Raise A Glass: Wine tasting at Vinopolis, London

A city chic wine tasting experience in London

Canard Duchere Champagne 1

I’d love to refer to myself as a bonafide wine expert, but the reality is that despite my father owning a wine business, (vision of him slapping my hand here springs to mind) I’m a little dense when it comes to identifying a snazzy bouquet. Don’t get me wrong, I love a decent bottle of plonk. Malbec is the usual, favourite tipple but generally, I tend to get distracted by the discount deals in Waitrose or whichever I deem has the most artistically striking label (cue father gasping in despair).

I’m even more hopeless when it comes to identifying flavours in wines, which as a self-confessed food fanatic, I’m at loss to understand why. I can only whittle it down to the fact I haven’t (before now) ever really tried. With every slurp of Shiraz I’m probably more immersed in singing Fleetwood Mac and dancing around my kitchen than recognizing heady accents of smoky wood (another disappointing sigh from dad).

Having said that, I wholeheartedly would love to know more about wine, if anything to make a decent choice in the supermarket, and of course to impress my friends with my fountain of wine knowledge at the next dinner soirée. So naturally, when invited to sample the wines at London’s Vinopolis, I jumped at the chance.

Tucked away beneath the railway arches of London Bridge, a not-so-secret wine tasting lair awaits eager wine enthusiasts to challenge their tasting notes, (or in my case learn from scratch) by sampling their vast selection of vintages. It’s a striking building, steeped in history and oozing character. Softly lit with a calming atmosphere, we’re more than ready to get sampling as soon as we walk through the towering glass doors.

Vinopolis, London

The wine tour begins with a brief introduction, revealing expert tips on how to slurp wine. Drawing in a large gulp and really slurping around the back of the mouth releases the wine’s various flavours, so in theory, you should be able to identify some key ingredients. In truth, I found the art of slurping hard to master, culminating in an embarrassing choking fit in front of the whole class (much to my friend’s amusement). Fallen at the first hurdle. This did not bode well! Despite persevering, I couldn’t quite master the slurping technique, but I did mange to successfully identify a few key flavours, leaving me to feel less of a hopeless failure before the start of the tour.

With my student hat on, I carefully memorise the tasting notes, and how to distinguish a sweet, floral bouquet or a dry, citrus aroma. Frankly, as soon as we enter into the tasting realm, most of the student tips and notes diminish into thin air as we slurp and guzzle our way through the maze of tasting rooms. We indulge in sample after sample of Argentinian Malbec, French Bordeaux and refreshingly crisp Sancerre. With 12 tokens of samples, you can really get your teeth stuck into some delicious vintages. For those who also find it hard to identify flavours, the bottles are accompanied by in-depth descriptions to help you along the way, as well as the friendly, helpful staff who are on hand to assist throughout the whole tour.

There’s a decadent Champagne lounge, which I’d highly recommend starting the tour with, as well as a tapas station serving up olives, bread and cured meats, if you feel a little peckish along the way.

Despite my hopeless slurping attempts, and the fact that I’m still unable to identify an exceptional bottle of plonk, the whole evening was thoroughly enjoyable. With a great selection of delicious wines to sample, you’d be hard pushed not to have a good time, but the beautiful surroundings and eager wine aficionados just add to the whole experience. Whether you’re a total wine buff or complete novice, Vinopolis will add the fun factor to an evening of unashamed wine guzzling.

Rebecca Holt Champagne

Vinopolis is located at No.1 Bank End, London, SE1 9BU. Packages range from £32 – £42 with the option of 7, 12 or 16 tokens. For further information and bookings visit: vinopolis.co.uk

Luxury Spa Lounging At The Macdonald Randolph Hotel, Oxford

5-star spa decadence in the heart of Oxford

Macdonald Randolph Hotel Oxford

There really is nothing more invigorating than an indulgent spa weekend. From soft, fluffy bathrobes to soothing steam rooms, a weekend escape of lavish spa lounging is the perfect tonic to a busy, stressful week. And when those pesky blues start to kick in, a relaxing facial or heavenly massage is sometimes all we need to get back on top of things. What better way to indulgently relax and unwind than with some sensual spa time?

What’s the hotel like?

