Category: Food

French Adventures #1

I love France…. well the bits I’ve been to anyway, which include Paris, Nice, Monaco, Cannes, Antibes and a good few parts of Brittany.

My first visit to France was in 1988 for my honeymoon. I’d hardly been abroad, and Paris to me was the most magical place I’d ever seen. It was grey and cold and I could hardly understand a word anyone said. The waiters were gruff, I ordered food that wasn’t what I thought it was and everyone kept trying to give me goats cheese….NOOOOO!!

I fell in love with the place; the atmosphere, the smoky Gailoise fume filled cafes/bars and the whole pavement cafe culture. 29 years later, I still feel the same. I feel at home in Paris and every time I visit I want to stay.

France is a big place and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. My trips to France have been some of the most wonderful holidays I’ve had and each time I’m there, I curse myself and my laziness for not making the effort to learn the language that just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on edge. For me, French is the most romantic, expressive, gorgeous language there is. Maybe one day I’ll get off my arse and learn how to speak it!

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Je’taime Paris

Our honeymoon was wonderful, it was 29 years ago so some of the details are a little sketchy but I remember things like seeing the bonkers sight of the Pompidou centre for the first time, travelling on the metro and drinking wine outside cafe’s in the freezing cold, just watching the world go by. I also remember the friendliness of the French. We went at the end of April and in one restaurant we were presented with a Lilly of the Valley plant as it was almost 1st May which is the Feast of Our Lady.

Several trips later, we’ve had many great meals, worn out much shoe leather as we walked around the streets and saw so many lovely things.

A couple of years ago I had a fantastic surprise. As a Christmas present, John arranged for me to go to Paris for the day to one of my favourite shops, the Kooples. He’d secretly organised the flights and arranged for my friend Charlotte to come with me. He also gave me some money to spend and took us to the airport and picked us up again when we go home. We had a great day, had steak frites and Sancerre and a few glasses of Champagne in several bars along the way. It was such a treat and I know that I’m lucky to be married to such a thoughtful man.

Our last trip to Paris was for Christmas 2016. We flew out on Christmas eve and had a great few days there. When we arrived we went to the tourist information centre to buy tickets for the Roissybus to the centre of Paris and a carnet du billet for the metro. Whilst we were sorting things out, the lady on the desk was asking if it was our first visit and we explained it was our 8th. When we’d finished she presented me with a beautiful Christmas tree bauble, decorated with a glitter Tour de Eiffel! I felt really special as she hadn’t given one to anyone else she’d seen.

We stayed in a fantastic hotel called Hotel Platine. We chose it because it looked quirky and stylish and so different from any of the formula hotels that were on offer.

The place had a Hollywood/Marilyn Monroe theme and each room was different. The staff were really friendly, there was an honesty cocktail bar and a small hammam in the basement which guests could use for free. Breakfast was served in an American themed diner and served a great selection of things to suit everyone.

We would definitely recommend the hotel to anyone with a sense of humour and a desire to stay somewhere different…….oh and the best bit of the room we were in was the bathroom……THERE WERE DISCO LIGHTS IN THE BATH!!!!!!!

We spent Christmas Eve just trawling the streets of Paris. We took the metro to one of our favourite places which is Place du Madelaine. This is where all the fabulous foodie shops are such as Fauchon (which is famous for macarons and cakes), and Hediard, which is a really posh gourmet food and gift shop…….we once made the mistake of buying a beautiful punnet of cherries which looked hand polished and beautifully arranged in a lovely wicker box. The mistake was not looking at the price so we paid about £15 for around ten cherries!

After lunch and the obligatory Croque Monsieur, washed down by bottles of beer and a cognac for John and half a bucket of Sancerre for me, we mooched around the posh shops until it was time to go back to the hotel for a nap and a disco bath before going out for the evening.

We wanted to eat at Bistro Saint-Louis, near to Notre Dame, however, after spending what seemed like ages to get there we found it was closed, despite the website saying it would be open but you couldn’t book a table. Never mind, we made our way across the road to The Saint Regis for a very nice Christmas eve meal.

