Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Crocodiles and Pearls: on the hunt for Australia's finest and most luxurious jewels

Worth more than a million dollars, the Paspaley Pearl is considered the most beautiful in the world. That's why I braved seaplanes, boats and crocodiles to reach one of the most remote places on earth in search of the most perfect gem nature can offer

The jetty at remote Kuri Bay where Snappy the crocodile liked to sunbathe

Glancing down, I smiled. In my hand, I was holding a million dollars. But it wasn’t a fistful of used, crumpled or torn notes. Instead, glistening against my skin, the light bouncing off its pink lustre, sat a rare white, perfectly round, unusually large gem. The Paspaley Pearl.

Considered so beautiful, the ‘Pearl of Pearls’ is usually only glimpsed in public displays alongside other rare gems, La Peragrina, the 500-year-old pearl famously given to Elizabeth Taylor by husband Richard Burton, and the Hope Diamond, or closely guarded by security men working for the Paspaley family during their private exhibitions.

Yet here I was, rolling it around between my fingers bouncing it up and down as strands of exquisite pearls were placed around my neck. Welcome to Darwin, Australia, home to the biggest and one of the most famous pearling companies in the world. “Do you like it?” Geraldine Atkins, manager of Darwin’s Paspaley Pearls store, asked, straightening a long opera strand of white pearls worth A$70,000.

In the mirror, the graduated, impeccably strung strand, which hung almost to my waist, looked amazing. But its beauty paled compared in comparison to the natural, unset Paspaley Pearl, which was harvested in 2003 from the company’s farm on the Kimberley Coast in the northern most region of Western Australia.

Plucked from a Pinctada Maxima pearl oyster in the South Sea, it has since been kept in the Paspaley family’s private collection, presumably in the hope that it will one day be joined by an equally perfect companion.

Sadly, so far they haven’t yet managed to discover another rare beauty, but it’s not for lack of trying. Paspaley prides itself on producing the most beautiful pearls in the world – and now I was joining them on the ultimate adventure to search for the perfect gem during the pearl harvest.

So handing back the Paspaley Pearl, I steeled myself for my next stop: Kuri Bay, one of the most remote and unexplored destinations on earth. A birthing ground for migrating humpback whales in August and September, it’s the historical site of Australia’s first cultured South Sea pearl farm.

Originally farmed by Japanese pearlers – Kuri Bay was named for Tokuichi Kuribayashi of the Nippo Pearl company in 1956 - it was eventually taken over by the Paspaleys, or Paspalis as they were named when they first came to Western Australia. Fleeing Castellorizo, a Greek island, during the First World War, Theodosis Paspalis settled there with his family, living alongside Aboriginal inhabitants and Asian pearl fisherman.

His son, Nicholas Senior, learnt the pearling trade, diving for mother of pearl shells to be used making buttons and changed his name to Paspaley.

Forever searching for the perfect place to grow pearls, he ended up in Kuri Bay, trying to better the Japanese’s mixed luck and pioneered new methods and conditions for the delicate pearl oysters. His son, also called Nicholas, mortgaged his father’s house in 1973, and bought a modern boat to run the operations, after being told by him to make the farm profitable or shut it down.The rest, as they say is history. With 20 farms and a 75-year-old history of producing the best pearls – the company is so fussy it only keeps 1 per cent of the pearls to use in its jewellery collections – Nicholas’s son James is now executive director.

Kuri Bay was still a working pearl farm until December 2011, but the Paspaleys now use it for VIP clients and a luxury retreat for paying guests who want to get away from it all. There’s no phone, no TV, no wi-fi, and no roads in or out.

Rugged, remote and rumoured to be life-changingly beautiful, Kuri Bay is only accessible by sea or Grumman Mallard seaplane.

Our Mallard seaplane once belonged to Christian Dior 

I almost didn’t go. Terrified of travelling in anything that doesn’t have business class, lounge access and a runway, I didn’t think I’d be able to stop hyperventilating or crying for long enough to actually step inside the impossibly tiny-looking plane’s doorway. ‘I’ve seen Flying Doctors on TV,’ I told myself, trying to find some courage. ‘Landing in water in the middle of nowhere is normal out here.’

But then I heard the farm has pythons, box jellyfish with four-metre tentacles, and a resident crocodile, Snappy, who likes to sun himself on the jetty – the only way onto Kuri Bay.

