On track for the exotic

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John Raby is on the Howrah Mail, one of India’s most iconic trains. During his six-hour train journey, he meets genial Ravi from Kolkata, attempts to order lunch from the Telegu-speaking pantry wallah and encounters a slightly annoying railway official

I’m sat on a train going to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh; the Howrah Mail to be precise. I boarded this morning and will get off in six hours time, but this train actually left Chennai yesterday and will ultimately travel the 1040 miles to Kolkata, arriving early tomorrow morning…

Read the rest of this published travel feature here at the Western Morning News

 

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Painting the Picture

JOHN RABY meets Anna Fitzgerald, an artist with a unique & refreshing style who is making a real impact on the art scene in Exmouth.

Anna Fitzgerald is a prolific and successful artist living and working in Exmouth. I caught up with her at a seafront exhibition, organised by the Exmouth Art Group, where she had four pieces on sale and by the time I had arrived she had already sold three of them. Anna, it turns out, is quite the leading light on the art scene in Exmouth.

Read the rest of this article on the Devon Life website.

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FIVE OF THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DELHI FROM AN INDIA EXPERT

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Delhi, with a population of more than 25 million, is one of the mega-cities of South Asia. And if you haven’t been yet, then you really should go. Delhi is an ideal place to start your exploration of India because there are so many other places within relatively easy reach. However, before you start trekking the length and breadth of India, stay a few days in the city and see what it has to offer…

Read the rest of this article on Travioor.

A Tale of Three Cities…

Published in the Western Morning News on Sunday, 15th November 2015

Bologna

The Italian City of Bologna is situated in a region known as Emilia Romagna, north of Tuscany. It is reckoned to be the nation’s gastronomic beating heart, and for this reason alone, it is well worth a visit.

Yet despite that formidable reputation, I get the feeling that Bologna can often be passed over by would be travellers, for greater tourist honeypots like Rome, Naples and Pisa.

Undeterred and accompanied by my eldest daughter Becky, we arrived at our apartment right in the heart of the city, just off Via dell’Indipendenza. This is the main avenue that will lead you inevitably up to the central Piazza Maggiore. This ancient square magnetically draws both tourists and locals alike.

In this wide open space, you can sit, relax and enjoy an espresso or a chilled beer whilst taking in the impressive sight of the beautiful, but unfinished 14th Century Basilica di San Petronio. Opposite, you will find some open topped tour buses that will whisk you around the city for about €13.

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If you have a got a head for heights, why not head for Le Due Torri (The Two Towers), situated in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana at the head of Via Rizzoli? It is the taller ‘Torre degli Asinelli’ that is open to the public, and from there you can enjoy commanding views over Bologna

This comes at a price though; you will need to climb an impressive 498 steps to reach the top, so a strong pair of lungs as well as a head for heights will be required.

Unsurprisingly, Bologna is replete with restaurants, trattorias (less formal than a restaurant – think Bistro), café’s and numerous gelateria. I guarantee that you will be more than satisfied.

And being the home of Bolognese sauce (hence Spag Bol), you can of course try the real thing – known more accurately as ‘Tagliatelle al Ragu.’ The term ‘Ragu’ is distilled from a French verb meaning to ‘stimulate the appetite.’ Or why not try another local favourite, ‘Wild Boar and Polenta?’

Venice (Venezia)

Situated in the neighbouring region known as the Veneto, Venice is a two hour train journey from Bologna. Emerging from the Railway Station you are immediately wowed by the impressive and beautiful Grand Canal.

With a 24 hour Vaporetto (water bus) pass in hand, purchased from the tourism office on the platform (€20), we headed immediately for water bus stop number 1.

Vaporetto No.1 basically stops everywhere between the railway station and Lido de Venezia (Venice Lido). The Lido is one of the outlying islands, and has an altogether different feel to the main city itself.

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Now the Vaporetto may not be the most comfortable option, as the boats are usually crowded, but it is cheap. Cruising down the Grand Canal as it snakes its way through the heart of the city is an absolute must. One beautiful building after another slips out of sight as you glide down this main arterial waterway.

The front doors of these fine-looking & elegant buildings along the Grand Canal are perched precariously above the waterline, often with a boat tied up nearby just the way you would park your car on the drive or road.

As we stepped off the Vaporetto at the iconic Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), we were treated to that thoroughly unique and truly Venetian of sights: a flotilla of beautifully crafted gondolas, and their gondoliers, bobbing on the Adriatic. Truly, if romance is what you are looking for, then Venice has it by the bucket load!

