My October Favourites

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The river this November afternoon
Rests in an equipoise of sun and cloud:
A glooming light, a gleaming darkness shroud
Its passage. All seems tranquil, all in tune.” 
― Cecil Day-LewisThe Complete Poems of C. Day Lewis

Can it really be November already? Apparently so. But what a beautiful, calm entrance she has made here in Ireland. Days almost like summer, with a serene calmness in the air and not a hint of a breeze to disturb the russet carpet on the ground. Such days followed later by evenings arriving early, containing just a soft whisper of winter reminding us to light our stoves and boil the kettle for cups of steaming comfort. Transitional weather just doesn’t get any better than this.

But before a short digression becomes an entire weather themed sub-plot, back to the task at hand. A few of my October favourites.

  1. My favourite event: Mad Hatters Food Trail, Kinsale

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Regular readers of this blog will know that Taste of Dublin has long been my annual foodie event of choice. But suddenly the narrative reveals an unexpected twist as there has emerged a clear rival for the accolade of “Best Foodie Day Out” in Ireland, as decided by me.  After my maiden voyage to the Mad Hatter’s Food Trail in Kinsale I am torn, very torn, and that is high praise indeed. The day warrants a full post but I can’t quite stand over the accuracy of my memories, as this is really a booze tour masquerading as a foodie event. The need to queue for a drink at 11.30am and images of a packed nightclub by late afternoon are clear indicators of the type of day that you are in store for when you follow an Alice in Wonderland character down this particular rabbit hole…. but what a great day it is. It is little wonder that at a hefty €95 this event still sells out months in advance. The food was fabulous (I think!!), there was a never-ending supply of quality alcoholic tipples and the participants knew that donning novelty hats was a signal to leave your inhibitions at the door, accept that “we are all mad here” and allow things to unfold in a manner that grows “curiouser and curiouser”.  Sure they even have “your man Martin off the telly!!”   Take a look….

And yes there was food…

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It’s a really great day, in a really great town and has all the hallmarks of an annual pilgrimage. It made Keith Flyod fall in love with Kinsale…. and it’s easy to see why.

2.  My Favourite Make-UP Brand: NARS

Yes, I know that I am very new to this particular party but in an attempt to broaden my make-up horizons, I have been experimenting with some new brands and NARS is the one that is impressing me most. I have been using three products and while liking them all, it is the matte concealer that is really living up to the hype. I use the shade Custard which is a medium tone and I now I think I need two of these little beauties on repurchase day. A lighter one for under the eyes and the same medium shade again for blemishes. It is a true wonder product.

I also love the lipstick as it is not drying on the lips and the colour stays in place for hours. But tbh, despite this being a beautiful formula, I am not enough of a make-up gal to worry about my brand of lippy too much, or to regularly splurge on something I invariably break or lose, so this may or may not be bought again. The shade, for anyone interested, is Anna.

And finally the primer. I did really like this. I have almost completely used it up. I will definitely take a scissors to the tube just to ensure no precious product goes to waste but I am on the fence about restocking. It is exactly what I wanted but there is so little in the tube I feel I can’t justify making it an everyday primer. And I want an everyday primer. So here I am torn, on the fence, out with the jury, in two minds, hemming and hawing; you get the picture. I am contemplating an Urban Decay version for November – it looks to be more product at a similar price point – but currently I am at the stage of putting it on the back of my hand, nodding affirmatively and leaving the cosmetics hall paralysed by procrastination. These are big decisions, big decisions indeed.

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3. My Favourite Food Product:   Basil Pesto

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It has been a busy month – the lack of blog posts is a clear indicator of that. I am one of those lazy souls who can’t function tired…. so I need quick comfort food and very early nights. The kind of early nights toddlers get to enjoy. And I know I am not a two-year old but in my defense if I had the luxury of a nap in the afternoon I may stay up a little later. Anyway when things get a little hectic and the food needs to be fast but not a McDonalds, I find pesto to be a food hero. I just chop up lots of veg (generally mushrooms, yellow peppers, cherry tomato and courgette) and add them to a chicken breast that I fry off with a little garlic. Bung in the pesto with a dollop of creme fraiche to thin it out and serve over a little bowl of pasta shapes. Black pepper essential, parmesan an optional extra. Yum!!

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4. My Fashion Favourite: Knitwear

Specifically jumpers…..I love jumper weather. But currently I am loving one jumper in particular – the Zara “Blonde” jumper – don’t worry it comes in other hair colours too but mine’s a blonde. It is just so cozy – oversize, fun, soft and cute. Now that’s a lot of positive adjectives for one knitwear item but it is a jumper that brings a smile to my face. Poppy Deyes and Samantha Maria have also purchased this one, so it’s becoming a regular on Instagram already. I ordered online partly because the Zara Online packaging lifts my spirits. Clothing wrapped in pretty tissue paper and folded perfectly to fit the sturdy cardboard box – take note ASOS and others, this is packaging done right!! Unbox, unwrap and slip your arms into a virtual cuddle. If you can wear hygge, it feels like this sweater.

5. My Interiors Favourite: Ikea

I know, I know – it is mass produced, it is generic, it is devoid of character – but for interiors on a budget Ikea really is hard to beat. Now you have to accept that it is a marketing triumph, I mean I only went for a bookcase and look…..

