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Random thoughts from a Freelance Writer...

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Land of Hope and Glory...

23-07-2014

What a great summer we're having. Plenty going on of late to tell you about...

First up was a visit to the charming market town of Hitchin. A quick sunshine business meeting was concluded and followed by my eldest daughter's Sports Day - and thankfully it was the only dashing I had to do as Father's Day was not part of proceedings.

A pleasant afternoon picnic followed with a glass of something cold - and a second place in the 200m to celebrate ;)

At this time of year, the school events pile up and just the following day, proud parents headed to London for the magnificent Barnado's concert at The Royal Albert Hall where once again daughter No 1 was to be part of a several hundred strong choir singing in this magnificent venue. Arriving early in the afternoon, we checked into the truly luxurious Baglioni Hotel in Knightsbridge. Wow. I will save myself for the eventual review, but this is something special.

Next trip was to a nearby deli to pick up some bread, cheese and bottle of something cold and a drowsy afternoon followed under shade of a Hyde Park beech. A scorcher of an afternoon.

Excitement built for the evening concert and after receiving a fortunate invite to a Loggia Box front and centre we had arguably the best seats in the house. I can only say what a moving and uplifting occasion it was, rounded off with a boisterous rendition of Land of Hope and Glory, complete with a sea of waving Union flags! Brilliant.

We were pretty smug as everyone dashed off to catch their sweaty trains - as we knew we only had a short and pleasant evening stroll along Kensington Gore to our hotel. Italian in essence, it is a luxurious and modern 'secret' tucked opposite the far end of Hyde Park. A late night dinner at the hotel's Brunello Restaurant under the watchful gaze of chef Claudio Milani, which even included a taste of that wonderful Italian answer to caviar, Bottarga. Molto, molto beni.

There's something decadent about waking in your own suite overlooking Hyde Park and firing up your very own snazzy looking Illy espresso machine.

Very cool and perfect for a good coffee lover like me. Incidentally, if you really want privacy and seclusion, the hotel has 'secret' entrances and magnificent suites - with your very own well stocked bar. I wish...

After the perfect breakfast to start the day we headed off into town on our respective ways. My stop offs included quick visits to regular haunts Davidoff of London and Alfie Turmeaus of Shepherd Market and later in the day, Boisdale of Canary Wharf. Here, I enjoyed a tasting of Lepanto brandy from Gonzales Byass. First time I've come across this stuff and the PX was delicious indeed with a LE Cuban cigar delivered with the usual humour by Sean Croley of Hunters & Frankau.

I enjoyed a meal and a further epicurean chat with Boisdale MD Nathan Evans. Boy, does he know his stuff. We sated our hunger with an incredible 28-day dry aged Aberdeenshire fillet of beef on the bone with a selection of his personal favourite reds from the Boisdale vaults. Sensational. We also discussed a forthcoming series of cigar tastings at the venue - watch this space...

Then it was off to one of my favourite places in the whole world - Trent Bridge Cricket Ground. And a 'ground' this is, as opposed to a stadium. A wonderfully friendly place, which has modernised over the years without losing its charm. I've been watching cricket here for more years than I care to remember and it never lets you down. A couple of days here is always a tonic - especially chatting to our tireless friends in the Larwood & Voce 'hatch'. Great job as ever fellas!

The Test wasn't as exciting as usual due to a stinker of a wicket, but we made the most of it. Pork pies and plenty of pints in the world famous Trent Bridge Inn followed.

And I mustn't forget mention of the tremendous Navigation pub on the canal. Not only is the THE post Test playground of choice, with live music, real ales and great atmosphere, but when I returned to make a swift exit home on the Saturday night to discover like a dimwit I'd left my lights on and drained the car battery, the Landlord came to my rescue.

To be honest, when I entered the establishment with a hangdog expression asking for a jump start, I expected to be laughed out again rather swiftly. Instead, the landlord himself got his car out of the garage and came and got me started personally. Wonderful example of Notts hospitality and I'm afraid I doubt I would have had a similar experience in a London boozer! Thanks Navigation - see you next year ;)

So that's it for the latest round up. No time to rest. More shenanigans always just around the corner. Until next time.

Kippers For Breakfast...

08-07-2014

Great title for a book isn’t it?

The idea came straight from the cultured vocal chords of Michael Bentley – raconteur, friend to the Royals, master of charm and Ambassador to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, where I happened to be enjoying the aforementioned kippers for breakfast.

‘Lovely to see you,’ ventured Michael as he spotted me. ‘I’m delighted to see what you’re eating.’