Any visit here should include popping into the stunning Basilica di San Marco. The interior of this cavernous cathedral will have you literally reeling as you look inexorably up at the dazzling sight of the gold mosaic covered walls, arches and domes.

Florence (Firenze)

Hop on a train again at Bologna Centrale and this time head south for a mere 40 minutes, and you will arrive in the Tuscan capital of Florence (Firenze if you’re local). A leisurely 10-15 minute walk will bring you into the beautiful Piazza del Duomo and face to face with the marbled façade of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Known simply as, Duomo.

Whilst entrance to the cathedral is free, you can purchase a combined ticket for €10 from automated ticket machines nearby, which will give you access to the dome, baptistry, bell tower, crypt and the museum. However, it is Filippo Brunelleschi’s magnificent, red tiled dome that is the real draw here.

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Once you have ascended the 463 stone steps (not for the faint-hearted), to the top of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, you will be treated to unparalleled views across this historic city in every direction.

Food is never far away, and having exited the cathedral, we soon found ourselves in nearby Piazza della Signoria, tucking into pizza just across the way from the remarkable and imposing Palazzo Vecchio, which overlooks the square.

A further 5 minutes walk will bring you to the classic arches of the Ponte Vecchio which span the Arno River. Medieval in structure but Roman in origin, this eye-catching landmark will at once be immediately recognisable, and is a definite ‘must see’ whilst in Florence.

Famed for the many jewellery shops that inhabit both sides of this crowded and busy bridge, you will find plenty of gift ideas for your journey home.

The Poltimore Inn, North Molton

Posted on DevonLife.co.uk on 21st July 2015

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For Alan Boddington, the Poltimore Inn at North Molton has been a labour of love. Resurrected from almost certain commercial & culinary death, Alan has worked tirelessly to produce a beautiful venue to eat and drink in that is entirely fit for purpose.

The moment you walk into this delightful country pub, nestling as it does on the fringes of Exmoor National Park, you at once feel at home. Although the Poltimore Inn has been refurbished to a very high standard, that doesn’t detract from its warm welcome in any way at all.

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My daughter Sophie and I were looking forward to this review immensely, as the Poltimore has in more recent times gained a somewhat loyal and faithful following. Having met with Alan and taken a tour of the lovely B&B rooms upstairs and the beautiful, self-contained flat downstairs, we were ushered into the restaurant to sample what was on offer that night.

The restaurant itself is notable in that through the large, gaping windows, it commands an excellent view of the valley and rolling landscape beyond, that is so North Devon.  Having settled in for the night, glass of Westcountry cloudy cider in hand, our eyes were soon drawn to the interesting and varied menu.

Crispy Pig Cheeks

Whilst Sophie opted for the Warm breads and Balsamic vinegar to begin with, I was irresistibly drawn to the Crispy Pig Cheeks (much nicer than it sounds!), accompanied by Fennel Mayo, Pickled Fennel, Rocket, Crackling and Salad.  I have to say that this was just delicious and an appetising gateway to the rest of the night’s proceedings.

Conversely, Sophie’s trio of breads, including a wedge of Focaccia with rosemary & caramelised onions was an equally tasty treat.  Chefs Tom Allbrook, Lynda Festa and their team in the kitchen were certainly on a winning track tonight.

Moving on, we both opted for typical pub fare, unpretentious but flavoursome.  Sophie chose without hesitation the Polti Loaded Burger.  I think ‘loaded’ in this instance was entirely justified, for upon this man-size chunk of homemade beefburger were Crispy Smoked Bacon, Caramelised Onion, Swiss Cheese and Coleslaw, served in between the comforting layers of a gourmet burger bun.

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This was attended by the curiously named Duck Fat Chips, which were the lovely, hand cut skin-on variety, which received a dutiful dusting of rock salt to bring out the flavour. Well Gary Rhodes, erstwhile celebrity chef, always said that food is all about the flavour, and he was definitely right on that score.  Interestingly, this meal came with chef’s own homemade Smoked Chilli, Ginger and Tomato Ketchup. Great.

Me?  Well I went for something different, yet similar. I selected, after not too much thought I have to concede, the intriguing Texas Brisket, glazed with homemade Sticky Bourbon BBQ Sauce. This came sandwiched in a Brioche Roll, along with those appetising Duck Fat Chips again, and served in a trendy mini-metal pail (that’s a bucket for the likes of you and me).

