Sun-dried Tomatoes and the Dehydrator Conundrum

If you are keen on your snacks and contemplating a healthier regime? then, you may have been toying with the idea of investing in a dehydrator, I have. But, before parting with the kitchen cabinet's space which is at a premium made me think twice. A few experiments were called for.

Specialist machines for drying are not just for bananas and oranges, they can be used to make chips and dry herbs, but how often would that be done? After a little more research on how does this work? It was clear that the process of circulating dry air was not terribly complicated. In which case, would the oven be sufficient?

Sun dried tomatoes

He was the first to try the theory out, it took two goes but the dried peppered strawberries were a success. That was in the summer and nearing Christmas, the dried fruits are still on the window sill waiting for their allocation. I followed with cherry tomatoes at a time when there was a tomato glut.

Sun dried tomatoes

After two attempts, the tomatoes came out just so.

  • The first time, the temperature on the recipe was far too high. The correct temperature is 80C or gas mark 1/2
  • Slices need to be rather thick. Cut the tomatoes in half
  • Seeds can be taken out by turning the tomatoes on a plate, cut side down and squeeze. Though this is only for esthetic.
  • lay the fruits on a greased baking sheet, on a baking tray, preferably close to one another, but not touching.
  • and bake for 6 hours, yes, anything less will not work. 
  • When the tomatoes are cool, packed them in a jar and cover with oil
I didn't use salt but if you do, salt the tomatoes straight after cutting them up.

After the success of the oven method, the conundrum was settled, no dehydrator. It's a good idea but it would very much be a one minute wonder. 

Do you own a dehydrator? if so, please let us know in the comments box what are its advantages. 

Craft London, SE10 - The Magic of Christmas Menu

Craft London - Stevie Parle, Christmas menu

Go-on, ask me, 'Which is your favourite restaurant'? and you'll always get the same answer, 'Nothing beats Stevie Parle's combination of flavours, his inventiveness, seasonal dishes and Craft's choice of the very best of British produce'. Marina O'Loughlin, the restaurant critic, once wrote in the Guardian, 'I'll almost swim for Stevie Parle's Clay-Baked Duck'. No way I can top that as a short ride on the 188 bus takes me from home to the O2, but I would certainly skip all the way from North Greenwich station to Craft.

Craft London - Stevie Parle, Tom Dixon

The last time I visited Craft, I was wearing my the Greenwich Visitor Columnist's hat. We were shown to the bar-terrace on the third floor. It was a balmy summer's evening and Jared Brown, Sipsmith Gin's Master Distiller and founder, regaled us with his cocktails and life stories. On this wintery Monday evening, the bright and cheerful colours against the white background of the O2 had been replaced by sexy dark blues and copper hues. Craft London was designed by Tom Dixon who applied some spells of his own.

Craft London - Stevie Parle, Christmas snack

Stevie Parle was not in attendance but Thomas Greig, Head Chef was busy in the open kitchen.  When we got to say hello, Guess what? .......
Thomas asked me, 'Which was your favourite dish'? This time, I hesitated a little. Could I really say, the snack, probably not. But, I was spellbound, from the minute these two crackers, arrived on our table. Staged on top of dark green pine branches, topped with dots and translucid tiny bubbles, I didn't even attempt to find out the name of every ingredient, I didn't want to know; Magic was here.

The following course, IPA Devonshire Cured Trout with Kholrabi and smoked yoghurt didn't disappoint. At present, Craft smokes and cures in-house, waiting for Greenwich council to grant them the application needed to re-open their smokehouse. In a not-so-distant past, Parle used one of the small Greenwich Peninsular public parks as an orchard with bees. That had to move elsewhere as the developers moved in, forever adding to the density of this relatively new London district.

Thomas Creig was curious to hear what we thought of the duck pairing. Treacle Glazed Duck and Cherry Purée and though I would have preferred my duck slightly warmer, there were no worries to have over this dish. With its Pistachios and Figs, this is an inspiration for Christmas dinner, the BBQ Gem and  Pickled Walnut provided that little bit of crunch.

Next, our waiter who by then was my favourite waiter on earth (but that might change tomorrow) bought plates of 'Roasted Squash, Sage, Brown Butter and Foraged British Mushrooms'. At this stage, I really thought that Jeanne, who as always had been excellent company, had lost the power of speech. She was signalling with her fork, making strange 'yuumhmm' noises. No need to ask her which was her favourite dish. 