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Steak and Potatoes and Chicken Chasseur were on the menu, followed by mousse au chocolat for me and a large slab of nougat for John (it came with a lovely foil wrapper to take home what you couldn’t eat, which was most of it!)

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I thoroughly recommend St. Regis if you are having a trip to Paris, the food and service are great and it’s definitely not an expensive restaurant.

After a few more drinks, we walked to Notre Dame to watch them getting ready for midnight mass. As we walked there, we saw huge concrete blocks to prevent a terrorist using a vehicle to cause harm and we were searched several times on the way to the cathedral and on the way inside too. We didn’t mind this at all, given what had happened in Paris and the shocking attack at the Bataclan in November 2015 and the attack at the Christmas markets in Berlin the month before, it was totally understandable and small price to  pay to keep everyone safe. It has to be said that the police officers who were carrying out the searches did so politely, and with a smile on their face, wishing everyone a Joyeux Noel when they were finished.

Notre Dame at night is so beautiful, but it was a little cold for hanging around to take photo’s. It was also incredibly busy with a small queue forming to get inside.

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Once inside, it was  hardly a tranquil haven, there were many people shuffling around taking photos. There were even people taking selfies with statues and the little candles you can light which seemed a bit strange to me. Lots of people were seated in the main body of the cathedral having got themselves in prime position for midnight mass. I’m not religious in any way shape or form, but I can’t deny that the organ music and the incense were very atmospheric and special.

Christmas day arrived! We opened the presents we had brought then after breakfast we went wandering again, this time we made our way towards the Eiffel Tower. It was a mild day so we didn’t mind missing out the metro and getting some exercise and let’s be honest, how can you complain about a long walk when you’ve got the Seine and Paris around you.

It was a lovely walk, only slightly spoiled by numerous people trying to sell us Eiffel Tower souvenirs every 15 paces. It’s a shame to be pestered but it’s even more of a shame that people have to resort to making a living like that. Once thing I’d say about Paris this time is there certainly seemed to be more people on the streets or street vending and I have to say it seemed a lot ‘poorer’ than it had on previous visits. Maybe it’s a sign of the times everywhere, austerity seems to be hitting everyone and everywhere.

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We went from the Eiffel Tower to Sacre Coeur, where we wanted to have a look inside but it was so damn busy. We’d visited many times  before so we headed off for lunch of chicken Quiche for me (not recommended, warm and waaaay too eggy….bleugh!) and a burger for John. We’d gotten into a bad habit by now, which involved ending every meal (apart from breakfast of course), with a brain frazzlingly strong coffee and a cognac, but why not, it was Christmas after all!

After a long walk home to get rid of the food and booze, we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our Christmas Day dinner at restaurant we were keen to go to and had checked out during the day. Chartier was our destination and we were really, really excited!

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In 1896, the Bouillon Chartier was born out of a very simple concept – provide a decent meal at a reasonable price and give customers good service in order to earn their loyalty. 50 million meals, and only four owners later, the recipe is still every bit as much a success…..well that’s what their website says, and it seems to be true.

You can’t book a table, you have to queue. That means backpackers, tourists, locals, celebrities all have to get in line with everyone else and wait in anticipation for your turn to be escorted by an elegant, black-apron clad waiter to your seat. When you get there, don’t expect an intimate dinner – not a chance. We were seated upstairs next to some railings over which we had a fantastic view of the whole restaurant. We were shown to the table with two other people and we ended up sitting with a couple from Greece who were on their first trip to Paris and looked like rabbits caught in the headlights!

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Our waiter was lovely, not at all grumpy or arrogant as some of the reviews on Tripadvisor had said they were. He was professional, had a sense of humour and was keen to make our meal a pleasant occasion for us. He left us to look at the menu while he ran himself ragged with the rest of the diners in his station, it was packed out with Christmas diners.