The Brisket & BBQ sauce combo was unusual treat. Delightfully meaty, sweet and smoky and oh-so-tender.  Tom tells me that he Brisket is marinated overnight (in his own dry rub), then smoked at length and slow cooked during the course of the next day.  It’s a painstaking process but worth the effort.  If you fancy something a little different, go for this option.

Waffle & Ice Cream

I should interject at this point that once the glass of cloudy cider was drained to its dregs, I managed to quaff a few mouthfuls of a rich & velvety Sangiovese, from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy.  And since I am going on holiday there later in the year with my other daughter, it was of special interest. I was not in the least disappointed with my choice of this excellent wine on offer.

Now reaching the summit of our culinary adventures, I felt the call of the Chocolate Brownie, with Vanilla Ice Cream and Warm Chocolate Sauce speaking to me loudly from the menu card.  The Brownie was homemade, and if all that sounds like a mouth-watering feast of texture and flavour, you’d be right on the money. It was fantastic, and that is not an overstatement for the cynical amongst you!

The Hunter’s Inn, Parracombe

Originally posted to DevonLife.co.uk July 2014

Between the villages of Trentishoe and Martinhoe not far from the North Devon coast, you will find a quintessential English pub called The Hunter’s Inn.  Encompassed by the lush, wooded slopes of the Heddon Valley, this lovely characterful pub enjoys a beautiful & idyllic setting.

This time, my youngest daughter and I were invited by Landlord David Orton and Head Chef Justin Dunn to participate in the ‘Venison 5 days 5 ways’ week.  So on Friday 13th (not unlucky for us), we dutifully arrived for a wonderful, climactic Exmoor feast.

We were swiftly escorted to our table, situated next to impressive eight feet high bay windows that provide you with a commanding view of the neatly cut lawn and wooded garden beyond.  This lovely, picturesque view was a fantastic, added bonus to what was going to be a great night.

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After much consideration of the carefully, and thoughtfully constructed menu I chose the Marinated Crispy Chilli Beef served with a Mixed Salad to begin with.  Sophie on the other handed opted for the Venison Carpaccio served with Watercress, Parmesan and Balsamic oil.  Both of these dishes were really superb and tasted as good as they sounded.

Biting into the succulent strips of chilli beef, your mouth experiences an explosion of flavour accompanied by a pleasant sweet, heat.  The leafy salad underneath was also coated with a delightful combo of sweet chilli and the signature, mustard based French dressing.  Sophie and I couldn’t resist stealing some food from each other’s plates, and we were both in agreement about the quality and appeal of both of these dishes.

Sampling the Venison Carpaccio, I was similarly pleased.  7 lovely, tender slices of Venison gracefully sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, with watercress on the side and a ramekin of Balsamic oil.  It was hard to find fault with such a lovely, well presented dish that really did look the business.   Surely this is what great cooking is all about.

DSC_0108The main dishes soon arrived after that.  Being ‘Venison 5 days 5 ways’ week, I could hardly choose anything but the ‘Char Grilled Local Fillet of Venison served with Wild Mushrooms, Wilted Coz Lettuce, Minted New Potatoes and Creamy Peppercorn Sauce.’  Sophie on the other hand decided on the more uncomplicated, yet eminently inviting ‘Eight Ounce Hunters Inn Beef Burger with Bacon, Cheese, Chunky Chips & Mixed Salad.’

The Char Grilled Venison was succulent, juicy and simply bursting with flavour.  The Wild Mushrooms (nine different varieties) that lay underneath, must surely rank as some of the strangest food I have ever eaten, but were nonetheless a great addition to my delicious, chunk of Exmoor Venison.  The creamy, peppery sauce tastefully complimented the dish, as did the beautifully soft minted potatoes.

Sophie’s burger itself was homemade and satisfying.  It would be no exaggeration to say that this burger, lovingly made in the Kitchen at The Hunter’s Inn, was a simple monument to juicy, scrumptious beefiness.  Utterly delicious in every way, I could even go as far to say that it was the beefiest Beef burger I have ever tasted.  And I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in my life…  The chunky chips, light and fluffy on the inside and brown and crispy on the outside, were of course the perfect match for the dish.

My final destination on this leg of my gastronomic journey was the colourful and creamy Trio of Lovington’s Ice Cream,DSC_0114
sourced from across the border in neighbouring Somerset.  Sat on a brandy snap basket, it was a real sweet treat that is so evocative of all that is good and great about Westcountry produce.

Sophie elected for the Lemon Tart served with Strawberries and Clotted Cream.  Looking rather good on the plate, the taste and experience of the dish matched the appearance completely!  Having lived in Devon for most of my life, I’m somewhat a sucker for clotted cream and the accompanying Wild Berry Compote made with Blackcurrant Cassis was just heavenly.