“Snappy’s only two metres big,” Richard McLean, Paspaley’s senior pearling advisor, and our guide, smiled. “And he’s never eaten any of our guests yet.”

Still, that crocodile was bigger than me, but Richard insisted I’d be safe. “There will be three men with you at all times,” he promised and I agreed to go. Besides, the amphibious plane we’d be travelling to Kimberly in, which was built in the 1940s for use during the Second World War, had once belonged to Christian Dior to travel along the French Riviera.

How could I resist such glamour and history? So taking more than a dozen, deep breaths, I clambered inside, and made myself think of pearls as we took off.

Two hours later, after soaring over ochre cliffs and coral reefs, we eventually started our descent. Of course, we weren’t going to be landing on tarmac, and so I surreptitiously got into the brace position as the Mallard splashed down at Vansittart Bay, one of Australia’s largest pearl farms, up the coast from Kuri Bay. Needless to say, it was the smoothest touch down I’ve ever known and the water rushing up to the windows was really exciting, not scary at all.

All the pearling work is done here by a fleet of state-of-the art boats and dedicated crew. I was eager to see what happens, but apprehensive as we were ferried from the Mallard across shark and crocodile-infested waters to the Paspaley 4. I imagined the boat would be filthy with foul-smelling debris from the sea scattered across the decks. Instead it was spotless and more akin to a luxury yacht than a working vessel.

Richard explained how the oysters benefit from the pristine water here, and are left for up to six years to produce their best pearl.

Below deck, it was fascinating to watch the Japanese technicians – including the one who’d harvested the Paspaley Pearl – ‘seed’ the oyster so that nacre, the mother of pearl composite material, which makes up the inner shell and the outer, iridescent coating of the pearls, forms around it, secreting six to eight layers a day.

Standing behind these experts, I watched as they checked the mature oysters for pearls, popping them out like shelling peas. “That’s a good one,” my technician said, handing me a round, pink pearl. In the Sydney and Darwin stores I’d visited, I’d oohed over such gems, but here I was speechless – this was nature at its finest, yielding something so beautiful I could only stare in awe.

‘Nature never makes mistakes’
My lessons in pearl appreciation meant I could assess the five virtues of each gem harvested – the lustre, complexion, shape, size, and colour. The more iridescent the pearl, the more it shines. For the perfect pearl, it needs to be blemish free, with no marks or dents, and, of course, the bigger the better.

Shape and colour, I realised were purely personal. I saw nature creating round (considered the most desirable), oval, tear drop (the rarest), triangle, button, baroque, ringed or circle and keishi (the natural ‘gift of gods’ – tiny, misshapen, uncultured, accidental gems ) pearls of white, cream, silver, pink and champagne. The majority of pearls in the world are 7mm in diameter – Paspaley’s are 15mm and over. They were all beautiful. “Nature never makes mistakes,” Sydney’s Sales Associate Ian Foxton had told us back in the showroom. “Your perfect pearl will find you.”

He was right. As others went for the pink, round pearls, I gravitated towards the misshapen, intriguing baroque pearls in silver. “They’re for connoisseur of pearls,” Ian said, and now I knew why. Each one was unique, a piece of art made out of nacre that when strung together made a modern, statement strand.

My technician loved them too, and told me about all the largest, most perfect pearls he’d ever found. Oysters that produced small, inferior pearls were rejected, and sent for their flesh and shells to be sold. Only the ones which created the most gorgeous gems were re-seeded and put back in the South Seas to create another beauty for a second and maximum third time.

The rest of the operation was all about keeping them happy – cleaning the oysters regularly so that every bit of ‘goodness’ goes into the pearl, and making sure they were infection free and living in optimum conditions. Placed in water, the harvested pearls were later put in the safe, but were brought out in the captain’s quarters for us to inspect.

The best of the best
There were huge plastic tanks of them – they looked like pretty marbles. Every shape and colour, they were just as nature made them – stunning and untouched. Paspaley pearls are simply washed to get the sand off, and that’s that. They’re not polished or coloured, and only the best are kept by the company – the majority are auctioned off.

“We have to be fussy,” Richard explained. “We use only the best of the best. We have a reputation to keep.”

Just as he spoke, someone accidentally tipped over one of the containers and hundreds of pearls scattered all over the floor. Grateful my clumsiness wasn’t responsible, we helped pick them up and went for lunch. I didn’t know if it was the sea air, the adrenaline from flying in the Mallard or being surrounded by pearls all day, but I was ravenous. I ignored the pearl meat on offer – delicious apparently – and tucked into freshly-made pizza and salad.