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Where on earth was the bookcase supposed to fit??? There is no doubt that Ikea is the heroin of the impulse buying addict but if you just want simple furniture that you can style yourself, it is a winner. Simplicity and “quality” at an extremely affordable price point. My shelves, for an awkwardish space, cost about 50 quid. Add in a few accessories and it is exactly what I wanted. I would love bespoke furniture but for now unique is too expensive and so Ikea is my ideal Saturday afternoon destination. I mean €50…. and look how they turned out….. and all the other stuff in that trolley was entirely necessary too obvs….

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So there it is… some of the things I have been loving this October. I have high hopes for sober and sugar free November – where I will lose a half stone in time for Christmas. Lofty goals indeed. However, I am delaying the beginning of this virtuous life until Monday because I am currently on my hols and have a theatre evening with my mum and a girlie night away with my favourite bevvy of sisters to look forward to first. More to follow on all that….. xo

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V by Very Blog Awards 2017

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I haven’t been blogging very long, I am nothing if not inconsistent with it and I had, before last week, attended a grand total of one blogger event. But somehow I had slipped through the cracks and slithered all the way on to the list of finalists for the V by Very Blog Awards 2017, leaving me with an invite to head to the capital for the annual awards ceremony. Now I hummed and hawed a little about actually attending, knowing very well that I would not be amongst the gong wielders trying to get their speeches out (or in this case photo taken) before the music ushered them off stage. And trust me, that is not a statement driven by false modesty or a search for compliments. Self-deprecation is not really my thing. Any objective eye (and even my own subjective one) could ascertain at a glance that several of the blogs in our category (lifestyle) are better than this little slice of cyberspace currently professes to be. They are maintained by people who have blogged for longer, who create content more frequently and who generally take far superior photos. That is just a fact. What is also a fact is that the best blog in this category won on the night. Louise O’Connell’s eponymous blog is fab. I also really enjoy her instastories and love how much I can learn from following bloggers of this calibre. Her style (which focuses mainly on beauty) could not be more different from mine or indeed from that of runner-up, Cupid or Cats, a blog that is all about the writing and will make you laugh out loud. Jane’s style reminds me of a very talented blogger friend of mine (the only other blogger I actually know if online stalking is discounted!) as she draws us into her world with excellent penmanship that is in equal parts comic and compassionate. One of those rare talents who can be strikingly honest and personal without ever seeming to take themselves too seriously. Have a read, it’s worth it!

And so, given the quality of the competition, I genuinely never expected to win and something would have been awry with the judging if I had. But still I rushed from work, changed into the gúna and dragged my reluctant plus one to Dublin on a school night. If not for a cute plaque, then why? Mainly because a little group of wise friends and colleagues (who are not averse to gentle bullying) made me see that fledgling bloggers like me would not get a “pat on the back” like making the longlist, or the shortlist, or on a good year the list of finalists, if nobody supported the process and indeed the final event.  Someone decided I was worthy of a place at the table, so the least I could do was sit down and enjoy it. And so off I went, and here is how it all played out.

The Venue

The awards were held in The Academy in Dublin, and the venue thus provided the theme – movie icons. It was a great setting in my eyes, although I was glad of my leather biker jacket! The light box with the event name outside was super cool and there was a proper red carpet with photographers on arrival. Despite being camera-shy (I firmly believe it does lie despite the old adage – and I am always prettier in my head) it was a lovely way to create a sense of occasion and celebration. The building had loads of space with proceedings spread over several floors, the staff were friendly and there was even provision for an after party. So far, so good for The Bloggies!

Food and Booze

The food on the night was provided by KC Peaches and it was a bit like a more substantial portion of finger food. There was pork belly skewers, chilli dogs, Cajun chicken sandwiches and veggie noodles. But you could only choose one thing!!! One small morsel!!! It was definitely not going to put you off your bacon and cabbage, but the problem was there was no bacon and cabbage to follow. No buttery mash to fill you up. Not even a bowl of cheese and onion Taytos to dip in to. So considering the price of entry the food offering felt just a little stingy. Now don’t get me wrong, it was very tasty….. but I was starving, and for me a little hunger can be a dangerous thing. It can in fact metamorphise into a life changing medical condition in a matter of seconds. Survival instincts eventually activated and I ended up eating a chicken and stuffing sandwich in the car on the way home, but really that was a feast unworthy of the LBD and heels.  And also all the food was cold…. which was strange… because it looked like hot food but it was in fact all cold. Very, very odd!

The booze offering on the other hand was very generous. Our little blue wristbands entitled each of us to three alcoholic tipples, so three Mor Gin and Tonics it was. Yum!!!! There was also Heineken Light or Prosecco. But again in the realm of the bizarre, there was no option at all for the teetotal attendees or the evening’s designated drivers.  Definitely something to reconsider for next year.

The ceremony

Here I was very impressed. The stage was well-lit. The MCs, Lords of Strut, were unique and engaging – it was all very camp and very 80s but lots of fun. I loved that every finalist had their blog name displayed on a huge movie screen, the programmes were high quality and the spot prizes really generous. It also moved along at pace, which I think everyone was glad of and it was all in all a very enjoyable couple of hours. In the categories I read regularly the blogs I rate most highly were generally amongst the prize winners – a positive for the quality of the judging process, which as far as I am aware is completely voluntary. For anyone interested the overall Blog of the Year 2017 is GastroGays, and this travel and foodie blog is definitely an example of all that is good in the Irish blogosphere.

The Goodie Bags

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Finally, I think there is real merit in attending events just for a goodie bag. Who doesn’t love a little pressie for the road home? And it wasn’t a bad one either. The two standout gifts were an Alcatel USB (I really needed one) and a mascara from The Balm. There were some snacks (crisps and cookies) and drinks (coconut water and beer) and also some beauty bits like body lotion and perfume samples. And of course there was a voucher for V by Very.

