Seven Things I Learnt About Designing a Small Kitchen

We bought our first house a decade ago. The surveyor was very taken by its character but dejected by "what had been done to it". It seemed to add up to a century of abuse by DIY enthusiasts and cowboys builders. It was so dire that getting a mortgage was limit possible. 
We were warned that it was going to cost a lot to put it right. At the time we couldn't understand what anybody, neither the surveyor nor the bank nor our "in-the-know" friends were talking about. Sure, it had been done up quickly for sale but it looked good. It didn't take long before we fell down to earth with a bump.
So no wonder that the kitchen which is the most expensive room to do up (normally) had to wait a little and a little more. About 10 years later and much of our savings lighter, we had become experts in all sorts of building trades and the day the oven door stayed in my hand we knew it was time to give a new kitchen to this Greenwich Victorian ex-brothel which we call home. 

One thing we couldn't do, was to push the walls as they are baring-walls. Unless we moved the kitchen elsewhere we would have to make the most of a very small space. Eventually everything found a place but for one of these lovely cooker hoods

A small kitchen teaches you the art of compromise here are 7 things we learnt while designing ours.

Spend money on natural light: A small space needs light, natural light is best. It made a whole lot of difference when about 5 years ago, a window the size of the wall was fitted in. It frames the view to the garden. It's a bit like have a magic poster which changes every day according to the seasons and the weather.

Get familiar with all the health and safety does and don't: Before embarking on designing the kitchen, make sure what can and can't be done. It is surprising and a bit of a nightmare when the space is small. For example gaz hob can't be near a window and a plug can't be near a hob. It is possibly for the best but very constraining.
Add a touch of colour with a glass splashback: I rave about them, they are easy to fit (even if your wall are "wobbly" or even worse "very wobbly") you can get them in hundreds of coulor. Our was match to a swab. It is so easy to clean and not very expensive, in the scheme of things.

Think beyond the kitchen for storage: OK, so the space is small but instead of cramming everything in, look about. For example near our kitchen there is a cupboard under the stairs, it is a storage cupboard and storage spaces in Victorian houses are at a premium, but with a bit of jiggling we were able to make space. The old cabinets were re-used to make a pantry. So we now have "walk-in pantry" which didn't cost a penny.

A welsh dresser was bought locally to fit all the plate and fit nicely in the large room next to the kitchen.
I built a book case for the cookery books to fit under the opening from the kitchen to the room next to it.
 Toys are not always a good idea: Following Sarah's as in Maison Cupcake advice, we turned to Wickes for design and building work which I can't praise enough. The builders we were provided with, were very communicative, extremely organised and great at what they were doing. The Designer was equally brilliant. But, of course things are pushed your way, I am glad we didn't go for a tumble cupboard and I am sorry to have opted for a pull-out bottle and spice rack instead of a larger cabinet.
Trendy worktops are not the only tops: It is really by accident that we didn't buy a reconstituted stone top, expensive but smart. The thing is, the overall  top was 10cm short for which we would have had to buy a whole length. So we opted for wood and it fits perfectly with the rest of the house so think global, integrate the kitchen with the rest of the rooms, it will make it look bigger.
Don't compromise on the quality of appliances: it's not a tip for small kitchen only. It is of the upmost importance to get the right appliances in. The design needs to fit around the appliances for a kitchen to work and not the other way round .  
Our kitchen, all in all, cost a little over £8000 which included some major building work. So far it has lived up to our expectations,  it was a space where we spent a lot of time and now it is a space where we want to spend a lot of time. 

The Voltaire's Vaults

If you feel nostalgic for the late 80's and would like to recreate the experience book one of the Votaire's vaults and go back in time. Once a prison, then one of Henry VIII's palaces, later a bank this corner of London is charged with history above and under ground.
When the bank was in situs it kept its treasures in vaults which  have been converted to precious alcoves, decorated in silk, leather, animal prints and topped with a golden painted ceiling.