Offering a touch of 5-star decadence, the Macdonald Randolph ticks many a spa weekend checklist. Located in the heart of Oxford’s charming city centre, the Randolph’s towering landmark building is steeped in history. Boasting beautiful architecture with ancient brickwork, the hotel is oozing with charm and elegance. From the luxurious wooden-clad lobby and winding staircase to the sumptuously decorated Morse bar, the ambience provides the perfect backdrop for a wonderfully tranquil getaway.

Randolph hotel Morse bar

The spa

Tucked away from the main area of the hotel, the Randolph’s spa is an intimate oasis. Tranquil and deliciously calming, the walls of the spa are dark and sultry with softly lit, glimmering lanterns paving the way through the cavernous walkway. At the end of the passageway there are steam rooms and saunas, as well as a hydrotherapy Jacuzzi to sit and swelter amidst effervescing bubbles. 

The scented sensation shower is a lovely treat, and – if you’re feeling brave – there’s an ice setting that will boldly awaken the senses following a hot sauna session. There is also a small gym available if you fancy a more energetic workout.

Macdonald Randolph Hotel Spa Oxford

The treatments

The spa boasts a generous selection of treatments, including detoxing facials, pedicures and massages. With my back tangled in knots, I opt for the Macdonald Signature Treatment, which combines a deep tissue massage, anti-ageing facial and nourishing foot treatment.

The gorgeous 90-minute treatment begins with a tension-relieving back massage. Having slept awkwardly the night before, the top of my back is uncomfortably sore. The vigorous strokes applied to my back and neck work wonders on the tight knots in my body. Concentrating on the problem areas for the most part of the 30-minute session, my therapist slathers layers of scented Elemis lotions onto my skin. Gentle piano music softly chimes in the background, as I drift into a deeply relaxed state.

Macdonald Randolph Spa Treatment

I can’t wait for a boosting facial to transform my skin from dull and lifeless skin into radiant and gorgeous. I snuggle underneath a cosy fur throw as the cushioned massage bed starts to radiate warmth beneath me. My therapist gently removes my make-up, then massages scented Elemis products into my skin. My skin feels energised and silky smooth after an exfoliation treatment, and the rehydrating lotion plumps my skin with added moisture.

The final element of the treatment is a heavenly foot massage. The bottoms of my feet are lightly doused in soft trickling water, and a gentle scrub removes the winter build up of hard skin. Using a fragranced lotion, she works her fingers into the balls of my feet as I ease into a blissful state of serenity.

Food and drink

The three AA Rosette restaurant serves up mouthwatering British-inspired cuisine. From succulent Scottish smoked salmon to rich braised pheasant, the hotel’s ecclectic menu has a great variety of choices. The towering cheese trolley made a particular impression – creamy, soft and ripe cheese paired with a robust dessert port left a delightful, lingering aroma on the palette. Delicious!

Macdonald Randolph hotel dining room

How much does it cost?

A classic room in the Randolph starts from £146 per room, based on two people sharing. This includes breakfast in the restaurant. Car parking is available upon request and costs £28.50 (recommended to pre-book in advance), but the hotel is located within walking distance of Oxford train station, or a very short taxi journey.

The Elemis Signature Face & Body treatment costs £84 Mon-Thurs, and £94 Fri-Sun. Spa break packages are also available. A Revitalise Spa Break costs from £378 per room for two people. This includes an overnight stay, dinner, breakfast and an hour long treatment each. Stay on a Sunday night and enjoy late check out and a glass of chilled Prosecco on arrival. Choose one 60-minute spa treatment per adult from Stress away muscle massage, Fruit active glow facial, Hot stones full body massage, Jessica deluxe manicure or Jessica deluxe pedicure.

To book or for more information visit macdonaldhotels.co.uk

Burns Night Bonanza

Celebrate Burns Night with some delicious Scottish recipes

Haggis with neeps and tatties - Scottish food & recipes I’m from Wales originally so celebrating Burns Night was not an important family tradition in the Griscti household. The thought of eating haggis never really appealed to me until I was at university and sharing a house with three Scots, so when planted with plateful, I naturally gave it a go. To my surprise I really loved it. It doesn’t look the most appetising of meals but on the first bite I found it to be flavoursome, light and totally moreish. A few years have passed by since my university days but I still love to celebrate Burns Night with a deliciously tasty haggis, accompanied by my own version of hearty neeps and tatties.