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And so that’s a wrap from the V by Very blog awards 2017 – I hope to experience the glitz and glamour again over the coming years. And the best part – I have discovered some fab new bloggers to follow, learn from and be inspired by!

Til next time, xo.

 

 

The ULTIMATE Grilled Cheese….

….the cheat meal of dreams!!!!!

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People who don’t know me in real life will possibly eye roll at the notion that I am about to devote an entire blog post to “a cheese sandwich”. Those of us who go back a little further, will remember days when my entire diet was based around chicken, mushrooms, rashers, tins of Campbell’s soup and my beloved cheese. Halfway decent cooking skills came later – but my love affair with cheese is rooted deep in my childhood and melted cheese would definitely make it on to my desert island wish-list.

But grilled cheese – proper grilled cheese – wasn’t something we in Ireland ever really mastered. You see our raw materials were all wrong. Firstly there was an overreliance on the Easy Single, not the best possible start.  This, in the 80s and 90s, was coupled with a bizarre turning our backs on our dairy-farming ancestry, to embrace the abomination that is “spreadable butter”. Finally, the Irish Mammy’s instinct to be a little sparing with the cheese, meant that when it was all combined, we were left with a just about passable cheese toasty. All the while, across the Atlantic, American kids had proper grilled cheese – the epitome of comfort food! The two entities were entire worlds apart.

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So for a long time I wondered how we were getting it so wrong….. I mean it is after all only cheese, butter and bread… surely it can’t be that hard to master. And then years later, aided by the magic of the internet and the wisdom of Jamie Oliver, I figured it out. A life changing lightbulb moment  – those bloody Americans had lied to us for years. Blatant, bare-faced lies!!! And lies about cheese are a whole new low people, a whole new low!

Because you don’t grill it at all – you FRY it. Now they didn’t tell us that, did they????? No… this, along with the recipe for perfect Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Grape Jelly for bagels, were things they tried to keep all to themselves. A little selfish methinks.

But jump back if you will to 2017 and the cat is well and truly out of the bag. And those of us happy to sacrifice a few years of our life expectancy for gooey, melty cheese on crisp white toast, can recreate the ultimate grilled cheese from the comfort of our own kitchens, while dreaming of visits to retro New York diners.

Here’s what to do….and more importantly what not to do!

  • Take two slices of white bloomer or batch loaf. Not too thick or the heat won’t get to the cheese without burning the bread, but not too thin either. This is not a healthy meal so please don’t even consider anything wholegrain or with added chia seeds….wrong recipe, wrong tone!!!
  • Grate the cheese – now seriously you will see recipes where they mention “posh” cheeses like Gouda!!!!  No, no, no. Not for this recipe. Remember, we are channelling our inner Rudy Huxtable from The Cosby Show, so no fancy cheese required – we are aiming for food to cheer up a five year old who lost their teddy bear. Keep it simple and make sure it melts well.  I go for a mixture of strong red cheddar and mozzarella. And always grate, never slice. This is non-negotiable if you want to get this right!!!!
  • Next butter the bread with proper salted butter. Preferably the brand with Kerry on the label. Some recipes say to butter both sides…but at this point my heart is crying out for mercy, so I leave it at one side.
  • Now we need to assemble the sandwich on a frying pan, heated between low and medium. Here’s how it goes. Place one slice of bread, butter side down (so it melts and browns on the outside). Then add lots of cheese. Then pop on the other slice of bread, butter side out. Nothing else required.
  • When the sandwich is assembled, weight it down. I put a small plate on top and then pop the olive oil bottle on top of that. Anything will do. Cook until it is brown on the bottom and you can see the cheese melting at the side. Then turn and repeat. It takes about 3 minutes on each side.
  • Then for the best bit. Take it out of the pan for a second and sprinkle a layer of grated cheese directly onto the frying pan. Then put the sandwich back down for a minute to allow the cheese to kind of crisp and set on to the outside of the sandwich. Repeat this process for the other side. Yep, we have soft melted cheese on the inside and crisp melted cheese on the outside. A North Londoner might well exclaim, “Oh my days”. In Americanese, “awesome” was surely invented for moments such as these. While at home in Kerry it would be labeled “grand”, because we are still a little frugal when it comes to praise – and nobody wants to see a cheese sandwich with “notions”!!!
  • Pop it on a plate, allow to cool slightly, slice and eat your cuddle on a plate. Preferably when a fire is crackling, the rain is hitting the window and you are in comfy clothes. Ladies, this is just not a meal you eat while still wearing your heels or indeed your bra!!!!! Just saying…

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Finally for today, on a completely unrelated note, I just found out that Champagne in a Teacup has made its all the way to the final stage of the V for Very Blog Awards Ireland in the very, very competitive Lifestyle Category.  Now blogging is a complete hobby and definitely not award or numbers driven for me. It hasn’t yielded me as much as a free block of cheese…. Kilmeaden surely owe me something at this stage. But none of that is what motivates me.  This page, for me, has always been simply about the words – a creative space to write and just have a little fun. It has given me a lot of joy, and I previously posted about the hows and whys of it all here. All that said, the fact that people who know blogging and love blogs have critiqued my little corner of cyber space and found more positives than negatives is really touching. I love that people read my random ramblings, I love that they are occasionally enjoyed and I am tickled pink by the virtual praise encompassed in the badge below. Thank you. xo

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Weekending like a Pro….