Opened on St Valentine's day, these very private spaces are an extention of the impressive Voltaire's champagne & cigar bar. They   accommodate up to 8 people and can be rented for the evening, they are all  equipped with an ipod docking station. Accessed via an outside terrace with silken awning, outdoor chandeliers and extensive foliage. It's all very "crème de la menthe".
The Votaire General Manager is Anthony Worral, Joel Lawrence is the bar manager. The vaults are staffed by discreet and very professional bartenders. As a fellow blogger said on our press visit: 'One can easily imagine that what happens in the vaults stays in the vaults.' 
This unique space is not to my taste but it can't be faulted for the quality of its cocktails and its Champagne. If you feel peckish the menu offers tapas-style dishes and very chic sandwiches, soups or salads. 
Voltaire is located near Blackfriars bridge, in the Crown Plaza Hotel, but has it’s own separate entrance.
19 New Bridge Street, EC4V 6DB.
tl: 0207438 8054
Average price per head £30. 

Disclaimer: I was among a press gathering of journalists, bloggers and writers invited to the Voltaire for lunch. Opinion expressed in this piece are my own.
Square Meal

Queens Orchard in Greenwich Park & Meringue Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse

Did I mention that the waiting list for an allotment in Greenwich is 120 years? I have 100 years to go before getting one, so to pass the time I tried a few options. The last one went pear-shape but undeterred I have found another scheme, this time, volunteering in Greenwich park newly opened Queens Orchard. Follow me, through the gate:
Situated near the park's north-east entrance, what is today the Queens Orchard is believed to have been once the siege of a large house. The first thing one notices is a dry well, recently covered by beautifully sculpted iron work. 

Curious about it's appearance, a well usually shows signs of humidity, I asked. I am being told that "It's an old fridge", where ice was kept in Victorian days. Look up  from that point on there is a magnificient mixture of vegetables, flowers and heritage fruit trees dating back to the 1500's. The orchard garden is open to the public for a couple of hours a week on Sundays from 13-15.
Once the work is done, mostly weeding so far, volunteers are encouraged to take home some of the surplus. This week, was rhubarb, chives and radishes. 

Rhubarb plants grow very large, every couple of years they should be divided. Leaves are poisonous if consummed in large quantity but the revelation was the fact that there are a myriad of rhubarb types and they all taste slightly different. My favorite is a variety called Champagne.

There is a short period of time when rhubarb and strawberries co-exist, mixing them gives fabulous results as in this
 Rhubarb-Strawberry Meringue Pot
Adapted from a BBC recipe

450g rhubarb cut into 4cm/1½in chunks                                        
Golden caster sugar                                                                                
About 10 strawberries halved & tailed
2 eggs separated


  1.  Put the rhubarb in a saucepan sprinkle over 50g/2oz of the sugar and stir together. Cook for 20 minutes until tender.
  2. Allow to cool slightly. Stir in the strawberries then the egg yolks. Divide the rhubarb mixture between four 175ml/6fl oz ramekins. Put on a baking sheet and cook in the oven for 10 minutes until lightly thickened.
  3. While the rhubarb is cooking, whisk the egg whites until stiff. Sprinkle over half of the remaining sugar and whisk again. Gently fold in the rest of the sugar. Pile the meringue on top of the rhubarb to cover it completely and swirl the top. Return to the oven for 10 minutes until the meringue is puffy and golden. Serve immediately.
Link up your recipe of the week

The Alexandra Hotel in Lyme Regis : Review

To drive from London to sea-side town of Lyme Regis, on the Devon-Dorset border, under torrential rain is certainly not ideal but at least it's an excellent introduction to the dramatic scenery ahead. Though I have to confess when we turned into the small cobbled yard once stabling four horses now the Alexandra hotel's car park, I had had more than my fill of emotions and the only thing I wished for, was to close my eyes and sleep for a million years.

Picking on our mood the calm and friendly receptionist took us for a soothing tour of what was once the semi-retirement residence of the 1st Earl and Countess Poulett and in doing so, she made us step into another world. One that mixes Georgian elegance and style with the informality and brilliance of modern designs.