The haggis
We tucked into an M&S Haggis, made by Macsween of Edinburgh. It didn’t fail to impress. It was sweetly spiced, mouthwateringly tender and packed with flavour.  I was particularly impressed that I managed to convert a non-Haggis eater into a haggis lover! “It is sooooo good,” was my friend Nikki’s verdict. I felt it important to include her exact review – thank you Nikki! We both came to the conclusion that if you’re squeamish about Haggis, one bite will completely change your perception. With its light consistency and spicy flavour it almost tastes like a rich type of stuffing, or lentil-based dish. I urge any non-Haggis eaters to give it a go.

To cook the Haggis, simply wrap in foil and place into an oven-proof dish filled with about 2cm of water, then cook in the oven at 180°C for 1 hour 20 minutes. Here’s what I cooked with the haggis…



Kind-of Scottish tatties
This is my own recipe and it works so well with Haggis. It’s a rich, creamy and textured mash with an indulgent crumbly cheese topping.

1) Steam some green cabbage leaves for about 10 minutes, keep the vegetable water as stock.

2) Make your mashed potato the usual way with plenty of butter, salt and pepper but instead of adding milk, add a touch of cabbage water (approx. 2 ladlesful – but judge for yourself: you don’t want the consistency to be too runny). Then add crème fraîche instead of milk. Again judge the amount by taste – you want it to be rich and creamy but not too heavy.

3) Stir the chopped, steamed cabbage leaves into the mash mix, adding a little more cabbage water / crème fraîche if needed.

4) Chop up approx. half a red onion and stir this into the mixture. Transfer into an ovenproof dish, then grate some Cheddar cheese and cover the top of the mash, together with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and salt and pepper.

5) Cook in the oven for about 25 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.

Caramelised balsamic carrots
1) Chop up and steam your carrots (enough for about four people) for about 10 minutes. Make sure they are not too soft, keeping a little crunch.

2) Chop up half a red onion and gently fry in some butter and a little olive oil until soft. Add a couple of spoonfuls of brown sugar then add the steamed carrots. Let the golden, sugary onions coat the carrots, then add a dash of balsamic vinegar (about 2 tablespoons). Gently cook for about 10 minutes, until the balsamic vinegar has reduced, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Serve your haggis and tatties with honey-roasted parsnips with thyme (posh neeps), and a white wine, onion gravy.

If you’d like some inspiration on foodie treats to stock up on for Burns Night, see my Scottish Food Buys on allabouty.com. Happy Burns night everyone!

Brilliant baked feta with sweet cherry tomatoes

baked feta and tomato dip - starter recipes - food

It’s Friday evening, I’m late home from work, and ambitiously, I’ve invited a gathering of guests over for an impromptu dinner party to celebrate the start of the weekend. Panic sets in – ‘what an earth can I rustle up in less than twenty minutes that looks and tastes fantastic?!” I can cheat and buy some posh nibbles, or I can be inventive and use up the tasty delights that have been sitting in my fridge, patiently awaiting my creative culinary skills. I know I have feta, I know I have cherry tomatoes, and I’m positive there are some herbs lying around that I can make good use of.

Sometimes these creations of mine turn out disastrously, but this time I’m glad to say it’s a complete success, with my dinner guests practically licking the serving dish clean. Rich cherry tomatoes in a sweet, tangy sauce with crumbled, salty feta baked until creamy and delicious. Serve with crusty wholemeal bread to scoop up the delectable deliciousness. It’s finger food at its finest, and allows you time in the kitchen to tackle the main course!

And for the recipe…

This gorgeous starter is packed full of flavour and only requires about five minutes preparation before throwing everything into the oven to work its magic.

Ingredients

● 2 shallots (finely chopped)
● Drizzle of olive oil
● 1 crushed garlic clove
● 1 can of cherry tomatoes in tomato juice (plus a little water)
● Pinch of chilli flakes
● Pinch of dried herbs (oregano or thyme)
● 200g pack of feta
● Fresh oregano or parsley (to garnish)
● Salt and pepper

What to do 

1)    Finely chop the shallots and fry in a little olive oil, until softened.

2)    Throw in your tin of cherry tomatoes with a dash of water, and turn up the heat until the tomato sauce has reduced.

3)    Add your chilli flakes and seasoning.

4)    Once the sauce has thickened, transfer to an ovenproof dish then sprinkle your crumbled feta on top, with a little salt and pepper.

5)    Bake in the oven at 180°C for about 15 minutes.