I’ve been a bit of a lazy blogger of late, mainly because work has been all consuming, but finally the weekend has arrived and I am going to bring you along with me on a very chilled and slightly indulgent Saturday.

But first for the exciting news… Champagne in a Teacup has been shortlisted for the 2017 V by Very Blog Awards Ireland in the Lifestyle category. Can you believe it? This came as a total shock to me – there were close to 150 blogs on the long list for this category, so I genuinely didn’t think my little blog stood much of a chance. But strange things happen and, lo and behold, here we are sitting pretty on the much narrower shortlist. A list that is peppered with some extremely talented content creators, the kind I like to read in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. And it is quite simply a lovely surprise. I suppose it is like a virtual pat on the back and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  What better motivation to ease me out of a little blogging slump? So thank you judges for reading and seeing the positives. You made me smile!!!

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So back to Saturday….

Peeling myself from the bed, I formed a loose plan to just wander into town, do a little shopping, grab some breakfast… you know the drill. But it wasn’t that simple – literally 6 outfits in and there was NOTHING I could possibly wear. 4 different pairs of jeans were strewn on the bed, shoes were being launched like scud missiles across the room in pure frustration and tops that yesterday looked perfectly presentable were being consigned to the charity pile. It was looking like a day in pyjamas spent online shopping for an entire wardrobe was the only option. It was that critical.

Who knows what the root cause of this epic wardrobe malfunction was? I for one have no idea why the mirror just suddenly turned on me today, distorting and destroying any potential “Outfits of the Day” – but turn it did and we are not yet back on speaking terms. Maybe it was just feeling a tad hormonal? The mirror, not the writer. But eventually I bolstered my resilience and refused to crawl back under the duvet defeated. Instead I fought back – with the outfit that no mirror can take down – the bullet-proof vest when under self-image attack! Black jeans, black top, black leather jacket, white Converse. Simple, classic and comfy. “Take that mirror!!!”  I was ready to leave the house.

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Now of course the outfit theatrics meant I got to town too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. And I was at this point beyond ravenous. So you may be able to imagine the intense effort I had to make not to glare openly at the waitress who offered me a scone…. or nothing!!! “Breakfast is finished, lunch hasn’t started, we have a scone!!!!!” Oh, no, no, no – not happening lady. I did not go through six outfit changes for a bloody scone. So I smiled, and through gritted teeth muttered that I would come back in half an hour. And man am I glad I did, because that was the point when the day took a turn for the better. Lunch was delicious and adds further evidence to my continuous assertion that Athlone is a genuine foodie destination.

The eatery was The Corner House Bistro, and as soon as I was settled at the table, an espresso cup of the soup of the day, curried parsnip, appeared in front of me as a little amuse bouche. It was warming and mildly spiced and given that it was something I would never order, it made me realise I need to be more adventurous with my food choices. For my main I selected a beef taco dish with salsa, guacamole and sour cream. What was served up was literally a full thinly sliced steak (perfectly cooked to slightly the rare side of medium) on a bed of soft tortilla wraps. Everything tasted fresh and delicious, although for those who like their Mexican dishes with a kick, this definitely did not pack that kind of punch. It was nonetheless full of flavour and is something I would order again in a heartbeat.

I was passably dressed, I was no longer hungry, I had sipped a slow glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and my mood was on an upward trajectory. Then something truly wonderful happened. And it came in the form of vanilla creme brulee with heart-shaped shortbread. Like really…..what could be more perfect? Caramelised sugar, vanilla spiked custard, crumbly cookies, fresh berries and a little scoop of ice-cream. Yum!!!!!! Now that was one great weekend lunch for one, with the Saturday papers making the perfect dining companions. If in Athlone…go here for breakfast or lunch, you will not regret it.

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After that treat for my taste buds, even the rapidly deteriorating weather situation could not dampen my spirits, and so I wobbled off to run a few errands. I needed a pretty neutral eyeshadow to replace a Mac one that had hit pan, and so the swatching of the thousand shades began. I eventually settled on a slightly shimmering Stila shadow in the shade Kitten. It seemed significantly more pigmented than so many of the other brands and I will report back when I try it on the eye.

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I then nipped into my local butcher for some chicken fillets and rashers of smoked bacon because I was cooking Fully Loaded Cajun Chicken Burgers for supper (it is a delicious recipe to which I add mozzarella and pesto mayo).

Before heading for home, I picked up a book that was recommended to me by a friend, despite the fact that he hasn’t actually read it!!! But to be fair, if I was waiting for a retrospective review from him my eyesight may have failed and the novel may well be out of print.  He is one of those readers who REALLY takes his time getting through a novel. That said, he did get through the review (or was it a radio interview???) and reckons “I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes is a must read. It may be too edgy for my romantic leanings but I like to keep an open mind. So it is here on my desk now, next in line on the reading rotation.

Finally for my rainy afternoon retail therapy, I treated myself to just a few yellow roses from my favourite florist. Just something to brighten up the kitchen as the evenings rapidly close in. Fresh flowers in the house are one of life’s simple pleasures. Now, I just need to buy some new mirrors and the place won’t look half bad!!

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After shopping there was a sneaky G&T to help us warm up on a miserable day. And now some vinyl records are crackling, candles are flickering and logs are burning slowly in the stove. It won’t be a late night, it might be a lazy morning, there will be a long walk and a slow roast. It may be more PJs and slippers than nightclub and hangovers, but this to me is weekending like a pro… xo

Spanish Fare on The Left Bank…

…. and yet we are not in Paris or Barcelona, but on the West Side of Athlone, the town’s bohemian quarter. In Las Radas Wine and Tapas bar to be precise. This is a venue I have wanted to visit since it opened its doors earlier this year but I simply hadn’t got around to it, what with moving house and a summer spent largely away from the Midlands, but eventually the perfect opportunity arose.