Craft Christmas menus come in two sizes, 3 courses or 5 courses. The mains on the evening we visited were Leicestershire Guinea Fowl or Monkfish Tail. Here three courses can easily become five and five eight as there is not only one but two desserts. If you are looking for a Christmas menu to remember, Stevie Parle's Craft is the place and please ask me anytime which is my favourite restaurant.

Craft London Peninsula Square, Greenwich Peninsula, London SE10, 020-8465 5910. Christmas menus run until the 21st December.

Disclaimer: We were guests of Craft. I was in no way influenced by any commercial initiative, words are my own. This article contains an affiliate link which means I earn a small commission for clicks and purchases.

Houghton Lodge Gardens' Apple Rooms in the Test Valley

'When the situation gets tough, the tough go fishing'. Mid-summer, I started to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I was facing: 111 Places in the Lake District You Shouldn't Miss. So, when the opportunity to take a couple of days off arose, I jumped at it. Packed a few things, took Him by the hand and we were soon warmly welcomed at Houghton Lodge Gardens.

Houghton Lodge Gardens in the lovely Test Valley renowned for its fishing. It is only an hour and a half from Central London, the local towns are Winchester and Andover.

The House, home to the Busk family for more than a century, is set in 14 acres of gardens. What was once a barn is now a collection of six individual rooms, each beautifully designed and named after an apple.

The Apple rooms calming pale greens and soft reds furnished with antique pieces, most being more than 300 years, offer a sense of well-being as soon as one steps in. That doesn't mean that modernity has been ignored. Each room has a state of the art bathroom. The Cox's room has a bath in the bedroom. All have a kitchenette, some with a microwave, and to top it all each room in fronted by own terrace facing the lawn where the sunshine or a simple picnic/meal can be enjoyed.

Needless to say that this is the perfect setting to recharge batteries, and I am not referring to any tech. It is not surprising that this place is a favourite for weddings either.

The accommodation is tastefully done, private but convivial, the grade II listed Houghton Lodge self and its gardens are stunning.

Benefiting from a century or so of clever gardening, there is a display all year round. The walled garden offers one the longest espalier fruit trees in the country and 32 different varieties of apple trees.

It is an inspiration for gardeners. I would well recommend visiting if you were starting a vegetable garden as the raised beds and their flowers-companion planting are second-to-none.

If this was not enough, the Test Valley is famous for its fishing and the Houghton Lodge Gardens offers the opportunity to tickle trouts, grayling and pike. Having not fished for too many years, there was great anticipation when our fishing guide from Simon Fishing Breaks came to pick us up. Half a day of fun and discovery ensued.

I caught a trout in the first five minutes, to the cheers of 'Beginners Luck' but the giggly fishermen were soon proven wrong as two other wiggly fish were rapidly hooked in succession.

I hasten to add that they were promptly returned to the waters. We were shown how to use flies and our instructor let us use all the equipment necessary.

 We learnt how the River Test gave its name to the valley and we visited the eel traps with their walkway and fishermen thatched huts. A landscape to remind us of a lost way of life when the traditional British Jellied Eels and Pie & Mash were Cockneys' staple diet and dishes. Eels and eels liquor on pies were social levellers enjoyed by the richest and the poorest. They have long disappeared from the menus along with tripes and offals, though Pebble Soup HQ is joining modern chefs in their campaign for the revival of meat by-products. It's about time we stop wasting food, start using whole animals and vegetables and make the most of what is on offer. But this is another story..........

Disclaimer: We enjoyed two nights at the Houghton Lodge Gardens and half a day with Simon Fishing Break and would like to thank everyone involved. There

Facts Box

Houghton Lodge Gardens
SO20 6LQ
07973 215407 

Garden Admissions- Visit and information 01264 810502
Adults - £6.50
Children -3 years plus- £3.00

Simon Fishing Breaks
Simon Cooper - Founder & Managing Director
The Mill, Heathman Street, Nether Wallop,

Stockbridge, Hampshire SO20 8EW
01264 781988.