6)    Scatter a topping of fresh oregano or parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with fresh, baked bread and get dipping!

Head to Joe Allen’s, London, for gourmet burgers and chic cocktails

Joe Allen restaurant London

A New York-style brasserie, with a mighty-meaty American menu

Originally opened in the seventies, this theatre-loving, bustling haunt is where actors, producers, directors and West-End stars would habitually hang out supping on cocktails devouring the classic American fare. It still maintains that element of drama and sophistication, with crisp white linen table clothes, waiters clad in long, knee-length aprons with white shirts and black ties, a singing pianist, sultry, ambient lighting and walls adorned with theatre posters from old musicals and images of iconic American stars.

Joe Allen's restaurant - London restaurants - restaurant reviews - foodThe restaurant itself is has a New York/Parisian brasserie feel, with exposed brick walls and wooden floorboards. Very New York and very cool. Not surprising mind you, seeing as the restaurant itself is styled on its original New York venue, so there’s an aura of the Big Apple’s downtown-chic that emanates throughout. I envisage a swarm of Broadway stars herding into the restaurant to serenade the audience with classic show tunes accompanied by a debonair bow-tied gentleman tinkling on the piano.

We’re sat on a romantic table for two, subtly amused I sit opposite my lovely friend Di, and not on an intimate date with sexy man. To help whet our appetites we quite literally dive into a couple of tongue-tingling old fashioned tipples. I opt for the ‘Bitter Queen’, a combination of gin, Dubonnet, rose lemonade with a subtle hint of orange and aromatic bitters. As a Campari lover, this is just the cocktail for me, and of course helps whittle down our choices from the mouthwatering menu.

Joe Allen cocktail - London restaurant reviews - foodIf you’re feeling famished, Joe Allen’s collection of finger-licking American treats will absolutely hit the mark. We’re both ravenous, so if I’m honest, everything looks good, but catching my eye in particular is the creamy lobster macaroni. Who could resist? And then there’s the choice between succulent fillet steak, spiced baby back ribs or half a grilled chicken. What’s not on the menu we notice are the signature burgers, but we spot the waiters gliding through the restaurant gracefully carrying towering sliders filed with bacon, crisp salad, chunky pickles and bubbling cheese. We simply can’t miss out on sampling the restaurant’s definitive dish. We decide to share a steak and burger following our starters of lobster macaroni and crab salad.

Crab salad bloody tomao dressing - Joe Allen restaurant London - restaurant reviews - foodThe crab salad is divine. Delicate flakes of fresh crab with slices of avocado dressed in a tangy Bloody Mary tomato dressing. Refreshingly light and flavoursome, and the perfect entrée before tucking into a mammoth burger. The mac and cheese unfortunately did not quite live up to expectations. I was expecting a thick, cheesy sauce with chunks of exquisite lobster. Instead I bite into a mouthful of macaroni, that has a runny, milky consistency and I’m forced to play ‘hunt the lobster’. A few tiny chunks surface from the mounds of macaroni. It was ok, but certainly nothing nothing to rave about.

Macaroni and cheese - Joe Allen restaurant London - restaurant reviews - foodOur mains are swiftly presented to us in no time at all. I have a glistening fillet steak cooked in the restaurant’s signature steak sauce, accompanied by a delightful slightly spiced chipotle hollandaise sauce – an absolute taste sensation when smothered over my juicy steak.

Steak with hollandaise chipotle sauce - Joe Allen's restaurant London - restaurant reviews - food

Di is presented an impressive burger piled high with crisp salad, slathers of cheese, sizzling crispy bacon rashers and chunky pickles in a toasted brioche bun. Instantly I have food envy but lucky for me we decide to share! As a true burger buff I’m very particular about my sizzling sliders – but this one ticks every box.  The meat is perfectly pink and meltingly tender, the crispy bacon is covered in gooey cheese and the salad and pickles are crunchy and tasty as I bite into the sweet brioche bun. Heavenly. The chipotle hollandaise tastes great with the burger, alongside the spicy steak sauce, to add a cheeky little kick.

Joe Allen burger - London restaurants reviews - foodTo our surprise both plates are literally licked clean, without a leftover in sight. We have to roll ourselves out of the restaurant from a little over indulgence but overall Joe Allen’s gets a big thumbs up. Great burgers, quirky cocktails and a bustling atmosphere. Definitely worth a visit.

