Category Archives: Restaurants

Habton House Farm Bed and Breakfast: an excellent place to stay in Yorkshire


HH2For anyone looking for somewhere to stay to the north of York,  I’m adding to my periodic comments about interesting hostelries and places to stay by recommending Habton House Farm.  This is an exquisite, hidden-away 200 year old Grade II listed farmhouse situated in the small hamlet of Little Habton just to the north-west of Malton, and not far from Castle Howard.  It makes a great place from which to visit the North York Moors and the Vale of Pickering, with both York and Scarborough each being less than an hour away.  The rooms are beautifully decorated and the quality of furnishings and services offered have been chosen with great care and are of a very high standard. I particularly liked the choice of bath oils and soaps (Bamboo from Bath House if I recall correctly) – as well, of course, as the teas!

HorsesHowever, above all this, what really makes the place is the friendly, welcoming hospitality of James and Lucy who have worked enormously hard to create this very special place to stay.  They have a really magical touch of making guests feel very much at home, getting just right that difficult balance between being open and friendly, while at the same time giving space to guests who just want to escape and be alone.

The breakfasts are also really special!  They offer a good range of delicious food – from bacon and eggs produced on their smallholding, to porridge, smoked salmon and home-made jams and marmalade; and, for the healthier minded, don’t forget the fresh fruit salads and fruit compote!  All of the guests sit around one large breakfast table – which can be a bit daunting for some – but this offers a great opportunity for interesting conversation!

HH1With only three double rooms, there are never many people staying, and there is plenty of room to relax.  Guests have use of a lovely drawing room, which has a log fire in the winter, and for those who cannot escape being an appendage to a digital device there is good quality Wi-Fi, as well as a television in each room, and DVDs to borrow in the drawing room.  Nearby are several good restaurants, and James and Lucy are always on hand to recommend somewhere interesting to explore.  We certainly had a very pleasant pub dinner at The Grapes in Great Habton!

PigsTheir smallholding specialises in breeding and rearing rare-breed pedigree Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, and has pioneered the ultimate in food provenancing by enabling people to adopt a pig, and follow it throughout its life until the time comes to enjoy a wonderful porcine feast!  Mind you, the bacon at breakfast is also very, very good!

All in all, if you are looking for a quiet, luxurious place to stay in Yorkshire, at very good value, and with really friendly young hosts, this is definitely somewhere you should get to know!  I really hope that James and Lucy make a success of this venture – and that by encouraging others to come and stay I can express something of my gratitude to them for a really lovely weekend!

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Hostageria de Poblet: peaceful place to stay to the west of Barcelona


There is always a tension in writing about hidden away places where I have enjoyed staying.  Were they to become overly popular, that would destroy much of their secrecy and solitude!  However, earlier this year I discovered somewhere really lovely, and hope that by mentioning it here others will take the opportunity to enjoy what it has to offer.

The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet in La Conca de Barberà just to the north of Reus and Tarragona, and some 130 kms west of Barcelona, is one of a group of Cistercian monasteries founded in Catalunya in the 12th century, shortly after the conquest of the province by the Catalan-Aragon monarchy.  Others  include the monasteries of Vallbona de les Monges in l’Urgell and Santes Creus in L’Alt Camp.  One day I must walk the Ruta del Coster that joins them all up!

The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet itself had become very run down by the early 19th century.  The confiscation of church lands in 1835 and the consequent expulsion of the monks led to further decay, and it has only been in recent years that some of its character has been restored.  A community of monks returned to the monastery in 1940, and in 1991 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  Since then it has attracted increasing numbers of visitors, many of whom are drawn there by its magnificent setting among woods and streams sheltered by the Prades mountains.

In 2010 a new modern guesthouse, the Hostageria de Poblet, was built within the old walls of the monastery, and it provides a simple, minimalist place to stay. For those who like quiet, hidden away places, set amidst vineyards and rolling hills, the Hostageria is most definitely worth a visit.  As their brochure notes, “There are no televisions in the rooms to respect the silence and the living dynamics of the monastery”.  That having been said, the guesthouse does have Internet access for those who do not want to escape the modern technological world completely!  Currently, the Spring price for a double room varies between $49 and $59, which makes them really excellent value for money.