We chose our food and wine, opting for a 14 euro bottle of fizz, not expecting much from either the food or the wine for the prices. How wrong can you be? We had pate and charcuterie to start, then steak frites with green beans. The food was fantastic and the cheap fizz was really great! I think we frightened the Greek couple though, they were drinking coke while we polished off the fizz, had half a carafe of red wine and finished the meal with………yes you guessed it cognac!

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We had eaten well, drank plenty and after desert we were ready for the bill and a walk somewhere else for a drink. When l’addition arrived, we were pleasantly surprised at how cheap it was. It came to 78 euro which was amazing considering we’d had everything we wanted.

I absolutely loved this place. It felt like going back in time and I found the hustle and bustle mesmerising. I love to sit at a table with white linen, old-fashioned cutlery and I think its lovely to have waiters who care about what they do. It isn’t a job for them, for most it is a vocation and that’s the difference to most of the waiting staff in UK restaurants. Yes some can be grumpy, yes you sometimes have to wait a while, but I’m just absolutely blown away when I eat somewhere like this. It feels truly special, even with no elbow room, little chance of having a ‘serious’ conversation and having to share your table. Anyway, you shouldn’t have a serious conversation over dinner, it is bad for your digestion!

I think I might be too romantic, but I just love places like this with a history and character built up over years and I could happily eat there again and again. In fact I even think it worth a day trip to Paris just for a lovely long  lunch and a bottle of that fizzy wine!

After a couple (or maybe it was three or four) cocktails, we made our way back to hotel. I found a friend at the metro station, and I also found a football, which I insisted on kicking back to the hotel. I was drunk of course, but I remember dribbling the ball around lampposts, rescuing it when it rolled down into an underground car park and I also remember people laughing at me along the way. I don’t care, I had a great time and it made me laugh when woke up the next day and saw a football on the dressing table in the hotel…….oh dear, I’ve done it again!

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The next day, it rained and it rained. It wasn’t the best day as most of the museums and galleries were shut, which meant the ones that were open were rammed with people. When we tried to go to La Louvre, it looked like we’d have to queue for nearly an hour in the rain so we gave it a miss. We walked, had coffee, walked and had lunch, then we walked to the metro back to the hotel.

That evening, we went to La Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis. We’ve been here before and really enjoyed it so we thought we’d go back. They serve local brewed beer in stone mugs which I love and it was a really light refreshing brew.

We found this time that whilst we enjoyed the place and the eccentricity of the waiters, we weren’t blown away by the food. The style is traditional French with main courses such as

Sauerkraut with sausages and bacon
Porkknuckle grilled with apple
Stew white beans and pork
Sirloin steak with butter sauce
Hamburger steak with fried egg
Sole meunière
Ray fish with butter sauce
Haddock with boiled potatoes or sauerkraut
Special sauerkraut for two
Porkknuckle
Undercut steak with shallot fondue
Raw beef minced steak
Vealliver with boiled potatoes
Tripe terrine with white wine
Home made cockerel with white wine

I had the cockerel in red wine and John had the cassoulet, neither of which were amazing. It was rather expensive too and we left feeling rather disappointed and thinking we’d only go back for drinks next time.

Next day was a disaster. Whether it was because of the food from the night before or a stomach bug but John wasn’t well. He spent hours doing what people do when they’ve got stomach troubles and with our flight home at 8pm in the evening it was a long, long day.

Fortunately there was a shopping centre near the hotel with comfy sofas so we spent a few hours there just sitting and watching the world go by. Then I put my ‘I’m a genius’ hat on and remembered I’d seen a sign for a cinema  in the shopping centre, so we went and watched the latest Star Wars film Rogue One. It was perfect, there was a toilet handy, John could have a well needed sleep for a few hours and I had some entertainment. Not what we’d intended for our last day but it we made the most of it. It was a shame because it was a glorious sunny day, nice and cold too, which would have been perfect for a walk.