Then, bellies full, it was off to another boat, the support vessel, the Roslynne to see more of the top-secret operations – cleaning and caring for the oysters in the sea – before it was back to the Mallard, and off to Kuri Bay for a meet and greet with Snappy. Luckily, he was content to lie in the sea and watch us land, his eyes just poking above the water, so I scuttled up the jetty to safety. I almost hurtled head-long into Chef Pearce and his partner Andrea, who look after guests during their stay.

“Lime juice?” Chef Pearce offered, handing me a drink and ice-cold towel to wipe my hands and face. Thirst quenched, I was given a tour of the facilities  – the lounge over-looking the jetty, the open-air dining room, the bar, the swimming pool, and finally, the guest rooms.

I’d expected to rough it in the wilderness, but this was a five-star idyll, hidden away from the rat-race, and packed with every home comfort. My room was the epitome of colonial chic, with ceiling fan, polished dark wood furniture and floor, turn-down service and a shared bathroom with a killer view over the bay.

Dinner was in one hour so there was just time for a dip in the outdoor pool – swimming was banned in the sea because of Snappy and his tawny shark and box jellyfish friends – before it was time to eat.

Dining alfresco is always fun, and it was amazing to watch the sunset over the azure waters as canapes were served. Being over 200km from civilisation, I’d have been happy with a sandwich. But this was a Michelin-starred-styled feast, with soup, gnocchi and home-made ice-cream to rival anything I’ve eaten in Dubai. Talking under the inky sky, dotted by stars meant it was a late night. With Aboriginal art and whale watching on the agenda for the next day, there was no choice but to get up early.

Our guides John and Ron split us into two groups and we set off in small boats in search of the whales – who’d been spotted with their calves just a couple of days earlier – and to fish, if we wanted, while we took in the raw beauty of the bay.

We passed by Sheep Island where 210 people with 2,500 sheep tried to settle in 1864. Within a year, thanks to the harsh conditions and a less-than-friendly welcome from the Aboriginals, they abandoned the settlement. All that’s left now are a few headstones of the lost community.

The whales and fish were just as scarce, so after a picnic in the boat, we returned to Kuri Bay, and freshened up, ready for another sumptuous dinner under the stars.

I took it easy the next day – our last here – reading my book under the shade, while others went on an energetic hike across the cliffs. I was glad I did as I was the only who didn’t have green ant bites as we sat down for supper. It made for a great story as my fellow guests described hacking through the undergrowth and stepping onto the ants’ nest, with the bites hurting so much, they had to jump into a cold stream.

Up early the next morning to beat the low tide, sitting in the boats waiting for the Mallard to arrive, I was sad to be going back to civilisation. I’d loved unplugging here, but the modern world beckoned, and so I boarded the Mallard for my final – and most scenic – flight.

A ‘frenzied drop’
On the flight to Broome we passed over Montgomery Reef, Australia’s largest inshore reef – 292km to be exact, which reveals trapped fish, sharks, turtles and ray when the tide retreats so quickly – and Horizontal Falls.

Flying over Australia's Horizontal Halls in our private plane

Described by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the greatest natural wonders of the world”, they’re created by the region’s huge tides creating a build-up of water pressure, which then pushes through a tiny gap of 10-20 metres wide, causing a ‘frenzied drop’ of several metres from one side to the other.

Left marvelling in wonder, it was an anti-climax to come back down to earth. Luckily, I still had plenty of pearl encounters to cheer me up – not just a tour of the streets of Broome, where I saw what was billed as the world’s biggest pearl, but a meeting with the Paspaley jewellers.

Broome beach - the home of the Paspaley Jewellers' pearl workshop 

Designer Sebastian Kappen took me around the Darwin showroom where I watched pearls being strung (Paspaley restrings customers’ pearls every year at no charge, explained Richard, to keep them looking their best) and saw pearls adorned with diamonds and precious gems to make a woman drool.

Paspaley’s head of design, German-born Jurgen Kammler, created the head-turning Embrace the Sea collier, using 136 rare Keshi pearls and pave set diamonds, after watching his son collect shells from the Darwin seashore where he lives. As creative director Christine Salter said, “A Paspaley masterpiece is something more – a sensual sculptured work of art inspired by nature, with a story behind it that makes it even more meaningful.”