The original buildings date from 1735. In 1982 David and Nina Haskins, hotelier from Somerset bought the Alexandra, it remained in the same family ever since. The hotel gardens which procure the backdrop for the conservatory dinning room and the large breakfast room, gently slop down to Lyme Bay and the famous Cobb. There is nothing to disturb
the views between the hotel lawn and the bay with its Jurassic coast cliffs. The spectacle is simply stunning. No wonder why so many special occasions are celebrated here.

This was an occasion for us too, our booking coincided with partner's birthday who is young or old enough to recall vividly moments of his childhood, a trilobite found while on a family holidays "somewhere along the coast". As luck would have it, part of England’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, the beaches around Lyme Regis are among the best on the ‘Jurassic Coast’ to begin a hunt for fossils or as a member of staff remarked if the weather didn't ease, the town fossils shops are well stocked and definitely worth a visit.

In term of exploration, right then, inside was taking priority. Up a flight of stairs, on the landing from the corner of my eye I spotted a period armchair restored with impeccable taste in modern material. On reflexion what might attracted my attention may not have been the chair but a laptop set there for the clientèle to use, though rooms are equipped with free and fast internet.

The hotel rabbit warren of corridors in most circumstances would have been annoying but like in every other areas, here too attention has been paid to details, to make every stay as comfortable and relaxing as possible. Sensors lit the corridors when movement is detected a neat and ecological trick which is going to appear on the top of my wish list next time I book anywhere.

Our pink bedroom one of the Hinton's with sea view and a cosy corner was not large however the  clever use of colours, the abundance of natural light and lots of personal touch gave it a palatial and airy feel. The impression was greatly helped by the stupendous panoramic views over the harbour all the way to the cliffs. The chocolate fossils acted as magic wands helping to  dissipate the last trace of the  car journey.

Bathroom are equipped with a large shampoo and conditioner gel, only the rest being miniatures, taking waste into account just as it should be but not omitting comfort and practical aspect, bathrobe, hair-dryer were at hand. The professionalism of the staff and the high quality of service doesn't stop at reception, the room hot drinks and biscuits are replaced without having to ask, in the evening the beds are turned down and next day's forecast left on the bedside table.

After a visit to the local fossil shop and its museum to learn about Mary Anning, her significant finds including Ichthyosaur and many other dinosaurs specimen whose names are too impossible to recall. We took a brisk walk on the Cobb soaking in, and often by, the sea air while taking in the spots made famous by fictional characters. The French Lieutenant Woman and Louisa Musgrove heroine of Jane Austen's Persuasion lived through their dramas on these very stones. It was time for dinner.

Dinner at the Alexandra is a rather formal affair, a three course meal preceded by cocktails. The cocktail menu is worth the detour. Even if the budget doesn't stretch to dinner, a drink in the old fashion bar is a must. The cocktails list is long and enchanting, there is a selection of Gin and Tonic which shows eccentricity and class and would have made Bertie Wooster proud.
The award winning restaurant is in the conservatory, each table dressed with white table cloth faces the garden and its views. On that night some of the staff seemed to be in training, there was flying spoons and knives which would have made for a rather good circus act.


All the products are sourced locally, their provenance as detailed in the documentation with a synopsis for each type of food from fish or chutney. Ian Grant, Head Chef previously worked at London's Park Lane Sheraton. There is something about his food that screams "The kitchen is Chef's kingdom" the dishes may not be all bells and whistles, there is no mucking around to show how clever he is, but all the products sing in harmony through their unadulterated  taste.
Slightly surprisingly fish and seafood share the menu equally with meat and vegetarian dishes. Though the lemon sole was the most popular that night, I opted for the Seared Bay Scallops for starter and a Duo of Local fish as a main and local cheeses plateau thanks to  its simplicity and the perfection in the cooking, it was all very enjoyable. After dinner, guests are invited to move to the garden or the bar for coffee.