The Hostageria also has a restaurant that serves delicious local food – but do note that the lunch menu is much more extensive than that available in the evenings.  Alongside the restaurant is a culinary school, designed to provide both a theoretical and practical training for people living in the comarca of Conca de Barberà.  The Spring menu offers three courses for €20, with a typical choice being

  • Torradeta d’escalivada i formatge de cabra gratinat
  • Llom de bacallà a la mel a l’estil dels monjos de Poblet
  • Iogurt del monjos amb gelat de nata i xarrop de grosella

The monastery also has its own wines, developed in collaboration with the Cordoniú Group. Nine hectares within the walled enclosure were planted in 1989 with Pinot Noir grapes, chosen in memory of the Cistercian wine makers of Burgundy.  Although Pinot Noir is not widely grown in Catalunya, the wines from the monastery, include the 100% Pinot Noir Abadia de Poblet, as well as a lesser wine known as Intramurs, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Merlot, and both are definitely worth tasting while staying there.

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Becker Vineyards Texas Iconoclast Cabernet Franc 1995


This has to be one of the most surprising wines I have tasted in recent years.  Back in 1997 I was attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers held in Texas, and spent some time afterwards in Austin and visiting wineries in the Texas Hill Country – among them was Becker Vineyards, established a few years previously in 1992 by Richard and Bunny Becker.  The first harvest was in 1995 and vintages are aged in either new French or American oak, and stored in the largest underground wine cellar in Texas. I remember being very surprised to find French varietals being cultivated in Texas, but also that the wines tasted surprisingly good.

The visit of two USAn friends on Friday, who had been forced to leave Egypt because of the ongoing political unrest there, and were on their way back to Houston, seemed an appropriate occasion to open this Texan Iconoclast.  I would not normally choose to drink a 15 year old Cabernet Franc – suspecting that it would be well past its best.  However, this wine was quite remarkable – and shows how ripe fruit and careful vinification can indeed produce surprising wines in very unusual circumstances.  It retained a mid-red colour, and had much less browning at the edges than I had expected.  The wine had the distinctive tobacco nose that I often associate with Cabernet Franc, but also retained a slightly woody aroma.  The flavour was delicious, with soft tannins, good depth, and a richness that I had not anticipated – very different from many of the often light, dry Cabernet Franc wines from the Loire that I am more used to. The hot Texan summers had clearly ripened the fruit fully, giving the wine a richness and depth of body that was delicious, retaining a good balance and structure, with flavours of red fruit and tobacco.

So, if you happen to be out visiting the Texan countryside, enjoy the blue bonnets, take a detour up to Stonewall, sample the Becker wines, and put a bottle in your luggage for drinking a decade later! Thanks to Bill Fleming for persuading me to explore Austin’s music scene when I was there! I also look forward to returning to Guero‘s Taco Bar on a future visit – hope it is as good now as it was then!

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Andalucia Field Course Day 3 – Valle Tropical


The third day of our undergraduate field course in Andalucia took us to the villages of Otivar and Jete in the Valle Tropical to the north of Almunécar.  It provided a vivid reminder that geography is about all of the senses:

  • sights: the mountains, valleys, diversity of crops (from chirimoyas and bananas to vines and beans), tourist apartments, hang gliders…
  • sounds: birds, goats, dogs, children at school, cars driving along the motorway cutting across the valley…
  • tastes: the local wine, solomillo de cerdo (in the great Buena Vista restaurant in Otivar), asparagus in vegetable broth with bits of ham
  • smells: wild lavender and fennel; burning rubbish…
  • touch: steering wheels, the roughness of the schist and avocado skins

Thanks Mike and Alex

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The surreal world of England’s railways


It was a grey, cold, miserable afternoon today – in case anyone hadn’t noticed…

We arrived at Huntingdon station soon after 16.00, only to discover that we had just missed the 15.59 train to King’s Cross!  Buoyed by a fine lunch (at The Old Bridge) and some strong coffee we prepared to sit out the wait until the next train at 16.33. But then something must have shifted in the planetary alignments, and we entered a world that even the best imaginations could scarcely conjure up.

Over the loudspeaker an announcement came that northbound trains had been delayed at Sandy because of a trespasser on the tracks.  Oh well, the indicator board showed that the 16.33 was still scheduled, so that should be fine – or so we thought!  Unfortunately, a very helpful railway employee then told us that the train that would form the 16.33 from Peterborough was actually the train that was stuck at Sandy, still waiting to go north through Huntingdon on its way to Peterboroough.  It would be at least 40 minutes before we could catch it on its way back south, even once it had arrived at Huntingdon on its way north!

While looking if there were any alternative solutions, we heard another announcement over the speakers that the 16.33 would shortly be arriving.  So, through the ticket barriers and out onto the platform we went.  Imagine our surprise when the kindly railway employee came out and apologised that this was an automated message that bore no resemblance to the truth – or words to that effect.  He had no idea when a train might actually come.

