Friday, 23 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Truffle Risotto in a Parmesan Basket

Truffle Risotto in a parmesan basket: It looks as good as it tastes 

In my house there are three things that are important: food, football and food. I don't agree with the football bit but food is worth double the effort because it's not just to eat. It's a celebration of family life.

We eat Italian style. There's no surprises there - after all my husband is an Italian celebrity chef, but we don't just eat and run. We eat like we're in a restaurant - savouring every bite while talking about our and the children's days. Sometimes we're there for a couple of hours, long after every morsel has been devoured. It's our special time.

And so we make sure the food looks as good as it tastes. This risotto is given superstar status thanks to the Parmesan Basket. But it's easy to do - believe me if I can do it, anyone can. So follow this simple recipe - one of my husband's best I think - and impress your loved ones too. Buon Appetito!

Prep time 10 mins
Cooking time 30 mins
Serves 4

Ingredients

200g grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish
Olive oil, a drizzle
400g carnaroli rice
1 litre, hot vegetable stock
Slices of truffle or truffle oil

To make the Parmesan baskets, place 4 small bowls upside down on a tray. Warm a small non-stick frying pan over low heat. Sprinkle a quarter of the Parmesan in a thin layer over the pan and melt, 3-4 minutes.

As the cheese begins to melt and stick together to form a sheet, gently lift it off the pan using tongs and place it over an upturned bowl, allowing it to cool and take the shape of the bowl. Repeat process to make the remaining cheese baskets. Refrigerate the baskets for at least 10 minutes to set.

Heat oil in a pan over high heat, add the rice and toast for 2-3 minutes. Gradually add a ladleful of hot stock and stir continuously until the rice absorbs all the liquid. Repeat process until you’ve used up all the stock and the rice is cooked al dente, around 18 minutes.

To serve, remove the Parmesan baskets from the fridge. Spoon in a portion of the risotto and garnish with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of truffle oil or slices of fresh truffle.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Indian Summer - Exploring the Splendour of the Taj Mahal and Golden Triangle

Staying in real palaces, meeting a maharaja and marvelling at the Taj Mahal, I explore the luxurious side of the Golden Triangle

Testament to Love: the Taj Mahal 

Stepping off the aeroplane in Jodhpur, northern India, I'd been warned to expect a warm welcome. A namaste, of course, along with garlands of jasmine and marigolds; perhaps even a bindi. But no one had mentioned a vintage convertible Buick, a four-horse cavalcade or royal escort.

I shouldn't really have been surprised - I was, after all, going to stay in a real-life palace, home of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. So I sat back, the red leather interior of the 1947 car - one of the Maharaja's private collection - cool against the Rajasthani sun, and enjoyed the short ride up to Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Travelling in style in a vintage Buick Pic: Rosemary Behan 


Children, women, men on motorbikes and extended families in rickshaws all stopped to wave and admire the car, the tails of the chauffeur's tie-dyed turban billowing in the breeze as we swept out of the city up to the golden palace.

Made out of desert sandstone, the royal residence sits majestically on top of the hill opposite the city's15th-century Mehrangarh Fort. As I stepped out of the Buick onto a real red carpet, I was showered with rose petals and whisked inside one of the world's largest private homes.

Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace - a hotel fit for a queen


Designed by Edwardian British architect Henry Lanchester, the Palace is a tribute to opulence, traditional rajputana influences and art deco. It was commissioned by the present maharaja's grandfather, Umaid Singh, in 1923 as a testament to the new Jodhpur and to provide work to people of Marwar during the period's famines and droughts. It was finally finished in 1943, and handed down to the Maharaja Hanwant Singh, who died in an air crash in January 1952, aged 28.

The present owner, Maharaja Gaj Singh, was crowned at the tender age of four and still lives with his family in one wing of the 347-roomed palace, which is now part of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces.
Set in 26 acres, the totally restored palace comes complete with peacocks, bougainvillea, 64-available rooms and suites, a roof-top restaurant, royal butlers and, quite frankly, whatever your heart desires (and budget can stretch to).

Maharaja Gaj Singh still owns the palace which is now part of Taj Hotels


The actress Liz Hurley married Arun Nayar here, with Elton John among the guests. The ceremony was described as ‘Indian splendour' by People magazine. 'There were dancing white horses, walkways lined with millions of red chilli peppers and a week of endless parties for 200 or so revellers who danced and ate and one night slept outside under the stars,' said the report.