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The dreaded return to work had suddenly become imminent. And oddly sympathy comes from very few quarters. Isn’t it strange how few people appreciate the emotive dimension of a teacher’s return to the fray after three months pottering around the house or around the globe? But there are some out there who totally get it. Who get the anxiety that your skills will miraculously have diminished over the break. Who get how the preoccupation with planning can leave you staring at the ceiling, mentally composing units of work at 4am on a Saturday night. Who get the general giddiness and excitement that comes with a new academic year, filled with resolutions and good intentions but still battling a metaphorical holiday hangover. Hope and possibility colliding with a slight sense of nausea! But who are these rare empathetic creatures who have any sympathy for such anxious educators, I hear the holiday begrudgers wonder – well they are, of course, other teachers. Who else? And so when back to school anxiety hits, teachers take refuge in other teachers and in copious amounts of wine and gin – by organising one last blow-out before a return to alarm clocks and routine.

And for the group of fun-loving lunatics I surround myself with, that involved my inaugural visit to Las Radas. And it was the perfect choice. Sharing portions, food appearing and plates disappearing steadily but randomly, perfectly chilled wine (with a good non-alcoholic option for the glamorous mum-to-be), and a Mediterranean-inspired decor that fosters the ambience of sunnier climes. It was an easy place to suspend reality for just a little while longer.

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And so to the food. We ordered a wide selection and yet we were so busy chattering and laughing that I probably don’t remember all of it. But rest assured, the standout dishes were not going to be forgotten. We even ordered several rounds of a couple of dishes, because that’s how good they were. We started with a bowl of mixed olives and warm sourdough that came with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. I eat olives not because I like them (I don’t really) but because I like the idea of them. They were one of those epicurean delicacies that were not readily available in Co. Kerry in the 80s & 90s, so I have always seen them as delightfully posh (even though they can now be purchased for €1.99 in Aldi) – and somewhere in my overactive imagination I would like to be the girl who nibbles olives with her wine while listening to jazz – where in reality I nibble cheese and onion Hunky Dorys and listen to Coldplay. But the consensus of the lovely ladies from closer to The Pale, with more sophisticated palates than us culchies, was that they were good olives. And the balsamic was a little bowl of thick, syrupy nectar… now I do like a good aged balsamic – and yes I can hear the little ironic echo here somewhere!

Some of the more substantial dishes we sampled were black pudding & goat’s cheese pinchos with red onion jam (mouth-watering!!), arancini balls stuffed with chorizo & manchego served on a cute bread board, and prawns fried in garlic butter with a little bread for dipping and mopping. All were delicious and yielded clean plates all round.

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However, after a lively discussion about the best dish, there was a strong consensus that the parma rolls stuffed with brie and sundried tomato were the winner – but we stoically decided to order more of them – just to be sure. Another plate devoured, we were still in agreement, they are sublime!!!!

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Patatas Bravas would always be my side of choice in a Spanish eatery, it brings me right back to my first trip to Barcelona in 2007, where I genuinely thought I had died and gone to food heaven. But while they were very well prepared and devoured like all the other dishes, they were usurped in the “Battle of the Sides” in Las Radas by some exceptional sweet potato fries with parmesan (or something similar) and a truffle mayo dip. Again we were compelled to reorder. I live close by and these fries are so good I am thinking of lobbying the chef to do take-away portions in a brown paper bag – as there is a definite gap in the market for takeaway sweet potato fries!!

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We skipped dessert, or at least traded it in for some Hendriks gin and Elderflower tonic in neighbouring Sean’s bar (another gem of Athlone) and left looking forward to a return. What more can a restaurant strive for?

Athlone, for the uninitiated, is a town that punches way above its weight when it comes to food. It has real quality options in all price brackets and covering multiple ethnicities – but until 2017 it didn’t have anything Spanish. Thankfully that situation has been impressively remedied. So grab a group of the girls and give it a go. xo

Lasagne: Recipe for an Autumnal Summer’s Day.

We hadn’t exactly been having a Mediterranean summer but it’s Ireland and so the fact that it wasn’t cold and there were dry spells between showers was keeping us fairly content. But August has dawned with just a little sniff of winter in the air, a breeze with a bite to it when it picks up and a more sinister threat of rain. The last week has seen the days grow perceptibly shorter and life feels just a little more soup than salad!! We are not quite in the realm of stews and casseroles yet but a yearning for something more warming and comforting than classic summer fodder has set in. The kind of meal that sits somewhere in between slow-cooked beef bourguignon and flash fried fish with griddled asparagus and broad beans.  A type of transitional meal to match the light wool jumper now resurrected from the recesses of the wardrobe.  So what fits the bill? I have decided a lasagne might work – in fact it may just be the perfect trans-seasonal comfort food. A little heavier than grilled meat or fish, yet the perfect bedfellow for the last of the delicate summer leaves and local cherry tomatoes.

There is something slow and languid about the cooking of this Italian classic. It can easily take an entire afternoon to prepare, but it is not difficult or stressful. I find it is best embarked upon with the kitchen door open creating a refreshing draught, while the heat from the stove provides the perfect antidote to the crisper air flow. So with a free afternoon and five people in need of a casual supper, this late summer’s afternoon seemed to be perfect lasagne cooking weather.