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Overall, we had a great couple of days in Paris, but I can’t deny that the last day took some of the magic away. Would I go back again, yes of course, I’d love to take a friend to Chartier for lunch and spend a weekend showing them around and sharing what I love with them.

The world is a great big place though, and I’ve got many more places I want to visit, so I will look at my bauble next Christmas and remember the lovely time we  had.

Au revoir mon amis xxxxxx

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It’s all about the Basa

Since Christmas I’ve been on a bit of health kick. I joined a gym last September but after a big three week holiday in America, a stinky cold for about a month, it’s only since January that I’ve been really going for it.

I’ve been hammering the cross-trainer, the stairmaster (Satan in the form of fitness equipment!!) walking up hill on the treadmill and interval training on the rower. As a result I’ve lost half a stone and I feel 100% better about myself than I did before.

Alongside the gym sessions I’ve been trying to eat healthier. I’ve cut down on as much carbs as possible, I’m eating smaller portions and I’ve been living off rice crackers during the day, (see my previous post). I’ts hard sometimes, but when I see and feel the results it’s so worth it.

I’ve also given up my packet of Walkers Cheese and Onion crisp habit at lunch times.  My name is Maria, I’m a crispaholic but I’m now four weeks crisp free.

In my search for healthy, quick meals to cook from scratch when I get home from the gym, I turned to one of the many lovely cookbooks I own from one of my favourite chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Now I’m not a fish fan. I like scallops, prawns, mussels (must be eaten somewhere warm and sunny sans French fries and a glass of Sancerre) salmon and mackerel. I don’t like really fishy fish and I’d rather starve than eat trout – muddy and ridiculous things.

I have found a great fish recipe in Hugh’s book  River Cottage Light and Easy which I will share with you because I’m nice like that. I liked this because I could get it ready the night before and it’s quick to cook with not much washing up…..lazy cow!

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Hugh recommends the best fish to use but I couldn’t find any pollack, whiting or coley when I went shopping in Aldi, however, I did see Basa fillets. Pay attention now, this is where I tell you why Basa is the boss.

Basa fish is a type of catfish native to Vietnam and Thailand and sometimes referred to as the river cobbler, swai, pangasius or bocourti. As with other types of catfish, basa are rich in protein but not as lean as tilapia and some other low-fat fish.

That’s enough of that,  here’s the recipe

Fish-rizo with Broad Beans – Serves 4

700g white fish fillets, such as pollock, coley, whiting or sustainably caught haddock, skinned and boned
1 tbsp unsmoked paprika
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tsp fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tbsp rapeseed or sunflower oil, plus a little extra for cooking
Sea salt
150g cooked broad beans, skinned if they are large (I used lovely sugarsnaps instead)
Juice of half a lemon
Roughly shredded mint, to finish (optional)

Check the fish for pin bones, prising out any find with a tweezers (preferably NOT the ones you use for your eyebrows), then cut into roughly 2cm chunks. Put into a bowl with the spices, garlic and oil. Add a pinch of salt. Turn together and leave in the fridge for up to half an hour. (I left them in the fridge overnight and it didn’t make any difference. I thought I might end up with ceviche but it was fine.)

Heat a large frying pan or wok over a medium-high heat. Add a trickle of olive oil. then the fish, and cooking, tossing often, for 4-5 minutes until cooked through. Stir in the beans of your choice and cook for another couple of minutes. Squeeze over the lemon juice and remove from the heat. Taste and add more salt if needed. Sprinkle over the mint if you are using it.

It’s recommended that you can serve it with peas, lentils or new potatoes. I found it went well with couscous which seemed to match the texture and flavour of the fish.

Enjoy!

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You Are What You Eat

I hope that isn’t true, otherwise I’m a brownish, round disc made of puffed rice covered in Philadelphia light cream cheese…….(other brands of dairy spreads are available folks!)