Confession of a saucepan abuser - Stellar Saucepan Review

Regular Pebble Soup readers may recall that I have had a lot of trouble with pots and pans. After being accused by Berndes to be a saucepan abuser (read the story here). I found it very difficult to trust manufacturers especially since  a lifetime guarantee didn't seem to mean very much.

Stellar Saucepans

No utensils seemed to last long enough for me to write about. The latest frying pan is only two years old, and has long lost its shape. But, my faith in pots and pans might just have been restored, and I find myself living in hope, once more. Would I have found the perfect saucepan and a good frying pan?

saucepan, kitchen pans

Stellar stainless steel “Stay Cool” pans offer safe efficient cooking. The pan's handle stays cool while the body get all the heat. After so much trial and error, I became a little bit of an expert as to how the heat is conveyed. The principle seems simple, if there is only one layer such as in cast iron or stainless steel the heat circulate uniformly.

The saucepan glass lead with its silicone edge is a new one on me and I can confirm that it offers easy draining. 

saucepan, Kitchen tools

I liked my old copper-pan but sadly it doesn't go in the dishwasher so, it was important that these new pans clean well and easily which they do.

The price which is an important factor, this is a middle of the road range here are some examples

saucepan, kitchen tools

18cm draining saucepan 2L  cost £47.99 on Amazon

Stellar Stay Cool Stainless Steel Insulated Handle Non-Stick 20cm Induction Frying Pan £36.50

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post which contains an affiliate link which means that if a click converts to a sale, I get a small percentage which helps me maintain this blog. thanks

St Bees Station House : Review

Be aware, be very aware, when taking your children on holidays, it might start the beginnings of an adventure larger than intended. When Joan's parents took the kids on holidays in the Lake District like many families did in the sixties, they travelled by train to St Bees beach.

Lake District, Western Lakes, St Bees, Family Friendly, Short Breaks, Historic Retreats, Railway Carriages, Stations, Unique Conversions

Now Joan is a grandmother but her childhood memories kept bringing her back to St Bees. So when the station house went on sale, she had to buy it.
So there you have it, the Victorian waiting room converted to a home in the thirties is now her holiday cottage and it is part of the rather special Host Unusual collection. 

Family Friendly, Short Breaks, Historic RetreatsRailway Carriages, Stations, Unique Conversions

Perfectly situated, 10 minutes away from the beach and its RSPB reserve, not far from pubs and even closer to the medieval priory. It's a 15 minutes drive away from the shops at Whitehaven, sadly St Bees doesn't have any food store worth mentioning.

Short Breaks, Historic RetreatsRailway Carriages, Stations, Unique Conversions

Let me take you on a tour of the cottage:
The first thing you notice is the attention to details and the quirky little reminders that this was once..... a waiting room. The shape of the house: long and low. A lounge at one end and the main bedroom at the other. There are plenty of sweet little touches dotted here and there.

Lake District, Western Lakes, St Bees, Family Friendly, Short Breaks, Historic Retreats, Railway Carriages, Stations, Unique Conversions

My favourite room was the kitchen. No surprise there. Situated just off an out-a-room where it's possible to leave umbrellas and shoes. It's fully equipped and very functional.
                                                                                           picture courtesy of station house
There are two lounges and a terrace, so plenty of room for a family. Being the start of April and still chilly, there was no opportunity to use the patio. Both bedrooms are warm and comfortable.

St Bees Station House

Readers of Pebble Soup will know that I love new experiences but I would add a word of caution.

The Station House is off a platform. This is a working station with its, unique in the country, control room. This implies that trains will stop, people will alight and sometimes trains can stay stationary, engine running for up to 10 minutes and if that will warm the heart of train enthusiasts it might be disturbing at 6.45am.

On the other hand, the line connects with the lovely heritage steam train of Ravenglass and Esdale, and you would have to have a heart of stone not to fall for the miniature steam locomotives.

 Eskadale Heritage Train, Copyrighted Picture, Solange Berchemin

Fact Files:
Address: St Bees, CA27 0DN, United Kingdom
Tip: Ravenglass 'n Eskdale Steam Railway, Wasdale, Muncaster Castle, Buttermere and Wastwater are situated less than 15 miles away
Price varies expect to pay from £105/night with a minimum of two or three nights depending on the time of the year.

Disclaimer: Words are my own, I stayed 2 nights at discounted press-price. My thanks to the owners for their care and attention.

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. first published in 17 May 2013



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