So it shouldn't have come as a shock that on my very first night 200 tea lights lit a red carpet across the Kenyan-imported lawn leading to my private al fresco feast. The entertainment was provided by a family band who now sing their heartfelt laments at the palace after getting into the final of India's Got Talent, followed by dancers who twinkled and twirled under the black velvet sky.

Five courses and an amazing firework display later, and I was ready to hit the four-poster bed in my palatial suite. The room ‘fairies' had been in before me though and had run a rose petal bath in the art deco bathroom, so, as I savoured the chocolates they'd left for me, I sank into the fragrant water, wondering how I could top such a magnificent start to my trip.

An Indian safari
After a sumptuous à la carte breakfast on the terrace overlooking the beautiful gardens, it was time to head out. The Buick had been replaced with a 4X4 for a ‘village safari'.

Leaving the luxury of the palace behind, we bounced along dirt tracks to meet the Bishnois - the pure vegetarians who have lived on the land in the arid desert since the15th century, making floors out of cow dung, and surviving off their love of nature.

More recently tourists have no doubt played a big part too, as an elderly father and his middle-aged daughter happily opened their sparse home for me to explore, and to marvel at how they cope with little more than the bare essentials.

Driving past women working outdoors, their bright magenta, saffron and cyan saris so colourful against the Rajasthan desert, we reached our next stop. Roopraj Prajapati was already busy on his loom.

Carpet-maker to the stars, Roopraj is friends with Richard Gere, Prince Charles and Camilla and former South African president FW de Klerk, who was instrumental in ending apartheid rule. They've all passed through his tiny home to watch him, and his wife Nainu, make beautiful carpets out of cotton, using traditional methods. His creations grace the floor of the Palace too. 'The Maharaja helps us a lot,' Roopraj said, smiling, and pulling out his scrapbook of photos with celebrities and cuts from Vogue and other international magazines.

Roopraj is so popular, despite living in the desert, that he now has thousands of facebook fans, and a thriving business selling his carpets from 2,500 to 11,000 rupees. The carpets are gorgeous, but I wasn't inclined to ship one home. Roopraj didn't seem to mind, and offered me tea and stories of meeting VIPs ('Mr Gere drops by whenever he's in India, he likes my tea') before I set off again.

Caught up in a wedding
Just up the road and I became one of the main attractions in a wedding procession. The local villagers all get married on one of the ‘wedding days' of the year to share costs. Three grooms on horseback passed by, surrounded by dozens of friends and family, but as they spotted me - an obvious tourist - the children, procession and even the grooms surrounded the 4X4, shouting: 'Hello'.

They were friendly, curious and made me laugh with their demands to see if my blonde locks are real. After the children had blown lots of kisses, we carried on, this time to meet a potter who tried to teach me how to ‘throw' a vase. Sadly, I took him literally and clay ended up flying everywhere as my lack of artistic talent made for a very dirty ending to a one-on-one tutorial.

Next it was time to head back to the palace. First up was a ‘warrior' massage in the luxurious Jiva Grande Spa, where, after a consultation with an ayurvedic resident doctor, a Tibetan therapist soothed my aching muscles and shoulders with the most vigorous - and best - massage ever.

Dinner in Mehrangarh Fort followed. Founded by Rao Jodha in 1459, the fort crowns the cliff opposite Umaid Bhawan, and only a winding, exhilarating ride leads up to it. Camels, a torch procession, dancers and my very own Rajasthan turban awaited, before a guided tour of the fort, and a three-course dinner in the courtyard, served by my royal butler.

'How could anything ever top this?' I wondered, but I hadn't figured for canapes the next night with the maharaja himself. Intelligent, charismatic and business-savvy, he was a great pre-dinner companion, who explained why he was happy to share his home with paying guests to preserve the beauty of the palace.

In love with the Taj Mahal
The next day, I was reluctant to leave, worried that I had been too spoiled after spending time in such luxury. Fortunately, I was whisked to Agra to see the only other place in India resplendent enough to take my mind off the palace - The Taj Mahal.

In love with the Taj Mahal 


Built from white marble in the 17th century as a testament to the love Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the monument became even more famous when the late Princess Diana graced the world's front pages photographed alone in front of it.

As I queued at 6am for the gates to be opened, I couldn't wait to catch a glimpse of the mausoleum rising from the morning mist. It was so much more beautiful than I had imagined that it made me gasp. As I stood, in awe, I realised dozens of other tourists were racing to be photographed sitting in front of it on the Diana Bench, their smiles and body language mirroring hers.

I spent two hours looking at this architectural masterpiece, before going to watch the Mohabbat The Taj show nearby. It tells the story of the emperor and his wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child. He mourned her death, and oversaw every aspect of the building of the Taj, which took 21 years.