Time for Plan B!  The thought of staying on Huntingdon station for what could be well over an hour did not fill us with excitement.  So, we decided to take a taxi south to Stevenage, where there were at least trains on different lines that could then take us on our way.  Taxi rides are always interesting – and this one was no exception with the driver waxing eloquent about the deficiencies of the potential Chancellors on the televised debate last night, Tottenham Hotspur’s current footballing success, and the UK’s social benefits system.

And then we arrived at Stevenage – to see a train pulling away as we rushed over the footbridge and onto the platform.  That’s where the adventure really began.  Fast – very fast – train after train rushed by on the tracks without stopping, and every time the indicator board suggested that a train might actually take us on to King’s Cross, it was either cancelled or the clock simply added minutes to its expected time of arrival as we watched.  The cold wind chilled us as we waited patiently on the platform.  Surely a train must come soon.   We put our hope in the 17.34, which somehow seemed to be likely – not least because its expected arrival time did not change.  Bang on 17.34 a train whisked past – without stopping!  Dismay!  But then, not long afterwards, a train did stop, and some of us eagerly boarded.  What could be wrong with this?  Imagine our dismay when we were told to get off the train because it was only dropping off passengers – and no one was allowed to get on!  But many of the other trains had been cancelled – and there were many of us waiting to get to King’s Cross!  Surely they would let us stay on board.  The train had after all stopped, and we had got on.  Some of us stood our ground.  The announcements over the train’s speakers got more aggressive; the train would not leave until we got off.  The anger on the faces of the other passengers was visibly rising.  Some of us stuck our ground.  But then most people left, and fearing we might be ‘shopped’ by the other, now really quite irritated,  passengers on the train we gave in and left the train.  This was not, though, to be the end.  We pleaded with the rail officials – but to no avail.  I pleaded with other travellers to take communal action and board the train – but no-one moved. They must have thought me a revolutionary firebrand! Eventually, after an unexpectedly long delay at Stevenage, that train departed.  Talking with the kind RMT official on duty at Stevenage afterwards, he told us that the conductor on the First Hull Trains train had simply refused to consider letting other delayed passengers on board, because this train was only meant to let passengers alight.

Back into the cold, damp, darkening environment of dismal Stevenage railway station. The 17.39 seemed the most promising new bet, but it was going to be at least 30 minutes delayed because of a faulty train at Royston.  The indicator’s kept us amused as trains were scheduled on time well after they should have left; others were cancelled.  One of the best messages was “Delayed due to earlier train running late”

    Eventually, a train did arrive to take us onwards – at 18.08.  Just beforehand, a kindly announcer stated that “The train may be full” and that another one was to follow on behind shortly.  Fortunately, we were all able to squeeze on board, and eventually arrived at King’s Cross by about 18.45.  To be fair, this was only an hour later than the time that the 16.33 from Huntingdon would have arrived in London, but our surreal experiences made it feel very much longer! Thanks Siobhan and Robin for the adventure!

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    The Trout at Tadpole Bridge


    For those seeking a quiet and relaxed, hidden away pub with accommodation, fine food and an excellent wine list, look no further than the Trout at Tadpole Bridge.  Set on the river Thames at Buckland Marsh, just to the east of Faringdon and only 15 miles west of Oxford, this lovely pub is a great place to escape and enjoy fine English dining at its best.  The owners, Helen and Gareth Pugh offer a really warm  welcome, and they are supported by friendly and enthusiastic staff.

    The wine list is diverse, interesting and very reasonably priced.  Last weekend, we particularly enjoyed Simon Bize’s delicious Savigny-Les-Beaune, Auz Grands Liards, 2001, which went  especially well with the loin of venison! But alongside some classics from Burgundy (and Bordeaux) there is also a great selection of Italian and New World wines as well.

    There are six comfortable rooms, most set around a small courtyard at the back of the pub, and a hearty breakfast is served for all guests – the traditionally cooked poached eggs were excellent!

    It is not for nothing that the Trout gained the AA Pub of the Year award for 2009/10!

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    Sagrantino – Berlin


    The Sagrantino grape makes one of my favourite wines. It has strong tannins and tends to be low yielding, producing wines that are rich, dark, complex and long-lived. The classic area where it is grown is the small town of Montefalco in Umbria.  The Sagrantino di Montefalco denomination has a maximum yield of 48 hl/ha and needs to be aged for 30 months before being sold, 12 of which must  be in wood.  Traditionally it has been used to make a wonderful passito style wine, made from partly dried grapes, but in recent years a dry secco has been introduced.  The Sagrantino grape is also used in making a cheaper, lighter style of wine, dominated by the Sangiovese grape and usually blended with some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, known as Rosso di Montefalco.

