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Roadtripping around the Loire - Chateau De Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau was the reason we decided to take a trip to the Loire Valley. 
For me it's always been this romantic destination, with its' arches stretching over river Cher, sat amongst bright green forestry - the stuff of fairy tales.
 
Yet, on this rainy April day, I couldn't be more miserable - we had driven all the way from London to experience the charming Loire chateaux and the weather couldn't have been more uninviting, cold and windy; not ideal for our outdoors Easter expedition.
Wellies on, wrapped in warm coats, umbrellas underarm, we set off. The rain was constant and made the day feel sad during our drive through the little villages.
We picked the toll-free route from Tours on purpose, in an attempt to see as much of the countryside as possible. Remember, all motorways in France have tolls, so pick wisely.

Eventually, the rain stopped and as we drove into the Chateau entrance the sun came out!
My wise husband looked at me and said "we wouldn't have had these amazing colours to photograph, if it hadn't rained"...where did this little insightful comment come from? 
The dramatic tree-lined long drive leading up to the gardens and Chateau
The old stables that housed a hospital in WWII
 
You can't spot the chateau from the entrance.
But you start getting a sense of the importance and history of this place with every step down the long, tree-lined walk. Imagine the commotion and excitement that Henry II of France would have caused, when he'd ride down this driveway with his Court, to visit Diane de Poitiers, who lived here. Imagine her heart flickering at the sight!

One Chateau. Two gardens. Two women tied with the history of this place.
Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers; the wife and the mistress.

Catherine de Medici ruled France from a tiny room in the Chateau, overlooking the Cher.
What a place!

Diane's Garden
Catherine's Garden

Time for tea in the Orangerie...bring on the pastries
 
On the left of the Chateau, Diane's garden: utterly symmetrical, with sharp-looking flowerbeds.
On the right of the Chateau, Catherine's garden: greener, fuller, featuring impressive water fountains, somehow warmer.

We spent more than an hour wondering around the gardens, always returning to the edge, to lean over and look at river Cher flowing through the arches that hold up this elegant structure.
I'll be honest: I was so mesmerised by the colours around the gardens and the amazing blue sky that I really didn't want to go inside.
We stopped at the Orangery instead for tea and cakes, that gave us time to take in all of the sunny images around the grounds.



View of the spot where the original watermill was built

The Ballroom, stretching over river Cher
Afternoon light, over the Cher
Window in the Green Study, where from Catherine De Medici ruled over France  
 
The main part of the Chateau was built at the site of a pre-existing water mill, hence, it's not one of the largest Chateaux in the area.
Some of the fireplaces were lit though and that gave the whole place a more "real" feeling.
The ball room stretches over the entire width of the river and with a dozen windows on each side it feels like you are on a boat, hovering over the Cher.
Catherine de Medici built over the arches, originally used for promenading from shore to shore, in order to create a space suitable for the French Court to gather.

What a glorious day. We left happy, smiling and looking forward to a well-deserved dinner...on to Loches!

 

Cheesepie in a Twist {Strifti Tiropita} & Cool Cucumber Salad



Strifti Tiropita {aka Cheese Pie in a Twist} is a special dish found around mountain, village restaurants in Greece. My favourite part is that it's baked in a spiral shape and when it's done all of the folds and creases make it look so intriguing.  It makes for great picnic food too because you can break pieces off by hand, when it's cooled down.

The pickled cucumber salad is the perfect light, crunchy and punchy accompaniment to the salty, cheesy pie.



Strifti Tiropita - with Homemade Pastry

- Two cups of plain Flour
- Three tablespoons of Olive Oil
- Two tablespoons of White Wine Vinegar
- One cup of warm Water
- One teaspoon of Rock Salt
- Plain Flour and Corn Starch mix for the rolling, about half a cup

- 250gr Feta, crumbled
- 100gr Ricotta
- Two Eggs
- Two tablespoons of chopped Dill
- Salt & freshly ground Pepper

Home-made Pastry - Mix the Flour, Vinegar, Olive Oil, Water and Salt in a deep bowl.
Use your fingers and try to incorporate more and more flour, as you go along. If the dough feels a bit too sticky add another half a handful of flour.
When the dough has taken up all of the flour start kneading it in the bowl: push part of the dough away from you, using the bottom of your palm, then roll the dough back in with your fingers, repeat a couple of times until you have a little ball.
Cover with a wet towel and keep in a warm space for an hour and a half to two hours. I keep it in the boiler cupboard.