So let’s get going. I like to start with a tomato sauce that can simmer gently for hours on the stove, creating the fragrant aromas of an Italian farmhouse kitchen. Here’s how I make it.

Step 1:  The Tomato Sauce:

Ingredients:

  • A good glug of Olive Oil
  • 1 Carrot finely chopped
  • 2 Onions finely chopped
  • 3 Cloves of chopped Garlic
  • 2 Tsb of Tomato Puree
  • 2 Tins of Tomatoes
  • 200ml of Wine
  • Salt and Pepper

Method:

Heat the oil before turning the temperature to low. Add the onions, carrots and garlic and soften them slowly. Aim for really tender vegetables but don’t let them colour. This can take anything from 10-15 mins but trust me your patience will be rewarded. Remember good things take time – carrots sweeten slowly and soft, translucent onions and garlic release wonderful subtle flavours to build your sauce around.

When the veg has softened, increase the heat and add the tomato puree. Cook for 1 minute or so before adding a small glass of wine to the pot. Personally, I don’t think it matters if you use red or white, I go with whichever I fancy a glass of myself. Today that is white. Continue cooking for about 5 mins until the wine has reduced by at least half. At this point add the tinned tomatoes and a generous handful of chopped basil. Season well and don’t be afraid to sprinkle in a little sugar if the tomatoes taste a little tart. Simmer the sauce gently for about half an hour and then allow it to cool. Parents of fussy little eaters might like that you can blitz the sauce at this point and make it seem like the veggies were never there. Can’t be bothered? No problem. The chunky version tastes great too. For lasagne I like to blend it, I feel it leads to a smoother ragu later. But that’s just a personal preference. And that’s it for stage one, the tomato sauce, now to transform it into a ragu. You will also need a white sauce or a bechamel but seeing as I outsourced that task today, maybe to a helpful Italian nonna or maybe to someone called Dolmio, I will leave you to choose your own recipe.

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Step 2:  Making A Tomato Sauce into A Ragu Sauce

Ingredients:

  • A glug of olive oil.
  • 1.5 lbs of steak mince
  • 1 packet of prosciutto
  • 200ml of beef stock
  • Tomato sauce (see above)

Method:

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the mince in batches until it is all browned. Add four slices of the prosciutto, finely chopped. (Sometimes I substitute bacon lardons here  – it just depends what I have to hand).  Pour in the tomato sauce (I usually hold a little back for a spaghetti lunch the next day) and the beef stock. Bring the ragu to the boil and simmer for 30 mins, until the sauce looks rich and delicious.

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Step 3:  Building a Lasagne

Ingredients:

  • Ragu sauce (see above)
  • Dried lasagne sheets
  • White sauce (I have used creme fraiche infused with parmesan, lightly heated mascarpone or a even a shop bought version on days where I can’t be bothered making my own…. uh oh foodie hell awaits me!!!)
  • 1 ball of mozzarella
  • Sliced prosciutto (whatever is left in the pack)
  • Grated cheddar/ parmesan cheese

Method:

Lightly grease an ovenproof dish. Ladle in one-third of the meat sauce. Spread it evenly over the bottom of the dish. Cover this with a layer of lasagne sheets and a layer of white sauce. Repeat this process three times, finishing with enough white sauce to cover all the pasta. Then grate over some cheddar cheese (or parmesan) and scatter on some small chunks of mozzarella. If desired drape the remaining prosciutto on top, it creates a crispy, salty addition to the top of the lasagne. I serve with plenty of garlic bread and a green salad. Although tonight my father in law is looking for spuds!!

There will be no spuds but I think I can placate the situation with some rhubarb tart and ice-cream. Pie and ice-cream solves a lot of the world’s problems. xo

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Tapas in Kerry

 

I took FOUR photos!!!! No that’s a lie, I took six photos, one of which appears to be of an outside flower-pot and one that is completely out of focus. So this post will include just four photos. This is despite travelling 40 minutes, spending two and a half hours in the restaurant and sampling quite a portion of the vast menu. I think I need to take blogger classes for dummies!!!

But in my defense I was busy. My best friend was with me, there was wine, we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks. That meant there were several situations to be totally over-analysed. You know the drill…. we look at what “he” said, and then we consider the 8,000 possible things this might mean… not really engaging with the idea that there may not in fact be a message to decode and in some weird reality men might just mean exactly what they say. Because where would the fun be in that?? Although if wine sipping women took our conversations with attractive men completely at face value, this post might actually contain some photos of the food!!!

Because ostensibly the food was the purpose of the trip to Killorglin, a small town on the Ring of Kerry, where Sol Y Sombra is housed in an old but beautifully restored Church of Ireland. Stone walls, high ceilings, stained glass windows, good acoustics – the atmosphere takes care of itself. But do the food and wine measure up?

Yes and yes. This little gem of a restaurant definitely did not disappoint. The whole experience was positive, starting with the simple online booking option – no need to speak to pesky humans – just a few clicks and your table is sorted.