Yes, this week I have been mostly eating rice crackers. Do I like them, yes I do, but I’ve had crackerbread for breakfast, rice crackers for lunch and it’s fair to say I’ve definitely hit the cracker wall!  You can have too much of a good thing and right now, Pip the cat’s treats are looking mighty tempting!

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Whilst I am protesting, I have to admit that I’m addicted to these Kallo made things. I love the smoked paprika ones particularly and I also like the chilli ones. They also make fantastic Torenisi breadsticks which I can’t buy unless I embark on a bus based voyage to Knutsford to a certain supermarket which is the only place that stocks them. It’s worth it though as they are damned tasty and suprisingly less fatty/carby than other snacks.

You might have guessed that I’m on a health kick. I’m hitting the gym hard three times a week, walking everywhere when I could catch a bus and generally trying to lose some weight and get fitter.

I can cope with the gym but it’s the times when I want some crisps or something sweet that really hit me. I’ve not got a massive sweet tooth but I could eat my own bodyweight in Walkers Cheese and Onion crisps. I can take or leave sweets or chocolate, but I can hear the rattle of a crisp based product packet from miles away.

My absolute favourite at the moment are Penn State Sour Cream and Chive Pretzels. I love these twisted little treats, but again you can only buy them in certain places. That’s probably not a bad thing or I’d be 20 stone by now!

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I can usually contain my hunger, however, I have to confess that I was once so desperate for something to eat on the way home from work that I ate some Strepsils that were in the glove compartment of the car.

Next week I’m thinking of embarking on a healthy soup making marathon, this will add some variety to my diet whilst not undoing the good work I’ve already done. I love cooking so this shouldn’t be a problem. I’m thinking of a Thai type of soup without too much coconut milk, something good, fiery hot and tasty.

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I do have a soup based confession to share with you, which I am slightly ashamed to admit, but at the same time I’m pretty proud of my revenge strategy!

Back in 1980, I worked in a very swanky hairdressers. They had a salon on King Street in Manchester and one on Wilmslow Road in Rusholme. I was on a Youth Training Scheme and worked at the Rusholme salon.

Being a hairdressing junior isn’t much fun, you get to go and collect dry cleaning for the stylists, fetch lunch, and even fetch them from the pub when their client has arrived but they can’t be found. It wasn’t the best time of my life but it was an experience, which is fine.

There was a lady there who shall remain nameless, but she was the owner’s sister. Let’s call her Gill.  Gill was quite nice to me, always friendly and I used to do jobs for her when I wasn’t busy. Gill ran the beauty salon above the hairdressers and she offered the usual treatments and leg waxing.

I came into work one Monday morning and Gill presented me with a bucket and a Brillo pad. Not the standard equipment for hairdressers or so I thought, so I wondered what was going on. After seeing the bemused look on my face, she explained I was to go upstairs, fill the bucket with soapy water and use the Brillo to scrape the used leg/bikini wax off the lino in the treatment room. Yes, my task for the day was to remove waxy excess pubes from the floor without the aid of gloves.

Now I wasn’t one to complain, though I didn’t think this was part of my job description so I set about my task, gagging slightly when a particularly large clump was found near the waste bin. It took me ages and by the time I’d finished, my hands were shrivelled from the water and I had bits of Brillo stuck in my fingers.

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The days passed and I wasn’t asked to do anything else unpleasant and I must have done a good job as Gill took to making me special sandwiches for lunch and generally being quite nice to me. I was still a bit miffed to be honest and I wasn’t best pleased when one day she thrust a shopping list into my hand, telling me I was spending the afternoon making soup for when the ladies had finished the yoga class she was running.

Now this was a bit worrying for me, I was sixteen  years old and I’d last  made soup at school about four years earlier. I didn’t even have a recipe to follow, I was just told to buy enough of the stuff on the list for eight people, cook it, then use the blender to make it look well….soupy.

Off I went to the supermarket across the road, gathering a mountain of potatoes, leeks and onions and a box of stock cubes. I was quite pleased with myself and I came back, trudging through the salon, up the stairs and into the little kitchen to start my task.