Rolling out the Pastry - flour a dry surface with a handful of the flour-corn starch mix.
Knead the dough a bit more on the flat surface, as you did before. Split the dough in two parts, it'll be easier to handle.
Sprinkle some more flour-corn starch mix on the dry surface and roll one of the dough parts out, by keep turning it around towards all directions. Ultimately, pick a side of the dough to stretch out more so that you end up with a rectangular shape - or as close to it as possible.
This was my first attempt ever at making pastry, so I resorted to cutting off all of the uneven parts and rolling them over the corners missing, to get close to a rectangular shape. It worked!
 
The Filling - In a bowl mix the crumbled feta, ricotta, eggs, dill and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. 
 
Assemble - Spread half of the filling on the rolled out rectangular dough, staying away from the edges.  
Fold around 2 centimetres of the dough in, over the filling, all along the side. 
Brush with olive oil along the fold. Continue folding over, brushing with olive oil every time. 
You'll end up with a flute-like, soft, feta-bursting roll.  
Repeat with the second piece of dough.
 
The "Twist" - This part is delicate, be brave.
Move the dough rolls on a parchment paper-lined baking tray. Start from the middle, working around creating a spiral.
As you place the dough on the baking tray, twist the roll to create little folds. don't force it or it'll brake. Allow a bit of space between the spirals, this will allow the heat to get to all sides of the dough and it'll expand a bit.
 
Bake - for an hour at 180C.


Cool Cucumber Salad
 
- One Cucumber
- Three or Four tablespoons of White Wine Vinegar
- Half a teaspoon of Rock Salt
- Half a teaspoon of Sugar
- One Red Chicory
- A handful of Pomegranate Seeds
- One tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt
- Juice of half a Lemon
- Two tablespoons of chopped Dill
 
The Pickle - Mix the vinegar, salt and sugar in a deep bowl.
 
Cucumber - Give it a rinse and using a potato peeler shave off thin slivers, until you reach the seedy part. Stop there, this part is too watery.
Drop the Cucumber shavings in the Pickle, toss around, cover with Clingfilm and put in fridge for half an hour at least.  
 
Chicory - Rinse under running water, cut in half and then slice each half vertically in long strips.
 
Assemble - Start wit the Chicory strips, drizzle the olive oil over them and some salt.
With the help of a fork, create little Cucumber nests, as if you were eating spaghetti. Drop the Cucumber nests over the Chicory.
Drizzle a few tablespoons of the Pickle over the salad, but not too much, you want the Chicory to remain crunchy.  
Sprinkle with the chopped Dill and Pomegranate seeds over the salad.
Finish off with squeezed Lemon.
 
 

Bank Holiday Daytrip - Riverside at Master Builder's, New Forest


One of the reasons I started this blog, was to share how beautiful the English countryside is. 
Traveling to continental Europe used to be the norm for a short weekend away but over the years overworked Londoners have realised the mesmerising beauty of the south coast and spend more and more Bank holiday weekends there.
 
The New Forest is my happy place. Just as you drive in and spot the wild horses on the side of the road, lazily grazing on grass, crossing the roads with their elegant aura, not bothered one bit about passing cars, you can't help but turn into your carefree self.  
 
The road brings you through Beaulieu (pronounce Bew-ley) although I do prefer my francophone version of Bo-leio. Keep driving parallel to Beaulieu river and you arrive at Buckler's Hard, a ship-building village, where Nelson's fleet was built. Nowadays there is a maritime museum, great for kids (of all ages) to spend the day learning about life in other eras and off course, there is a riverside pub, Master Builder's.
 
Beaulieu Marina view from Master Builder's

Buckler's Hard - a riverside village with long-standing, ship-building tradition

Where to stay, eat and play: 
The Pig - Great food -try the scotch eggs- and boutique hotel, love the big swing in the garden!
Limewood - Pasta from Angela Hartnett and sleek bunny sculptures in the polished gardens.
Rhinefield House - Old charm, surrounded by woodlands, great for poolside sunbathing! 
Master Builder's at Buckler’s Hard - Riverside marina views and "that" holiday feeling.


