Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wild Wonders of Europe

This article appeared on my other blog some time ago, but I thought I'd repost it here because it fits very well in the idea of being enchanted by beautiful parts of the world and places and sights that have that something extra.

You don't always need to travel far to find beautiful scenery or reasons for optimism about our environment. Just have a look at this website: Wild Wonders of Europe.

You can tell that the people behind this project are passionate about nature. They want to remind us of the stunning biodiversity we still have, right on our doorstep. And they strongly believe that the emotional power of beautiful photographs is a great way to do that. I couldn't agree more.

What I also love is that, instead of telling the sad stories, they want to celebrate the successes and the wildlife-comebacks. Their motto: 'Conservation works! We just need more of it!'

You can also take part in a monthly photo competition with lots of great prizes. As a bonus, the two overall winners get to go on a photo mission to a wild destination in Europe, fully equipped with professional photo gear. Last year's winners Markus from Norway and Janne from Finland went on a trip to the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Check out beautiful pictures from your favourite countries in the Wild Wonders galleries, their beautiful videos of wildlife in action, or have a look at the book they released earlier this year. Enjoy!

Wild Wonders Banner
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Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Horse and Groom, Upper Oddington, Cotswolds (UK)

The Bar at The Horse & Groom. November 2010.

The first non-Belgian eatery I wanted to cover here really had to be one of my favourite restaurants in one of my favourite areas in one of my favourite countries.
After all the hints I have dropped in previous posts on both of my blogs, I'm sure you've guessed it by now: I am referring to 'The Horse & Groom' in the Cotswold village of Upper Oddington, England.

Part of the bar and dining area. Nov 2010.
We went there for the first time, I think about 2 years ago.
One of our friends had seen that the chef was listed as a finalist for 'Cotswold Chef of the Year' in Cotswold Life, and she wanted to give the restaurant a try. Needless to say that we were up for that, and what a love story it has been since then: we keep going back for more.

There are so many aspects of this restaurant that I like, that it's hard to say what I like most.

First of all: it's cosy, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Simon Jackson, the owner, welcomes his guests warmly and really goes out of his way to make you feel at home.

The inn itself is a 16th century building and its character has definitely been preserved, even though the interior has a more contemporary rustic touch. As soon as the weather gets a bit damp or chilly, the fireplace is lit, which fills the space with a warm glow and a hint of the scent of burning wood that is just right for a perfect evening full of joy and good conversation.

Window seats near the fireplace. November 2010.
The seasonal menus offer a wide range of choices, without being so overloaded that it becomes difficult to choose. Dinner menus contain about 6 to 7 starters, mains and desserts, and a few side orders. On top of these, there are daily specials on the board.

The vegetarian options are equally attractive, very well prepared and with the same amount of care put into flavours and textures as is the case with the other dishes.

The prices are fair, possibly at the higher end of what you'd expect in a village inn, but the quality of the food is so superb that what you pay is more than justified.

The chef, Jason Brewster, works with local produce as much as he can, and is committed to really cooking from fresh. As a result, everything you get on the table has been prepared in house and is just bursting with flavour. He and his kitchen team bake their own bread, make the stocks, sauces, chutneys, ice creams, puddings, even smoke the meats and fish.

Simon at work. November 2010.
Now, we're several paragraphs into this article and I haven't even mentioned what might just be the characteristic that really sets the Horse & Groom apart: Simon knows his wines. He knows them, and he loves them.

He will not push his knowledge on you or bore you with endless descriptions if you're not interested in wines, but when he spots that spark, and you get him talking, you immediately see that this is no marketing gimmick or put-on pretentiousness. He genuinely cares, about the wines as well as the stories behind them: who has made them, what makes them special, and what you could drink them with to experience them in the best possible way.

The Horse & Groom offers over 25 wines by the glass, which is really good, and gives you a lot of flexibility when you're dining with a smaller group.
To get an idea of the extensive selection, have a look at their wine list here.

(For completeness' sake: they seem equally passionate about their beers, but I'm more of a wine person so I can't speak from experience there.)

'Wine Staircase' in a cosy corner. Nov. 2010.
If you're in doubt which wine to choose, depending on what you like and/or what food you're having, you can always ask for advice. If someone else is taking care of your table, don't hesitate to ask if Simon would have a minute. He's definitely the man you'll want to talk to.

If you're getting a dessert, which I'd really recommend, you might want to consider one of the gorgeous 'sticky wines' to go with it. I think we've sampled the full range by now, and my absolute favourites are the Californian Quady 'Elysium' - Black Muscat, the Australian 'Cordon Cut' Clare Valley Riesling and the mouthwatering Pieropan 'Le Colombare'. These wines are truly liquid gold.

Before I get all lyrical, let me refer you to the Horse & Groom website for any practical information you might need, and assure you that when you're in the Cotswolds, this restaurant is well worth a visit. Even if you find you're not that close to Oddington, you won't regret the detour. Do try to take someone who doesn't like wine: chances are you'll need a designated driver.
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Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Cotswolds (UK)

Landscape in the Northern Cotswolds. July 2009.

A few days ago, I covered the Rollright Stones on my other blog. It gave me the idea to write a larger article here on the part of England where the stones are located: the Cotswolds. I've spent so much time there in the past few years, to visit friends as well as to do research for my novel, it feels like it's become my home away from home.