Both desserts were a perfect end to a really fabulous night. Both David and Justin can be proud of the food, service and ambience found here at The Hunters Inn.  Why not pop in sometime soon and find out for yourself?

The Black Venus, Challacombe

Posted to DevonLife.co.uk on 17th June 2014

It is not often that you can walk into a restaurant, and then walk out later totally satisfied in every way.  Now I am fairly hard to please and it takes a lot to keep me really happy.  However The Black Venus Inn at Challacombe managed, miraculously in my view, to tick all of my many and varied boxes.

Marc & Liz Birch are at the helm of this family run business, with daughter Louise & her mum running front of house.  Darren their son is the culinary genius leading his small, but talented team in the kitchen behind the scenes.  This classic English character pub is cosy, busy and warm and is situated in a gentle dip amongst the rolling hills, a mere stone’s throw from the Somerset border.

First thing you need to realise when entering the Black Venus is that there are no menus.  Well there are, but they are just not on the table.  In fact, the entire range of dishes on offer are to be found on various blackboards dotted about the premises.  And it was to these that my eldest daughter & I went to choose our meals for the night.

I commenced my culinary journey with the Special Chefs Starter, ‘The Black Pudding Stack’, layered with leeks and bacon with a wholegrain mustard sauce. If that sounds rather delicious then you would be on the money.  It was without doubt a delightful and mouth-watering treat.

The lovely salty taste of the bacon woven in amongst the juicy, tender leeks made a fabulous addition to the star of this dish. Attended by a flavoursome lake of wholegrain mustard sauce and lovingly decorated with red mustard frills, this starter was a real treat.  Who would have thought that Black Pudding could have looked so beautiful?

My daughter Becky, on the other hand elected for the Seared Scallops, again served with black pudding and the delightful addition of a carrot puree.  Her verdict on that dish was that the Scallops were ‘very light and soft and cooked to perfection.’

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Part two for me came in the form of Chicken breast stuffed with brie, wrapped in bacon with a wholegrain mustard sauce (my choice, and worth repeating).  In my opinion, the chicken was tender, and perfectly cooked.  Again, the bacon wrap was a great accompaniment, cleverly complimenting the warm, soft brie core of this main offering.

The bed of buttery, slightly salted crushed new potatoes was seasoned with black pepper.  This combination of basic but important flavours was really tasty and delicious and completely hit the mark.  The neatly arranged broccoli also received the thumbs up from me, as it was neither under or over-cooked.

Across the table, Becky’s Duck Breast with a Port & Thyme Jus was akin to a work of art on a plate, describing it as ‘succulent and tender with a beautiful, crusty edge.’  Hmmm, sounds great to me!  It was attended by perfectly cooked green beans, and the dish was a simple masterpiece in terms of taste and appearance.

The finale came in the form of a homemade chocolate torte.  I was not in any way disappointed.  The torte was a luxuriant, chocolate sensation – and very moreish.  It was accompanied by locally sourced ice cream, sitting on a bed of broken wafers.  A smattering of icing sugar and a rich chocolate sauce completed this superb dessert.

Becky’s Lemon cheesecake was a lovely, tangy foil for all the preceding richness of the evening, guaranteed to cleanse the palette in the best way possible.  Created by Darren and his team, it made a refreshing change on the pub dessert landscape.

Marc, Liz, Darren & Louise really are running a tidy ship here and fully deserve recognition on the culinary scene.  In my opinion, and I don’t think this is overstating the case, but the food served that night was near perfect.  It was tasty, plentiful, hot, well presented, good value for money and came with great service.  And the simple English pub, homey atmosphere of The Black Venus is just great.

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The Coach House, Kentisbury Grange

Posted to DevonLife.co.uk on 27th March, 2014

The Coach House Restaurant at Kentisbury Grange in North Devon is directed by Thomas Carr, the Executive Chef within the walls of this former 17th Century stable block.  Having garnered 2 AA rosettes in 2013 for fine dining and excellent service, we knew that we were in for a real treat.  And we were not disappointed.

As you enter through the stylish glass doors you are greeted by Suzzie the Maître D’.  Immediately you are made to feel welcome and at ease, and you can either loiter in the bar area for pre-dinner drinks or be ushered straight away to your seats.  The restaurant itself has been beautifully designed and the décor is plush, modern and comfortable with an ambience that hits the right spot.