For more information on booking a table at Joe Allens, and to view a sample menu visit www.joeallen.co.uk

Scrumptious sauerkraut with smoked sausages and potatoes

Sauerkraut sausages potatoes recipe - food ideas - dinner recipesThis is without a doubt, one of my favourite food dishes of all time. It’s a flavourfest on a plate. Pickled cabbage piled high with chunky smoked sausages and soft, fluffy potatoes. Admittedly it’s a little of an acquired taste, but if you like strong bold flavours (like myself), then like you’ll love this hearty German dish.

Even as a child, I was always partial to some of the finer things in life, especially when it came to food. Rather than eating the traditional roast chicken and veg my mum had kindly prepared for me, I would insist on devouring a bowl of olives or infuriate her by tucking into some spicy salami. I’ve always loved experimenting with worldly foods. Bearing that in mind, at a very young age I developed a complete obsession with a tasty German dish, Sauerkraut. Anything pickled is a winner in my book, but add sausages to the pan and this is pretty much the icing on my savoury cake…

What you’ll need…
Selection of Polish and German smoked sausages such as kabanos, Bratwurst and frankfurters
4-5 White potatoes
2 cloves of garlic
Jar of Sauerkraut pickled cabbage
Two teaspoons pickled capers
Bay leaf (for potatoes)

How to cook…
1. Slice the sausages into sizeable chunks and fry them off in a large pan with a drizzle of olive oil and crushed garlic. You can keep the sausages whole if you prefer.

2. Whilst the sausages are frying, pop the potatoes on to boil with a bay leaf and salt. You can either boil or mash the potatoes, depending on your personal preference. I usually boil then, in a separate pan fry them off in olive oil and garlic.

3. Once the sausages have browned slightly, add the Sauerkraut and fry off until slightly golden in colour. At this stage you can throw in the potatoes (if you choose) and the capers and mix together on a medium heat for about 10 minutes, this way you will infuse the smoky-pickled flavours. Alternatively you can mash the potato then pour the cabbage and sausage mix over the top. Season to taste and pile up those plates!

Relax at the Chewton Glen hotel spa: a luxurious, heavenly hideaway in the heart of the New Forest

Chewton Glen hotel spa - spa reviews - travels reviews - New ForestGrowing up in the New Forest I would expect the views of the countryside to become embedded in my memory, however it’s a pleasant surprise that each time I return, I am taken aback by the sheer beauty of this magical place. With vast stretches of untamed forest playing host to herds of wild horses, the New Forest truly is the perfect place to escape and unwind from the hustle of the city. Chewton Glen offers the charm of the New Forest, with that little bit of added luxury.

The hotel

Chewton Glen is a luxurious and quintessentially English country manor house, nestled in the forest. This magnificent building dates back to the 18th-century with much of the traditional, distinctive features remaining as part of the hotel’s design scheme. Think oversized, elegant white windows with cascading layers of rich, vibrant fabrics and pristine landscapes boasting beautiful flowers. There’s also a croquet lawn and a delightful stone terrace where you can look back and envisage a plethora of lords, ladies and other distinguished folk sharing a delightful afternoon tea.

ImageThe exterior is very much preserved in 18th century tradition, but inside has a surprisingly modern, and comforting feel. Still lavish in design, the décor is sultry, seductive and contemporary, combining old-school elegance with stylish modern furnishings. We relax in the lounge for an afternoon tipple and marvel at the grand wooden staircase, tall ceilings and open stone fireplaces, stylishly contrasted by bold striped sofas, mirrored wall features and sumptuous scarlet walls – always surrounded of course by those spectacular countryside views.

ImageThe rooms

Chewton Glen has a range of plush rooms and suites and an exclusive selection of romantic, secluded Treehouse retreats. Each room is laden with amenities – flatscreen TV, stereo, huge comfy beds, white fluffy dressing gowns and a generous collection of indulgent toiletries that are too tempting to leave untouched!

Chewton Glen suite - hotel spa reviews - New ForestOur suite is cosy, with a homely feel, and the décor is classic country with a modern twist. We also have a private terrace with breathtaking views of the hotel’s pristine lawns. A natural theme runs throughout, with a bold feature wall painted in a sumptuous deep mauve. Mirrors and artwork adorn the walls and upholstered armchairs are conveniently dotted around the room, ready to rest weary feet.