Town map of Tetbury. October 2008.
The Cotswolds is one of my favourite destinations in England. I love the gently sloping hills in countless shades of green and ochre all throughout spring, summer and autumn. Every time I'm there, my eyes feast on the honey-coloured cottages, the old market towns, the paddocks, the narrow roads winding through the countryside, bordered by wild hedges and stacked stone walls and all the quirky cosiness that's deeply rooted in the area's history.

It's not just the scenery and the atmosphere that enchant me. The Cotswolds lifestyle appeals to all my senses: you'll find beautiful gardens, numerous festivals, arts and crafts, manors and mansions and - time to get to the point - plenty of indulgence opportunities for foodies.

Inside the Horse and Groom,
Upper Oddington. November 2010.

There are several award-winning hotels and restaurants in the Cotswolds, with chefs who focus on using local produce. The area has great pubs, tea rooms, markets, farm shops and breweries, a food and drink festival and even a pudding club to celebrate the traditional Great British Pudding.

I have only just started my journey along the Cotswolds restaurants and I will probably be long dead before I could visit even half, but I can let you in on which one is my current favourite, and has been for a while now: the Horse and Groom in Upper Oddington. Have a look at this article if you want to know why.

If after all the gastronomic gratification your belt starts to feel a bit tight, the Cotswolds is also the perfect place for long hikes or more casual walks. The area has a lot to offer in every season. Mind, though, during snowy winters it's not always easy to get around!

If you wish you can try to walk the entire 102 miles of the 'Cotswold Way' trail and maybe even beat the record of just under 24 hours! For those of us who prefer a few gourmet stops in between, there are a number of circular walks that take you through a smaller part of this gorgeous, quintessentially English landscape.

You can find more information on several Cotswolds Tourism websites, e.g. http://www.cotswolds.com/, or on a variety of local blogs like A Cotswold Year, Life in the Cotswolds, Cotswolds Travel or Cotswold Peeps

Here are a few more of my favourite sights:

Horse pastures in the Northern Cotswolds. September 2009.

Village near Moreton-in-Marsh, September 2009.

The Evenlode. September 2009.
Sunset over the Hills - Uley. January 2010.

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Monday, 22 November 2010

Salon des Vins, Grand Palais, Lille (FR)

The 'Salon des Vins' is an annual event that takes place in different cities all over France. The fair is organised - as you can guess from its name - by the association of the French independent wineries. We've been going there for several years now, and I love it, in spite of the fact that it seems to attract more visitors every year and it's gradually getting a bit too crowded. Not so good for the visitors, but great for the wineries, of course.

The fair is absolutely huge. There were over 500 wineries present this year, and they all bring a number of their available wines for the visitors to taste and possibly buy.
You can meet wine makers from the different wine regions all over France, each with their own personal style and flair, in their wines as well as in how they present themselves to you. And to me that's one of the great advantages here: you get to see the people behind the wines and the pride they have in their products and their businesses that often go back several generations.

The fair obviously focuses on wines, but there are also a few booths that sell local French produce: cheeses, honey, meats, pies, chocolate and more.

A number of times we've visited the fair quite randomly: just seeing where our instincts, noses and taste buds would lead us, but this year we were on a mission. Several missions, even.

We only had a few hours on the Friday evening, which we'd reserved for sweet wines. We'd made our selection beforehand on the Salon's website and decided to limit ourselves to 4 types of sweet wines: Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Muscat, Sauternes et Banyuls. This turned out to be a bit much. We'll have to limit ourselves even more next year.
After tasting several wines of each type, we picked our favourites. Mine was the 2003 Sauternes Grand Cru classé from Château Caillou, which was unfortunately sold out by the time we went back to buy it. I also discovered a few beautiful Banyuls, both white and red. Especially the reds go so well with chocolate!

The result
On the Saturday we'd planned the champagnes and Alsace Rieslings. A tough day indeed! We ended up buying 3 different champagnes (one of them the 'Quintessence' from Gaidoz-Forget, one of our favourite champagne houses) and 2 kinds of organic / biodynamic Riesling. We've tasted the François Baur wines before and still loved them just as much. The wines of the Bernhard & Reibel estate on the other hand were a great new discovery. Even their most basic Riesling, with the very appropriate name 'Coup de Foudre', was a really nice wine, ánd great value.

Finally, on Sunday we went back to taste a few reds from a number of wine makers we'd met the previous years. Once more, La Rose Brana's Saint-Estèphes and Château de Roquebrune's (organic) Lalande-de-Pomerol vintages were delightful, and the people at the booth are just so nice, which is a bonus.

Overall, my main takeaways from this fair are:
  • there are great organic wines out there
  • France is an amazing wine country, with tradition as well as innovation and with a large number of wine makers who are truly passionate about their art, profession and of course their products
  • it's a good idea to come prepared. Due to the sheer size of a fair like this, you're more likely to get something out of it when you do some research beforehand
  • big fairs are a brilliant opportunity to learn more about a particular grape, region or type of wine. You learn so much about their characteristics by sampling them one right after the other
  • making wine requires skill, passion, experience and a lot of professionalism
For anyone who wants to go: if you don't speak French, bring someone who does. Most of the wine makers, especially the older ones, don't speak English!

For more information: 'Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants'.

[This article is an adaptation from the one my other blog, The Woman Condition]
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