After seeing the vast operation behind the creation of each pearl and the helping hand nature plays in making each one spectacular, I now suspect it’s pearls and not diamonds that are truly a girl’s best friend.

Of course, I’ll never be able to afford the Paspaley Pearl, so a pair of baroque earrings are on my Christmas list instead – but for now, I’ve got an oyster shell from the Paspaley 4. It’s on the side of my bath being used as a soap dish, so every time I take a dip I’ll remember my amazing visit.

You can see the pearls here - shot in some of the breath-taking places I visited. I was lucky enough to go on a press trip with Paspaley but all the opinions here are my own. Sadly, I didn't get a pearl!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Friday Recipe: Gazpacho with Mozzarella wedges

Who needs a holiday abroad when the weather has been this glorious? Visits to the beach opposite, splashing in the sea and getting a (slight) tan have made for fun, family days this week. But it's too hot to cook isn't it?
That's where a celebrity chef husband comes in handy. He's whipped up this delicious summer cooler for supper tonight: Gazpacho with Mozzarella wedges. It's a Spanish classic but Alexio has given it an Italian twist with the Mozzarella wedges. Serve as a starter in shot glasses at a barbecue or on its own for the perfect family dinner. Buon appetito!

Prep time 20 mins and overnight
Serves 4


6 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 purple onion, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 red or green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 handful chives, chopped
250ml tomato juice
1 tbsp red grape vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil, a drizzle
1 lemon, juice of
6 drops Tabasco sauce
Worcester sauce, to taste

To serve
4 mozzarella balls
Red cabbage
Crusty bread

Blitz all the soup ingredients in a food processor until you get your desired consistency.

Pour into a bowl or plastic container, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the flavours to develop.

When ready to serve, ladle into soup bowls, drizzle olive oil on top and season.

Cut mozzarella into wedges and arrange on top. Garnish with red cabbage, serve with crusty bread.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cast away on a magical Disney Cruise

Fun ahoy! I test my sea legs and casts away with Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and the whole Disney crew on board a magical cruise from Miami to the Bahamas

Ship-shape - the Disney Wonder harks back to the golden age of shipping

The glint of his gold tooth matched the one in his kohl-rimmed eye. “My ship – that makes me captain. Savvy?” he grinned. I blinked, taking in Captain Jack Sparrow’s chiselled features, leather hat, beaded accessories and long brown hair.

I don’t know why I was so surprised there was a pirate on board – our ship was heading for the Bahamas in the Caribbean, after all. So who better to sail the seas with than a Johnny Depp lookalike? My 10-year-old son had the answer. “Look,” Deme said, pointing to the top of the red funnel. There, ready to fly down a zip wire in full pirate regalia, was Mickey Mouse, complete with an eye patch and bandana.

There was a collective gasp as the most famous mouse in the world launched himself into the air and flew over our heads while a firework display that can only be described as magical exploded all around him. “Not bad me hearties,” my son said, brandishing his plastic sword as Captain Jack and Mickey were joined by Captain Hook, Mr Smee, Minnie and Goofy.

Fireworks at sea! Disney knows how to throw a pool party (even at night)

We were at the Pirates In the Caribbean party on the top deck of the Disney Wonder as we headed from Miami on a four-day cruise to Nassau, Bahamas. But this was no ordinary voyage. As you can imagine, Disney brings its own brand of magic to family cruising.

Its four award-winning ships boast state-of-the-art luxury and entertainment including Broadway-style shows, a deck of children’s activities, 3-D film premiers at a private cinema, fine dining and a coterie of your favourite cartoon characters. Plus, it’s the only cruise line to have firework displays at sea.

So far, so splendid. Which is why when someone mentioned spotting a competitor’s huge ship alongside us in port, entertainment director Ray laughed, “They might have a bigger house, but we’re cruising with Mickey Mouse.”

Believe me, it doesn’t come much better than that. From the moment we stepped aboard in Miami – to claps and cheers along with a name check from the liveried staff no less – we knew we were in for an amazing adventure.

“Look, Aerial,” Deme said, pulling a face as we passed a golden statue of the flame-haired mermaid in the lobby, and, “oh cool, the latest Disney movies” flicking on the TV in our family-sized sea-view stateroom.

The cruise line shows the newest Disney films the moment they’re released, so we had the latest Bourne movie in our cabin and in the Walt Disney cinema below deck. “Well we own the movies so why not?” Ray said.