    Sagrantino smallSo, when I came across a small restaurant and wine bar called Sagrantino in Berlin in February this year, I was determined to return to see the extent to which it captured the essence of Umbria! Friday evening provided just the opportunity – and I was not disappointed.  Tucked away on Behrenstrasse, just to the south of Unter den Linden and to the east of Friedrichstraße, Sagrantino is certainly worth getting to know.  With several different Rosso di Montefalco wines, as well as the wonderful passito made by Arnaldo Caprai, it is a great place to chill out at the end of a day. Guess this might become one of my favourite places in Berlin!

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    Obama in Barcelona


    ObamaWalking down the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in Barcelona last week I came across Obama – well, I guess not the Obama that most people will automatically think of!  What is the significance of “Obama – British Africa – Gin and Rhum”?  Could it be that Obama seeks to recreate a new empire in  the spirit of British Africa?

    OK – it’s a bar/restaurant opened in 2008, and it being mid-morning on a trip to buy maps at Altair, I did not have time to check it out – but at least it served as a reminder of what might be behind the US administration’s current global agendas.

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    Prague – a selection of restaurants


    Prague has to be one of my favourite cities in the world!  At any season, and despite the masses of tourists, it is possible to escape and find some wonderful hidden away places.  A short visit over the last couple of days provided the opportunity to explore some new restaurants that I would definitely recommend:

    • ProvenceLa Provence (Štupartská 9) – in the style of a French brasserie, serving really excellent food.  The salmon and steaks were delicious, but the desserts are indeed special: outstanding sorbet (beautifully presented) and fantastic Tarte tatin.  This restaurant is really worth searching out – and beneath the ground floor brasserie, there is a romantic cushioned dining room in the downstairs cellar.  An interesting wine list combines local Czech wines with fine French wines.
    • Mount Steak (Josefská 1) – a very different kind of restaurant from La Provence, and definitely not for vegetarians!  Mount Steak serves an enormously wide range of steaks from kangaroo to crocodile, but also has a good range of fulsome local Czech dishes with plenty of dumplings!  The pork and chicken were really good value and delicious.
    • Černý Slon (Týnská 1) – I first visited here almost a decade ago, and remember enjoying the traditional Czech food and wine.  Little has changed since then!  Hidden away near the Old Town Square, Černý Slon still serves good traditional Czech fare – the duck (with dumplings) is definitely worth trying as an example of old-style Czech cuisine.
    • Breakfast at the Hilton Old Town (V Celnici 7) also has to be one of the best international hotel starts to the day – with excellent friendly service and really fresh food.

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    Croatia: seascapes, wine and food


    DubrovnikSo, I have been hiding away in the Dalmatian coast of Croatia for the last week – and greatly enjoying the amazing coastal scenery!

    Dubrovnik – despite the thousands of tourists – has to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  The opportunity to reconstruct it after the Serbian bombings of 1991-92, when an estimated 68% of the buildings in the old city were damaged, has been grasped imaginatively and effectively – the walk around the city walls is truly magnificent.

    VinesI was hoping to explore some of Croatia’s vineyards and wineries during our stay – but with prices of most of the ‘quality’ wines for sale being between$30 and $50 a bottle, I swiftly changed my mind! To be sure, it is indeed possible to find some reasonable  wines at much less than this, but I cannot imagine who is willing to pay such prices – perhaps there are far too many over-rich tourists!  If Croatia wants to establish itself as a  reputable wine-making country, it needs to start making better value wines!

    The food was also, sadly, a bit disapponting  – tasty enough, but we did not manage to find any restaurants that really impressed.Konavoski The best – and reasonably priced – was Konavoski Dvori near Gruda to the south of Dubrovnik.  The restaurant is in a restored watermill, and on a hot August day the swift-flowing river that runs past the dining tables provides a very welcome cool breeze!  Meat is cooked in an iron bell on charcoal – which keeps it succulent and moist.  Other restaurants worth visiting include:

    • Dubrovnik: Restaurant Orhan (Od Tabakarije 1) – situated at the foot of the Lovrjenac tower on the edge of a small bay some 200m away from the walls of the old city. Good seafood salads and grilled meats
    • Trogir: Alka restaurant (Obrov 10) – serving customers in the centre of the old town for 40 years, this restaurant has particularly good tradtional Dalmatian beef pašticada (marinated in vinegar, lemon and rosemary, and then cooked wth carrots, cloves, muscat nuts, red wine and prosciutto)

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