The Taj Mahal sits majestically on the banks of the river in Agra 

During that time, he decided to build a black version of the monument on the opposite side of the river in Agra, but his son, furious at what he believed to be an extravagant waste of public funds, killed him before his own mausoleum could be started. The Emperor is now at rest in the Taj, next to his wife, which ruins the otherwise perfect symmetry of the monument, but makes the love story even more poignant.

At the end of the show, it was time to head back to my new ‘home', the Oberoi Amarvilas where I really did have a room with a view - the Taj Mahal can apparently be seen from every window, and took centre-stage in mine. All pristine marble, and indulgent pampering, it felt like I was living in a Merchant Ivory film, with the Taj as the main star.

She was hard to upstage, and the next day it was with muted attention that I slunk around Agra fort, listening to the guide's passionate speech about how the widowed queens and women-folk were happy to throw themselves into the flames rather than be captured (he showed us their handprints emblazoned on the walls as they leapt into the fire as proof) and Indiana Jones-style defence strategies.

Our guide's eyes blazed as he described giant stone balls rolling down the hill to crush invaders, followed by hot oil ‘showers'. But I couldn't concentrate, I was too enthralled by the tragic love story of the Taj. So, after one more night at the Oberoi, I was relieved to be moving on to somewhere completely new.

Land of contrasts
Our next stop was New Delhi and The Oberoi Gurgaon. All shiny mirrors and high-tech sophistication, the hotel could equally be at home in London or New York as India's capital, but the little touches made it a definite jewel in the crown.

Shiny and new, the Oberoi Gurgaon is perfect to explore New Delhi  

From the ultra relaxing ‘soothing' facial I had in the 24/7 spa, through to the clap-and-they-open-and-close blinds in the five-star, international-style rooms, the hotel had thought of everything. Based around business traveller's needs and desires, The Oberoi Gurgaon is the perfect base from which to explore New Delhi.

I headed out on a sight-seeing tour of the city, and found myself bewitched by the sight of monkeys, street children and cows on every corner. A little bit frightened by the animals - I've only ever seen monkeys in the zoo, and cows on a farm - I wanted to take the Bambi-eyed youngsters home. Living under the stars with their parents, they took begging at traffic lights in their stride, but watching the Slumdog-style children was heart-breaking. As a tourist and guest in India I had everything, while they had nothing.

It was hard to accept and, saddened, I decided to explore the city by rickshaw. It wasn't a mistake, as I was soon being whisked through the tiny streets, past the dazzling swatches of material that would eventually become a bride's wedding dress, the glittering bangles waiting to adorn a child's wrist and the perfectly constructed towers of brightly coloured fruits.

Giggling, I gasped as my ‘driver' squeezed through impossibly tiny gaps and kept showing me his muscles under his shirt to prove his strength. At the end of the exhilarating 30-minute ride, I was grateful for his street knowledge and bravado. At times, I'd grimaced, convinced we'd never make it through the throngs, but my driver had always found a way.

A quick change of hotel - to the Leela Palace with its tasteful, yet opulent decor (it reminded me of The Dorchester in London, so it was easy to see why it's been touted as the most expensively built hotel in India) and I headed to the city's Kingdom of Dreams for a taste of Bollywood in the shape of Zangoora, the gypsy king musical.

Starring popular TV star Hussain Kuwajerwala and beautiful co-star, former model Gauhar Khan, it was gripping from curtain up. With my English translation headphones on, I followed every dramatic moment - on stage just inches away from me, up in the air as the stars ‘flew' across the auditorium, and didn't want the show to end.

But as the dancers moved into the audience for the final number, I reluctantly agreed to dance along to Jai Ho after being plucked from the audience. It was a fitting encore - the victory dance summed up my amazing passage to India: glamorous, inspiring and over all too soon. I'm already planning my next trip back.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Ricotta Pancakes

Melt-in-your mouth pancakes that are flipping' gorgeous 

Pancakes are a firm family favourite in our house. For breakfast with maple syrup, for dessert with lemon and sugar or for a special treat with ricotta and fresh fruits. My celebrity chef husband Alexio has taught us how to make these and the children both love taking turns to flip them. They're quick, easy and oh-so-delicious.


Serves: 4 Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 15 mins

Ingredients
95g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
700g ricotta cheese, drained
1 1/2 tbsp milk
3 eggs, separated
Butter, as required
Whipped double cream, fresh fruit and berries of your choice, to serve

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and sugar.

In another bowl, combine the ricotta, milk and egg yolks. Beat the egg whites in an electric mixer until stiff.