Even at first glance it was obvious there was something for everyone to enjoy on board. From a dedicated nursery, catering to babies as young as three months, up to 17-year-old teenagers with their own Vibe club, there were loads of activities for kids.

My son could even choose which club he wanted to belong to – the Oceaneer Club (ages three - ten) with arts, crafts, storytelling, music and dancing, or the science-themed Oceaneer Lab (ages three – ten) where he could make flubber (green rubbery goo), take part in karaoke, make a racing car out of soap or go to a pyjama party.

And because he was ten, he could also join in with the tweens in Edge (ages 11- 14) in their chill-out lounge if I gave him written permission. There were  even complimentary wave phones so we could stay in touch, but first  we wanted to explore.

The golden age of shipping I’d imagined the ship would look very Disney Channel – all primary colours and aimed at toddlers and small children. But in fact it was uber glamorous, with more than a nod to the golden age of shipping.

Sailing in style on board the Disney Wonder in the Bahamas

It was, explained crew leader Steve, who gave us a guided tour, inspired by the Titanic. That wasn’t exactly the most reassuring name to hear on board a 40-million-kilogram ship miles out at sea, but Steve quickly explained that Disney had adopted the art-nouveau style from the doomed liner to give the Wonder its classic elegant finish.

There are sweeping staircases, Venetian glass, marble finishes and beautiful carpets. In one of the corridors there are even original sketches and stills from the Disney film archives to buy as the ultimate holiday souvenir.

In our stateroom – which was as big as the average hotel’s and had a childproof-locked balcony – there was a black and white picture of Walt Disney with his wife on deck.
I stared at it closely, looking for a peek into the mind behind Mickey Mouse and all the other characters that have spawned a billion-dollar business.

Our cabin was as luxurious as any hotel room 

The company’s cruise line is so popular it is responsible for a quarter of the overall profit growth in Disney’s multi-billion-a-year parks and resorts division. It’s easy to see how – apart from the prow to stern cartoon characters to pose with and pet – Disney always does things better and that’s because it literally thinks of everything.

There’s a split bathroom in the cabin with a dinky bath, shower and sink in one half and a toilet and sink in the other so two people can get ready at the same time. You also get to visit your very own private island, Castaway Cay, with its powdery white beaches, and even a yours-for-the-cruise waiter who moves with you from restaurant to restaurant for the entire voyage (“so they know your likes and build up a rapport,” says Steve). With nothing to worry about, that left us to meander the Wonder’s 11 decks. And we hadn’t even thought about stepping ashore!

As I watched The Lion King on Funnel Vision – a giant cinema-style screen on the side of the funnel – while floating in one of the three heated pools, I realised that most of the 2,400 guests on board would be happy just to be sailing around for four days without leaving the ship.

It was as if our first stop the next day at Key West, with its pretty pastel clapboard houses and Key West Museum of Art & History’s Giant Ballroom Dancers statue – based on Renoir’s Dance in the City painting – was an inconvenience; precious time away from our new nautical home.

But we forced ourselves to head down the pretty boulevard, peer into the souvenir shops and ponder whether we should go on an eco-friendly shark-viewing trip. But one look at the teeth on the pictures outside the booth made up my mind, even though the tour guide insisted it was perfectly safe.

Instead of being shark bait, I opted for the quirky stores lining the quay. Shopaholics can pick up diamonds, tanzanite, pearls and anything you’d care to grab made of bamboo. We could have spent eight hours ashore, but why go shopping when there’s the ultimate liner waiting for us?

So we scurried back, grabbed some delicious pasta salads and sweets at Blanket Bay, the top-deck buffet diner, then lay our towels next to the main family pool to soak up the Florida sun. Dads splashed their children, mums read their Kindles and kids helped themselves to all-inclusive soft drinks and ice creams while catching their favourite movies on Funnel Vision or watching the poolside sing and dance shows.

As the sun began to set, there was time for a quick wave to Chip and Dale and the Disney princesses before heading back to our stateroom to shower and change for the pre-dinner evening theatre show.
The first night was a magic show by Scott Pepper, who made cutting his pretty assistant in half hilarious. Luckily there was no blood, but I, along with all the other adults in the 977-seater theatre, craned forward to see exactly how he did it and came away mystified.