The Coach House offer a competitively priced two course lunch priced at £14.95, but my friend and I selected the three course menu which comes in at a very favourable £19.95.  Considering the quality of food served during our two relaxing hours there, I have to say that the three course option represents excellent & outstanding value for money.

For my starter I selected the Coach House Duck, which is a large, golden yoked egg on toast advertised with a Brown Sauce Jus.  However, the real surprise are the 5 or 6 slices of finely cut duck which has been cured and smoked right here on the premises.  It is over these delightful and mouth-watering slices of finest duck that the tangy and tasty jus is delicately poured.

The combinations of flavours on the plate, and on my pallet for that matter, were simply to die for.  It is so nice to be wowed by a starter at the beginning of your culinary journey.  If it was the kitchen team’s intention to excite and tantalise in anticipation for the remaining two courses, then I would say that it was a job well done.

Even though we opted for a more basic fare of chilled beer and Westcountry cider, there is also an impressive list of wines from around the world (including The Lebanon), alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails and of course spirits.

The next dish to be served by our courteous & attentive waiting staff was the signature Westcountry Fillet of Plaice, with tartar sauce and Chips.  The carefully and artistically arranged collection of four sumptuous, tender fillets of plaice sat in a shallow lake of thin but warm tartar sauce accompanied with choice garden peas.

The chips were chunky, crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.  Absolutely perfect with a sprinkling of rock salt.  Notably, only one of the fillets was lightly battered; a stylish nod to traditional British fare.  The second segment of this lunchtime feast was yet another success, and now we were gathering pace towards dessert.  Could anything possibly go wrong now, could this level of perfection and attention to detail be maintained to the very end?  We were to find out shortly!

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The grand finale came in the guise of dessert intriguingly named: Frozen Chocolate – Caramel and nuts.  This was simply stunning visually and of course, on the taste buds too.  The block of frozen chocolate was exquisite, a blast of supreme ice-cold, cocoa-laden sweetness.

The frozen chocolate nestled in a lake of caramel at one end with a delicious dollop of rich, chocolate mousse at the opposite side of the bowl.  In between and scattered over the pudding were pistachio nuts, sesame seed tuiles, and homemade honeycomb too.

Underneath the frozen chocolate block, I found pieces of chocolate crumble that enhanced this already supremely luxuriant and delicious dessert.  It was so tasty that I scraped the plate clean in an effort to harvest every last atom of sweetness.

We couldn’t fault the service of Suzzie and her team in the restaurant, and neither could we criticize the exceptional food cooked and lovingly prepared by Thomas and his team at The Coach House.  The various dishes emerged at an even pace that was not too fast or too slow.  All in all a fantastic dining experience which we will no doubt be destined to repeat!

Horse rider highlights road safety issue

Published in the North Devon Journal on April 16th 2015

IMG_9225A North Devon hairdresser based in Braunton has issued a plea for car drivers to slow down, and show more courtesy to horse riders on the road.

Sue Johnson, 41 has suffered several incidents involving inconsiderate motorists whilst out riding her horse, and feels now that the issue must be highlighted.

Sue, who was based at Chivenor Riding Stables said: “It’s people driving too fast and being impatient, just a general lack of consideration really. It’s a regular occurrence to have abuse shouted at you and finger gestures.

“The vast majority of drivers are courteous and patient.  The problem seems to worsen during summer months due to, in my opinion, motorists avoiding congestion on main roads and diverting onto country lanes but still driving at the same pace.”

Despite wearing hi-vis vests and hat covers and using appropriate hand signals asking motorists to slow down, she indicated that incidents of near misses and horses being dangerously frightened on our country roads remains.

However, one North Devon man who did not wish to be named said: “We all know they have a right to be on the road… but on ever more crowded roads – is it sensible?”

Tasha Clarke, 21 from Kentisbury, also complained about car drivers swearing at her and shouting abuse. She also said that an ambulance had driven past her on a quiet country road with blue lights and sirens in operation, which could have easily spooked the horse.

In response, Melanie Glanville of South Western Ambulance Service said, that because of the high hedges and blind blends on these types of roads, it is “imperative in such situations to have audible warnings sounding.”

Horses and their riders are part and parcel of life in here the Westcountry, and the issue is set to become worse as more and more cars appear on our already seasonally congested roads.

Lloyd Harvey-Bryant, a Sales Negotiator from Barnstaple said: “Horses are unpredictable, …so you have to slow down for them because you never know what they are going to do.”

Ms Johnson concluded, “Horses have as much right to use public highways as any other road users, such as runners, cyclists etc.  In an ideal world no one would want to use roads to ride their horses on.”