Add the flour mixture to the ricotta mixture, stirring gently until just combined. Whisk in a small amount of the egg whites to lighten the batter, then fold in the remaining whites.

Heat a non-stick pan over mediumhigh heat, and brush the surface with butter. Pour in a ladleful of batter and swirl the pan to coat it evenly.

Cook pancakes for 3-4 minutes, then flip, cooking until both sides are golden.

Serve with whipped double cream, fresh fruit and berries.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Five-star Luxury in Sensational Seychelles


With one of the world’s best beaches on my doorstep, a luxury villa in an award-winning resort to call home for a few days and an ox and cart in which to see the sights, I get back to nature in the Seychelles



The instructions were simple: pull the left rope to turn left, and the right to go in the opposite direction; press down hard on the accelerator to go faster, and lift the tail to change gear.

What did I expect? On an island without cars, there was a stark choice for transportation – hire a bicycle, take shank’s pony or, gulp, end up in the situation I found myself in now, about to take control of an ox and cart – though the use of the word control was a bit of an exaggeration.

‘This one is a nightmare,’ our guide Clifford smiled. ‘He does what he wants. My boss told me I had to strike him to train him better but I look into his big, brown eyes and I just can’t.’

Clifford, 18, is a bit of a softy. He doesn’t eat beef because it reminds him of work and he prefers to teach his bovine companion where to go by blowing it kisses.

Clifford the Ox Commander

That might explain why he has passed the tests necessary to ‘command’ ox and carts on the tiny island of La Digue, in the Seychelles, but still doesn’t have a driving licence for when he ventures wider afield.

Luckily, I had my UK and International licences tucked in my purse, and so smacking my lips together and gingerly lifting the ox’s tail, we set off along the pothole-riddled road towards the beach.

It was a bumpy ride, to say the least, but we were obviously an entertaining site, being overtaken by families with toddlers on bikes and grannies shuffling along with their shopping. A man balancing what looked like the whole of a Danube store on his head, guffawed so loudly as he cycled past that his bundle of wooden flooring nearly toppled to the ground. But still, I persevered.

Driving an ox and cart is not as easy as it looks. I yelled at the ox. It ignored me. I pulled on the ropes and it veered off in whatever direction the grass looked greener. The cart careered through so many holes my head kept hitting the roof, making me yelp.

But it was all worth it as 40 minutes later we rounded a corner and a white beach, lapped by azure waters, greeted us. It’s picture-postcard perfect, but then so is every beach on the 115 islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

No wonder the Seychelles is one of the most popular destinations for weddings and honeymooners – Prince William and Kate, came here as newlyweds. It’s romantic with a capital R, has stunning pristine sand that is so super-fine it’s like walking in flour, coral reefs and is easy bureaucracy-wise. All you need is your birth certificate and passport, and you can be taking your vows, sand between your toes, just 48 hours after touching down on the reclaimed runway at Mahe, the main island.

Jumping off the ox and cart now, I watched as a German bride and groom, photographer and videographer in tow, took their vows on the sand before riding off into the sunset in their very own chariot of love. Yes, it was Clifford’s other bovine friend pulling a very pretty flower-decorated cart. ‘That one is perfect,’ he sighed, taking over the reins. ‘He was trained before I started here.’

I wanted to linger and watch the newlyweds, but there was no time. Our La Digue day-trip was drawing to a close and we were on a tight schedule to catch the last boat back to Praslin, the second-biggest island in the Seychelles and my home for the next five days.

The boat leaves at 5pm every day because it’s dark by 6pm and there are no night lights on La Digue, which has just 3,000 inhabitants – the second highest population in the Seychelles. So there was only time to stop for a couple of minutes to gaze at the giant tortoises that live here before jumping back on the bone-rattling cart.

Feeding the giant tortoises on La Digue Island was fun 

As the sun began to slide behind the horizon, I started to panic. The harbour was in sight, but the pace of the ox matched the life here – slow. I didn’t want to miss that boat and be stuck here in darkness, especially as I was staying at the most amazing resort – Raffles Praslin. So I was glad to swap my traditional transport for a much faster boat to make the five-mile dash to my new ‘home’.

The day before I’d flown in to the granite island from Mahe in a tiny Air Seychelles plane decorated with flowers. It was a thrilling ten-minute ride, which culminated in us swooping in over rainforest and landing next to what looked like someone’s garden.

So now I smiled as I dashed up the jetty to leave La Digue – where blockbuster Castaway was filmed – behind me. It was beautiful but no match for Praslin, with its colonial buildings, and prehistoric rainforest.