He leaned in, conspiratorially.

‘Only gentlemen eat kippers for breakfast you know.’

I’m sure he’s right. Nothing quite beats good strong coffee and a whack of salty, smoky kippers first thing in the morning. Sets one up for the day.

All of which is my way of welcoming you to my journal.

This particular series of heavyweight engagements had all started with a luncheon at Lord’s. It’s one of the world’s wonderful places of course and I’ve enjoyed countless sun-dripped afternoons there over the years watching England play. Most memorable was that incredible day – 2000/1 season was it? – against the West Indies where I witnessed all four innings in one day and England scrape home by the skin of their teeth with the heart-stopping batting of Messrs Gough and Cork!

Anyway, I digress. I was on hand this bright morning to attend the 50th Tobacco Trade Lunch run by the Association of Independent Tobacco Specialist as a guest of Tor Imports. Dunhill cigars kindly provided a uniquely blended Toro for the occasion, as well as the services of Jorge Emilio, a Cuban-born cigar roller, who was rolling the exquisite new Dunhill 1907 in robusto form. A delicious smoke well worth seeking out.

We basked in glorious sunshine, sipped Champagne and enjoyed each other’s company. I spent my time chatting with Paul from Davidoff of London and both Steven Kron and Mike Huwyler of Dunhill, as well as the ever-genial Robert Emery, eminence gris of the Dunhill store at No 1 St James’s Street.

A lovely lunch followed, as did a thought-provoking speech by Karen Brady, West Ham Utd Vice Chair. Thanks to Scott Vines of Tor for the hospitality.

Just a few short days later I was back in the company of Robert Emery and the great and the good of the shooting world at the Guns on Pegs cigar night in St James’s.

To my delight, the 1907 was unfurled again (it’s predominantly Dominican filler with a flavourful Ecuaradorean wrapper) alongside fellows from William Evans, Boss and Purdey gunmakers. Congratulations to James Horne, founder of Guns on Pegs, who has been asked to become Chairman of Purdeys. A prestigious appointment indeed, and James’ son Chris will be taking an even more hands-on role at the chalkface of Guns on Pegs as a result. Best of British to both.

Hot from that engagement was a meet with friend and male model Nick Shaw. He’s not at all precious, I can assure you! We were dining at Bar Boulud, the chic French bistro where we worked our way through not insubstantial amounts of Bull’s Blood served in gigantic bottles! (See pic), plenty of fantastic charcuterie, a burger, moules mariniere and plenty more besides. The place was heaving from start to finish and I recommend it as a spot for a fun, atmospheric meal.

From here, I only had to stumble upstairs, for I was staying in a Hyde Park Suite at the truly palatial Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

It’s a magnificent hotel, complete with arches, pillars, swags and marble and I can heartily recommend The Rosebery for an afternoon chill out with a glass of Krug.

We’re back to kippers.

Mr Bentley joined me for a chat at breakfast – as did the lovely Sarah Cairns, who PRs for the hotel. And then I was off once more, first for a meeting with foodie guru Alvin Caudwell of Caprice Holdings, owners of The Ivy, Caprice, Scotts, Sheekeys et al. We enjoyed coffee at a cracking little Middle Eastern café off Warren Street. Honey and Co offer killer caffeine of course, but also amazing pastries, cakes and various other temptations.

After the obligator ‘mwah, mwah’ goodbye, it was clement enough for a walk to Boisdale Belgravia where I headed to interview owner Ranald Macdonald for Cigar Journal magazine.

Ranald is a convivial host, so we enjoyed more coffee and Partagas D5s while we chatted about Boisdale’s past, present and future for the piece which should go in Cigar Journal’s Autumn edition.

My week ended with a visit to the exquisite Paris House, Woburn, on Saturday night. Chef and owner Phil Fanning welcomed my wife and I to the chef’s table slap bang inside the kitchen where we spent a mouthwatering couple of hours enjoying the company of a busy kitchen.

The food here is sensational. I’ll be reviewing for The Arbuturian. Highlights included slow cooked neck of lamb, eel and a Thai Green Curry – for dessert! Lovely, lovely evening in an incredible spot.

Quite a week, then with plenty of writing to do to catch now to catch up! Until next time…

Where does it come from?

05-06-2014

I SPENT half an hour today chatting to a chap from the British Cheese Board.

It's one of the pleasures of being a freelance writer; getting to meet and talk to interesting people doing interesting things.