Next came the wine list – it is extensive and includes a really great selection of by the glass options – allowing you to pair a cool, crisp white with some seafood tapas before switching to a full-bodied red to match a heartier meat dish! It is also very fairly priced. Now on this particular occasion, we were not such sophisticated tipplers who match food to vino – we stuck to white, we ordered by the bottle (and more than once) and we kept it safe and French instead of exploring the extensive and interesting looking Spanish options. But there is always next time…

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Because given the quality of the food there will definitely be a next time. The menu is quite vast and although we tried a great selection of dishes, we didn’t really make a dent in it. And that is a testament to very generous portion sizes. We started with three tapa sized plates to share – fillet of hake and prawns fried in beer batter with garlic mayo, a portion of Kerry lamb meatballs cooked in a rich tomato sauce with delicious cubed potatoes and the highlight for me, a little pan of prawns sautéed in garlic and chilli oil that did not skimp on the prawns. We ordered a basket of bread for dipping in the oil and set about devouring every morsel of food on the table. It was all excellent but for me the prawns were the standout dish – they somehow encapsulated everything that I love about food. Take something simple but high quality, combine it with minimal ingredients (enough to enhance not confuse the flavour) and allow the dish to transport you to a different place and a different time, be it watching a technicolour Mediterranean sunset, experiencing tapas in a bustling Madrid bar, or dipping bread in wine on a Portuguese beach front. The simple action of dipping bread in spicy and gently pungent garlic oil  is a wonderful sensory experience. On a drizzly Thursday evening in Co. Kerry, it recreated something from a different place and a different time. There was a memory hidden somewhere in the cast iron sizzling pan….this is what I understand to be food for the soul, or possibly food for the heart.

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The plan was to go on to order two larger Racion portions but we were genuinely quite full after the tapas and decided that one to share would be more prudent. We opted for a skewer of monkfish & bacon with scallops on a potato cake and it was a really tasty dish – plump meaty monkfish interspersed with fresh scallops all wrapped in crispy smoked bacon. What’s not to like?

Dessert was not the plan (there was wine to finish) but we made the fatal mistake of just taking a look. What did we expect to happen? That we wouldn’t like the sound of anything!!! That was definitely a long-shot. In reality we didn’t need to read beyond the first line – homemade lemon mousse on a crumble biscuit base sounded like a perfect end to a quality meal – sweet yet tart, smooth in texture but zingy in flavour. My dining companion gave serious thought to licking the bowl.

So if it wasn’t clear, I was really, really impressed with Sol Y Sombra. Great space, great food, great drinks and best of all great company. I am very excited to make a return visit. xo.

Hot Milk: The Book not the Beverage

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They say you can’t judge a book by its… instagram likes – but I think marketing gurus everywhere may beg to differ. Personally, I picked up Hot Milk by Deborah Levy solely because of its inclusion in a wonderfully curated flatlay by Alex Stedman aka @thefrugality, a current girl crush of mine – #influenced!!! Hey, I like her style, what’s to say I won’t like her book choices? And, as stupid reasons for impulse buys go, this one worked out pretty well.

This is a book where wisdom is sprinkled with weirdness, and ambiguity abounds but doesn’t particularly distract. It is thematically relevant to the contemporary reader and, although you are aware there is an underlying complexity and possibly missed symbolism, it is still a quick and engaging read.

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Hot Milk is set in Almería, Southern Spain in 2015. It is narrated by Sofia – a 25 year old Englishwoman – who is in equal parts endearing and infuriating. Despite being a little older than the norm for the genre, this is really Sofia’s “coming of age” story.

You see, Sofia’s mother suffers from a myriad of inexplicable health issues, quite likely the psychosomatic symptoms of  long-term hypochondria. Sofia has been a carer all her life, but seems often to be little more than a punching bag for her mother’s frustration. Deserted by a wealthy Greek father, both mother and daughter appear to have residual abandonment issues, and their subsequent co-dependant realtionship is both dysfunctional and problematic. I found this unromantic and heartbreakingly realistic – children who become carers and/or surrogate partners can often struggle to cut the chord, to take a vital step back and pursue their own adult life. If they do attempt to forge some independence, the dependant parent can oftentimes fight to keep the bond taut and tight – fearful of losing their human crutch. As both Sofia and her mother are too close to really judge the situation, we figure all this out for ourselves – there is a pattern but the reader must join the dots.

Sofia and her mother have travelled to Spain, at enormous personal expense, to receive treatment at a private clinic run by a vagabond clinician named Gómez. He is either a quack or a genius but he offers what those who are desperate will travel to the ends of the earth for – hope when conventional medicine has failed. In the wake of the Charlie Gard tragedy, the contemporary thematic relevance is as clear as the waters of the Indian Ocean. Here in Ireland, where daily newspapers report on how families will sacrifice their life savings for medicinal cannibas treatment or risky clinical trials abroad, the story also resonates.  £25,000 to Dr. Gómez – a small price to pay for an answer, a pittance to pay for a cure!

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The exploration of modern universal themes does not end there – Sofia uses the time in Spain to experiment with her sexual orientation – pursuing “relationships” with a beautiful German creative named Ingrid, and Juan, a sweet Spanish boy who works at the beach. Her emotional immaturity seems to make falling in love at best a long shot, and you get the impression she has a lot to figure out about herself first. Like what does one do with academic qualifications in Anthropology? And how do you stop practicing this study of humanity and start living your life with humanity? Sofia’s plight, as a highly educated graduate, earning a living working as a barista, will also resonate with many. She has a 1st class honours degree. She has a masters. She is contemplating a Phd. But when a form asks for her occupation – her confusion subtly hits on a deeper reality for many highly educated young people  – the struggle to carve out an actual career. She opts to fill in “Monster” – I like her style!!!!

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Personally, I found this to be a book filled with imperfections – some poorly drawn characters, some odd relationships, a regular sense that I was missing some deeper meaning. But all that aside, I really enjoyed the read. It was quick, wonderfully  poetic and generally realistic and universally relatable.  A quality summer read, that will linger on after the final page is turned. The Guardian used the adjective “hypnotic”, it’s not a mile from the mark, xo.