Ten minutes later I stepped off the ferry and headed for Raffles. Newly built into the hillside overlooking Takamaka Bay, in the northeast corner of the island, Raffles has already won a clutch of awards. It was named as the Seychelles’ Leading Hotel at the prestigious travel ‘Oscars’, the World Travel Awards, this year and is already in Forbes’ top ten.

Praslin Seychelles - a slice of paradise 

I’d only been staying there 24 hours but already I was impressed. Firstly, the entire resort, which boasts 86 villas, five restaurants and an award-winning spa, overlooks clear, turquoise waters and beaches to rival the Maldives.

Next, my two-bedroom villa was huge. We’re talking football-pitch size here, with an infinity plunge pool, sun deck, a summer house, landscaped gardens and its own private path down to the secluded  beach.

It’s kitted out with every mod con you could want, king-size beds, 43-inch plasma TVs, outdoor rain showers, and Japanese soaking tubs with ocean views. Oh, and a multi-lingual personal butler who unpacks and can be on call 24/7 to cater to your every whim and transport you all over the resort in a buggy.

Our villa came with a personal butler to make our stay ever more spectacular 


My private plunge pool

A bath with a view 

I’ve visited Raffles hotels all over the globe and am an ardent fan of the brand. I’m smitten with the pyramid-shaped hotel in Dubai. But it’s not perched on a verdant, lush island with Anse Lazio, the Indian Ocean’s Leading Beach Destination, on its doorstep.

This was my own personal corner of paradise overlooking Curieuse Island, where tortoises returned to lay their eggs on the most amazing arch of golden sand year after year.Back ‘home’ I just had time to ask the butler for some in-room dining and a cup of tea before falling asleep. But I was up early the next day, and after a dip in the private plunge pool, I ventured down to the beach.


Snorkelling is a national pastime here, but you don’t need a mask. Once I’d plunged into the warm waters, multi-coloured fish darted all around me, while in the distance, workers near Anse Takamaka checked on the freshwater pearls farmed here.

The waters are so clear you can see straight to the seabed. I counted barracudas and clown fish in the ocean, while crabs scuttled across the sand. The spectacular scenery made for a walk with the wow factor, which worked up an appetite for the amazing breakfast in the Losean restaurant. Part buffet, part a la carte, this is the best meal of the day as far as I’m concerned. How else do you get the strength to walk the lengths of the endless beaches unless fed on the creamiest of scrambled eggs and lightest of blueberry pancakes?

No empty bellies here. Food is an important ingredient in the experience of Raffles Praslin. Whether it was a sumptuous snack next to the largest pool on any of the islands in the Seychelles, a beach picnic or barbecue, or an a la carte meal at the Curieuse restaurant, we were left longing to lick our plates as well as our lips.

There were even cookery lessons available for those able to tear themselves away from their sunloungers and hammocks. Chef whites on in Losean, I was ready to learn the art of making Thai vegetable curry, coleslaw, fluffy steamed white rice and mango soufflé. I chopped, mixed, stirred and finally ate the results with the harshest of critics – my stomach – and, I have to admit, it was all incredibly tasty. I went to bed full and ready to hit the jungle the next day.

The Vallée de Mai, one of the two Unesco World Heritage sites in the Seychelles, is 19 acres of jungle. Along with rare black parrots, and green geckos, you can see the revered coco de mer palm trees, which grow to be more than 30 metres tall and produce male and female plants. The trees, which are endemic to Praslin and Curieuse, produce giant fruits, which contain the largest seed on earth. The coco de mer is the national icon – and it’s even stamped inside your passport.

The dense rainforest could have been overwhelming – the palms are so tall they shut out a lot of light, but luckily there were signposts every few metres telling you how far it was to the exit. Of course, I opted for the shortest route and emerged just minutes after entering, much to the amusement of our car driver.

After the excitement of the jungle it was a quick dash back to the hotel for a stress-relief massage at the award-winning spa. I chose to have it done in one of the 13 luxurious ocean-front treatment rooms where the therapist’s hands and the sounds of the sea crashing against the shore lulled me into a five-star stupor. Ninety deliciously self-indulgent minutes later and it was all I could do to stumble back to where the personal butler was waiting to take me back to villa 200 on a buggy.

Alfresco Spa 

My children had gone to explore The Sugar Palm Club – a kids’ club for toddlers to teenagers – and declared the activities, crafts, games and outdoor sports fun. We went to pick them up. ‘Let’s go for another walk,’ the children begged and we ambled along, watching the resort’s wedding planner getting ready for another couple’s big day. Raffles Praslin has seen 22 weddings since April, but it’s not just a newlyweds paradise.