Next up was a formal dinner at Parrot Cay, one of the three post-show restaurants. A fourth, Palo’s, is available at a small extra cost and worth every dollar if you love Italian food like we do. But there’s really no need if you don’t want to dip into your on-shore spending money – Parrot Cay has a Caribbean feel and flavour, Tritons serves American and French cuisine (try the Chef Louis French onion soup, it’s delicious!), and Animator’s Palate is enchanting.

The food is amazing, but you’ll be too busy, like us, staring at the Disney characters magically appearing and lighting up on the walls (more brand magic) as the night goes on.

The food on board the Disney Wonder was fantastic for all the family

After dinner it was time for a moonlight stroll and an early night, as we would be able to disembark early at Nassau. If we’d wanted we could have taken part in family karaoke, watched a film at the cinema or my son could have been entertained or made lava flow (whatever that is!) in one of the three kids’ clubs. Instead we headed to our stateroom to watch the moon outside our window and be lulled to sleep by the gentle waves.

That set the tone for the rest of the cruise – tearing ourselves away from the ship when we docked in the Bahamas (who would ever think that would seem like a chore!) and grinning as we stepped back on deck at the end of the afternoon. Then it was down to the theatre for The Golden Mickeys, a toe-tapping tribute to the Disney’s classic films that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the West End. All the stars have genuine talent and experience in theatre and it shows.

As well as The Golden Mickeys, we also saw Disney Dreams and Toy Story The Musical, which was humorous, original (though we all know the story) and totally captivating.

Buzz, with his plastic hair and swingy arms, was so amazing that Deme kept asking if he was a robot. There are two shows a day – one pre- and one post-dinner – and we loved it so much we wanted to go to both! “That was the best show ever,” Deme said, as we headed off to our cabin.

It was hard to imagine that anything could top the show until I woke up the next morning and looked out my window. White sandy beaches fringed with swaying palms and lapped by azure waves filled the view. Disney’s Castaway Cay is a private piece of paradise, where you can swim with stingrays, snorkel among brightly coloured fish, splash in the lagoon, slide down the Pelican Plunge or simply relax on one of the three family (or one adults-only) beaches.

Cast away on Disney's private island Castaway Cay

That’s the beauty of a Disney cruise; they take the best from the ship ashore. All the clubs hold activities all day, and the catering crew set up a beachside barbecue so you can tuck into burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob while being serenaded by an island band. Bliss. So blissful in fact that while Deme took part in a Whale Tooth Dig I nodded off on my sun lounger.

There was just one more night before we set sail back to Miami, but it was the perfect ending to a magical four days. It was rather fitting that the favourite characters, including Captain Jack Sparrow, were waiting to say goodbye as we left the ship. But we can’t wait to set foot on deck again, this time as the Disney Magic cruises the Med.

“Will there be another pirate party?” Deme asked, his eyes gleaming. I nodded, making a note to pack our bandanas and some kohl. After all, you can’t on a Disney cruise and not be ship-shape. Savvy?

Friday, 19 August 2016

Friday Recipe: Ricotta & Spinach Cannelloni

Hot, cold, with salad or own their own I simply love Italian favourite ricotta and spinach cannelloni 

Whenever it's a special occasion, like a birthday or an anniversary, my husband always ask where I'd like to go to celebrate. The answer is easy: home. That's because I'm a fussy, strict vegetarian and he's the best chef going so why eat anywhere else? Plus he always makes my favourite - ricotta and spinach cannelloni. Hot, cold, on their own or with salad, I never tire of them. Now he's letting me share his family recipe so I hope you like them as much as I do...

Prep time 1 hour Resting time 2 hours
Cooking time 35-40 mins Serves 4

1 kg spinach leaves
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
500g passata
100ml cold water
250g ricotta
I egg
Butter, to grease baking tray
1 box dried cannelloni (around 30 tubes)
300ml extra thick double cream
100g Parmesan, grated

Wash the spinach leaves then cook them in 2 litres of boiling, salted water for 4 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until softened and translucent.

Add the passata and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Slowly add the cold water until you have a thick sauce-like consistency, then simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Roughly chop the cooled spinach and mix together with the ricotta. Season and stir in the egg.

Grease a baking tray with butter.

Now it’s the fun bit – filling the cannelloni with the spinach and ricotta mixture.
The quickest (and cleanest) way to do it is to use an icing bag to pipe the mixture into the dried cannelloni. Hold a canneloni tube in one hand and pipe until it’s full right to the end. If you don’t have a piping bag, spoon the filling into a ziplock plastic bag, snip off a corner, and proceed as above.