Glanteenassig Woods, Co. Kerry – A Hidden Gem.

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This post is going to mainly let the pictures do the talking, because they can articulate the magic much better than my loquacious ramblings. Really, I just want to alert you to the fact that on the meandering road between Tralee and Dingle, close to the village of Castlegregory, there hides a place that looks like this. A place where woodland, lakes and mountains collide and we are merely guests of nature for the duration of our visit. If sprites, elves and faeries exist (and we all know they do) surely they choose to live here. So keep your eyes peeled for some of “the little folk” of Irish mythology as you walk through some of this beautiful country’s most majestic scenery. And remember – if you don’t believe in them, you can never see them!!!!

 

 

The amazing thing about Glanteenassig Wood (pronounced locally as Glown – Ten – Ass – Ig) is despite being well maintained and accessible to all fitness levels, it remains largely undiscovered. Tourists hurtling from the Ring of Kerry or Killarney en route to Slea Head or the town of Dingle often miss this hidden gem completely. And where tourists with jam packed itineraries can be forgiven, I have no idea what excuse I can offer for not having visited in over a decade. I mean just take a look…..

 

 

The wood is signposted from the main road, but it is a bit of an uphill drive (maybe about 5km) from the village of Aughacashla where you turn left. As you climb, houses gradually give way to grazing land for mountain sheep and you feel yourself leaving reality behind. It’s down the hill somewhere with your wifi connection and mobile phone reception.

Then suddenly you stop and take it in – and it’s majestic. The clouds sit on the rocky hill top as waterfalls and streams make their way down glacial rock face to the tranquil lakes below. The shelter of the trees and the exposure of the rocks seem in stark contrast yet in perfect harmony. It looks like summer but smells of Christmas.  It is as it always was – little changed from the Ice Age to now.

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If you are lucky you may get the entire place to yourself, especially on a weekday and outside the tourist season. We didn’t. We met a father teaching his children how to fish for trout and a family allowing their three dogs have a swim in the lower lake. Hardly a traffic jam!!!

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After we took some pictures at the tranquil Lough Slat, we followed the road up to the Lough Caum Boardwalk loop, where we followed the “path” made from planks of timber all around the lake. On a slightly warmer day, this is a prime location to chill out with a book and a picnic. If you are in the neighbourhood, be sure to check it out. If you are from the neighbourhood, don’t be like us, make use of this fantastic amenity that we are blessed to live so close to.  xo

 

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Urchin, Dublin – A Short Review

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There was a lot of What’s App debate regarding a dining venue for an early bite before attending a Bell X1 gig, part of the Trinity Summer Series on Saturday evening. Given that we were going to be eating early and we were a little unsure what time the whole party would assemble, we agreed to a casual tapas meal. We narrowed our selection to The Port House, House or Urchin and after much debate the latter emerged victorious.

Situated on St. Stephen’s Green, Urchin scored points for location and it was also the only place on the list that none of us had visited previously. Added to this, reviews of Urchin, a little sister of The Cliff Townhouse, have been generally very positive.

Urchin doesn’t take reservations but when we rocked up at 5.30pm we easily nabbed a large table in a cosy alcove. First impressions were really good. Urchin is an achingly cool venue. It is a light, colourful space that is channelling a sort of beach house in The Hamptons vibe. Lots of white and exposed brick, softened with bold splashes of orange and turquoise. It feels young and hip, the aesthetic complimented by laid back music and a charming, sexy Italian waiter. So far so good!!!

 

We started our visit to Urchin with some cocktails. This venue has a great cocktail menu and a mixologist who knows what he is doing. We sampled a selection of gin and vodka based tipples and everyone was happy with these boozy thirst quenchers. At €12 – €14 a pop, the pricing here was pretty standard for a cool city centre bar and the drinks that appeared had both style and substance. A good start.

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We chatted for a while, nibbling on some delicious crisps, before eventually placing a food order. Urchin serves some “small bites” and some “bigger bites” which can be shared and the seafood heavy menu reads like the stuff of foodie dreams. But it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that it was here the experience started to unravel. We ordered about 12 portions of food from across the menu to share between 5 people. We had fully intended to order more as required. Our selections included a sea urchin in a Bloody Mary type sauce, a couple of duck liver choux buns, pork belly in lettuce wraps, portions of both Iberico ham and shrimp croquettes and a two portions of mozzarella fritters.  Everything looked great, each dish was well executed and quality ingredients were clearly sourced.

 

The problem? Because there was a problem  – was that the portions were tiny!!! And I am fully aware that we had chosen a “small plates” venue but these offerings came directly from the tiny portion movement. We had eaten half the menu and we were still starving and begging the waiter for more crisps. In normal circumstances we would simply have ordered the other half of the menu but we were unanimous in concluding that we would then have spent a fortune to still leave hungry. So we decided to cut our losses and go for a burger!!!

So all in all, Urchin is a cool venue. It has a fab little beer garden to the front if you are lucky enough to snag a table. It does great cocktails. It feels trendy and fun. It does tasty little bites. But it will not fill you up. So my advice is to consider it a place for a drink and a snack – a lot classier than a pint and a packet of crisps – but providing a similar amount of sustenance. I want to go back on a sunny afternoon to sip a gin cocktail at an outside table. I would order a little tapas to tickle my taste-buds. I would have a dinner reservation close by.