Picking your way through the giant granite boulders scattered around the nooks and crannies of the coast, it’s easy to see why the islands have been the centre of attention from the British, French, Arabs, Mauritians and Portuguese over the centuries.

With its stunning scenery, laid-back Creole vibe, and wildlife, the Seychelles has it all – it’s a simple but a sweet life.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Pesto Pasta With Mozzarella

The perfect Italian - hot, tasty and good to look at

The definition of hot? In my house it's Italian, tasty and good to look at. But that's enough about my celebrity chef husband. We're talking about his food for our Friday Recipe today! That's why his more-ish dish is a firm family favourite. Quick to rustle up, it's colourful and absolutely delicious. Just watch out for the exploding tomatoes!


Prep time 10 mins  Cooking time 20 mins
Serves 4

Ingredients
2 litres salted water
500g fusilli pasta
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
250g cherry tomatoes, halved
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tbsp pesto
250g mozzarella balls, drained and broken
Basil, a handful
150g Parmesan, grated

Bring water to the boil in a medium-size pan over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to the packet instructions.

Meanwhile, heat oil in medium-size frying pan over medium heat. Add cherry tomatoes and garlic. Stir until tomatoes are soft and have a chunky sauce-like consistency. Lower heat to simmer.

Once pasta is cooked, drain, reserving 100ml of the water. Add pasta to the tomato sauce and toss to combine.

Add the reserved water, pesto and mozzarella. Stir well and as soon as the sauce is reduced, remove from the heat. Garnish with basil and Parmesan and serve immediately. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Room With A Royal View

From mansions, country homes and former castles it's easy to be the Lady of the Manor when you're exploring the best of British places to call home on holiday


Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire originates from 1601 but has been lavishly
redesigned by the architects responsible for the Ritz

Running my fingers over the silk brocade canopy, I wanted to sink into the four-poster bed. From here I could take in the free-standing Victorian roll-top bath with its claw feet as well as the sumptuous view over the green English countryside.

All that was needed was a jewellery box big enough to hold a crown and a place by the fireplace for a corgi or two and this would be a room fit for a queen. Which is exactly what it was – for I was in the Elizabeth suite in Luton Hoo, the 18th-century, grade-1-listed mansion where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, spent their honeymoon in 1947.
They clearly loved it because they came back to celebrate subsequent wedding anniversaries at the Robert-Adam designed manor house, which is now a five-star Elite hotel – and my home for the next 24 hours.

As rich in history as it is in looks, I was smitten at first sight by the luxurious country pile in Bedfordshire, less than an hour’s drive from London’s Heathrow airport. Perhaps it was the beech-lined drive or the neo-classical facade of the 35-bedroomed house that impressed me.

Or it could have been the 1,065-acres of pristine gardens and parkland redesigned by Capability Brown, or possibly standing on the steps where former British prime minster Sir Winston Churchill gave his famous speech to thank the 110,000-strong crowd gathered for their support during the Second World War.

‘Not bad,’ I whispered, marvelling at the view. Having grown up watching Brideshead Revisited and more recently Downton Abbey, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the exterior of this grandest of country homes.

But inside what is considered to be one of Britain’s most architecturally important buildings, I was positively swooning. Sweeping oval staircase? Check. Corinthian columns? Check. A Grand Hall complete with a Bergonzoni sculpture? Check.

With its sweeping staircase and lavish dining room, Luton Hoo is fit for royalty.
In fact it was the honeymoon destination of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip

Having been lavishly redesigned by the same architects who did the Ritz, Luton Hoo, which originates from 1601, has been intrinsically linked to royalty since the late 18th century when the estate was owned by the third Earl of Bute, who was prime minister to George III.

Wandering around, I oohed over the magnificent dining room, aahed over the objets d’art and couldn’t wait to ring the bell in my decadent room – a smaller but no less impressive version of the Elizabeth suite – to see if a maid would come rushing up to curtsey and serve me tea like I’d seen in reruns of Upstairs Downstairs. Of course, no one dipped at the hip, but a china cup of tea with a biscuit was brought to my room on a tray.

‘Dinner will be at 7.30pm, Ma’am,’ an impeccably dressed member of staff informed me, and so I had time to sip my tea while trying out the Molton Brown bath products.

Then it was time to head down the sweeping staircase complete with red carpet – what else? – for dinner at the Beaux-Arts-style Wernher restaurant, named after former owner, diamond dealer Sir Julius Wernher.