Left: Beaulieu Marina. Right: Wild horses grazing around the New Forest.
Sweet afternoon light by the Solent
 
Drinks & Snacks at The Master Builder’s
This is a gorgeous place by Beaulieu river to have lunch. We took it extremely easy, kept postponing our reservation and next thing you know, it was 4pm as we drove down the windy road, through the thick greenery, into the beautiful opening with a view of Beaulieu marina.

This is the moment I usually smile and mentally start taking notes for a blogpost just to be able to share how different it feels to be on the English coast. It really feels like you are on holiday.
Sailboats coming in from their day trips, dinghies messing about, a group of canoes practising and lots and lots of tanned and chilled local families having a blast in the afternoon sun.
There is a gastropub restaurant at Master Builder's, which we missed because we were late and there is also an outdoors bar, with excellent views over the river. First come-first serve, great finger food, salads, pizzas and sandwiches available, claim your spot on the terrace and never move! Jug of Aperol, ham hock, avocado on toast and a leafy salad for us, sorted!

Afterwards straight to the beach. One of life's treats is to catch the sunset on the beach and down here, you head for the Solent. 
It’s a bit frustrating that although you can spot the sea and the Isle of Wight from the main roads, you can’t actually get on the beach because a lot of the roads are private.
So, take Tanner’s Lane all the way down to the pebbly beach.

The Isle of Wight is within arm's reach and the sun slowly retires after shedding its' warmest rays on the blue water. My favourite time of the day! x

End the day by the Solent with a view of the Isle of Wight, such a treat!

A Sunny Day in Brussels - Villa Empain & Bois de la Cambre



It is such a treat to be shown around by locals when you visit a new place.
My friend Anna, who lives in Brussels, asked me what I'd rather do - the usual touristy tour or something more particular? 
Well, I naturally went for the "particular" bit and had the most unexpectedly fun day in the sunshine!
 
First stop. Villa Empain
Villa Empain is on the elegant Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, where all of the embassies are located.
It's an utterly chic, tree lined boulevard, dotted with elegant houses, on the edge of Bois de la Cambre, Brussels' biggest open green space. 
 
The villa was built in the 1930s by the son of a wealthy businessman, employing Swiss architect's Michel Polak's design. It is not immediately impressive, but it certainly stands out as a prime example of clean Art Deco lines. 
The details reveal themselves slowly throughout the visit...subtle golden painted edges, layers of receding cornices on the ceiling, elegant ironwork on the staircase banister, blue mosaic walls in the bathrooms - signs of a different era.

The pool is the focal point of the whole property, especially from the ground floor, where wrap-around windows bring the towering, green trees inside. 
I couldn't help but think about cornices and windows and the power of simplicity in interiors.

The Villa's entrance
Melancholia - the Greek word for depression, it sounds somehow softer and almost nostalgic in Greek 
 The American Bar on the ground floor - a little dolphin fountain can be seen behind the bar

The Villa's focal point - the perfectly symmetric pool

Second stop. Lunch at Chalet Robinson
 
Lake? Check.
Ferries? Check.
Lunch on an island? Check!
 
Bois de la Cambre

Asparagus Carbonarra, at Chalet Robinson - superb!
"Sailing" across the lake in Bois de la Cambre
 
Right behind Villa Empain's perfectly geometric pool, there is Bois de la Cambre.
 
We walked up through the trees, only to come to this open expansion of water, surrounded by trees and all shades of green. As we walked around the lake, we spotted to small ferries, transporting people to the little island in the middle. We jumped on one and transported ourselves to the fittingly named "Chalet Robinson", a wooden chalet, open for lunch!
 
We hadn't booked, so word to the wise, if you wake up and decide to visit for lunch, do call in advance. Luckily we were told to wait for a bit and managed to get a table on the terrace overlooking the amazing scenery. We grabbed some Aperol Spritzers and lounged in the sunshine till our table was ready. What a treat!

Lunch was pure joy, cold white wine sparked fun conversations and giggling and when the time came to go, I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend one of the hottest days of the year, in the heart of Europe. Thank you my friends for taking such good care of me!
 
One of my favourite sunny day past-times  - families and friends around the table
 

The Art of Slow Living - Manoir de Surville, Normandy

http://bit.ly/2GFOTGH

Stopping at the Manoir was a pleasant surprise for us.
We were on our way to the Loire Valley in search of chateaux, good food, butter, wine and ultimately some breathing space, in the countryside. We wanted to break up the trip, but we never thought that this place would make us feel so much at home.

