeal to an increasingly important target market.

I was interested to know why shopping might be different for older people; the research found that when you can no longer use a car, or you rely on public transport, for example, it affects your choices and shopping habits. I shop a lot online, but the Uni research found that older people were less keen on this and saw it as “a last resort”, preferring to choose their own food and enjoy the social interaction.

Study participants felt that supermarket in-store offers tend to target families (e.g. BOGOF deals). Older people described themselves as ‘canny shoppers’ who enjoy comparing prices and ‘finding bargains’, but find that money-off coupons are often aimed at people who spend a minimum amount in one shop. My 91-year old Grandma loves the 10 weekend meal deal at Marks & Spencer, which she says lasts her three days, for example.

Helpful staff were also identified as valued – so when supermarkets move to more automated tills, that can be off-putting and even worrying to some customers. It’s a reminder to the busy shoppers who are confident with technology that the person in front of you in the queue might be finding it stressful – especially if you are getting impatient!

It was interesting to hear that German supermarket Kaiser’s has attached magnifying glasses to some of its trolleys to make reading food labels easier and Japanese supermarket Aeon Kasai has installed resting areas throughout its stores.

On a smaller scale, if you run a cafe or pub, for example, you might like to think about offers for earlier in the week, when business is quiet. Poor acoustics can be an issue too. Obviously some businesses are good at this already, but talking to the team behind the research may help you find some new ideas about how to retain and attract older customers.

During the exhibition there will be talks about ‘Slow Shopping’ from Katherine Vero, Founder of Slow Shopping and Michelle Carruthers MBE, Chief Executive of Food Train, Scotland, and the organisers hope it will inspire retailers in Hertfordshire to make some changes.

This free exhibition will open to the public on 7th, 8th, November 10-5 and 10th November 10-2.

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Dutch Farm Shop & Cafe

Published in Welwyn Hatfield Times 4 Nov 2017

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The Dutch cafe, farm shop and garden centre has been a Brookman’s Park institution for over 50 years, and it goes from strength to strength, especially with the recent expansion of its farm shop.

We popped in for a late lunch and liked the bright, spacious interior of the cafe, and the smiley welcome of the counter team. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch, snacks and afternoon tea, and is busy any day that you go in, though service is usually efficient. They do a great range of breakfasts including a good veggie cooked breakfast, eggs Benjamin, omelettes made with free range eggs, granola and smoothies. After 11.30 they switch to a lunch menu, which includes homemade soup, salads, sandwiches and Sunday roasts. I like that they use local suppliers including Simmons Bakery, Bridget B’s Butchers and The Three Brewers – yes they do have a licence so you can have a beer, or a glass of Prosecco with your afternoon tea! My jacket potato with chilli con carne was generous and delicious, and at 6.95 better value than local pub lunches.

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My main reason for visiting was to check out the new and improved farm shop; it is really excellent with a great selection of vegetables, fruit, breads, cheeses, preserves and store-cupboard essentials and treats. The focus is the new Bridget B’s butchery counter which opened in August and is one of the best I have seen in the local area. Bridget B’s won the Hertfordshire Life Award for Food and Drink Hero and they are well-known for their locally reared meats. I thought it was good value too; the cooked meats, quiches and pies were lower in cost than local supermarkets and looked much more appealing. They have planned tasting events for Christmas meats (turkey, sausages, beef etc) this weekend 21-22 October 21-22 and 11-12 November. If you want to pick up an easy dinner, they have frozen meals including Cook. I spotted lots of local and indie suppliers, including a great range of British gins – great for presents. There were only two tills in operation so we had to queue to pay, but they were changing the shop layout for their Christmas displays so hopefully this will be slicker soon. I think the shop is going to be very busy!

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Heartwood Tea Rooms

Published in The Herts Advertiser 26 October 2017

exteriorWe often walk in Heartwood Forest and have been watching the development of the Heartwood Tea Rooms next to the Sandridge village stores for a few months. It opened at the end of September, ready to welcome all the walkers, dog owners, cyclists and villagers, so we popped in last week to see what was on offer.

There are a couple of tables outside, and I was surprised how spacious the cafe is inside, with two rooms and a sheltered terrace area at the back. The front room is cosy with an old fireplace, and the back room opens up with a lovely beamed roof that creates a light, spacious feel. David Hearn, who owns the cafe and the shop next door explained that the oldest part of the building dates to 1690, and he wanted to make the most of its history; the sandblasted exposed walls date to the 1800s and he has just renovated the old cellar. He had the idea for the tearoom several years ago, when he was asked by the Woodland Trust to help cater during the tree planting sessions in the forest. David knew that visitors to Sandridge would want teas and cakes, and he thought it would complement the pubs in the village.

backroomThe cafe is open from 9 to 5 every day, and you can get breakfast, light lunches and afternoon tea and cakes, so good for any time you want to visit. From the small kitchen area, the team manage to produce a good range of breakfasts including bacon, sausages and eggs; the meats are provided by John the Butcher from Sandridge – he is based just up the hill. Bread comes from Simmons bakery. You can also get avocado on toast. We went in for lunch and there was a nice choice, including a seasonal soup for a reasonable 4.50. There was a bit of a muddle about what soup was available, but when my tomato and pepper soup arrived, it was very nice, and I like that they warmed the bread roll that came with it. Sandwiches include beef, rocket and horseradish, which my partner enjoyed.

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Shelves are lined with large pots of loose leaf tea, and this is a focus for the cafe, with a tea menu with over 20 varieties including chai and orange pekoe as well as the classics Earl Grey and a black tea called London Calling. Tea is served in pots along with a tea timer, which I’m not sure is really needed but seems to be a trend in some of our local cafes now. Teas are priced up to 3.45 a pot for one person which is similar to The Saddlery at the Osprey shop, but otherwise quite high for the area. You can also get a good range of coffees, hot chocolate and juices.

I thought they had a lovely selection of cakes, including gluten-free options. David explained that they make some of the bakes themselves and others are made by a baker in St Michael’s village. I had a delicious lime cupcake and I noticed that they also do a set afternoon tea, which would be great for a special occasion. There is also a nice ‘bar’ area at the front if you are popping in on your own, although I’m not sure the Sun newspaper on offer is in keeping with the vibe of the place.

The Heartwood Tea Rooms have already become a popular meeting place for villagers – the vicar was in recently – and is a very welcome addition to the area. I am glad they are open just in time for lots of autumn walks.

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