The food was every bit as tasty as the Versailles-style chandeliers, and Belle Epoch surroundings. But even though it was an overwhelmingly stately home-cum-hotel, it felt strangely familiar – and then I discovered why: Luton Hoo is a much sought-after film location. The Lady Butter suite is where Hugh Grant hid in Four Weddings And A Funeral, and the mansion was used in Eyes Wide Shut, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fair and Bleak House.

Knowing that Hollywood’s finest as well as royalty and politicians had eaten here, I sat up a little straighter, made sure I used the right cutlery and vowed to cock my little finger whenever I sipped tea, like the landed gentry do in movies.

Keeping up with the royals
My chance came over a delicious breakfast of mushrooms, scrambled eggs and baked beans served with hot toast and English Breakfast tea served through a strainer.
‘Enjoy, madam,’ the waiter smiled as my pinky shot out.

Breakfast over, I jumped into a London black cab – one of the genuine taxis they have here for guests to tour the estate, only unlike the real thing, these are free.
I took in the restored Victorian tennis lawn, the impressive 18-hole golf course and the gorgeous spa.

I could have spent my entire trip to Great Britain there, but alas, I’d come to follow in more royal footsteps and get to see to see how the latest, and very popular, royal couple Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cornwall, live.

The royal babies are bumping up the British economy as tourists flock to visit London, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Duchess, gorgeous George or impossibly cute baby Charlotte. Sales of memorabilia to commemorate the royal family are huge – but I eschewed buying cups, aprons and fridge magnets to get an early night.

Up with the lark the next morning, I reluctantly bade goodbye to Luton Hoo and hopped on a Virgin train to travel – first class, naturally – to Chester, which is on the border of England and Wales.

In the land of the red dragon
From Chester it was just a quick hop to the Hawarden Estate farm shop in Flintshire, Wales, where royal bridesmaid extraordinaire Pippa Middleton is a frequent visitor. Selling 250 local varieties of meats and cheeses – along with the most delicious cheese and pickle sandwiches, a favourite of the almost-royal patron apparently – it was no wonder the store-cum-café was packed on a weekday lunchtime.

‘Mwynhewch eich bwyd! (pronounced Mun-hewc eyck boyd),’ Paul, our Welsh guide, smiled. It means ‘enjoy your meal’ in Welsh, and we did, tucking into ‘sarnies’ made with hunks of bread and pickled onions. Then we jumped back into our sightseeing van – complete with red dragon, the national symbol of Wales, to head to our next home-from-home – Bodysgallen Hall and Spa in Llandudno, North Wales.

Bodysgallen Hall is thought to date back to the 13th century

A jumble of architectural styles, the Hall is believed to date back to the 13th century, and overlooks Snowdonia and Conwy Castle. Now a National Trust hotel it’s one of those rare places that does look and feel like a real home. All giant fireplaces, low ceilings and nooks and crannies, it is Welsh shabby chic at its finest, and boasts 200 acres of parkland and an award-winning spa.

Never having been an outdoorsy type – despite being raised on a farm – I turned down the offer of a hike through the countryside on a drizzly afternoon in favour of an indulgent Decleor Time Precious Facial.

‘Bendigedig,’ (Welsh for fantastic) was all I could mutter after my face was cleansed, massaged, moisturised and soothed into looking its radiant best – just in time for dinner at 1620 Bistro in the former coach house.

More filling Welsh food followed, along with plenty of talk of the royal parents, who used to live just minutes away in Anglesey. It was the perfect country base for RAF pilot Prince William, although he and Kate are now based at Kensington Palace with their family.

Dining in style at Bodysgallen Hall


The Hall also boasts another royal connection though. During the First World War Colonel Henry Mostyn, the son of the then-owner Lady Augusta, commanded the 17th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which he paraded in front of the Hall.

There’s an oak tree in the park to commemorate it apparently, which other guests donned wellies to go and see, but I was more content reading a book in front of a roaring fire in one of the drawing rooms.

I retired early to bed – sadly not a four poster – as I was eager to explore the Welsh countryside the next day.

From Bodysgallen, it was a mere dawdle down the winding lanes to the world-famous Bodnant Gardens, noted for its botanical collections, and the medieval glory of Conwy Castle, built for Edward 1, and one of the most impressive remains still standing in Britain.

Paul, our guide, gave such a convincing performance of daily life there that I had goosebumps looking at the well, the dungeon and the chapel – and it wasn’t because it was raining and nearly in the minus degrees outside.