After two hours driving along the Normandy coast, we turned inlands towards Haute Normandy and in the sleepy village of Surville, amongst green fields and old wobbly barns, we turned into the gates of a picture-perfect, Haute Normandie-style barn; the gorgeous Manoir de Surville.
 
The cutest welcome - Cami, the owner, coming out to greet us as we drove in, dragging an old wooden cart for the luggage behind her, with her little daughter in it! Such a heart-warming scene.  

Dusk over Surville, the beginning of a slow-paced, pleasurable evening in the French countryside.
Love the colours and the warm light from the candles in the lounge
The owner's original property on the right, through the window - a traditional Haute Normandie family home - what a dream!
The "honesty bar", equipped with all of the good stuff!

Cami and her husband have converted her family property to a cross between a boutique hotel and an AirBnb, respecting the village's traditional architecture and making sure that guests feel at home. Cami even called us a couple of days before our arrival to check if we needed dinner reservations, inquire about what time we'll be arriving and answer any questions we might have had.
A lovely touch, much appreciated later on in our journey...
 
The living room is straight out of "Country Living" magazine pages; shabby chic greys, terracotta and beige tones all with sweet low lighting and a crackling fire going.
 
There is an honesty bar, equipped with all of the right stuff, too.
Just pour yourself a tipple and remember to write it down to the little notebook by the library!
Cami encouraged us to try a local gin, “C’est Nous”, produced in Caen, infused in Calvados barbells. It’s one of the smoothest gins I’ve ever tasted, so flavoursome!

We poured ourselves a “quick one” around 7:30ish before going out for dinner at the Hostelliere d’Acquigny. At 9, I had to remind my husband that if we didn’t get going, there’ll be no dinner!
We felt so chilled "at home", sipping away on our smooth Gin & Tonic, chatting by the fire!


 
Morning view from our window, sunshine at last!
Morning coffee in the sunshine

Dinner at the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, in Acquigny.
There is a very good restaurant in the Manoir de Surville, but unfortunately it was closed on the night we visited. Instead Cami suggested we drive down to the next village to the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, where their own chef came from. As she put it "don't be put off by the purple and orange walls, the food is really good"! She wasn't wrong.

So once you are past the faux leather table tops, you get to experience the chef's amouche bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries! Delicate layers of flavour, first the foie gras, then a slight sweetness from the caramel and finally subtle strawberry. Consider our bouches delicately amused!
My husband was tired from the long drive and his French hadn't kicked in yet so he asked if they had a menu in English, the response was: "no! but we have an English woman".
Yes, we looked at each other with eyes wide open. Yes, we giggled.
The cooked or "warm" foie gras starter was lighter than light, probably one of the best I've had.
My husband on the other hand, still has nightmares because he didn't realise it would be the actual liver, he expected a pate, but I was super-chuffed.
Have you ever heard of that hideous expression "melts in your mouth"? Well, just this once I'm going to alter it a bit and say "it melted before it even touched your mouth", so delicate and airy. My husband who is not too keen on live things liked the accompaniment of onions and lentils, but I thought they were a distraction.
Finally, Hunky Dory with cumin spiced carrot puree for me and medium-done lamb for my husband.

Word of advise on ordering meats in France: they tend to undercook cuts, so if you'd normally ask for a medium-rare in UK, try medium or medium-well done in France - oh, you'll be snubbed, but at  least you'll get what you want!

Warm foie gras 
Amuse Bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries, cheese puffs and marinated monkfish
Top right: Hunky Dory with spiced carrot puree. Bottom right: fresh Asparagus, in season!
Millefeuille with strawberries
Back to  the Manoir.
There will be a pool by next summer, which completes this home-away-from-home and makes this place perfect for a long weekend from London.
It's just two and a half hours drive from Calais and there is lots to visit in the area, especially around the Normandy coast and around the charming Les Andelys.
 
At breakfast, we asked the owner what time they wanted us out and he said, “whenever you are ready” . Then, as he was walking away he turned around and said “relaaax”!
This sums up the whole attitude in the Manoir. Nothing is rushed and nothing is off limits. You are treated more like a houseguest than a hotel guest.

So I took my lovely cup of coffe and went to sit outside in the sunshine, before our drive down to the Loire Valley. First ten minutes of peace I've had in months! x 

http://bit.ly/2GFOTGH
View of the village from the Manoir
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