Spread a thin layer of the passata sauce in the bottom of a baking dish and then add the cannelloni tubes, making sure they touch each other.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Shopping: Seaside Chic

Give me life in the fast lane any day, I used to cry. After twenty plus years in London and five more in Dubai I couldn’t get enough of glass and steel twisting towers, packed streets, the tube (or metro as it’s called in the UAE’s pseudo American drawl), gleaming malls and eight-lane highways.

But now we’re back in Blighty, having bought a house a stone’s throw from the beach. And guess what? My urban, minimal furniture and accessories look completely out of place in our beach house. So now we need to redecorate and go shopping. Here are my favourite pieces.

It's rustic and looks like I could have just knocked it together from a piece of driftwood I picked up from the beach. Perfect for keeping all my knick-knacks in one place.

Small storage unit 

SEASIDE ARROW SIGN, £4.50, Live Laugh Love 
Living in a beach house means getting used to having things around me that have no purpose other than to be fun or decorative. So no more minimalism, but at least I'll always be able to find my way to the beach. It's over there!

Sign of the times - or the beach? 

Cool Britannia! Whimsical and fun, this picture brightens up any room. I'd hang it in my kitchen which looks over the harbour. I get the scent of the sea in the morning as the fishing boats come back in and the sun in the afternoon. With this I'd always be able to see the beach too (though mine has pebbles not sand.)

Picture perfect: Oh I do love to be beside the seaside.

OK, so it's the wrong name - I live in Sussex not Suffolk, but I can live with that. After all, just look at this chair: the stripy fabric and beech frame look vintage and it rocks. Yes, it ROCKS! Whether I'm down the beach, staring out to sea, being lulled by the waves, or in my garden, staring at the harbour, I'll be rocking a good look. Did I mention that it rocks? I'm saving up already...

I'll be sitting pretty on this gorgeous deck chair

LONDON AND BRIGHTON CUSHIONS, £45 each, Evermade at Red Candy 
City or the sea? Both have my heart and now I don't have to choose thanks to these gorgeous limited edition cushions. Only 100 cushions in each design have ever been made so snap them up quick, especially as I'm going to grab one of each. I love the grey pigeon London one but the blue, white and grey Brighton cushion with the seagull in his sailor hat, is just as cute. They'll look nautical but nice on my sofa.

Urban chic - the London pigeon 
Coastal style, the cute seagull cushion 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Friday Recipe: Rustic Minestrone

Being married to a celebrity chef has its perks. There's never any shortage of creative, delicious dishes on the menu and the smell of fresh food wafting from the kitchen.

But it does take its toll on your waistline and sometimes my husband works so hard cooking for other people that we have to watch him on TV or YouTube to see him. Luckily he's agreed to share his favourite recipes here on my blog every Friday and here's the first one, Rustic Minestrone.

It's a recipe Alexio's grandmother and mother used to cook for him and now he makes it for our children who love it too. It's simple and easy to follow. Enjoy!

Just like an Italian celebrity chef makes! Alexio Pasquali's rustic minestrone

Prep Time 10 mins   Cooking time 45 Mins   Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 white onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed and cubed
1 celery stick, chopped
100ml passata
1 1/2 - 2 litres cold water or vegetable stock
100g canned borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
1 courgette, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into cubes
50g French beans, trimmed and cut
80g Parmesan cheese grated
Place the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.

Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent.

Next, add the carrot and celery and stir until softened, making sure the vegetables don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

Pour in the pastata, stir and then add the cold water or vegetable stock.

Bring to the boil, cook for about 20 minutes then turn down the heat to reduce.

Add the remaining vegetables and leave to cook for 15 minutes.

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve hot with bread and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

A magical mother and daughter holiday in Mauritius

No one enjoys a beach holiday more than me and, luckily, my daughter is just as obsessed with the sand, sea and sunshine. Today was the first day we've walked along the pebble beach near our home since returning from Dubai and we even dipped our toes in the icy sea.

'This is fun,' my eight-year-old giggled as I thought about taking off my cardigan. Well we have been away five years and became used to scorching summers where the mercury regularly went over 50 degrees C.

It has been a fantastic British summer's day and reminded me of the first mother and daughter holiday we took to Mauritius. There we spotted giant tortoises and were spoiled in the spa. Here we had our dog, and I'll be doing a DIY manicure for us both later. But at least I'll have our video to watch...