The next day started with haddock  poached egg, a buffet of pastries and fruits jams. An identical philosophy applies here, though very busy, the staff takes the morning opportunity to chat with the guests. Our waitress took the time to collect the granola recipe from the kitchen for my benefit. No wonder some people return year in, year out and include The Alexandra in the family calendar for special celebrations.

When guests step in The Alexandra at Lyme Regis, they step in a different world, one of  timeless luxury and class, one that gets the little things right and is difficult to leave behind. Though the hotel provides all the mod-coms it is unlikely that extensive use of the internet will be made during the stay. This is a place to relax, enjoy the scenery, the local products, the fossil hunts, the door to the "real world" will fling open soon enough.

Contact details
Alexandra Hotel
Pound St,
Lyme Regis, Dorset
01297 442010

Doubles from £115, including breakfast. Four-course set dinner £36 not including drinks. Weekend Rate: only  Half Board tariff is available with a minimum stay of 2 nights at peak times
DISCLOSURE: I visited the Alexandra Hotel as part of a self-drive trip both  meal and accommodation were paid for by the Hotel. I received no remuneration other than food and accommodation and all opinions are my own

Cheat Strawberry Tartlets

March stats indicate that the most popular post was Cheat Abricotines, I am not certain if it was for Tonton Tony's story or for the couple of cheat techniques but it will soon become apparent if/when Cheat Strawberry Tartlets and "Bob is your uncle" top the May chart.

Cheat Strawberry Tartlets

A Sweet Pastry is rather easy to make, it's a matter of crumbling any amount of flour, half the amount of butter together, then incorporating a little more than half of sugar, an egg and last but not least some milk to obtain a supple pastry.

The problem with sweet pastry is rolling it, easier said than done, this is why when in a hurry using frozen sweet pastry is a plus. Same goes for custard which you can make from scratch but buy already made or powdered and you'll halve the work.

So you have rolled the bought pastry, bake it blind for 15 minutes in a hot oven, cut circles big enough to fit the tartlets moulds, pour enough cooled custard in each case and top with sliced fresh strawberries.

Coconut and Orange Cake

Coconut and Orange Cake combines the exotic flavours of coconut and anise. I made it for a friend's birthday it was moist and dense, moreover the recipe worked; always a surprise when it comes to cakes, as at Pebble Soup HQ's most sweet bakes come out of the oven looking like pancakes.
It worked to a certain extent, it should have looked like this:

But sadly it didn't, the end result was far more crooked only due to my lack of decorating skills. But apart for this small decoration mishap, the cake was a great success.
The recipe is straight out of Particular Delights: Cooking for All the Senses, an unusual book by Nathalie Hambro, first published in 1981. It was reissued in march this year. It's packed with unexpected flavour combos and inventiveness, wacky but friendly, no need to hunt the Himalayas to find crab spit, all the ingredients are your usual ones. Divided in sections such as cheese dishes, fruits and flowers, fish, it is the kind of book which has not disappointed yet when looking for inspiration.  
To create the spherical shape I used Lakeland semi-spherical cake pans and doubled the ingredients. Tea-pot cakes are leading a new trend of novelty cakes which appear to be very popular with home-bakers and supermarkets alike. In fact the top picture was taken at a Waitrose 's Spring Collection press-event.
Coconut and Orange Cake
175g flaked coconut (desiccated) 
1tbsp water
Grated rind of 1 large orange
175g flour all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
100g unsalted butter, room temperature
125 g sugar
1 large egg
125ml milk
1 tablespoon aniseeds
1 tsp vanilla essence
Wet the coconut with water. Add the orange rind. Leave to stand while you
Preheat the oven to 190C/gaz 5.
Butter and lightly dust with flour your tin which would normally be a 20cm round cake tin
In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
In a large bowl, using a hand mixer, cream the butter, sugar, egg and vanilla essence together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stir in the milk and beat until combined. Slowly beat in the aniseeds and the coconut with orange rind
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Cool cake 5 minutes before turning it out onto a rack. Let cool completely on the rack.