I've been commissioned to write a story on British cheese, the traditions, new kids on the block (pardon the pun) success stories and the like. And again it drove home to me how important in today's world it is to ascertain as much as possible where the food you eat comes from.

The lamb I buy from my village butcher is, for example, from a farmer a few miles away - I know because I asked and that's always a good start. I know when I buy that shoulder that not only am I supporting the butcher by buying my meat from him instead of a faceless supermarket, I am also supporting the local farmer he bought the lamb from. I am supporting the lamb too, in a roundabout way, because I know it's been reared locally on good green pastures and hasn't travelled far in its free-range life.

By finding out about the sources of our food, we can make educated decisions. I'm not saying only ever buy local food; that would rob us of some of the world's finest and most enjoyable recipes and tastes. But at least ask the question when you're buying.

Back to cheese. It comes from milk, predominantly cows. Cows eat grass. So it stands to reason that what type of grass the cows have been grazing on effects the taste of the milk. Cheesemakers tell me they can tell which field the cows have been feeding in when they come to taste their cheese. Turns out that morning milk makes the best cheese too and in an effort to increase taste and quality and to reduce carbon footprint, cheesemakers are using morning milk straight from the parlour. It is, at this time, at just the right temperature for cheesemaking and doesn't need to be heated up, which makes it lose a certain je ne sais quoi. Apparently, cheese made as naturally and traditionally as possible tends to have a better flavour.

This shouldn't be a surprise to us. Vegetables grown in your own garden out-taste anything you can buy. It's a good rule of thumb that locally grown, carefully nurtured produce cooked simply and quickly is very hard to beat. Do you think Nature is trying to tell us something?

Spectator Cigar Writer of the Year 2013

21-11-2013

What a singular honour - to be named Spectator Cigar Writer of the Year at this week's bash at Boisdale Canary Wharf.

And what a bash it was - 'sleb' spotting at its height with the marionette-like Nancy Dellolio teetering around, Duran Duran frontman Simon le Bon grinning wolfishly and former Starsky and Hutch star David Soul enjoying the hospitality enormously.

After a humongous C.Gars Ltd auction and a truly fine meal with libations, the crowd were a little, ahem shall we say, happy. So by the time it came to the end of dinner awards, Spectator Chairman Andrew Neil had to bellow to be heard above the hubbub.

I was delighted to see Edward Sahakian on hand to pick up the award for Best Retailer Award for Davidoff of London, he's such a gent. Hunters & Frankau won Best Supplier, The Wellesley and The Lanesborough both picked for Terrace of the Year. I won Cigar Writer of the Year and finally, Monseur le Bon stepped up to receive a fancy Jean Richard watch and a humidor of smokes for winning Cigar Smoker of the Year.

It's not easy being a cigar writer. Many publications will happily write about Scotch but shy away when cigars are mentioned, unwilling to upset the sensitivities of their readers. When you do find a publisher, the rewards are scanty until you become established.

But cigars mean an awful lot to me. They have given me solace in hard times and punctuated the great moments in my life. They offer peace and reflection in a busy world, have taken me around the world, introduced me to many friends and amazing people.

Kudos to The Spectator for sticking its head above the parapet and putting its name to these awards. Let's hope others are man enough to do the same and acknowledge that there are a fair few, lawful, decent people who enjoy a fine, handrolled cigar and who not wish to be admonished, punished, ridiculed or legislated against because of it.

Long ashes.

Country Life

06-09-2013

Those two little words mean a lot to me.

What do you think of when you read them? A magazine? An existence? A way of living?

Those words encompass a lot of my life in one way or another. I've lived most of my life in the country. I'd rather be in the country than in town, frankly, although I certainly love to visit towns and cities worldwide. I'm delighted to say that some of my work is now featured in the gloriously English weekly magazine, Country Life, too.

Whichever current path in life I seem to be exploring, I always end up back on track doing something to do with the aforementioned Country Life; whether it's fine dining, travel, a specific interview or a new pitch for a magazine piece, all roads lead back to nature, wildlife and the bounty of the land.

As I write, I can hear the burr of a tractor discing the field behind my office. Last week it was a field of corn, then it was harvested and golden bushels of straw picked, baled and carted. Now seagulls wheel lazily behind the tractor - I can hear them too - and it's all so redolent of autumn, with that slight tinge of melancholy for things passed and things yet to come.

It's a Country Life alright, with jackdaws in the chimney pot, grumpy gamekeeper in the pub, cricket on the green and misty, moisty morning dog walks. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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