Visiting the castle, and the town of Conwy, I could see why William Wordsworth was inspired to write poetry here. Even in the rain, it was beautiful. Meandering the cobbled streets, I peered into the shops, selling love spoons and tasty Welsh cakes (which taste like a flat scone, but better!) and stared at the walls of the castle in the distance. It was awe-inspiring, like living inside the pages of a history book, where one magically gets transported back in time.

Letting off steam
That feeling became even greater when we caught the Talyllyn Railway. It’s a historic narrow-gauge steam railway that runs from Abergynolwyn to Tywyn (luckily we didn’t have to say which destination we wanted to get off at, otherwise I would still be there, trying to get my tongue around the tricky words!) and was used to transport coal.

As well as being allowed up front to let off the engine’s steam with a loud shrill, we discovered the railway was the inspiration for Skarloey Railway in the Thomas the Tank Engine books as the author, the Reverend W Awdry, had volunteered there in 1952.

Sitting in a tiny carriage, among a cloud of steam, was the perfect way to see the rolling Welsh countryside, and I was sad to clamber back into our van to drive the rest of the journey to our next home at Brecon, in the Wye Valley – the stunning Llangoed Hall.

Nestled in the shadow of the snow-topped Black Mountains and down a sweeping drive, this Jacobean country house is the epitome of secluded style. Formerly known as Llangoed Castle, it dates back to 1632, and is set in 17 acres just west of Hay on Wye.

The site is said to have had a house on it since 560AD and was where the first Welsh Parliament was held. It’s had a chequered history since then and was in danger of being demolished in the 1970s until Sir Bernard Ashley – husband of late designer Laura Ashley – bought it.

I stepped inside, and gasped. Alongside the original Laura Ashley wallpapers and fabrics, the £3.3-million gold and black Steinway piano and carved timber staircase, is a fireplace big enough to sleep in and enough original Whistler sketches to make you, well, whistle.

Since opening as a luxury country house hotel, no expense has been spared and it shows. Art worth a total of £22-million decorates the walls. My room was a haven of tranquil yellow, while every piece of furniture looked as if it had survived through the centuries.

A stay at the grand Llangoed Hall leaves you feeling you were to the manor born


Dinner, which was hosted by the charming and witty managing director, Calum Milne, in the Whistler Room was a culinary delight. Tucking into five courses of locally sourced and beautifully cooked dishes – ranging from pheasant eggs to beef fillet and appropriately named Dandy ribs – we soaked up the decadent atmosphere of the £6.6-million Whistler collection, which has been on loan to the royal galleries of Queen Elizabeth.

And then finally, it was up the wooden staircase to my suite where I collapsed, stuffed, on to my bed. It was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in, and I drifted off to dream about being the lady of the manor, and returning to Britain for another luxurious visit.

Surrounded by vintage glamour and historical houses steeped in tradition, I’d had a royally good time.


Getting there
I was lucky enough to be on a press trip, but would highly recommend every hotel I stayed at. Luton Hoo is a member of Pride of Britain Hotels – a consortium of 44 privately owned independent British hotels. A night’s bed and breakfast costs from £115 per person. To book call Pride of Britain hotels at 0800 089 3929 or visit www.prideofbritainhotels.com. A night’s bed and breakfast at Bodysgallen Hall costs from £179 per room (two sharing). To book visit www.bodysgallen. com. Bed and breakfast at Llangoed Hall starts from £155 per room based on two people sharing. To book visit www.llangoedHall.co.uk. For rail passes, theatre tickets and entrance to top attractions, go to www.visitbritain.com or www.visitbritainshop.com.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Friday Recipe: Berry Tiramisu

Simple but stunning Berry Tiramisu - my favourite dessert 
Usually I'm not a dessert kind of gal. Give me a cheese board any time - it's the perfect way to finish off a meal, especially if served with some Malbec or Rioja. But my husband is a celebrity chef and Italian - and insists on something sweet at the end of a special three or four course dinner. Recently, he served us these. They're a new, fruity take on a tiramisu and delicious. Now he's taught me how to make them and they're a family favourite. They're so easy to make but look delicious so they're the perfect way to impress friends at a dinner party or to give your family a treat. Enjoy!

Prep time 10 minutes
Refrigeration time 2 hours
Serves 4

Ingredients
6 egg yolks
3 tbsp sugar
450g mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups strong espresso coffee, cooled
Berries of your choice, to garnish

Beat egg yolks and sugar together in your food processor’s mixing bowl for about 5 minutes or until thick and pale.

Add the mascarpone and beat again until smooth.

Transfer to a container, cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least two hours.

When ready to serve, pour the espresso into four stem glasses or dessert bowls.

Spoon the mascarpone mixture on top and garnish with berries.