Walkers Baked Hoops and Crosses Review

Walkers Baked Hoops and Crosses were due to be delivered for review and I expected just a new range of nibbles to examine and discuss over an aperitif. Instead a Monkey toy arrived baring an illustrated book and packet of Baked Hoops and Crosses Roast Beef flavoured.
Imagine my stupefaction. There must have been a reason for monkey, so we named it Monty and took it to task.
The book was full of interesting information, "Hoops and Crosses are a source of wholegrain, as each pack is made with 56% wholegrain". I wondered how that would affect the taste.
It started to dawn on me that may be this new snack was not entirely for adults but we would have to share........with children.
So, I took Monty to the playground in the park to test the flavour on little ones and ask mums if they would be happy to include the hoops and crosses snack  containing no artificial colours or preservatives, in the lunch box.
Though Monty was the perfect model, my plan was flawed, not easy to approach people in the sand-pit when baring a cardboard lunch box, a monkey and an unknown snack.
Never mind there was still Gin o'clock time when he would no doubt comment on how tasty the Hoops and crosses were while not feeling too guilty as Each bag has 85 calories contains, 30% less fat than the average potato crisp since they are baked.

The first thing to notice was that the paper on which the hoops and crosses had been layed was not stained with fat. So the claim is correct, this snack is not as greasy as some.
Though it is very flavoursome, the flavour was not a great hit, neither of us seem to like roast beef very much. Hoops and Crosses come in three flavours – all suitable for vegetarians (prawn cocktail, roast beef, salt and vinegar)
The content of the packet disappeared really fast which is always a good sign. The wholegrain content makes a difference to the taste too, in a nice way.
So all in all a good day's work for Monty and we will definitely try salt and vinegar next. 
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Walkers who didn't request a positive review but an honest opinion which I hope I provided.

Home-Made Granola: Is It Worth It?

Is it worth making granola? On Pebble Soup, the quality of food and taste are often discussed, at HQ, like in any other household, budget is also an important criteria.  On the face of it, some products such as granola seem rather expensive, commercial granola cost a rough average of 65p per 100g. Considering that the main ingredient is rolled oats which is very cheap, I decide to investigate.
First things first, having some friends around helped for the ever-so-important tasting-test. The first batch of Granola was made using Jilly Dupleix' recipe. It was not anywhere near as good as the commercial one we normally use, far less crispy which is due to the roasting method. I do not think that home oven can achieve the commercial crispiness.
The second trial happened on his birthday, in a wonderful breakfast room overlooking the sea in Devon. Chef parted with his recipe and even there, it was not as crispy as  commercial brands. However in both cases home-made granolas were very respectable.
Now cost wise:
Ingredients needed and break-down for basic ingredients per 100g (this is an average)
  • 400g Oatmeal Flakes                                                 20p
  • 100g dried fruit – cranberries, cherries, apricots….       30p
  • 100g sultanas                                                           19p
  • 100g hazelnuts or walnuts                                    £1.10p
  • 50g dessicated coconut                                              70p
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 4 tbsp honey                                                             50p
  • 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg (freshly grated)
not costed
  • 3 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 100g flaked almond
Total about £3.00 per 100g which I am sure can be compressed but came as a bit of a shock. Of course buying in bulk would help but still making granola at home is not economical however home made granola can be used for breakfast and for cereal bars which then tends to make it better value.
Method for the recipe
Ingredients as above
it takes between 30 minutes and 1h and is easy to make
Mix oats, seeds, nuts and salt in a large bowl.
Heat  honey, olive oil and spices in small pan until just melted and add to the dry ingredients.
Mix well using a spatula
Spread evenly over two lined baking trays.
Bake for 20-30 mins,
shake a couple of times, until nicely toasted.
Remove from the oven and add in the dried fruits.
Allow to cool and then store in several airtight container.


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