I washed the spuds, chopped the leeks and onions and there was a pile of veg the size of Snowden on the kitchen counter. I started to panic thinking I’d bought way too much, expecting to be chastised for wasting so much food.  I scooped the amount of spuds I though I’d need into a pan, and threw the rest into the bin in the leg waxing area of the beauty salon. I put a generous amount of leeks and onions into another pan and the leftovers suffered the same fate as the potatoes.

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About thirty minutes later when the potatoes were cooked, I realized that the amount in the pan would maybe feed a small colony of rats, but certainly wouldn’t feed eight women who’d just sweated their way through a yoga class, hell bent on eating as much soup as they could manage.

I started to panic, I had no money left to go back to the shops and I was running out of time. I was really worried about incurring the wrath of Gill, then I had a genius idea to solve my predicament.  I went to the leg wax bin, took off the lid, and fished out every little bit of discarded veg, carefully brushing off the nasty bits from the potatoes where they had gone deeper into the bin.

Quickly I boiled and fried the rest of the veg, shoved it with the initial batch and blended it together after adding the stock. I didn’t want to taste it for obvious reasons, though I didn’t really have a choice, and to my amazement it was bloody lovely!

By this time it was seven o’clock and I was desperate to get home, so I shoved it back in the pot, quickly set the table, grabbed my coat and legged it!

When I came in the next day, Gill was all smiles telling me how much the ladies had enjoyed the soup and how special it tasted!

They say revenge is a dish best served cold; I never meant it to be revenge, but if it was, it was served in a soup bowl!

 

 

Clean Plates and Empty Glasses #1

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Over the next few blogs I will sharing with you my passion for food and drink. I will post some of my favorite recipes, tell you of the wines that tickle my tastebuds and post some reviews of places I love to eat.

Bon Appetit and Down the Hatch!!

FILL YOUR BOOTS

I love food, not in a gluttonous way  you understand but in a passionate sort of way. I love recipe books and articles about food in the Sunday papers. It’s strange then that I don’t like cookery programs; I’ve got no inclination towards the Hair Bikers or The Great British Bake Off, they just don’t cut the mustard (excuse the pun!).

For me, it’s all about the sacred act of cooking a meal; whether it’s for one, two or twelve, there is an art to cooking and this art should be respected, enjoyed and embraced in flour coated open arms.

I love eating out too. One of my friends on Facebook recently posted ‘do you ever eat at home?’ the answer is yes of course, but I like to worship food at different alters from time to time……..oh bollocks, lets be honest, lots of the time!!

DOWN THE HATCH

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Eat, drink and be merry. It’s hard to have a decent meal without a lovely bottle or three of something to go with it. Let me clarify again, I haven’t got a drink problem but I do love a drink.

If I could drink just one alcoholic drink every day it would be Champagne. Now before you go off on one let me explain. Don’t worry dearies, I’m too short, fat, and I’ve not got enough hair to be a WAG or a Real Housewife of Cheshire, so I’ve not taken leave of my senses.

My love of fizz comes from the fact that I genuinely love the taste, it doesn’t give me a hangover and a bottle could last all night….depending on the night and the company!  I’d rather have a bottle of Champagne (or Prosecco) and enjoy it than have several pints of cider just because they might be cheaper, which actually half the time they aren’t!

I’m quite at home drinking the house stuff in bars, though I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a bottle of Tattinger Nocturne if you insisted. I’m also quite happy to drink (horror of horrors!) Aldi’s finest fizz. I love the mellow taste, the bubbles on my tongue and the dry after taste. Plus I look more elegant when I’m not downing pints!!

I love Champagne glasses too, flutes, coupes, they all look so lovely and add something special to the drinking experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my fizz but I’m also happy with a pint of Stowford Press down the King’s  Arms on a Saturday afternoon.

Over the next few posts I’ll share some of my favourite drinking dens and tipples……….unless I’m too drunk to type!!