The bathroom is sleek and elegant with neutral mosaic tiles, a huge mirrored wall space and a separate oversized shower and deep bath to sink into after a hard day’s pampering at the spa.

Chewton Glen spa pool - hotel spa reviews - New Forest

The spa and treatments

With 10 treatment rooms, six hydrotherapy spa pools, an indoor and outdoor pool, among other pampering treats, it’s not hard to see why this award-winning winning spa is so popular.

To start, we sit and relax in the hydrotherapy pools for an hour. Each pool offers different treatments ranging from vibrant all-over body massages to localised pressure points of the body such as the neck or back, with deep, vigorous massage techniques that really loosen the muscles.  Afterwards, there’s just time to do a few lengths of the 17-metre indoor pool before lunch, in the spa.

It’s informal and buffet-style, with everyone tucking in in robes and slippers. Choose from a selection of sandwiches, paninis and salads from the à la carte menu or opt for the buffet selection which includes cooked meats and fish, quiches, jacket potatoes, fresh salads and tortilla wraps, as well as a couple of indulgent desserts. A buffet plate including dessert costs £20.

After lunch I have the signature Chewton Glen back, neck and shoulder massage. The therapist worked wonders by easing the tension in my upper back using vigorous pressure techniques. I felt pleasantly relaxed, even though the pressure was forceful, and felt the benefits almost immediately. My back was under much less strain and I found my flexibility had improved significantly. The nourishing essential oils left my back supple and my skin invigorated and beautifully soft. Visit www.chewtonglen.com/spa/spa-treatments for a full list of spa treatments.

How much does it cost?

Prices range from £295 for a standard room up to £1,580 for a top-end suite. For a full list of room prices visit www.chewtonglen.com/rooms. For a more secluded and nature-inspired stay, the elegant Treehouse suites start at £700, for a full list of options visit www.chewtonglen.com/tree-house-suites.

What else is there to do?

If you can drag yourself away from your robes and slippers, there’s a wealth of countryside pursuits to take advantage of, either organised by the hotel, or further afield. The hotel boasts tennis courts, a croquet lawn, a golf course and even clay pigeon shooting if that takes your fancy. Highcliffe-on-Sea is a beautiful, secluded beach just a short walk away from the grounds. Walking and mountain-biking trails within the New Forest are also a great way to explore the area, and directions are available from reception. See www.chewtonglen.com/hotel/activities for more information.

Getting there

Chewton Glen is located on the edge of the New Forest National Park and within easy reach of Christchurch, Bournemouth and Southampton. The hotel is about 90 miles from central London by car or 1 hour 30 minutes by train from London Waterloo. The closest train station is New Milton, which is just a five minute car journey to the hotel. Visit www.chewtonglen.com/hotel/hotel-directions where you can download driving directions to the hotel from London, Bristol, Bournemouth, Bath, Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth.

A blissful massage at the Thai Square Spa, Covent Garden

spa-treatment-rooms-thai-square-spa-london-spa-review-fashion-beauty-UyeN3J-med

If like me, you’ve been lucky enough to experience Thailand first hand, you’ll be only too familiar with the idyllic vision that comes to mind; crystal clear waters that glisten in the sunlight setting the backdrop to white sandy beaches surrounded by vibrant tropical plants and flowers. From the heart of the rainforests to the beautiful islands, Thailand really is a place that will remain a picture of paradise in your mind that you’ll want to revisit again and again.

Having spent a month travelling around the country myself, I wholeheartedly admit I’m a bit of a Thai-junkie. I love the food, the culture and of course the divine (if not sometimes slightly painful), traditional Thai massages. So if you’re looking for a treatment inspired by the traditions of Thailand, Thai Square Spa is the ideal spot to relax and unwind after a hard day at the office, or a serious day of shopping.

Located in the heart of trendy Covent Garden, Thai Square Spa is a tranquil retreat tucked away from the chaos of the square’s famous street performers and bustling shops. As I walk into the building I’m instantly transported into an oasis of calm, greeted by relaxing, soothing music and lavish décor. Towering, carved Buddhas lead the way through softly lit walkways of exposed brickwork, hanging copper lanterns and exotic lotus flowers.

There are seven treatment rooms, all offering a range of decadent massages, facials, beauty treatments and traditional ritual therapies that work to cleanse and restore the body’s natural balance. I opt for the Body Bliss Ritual massage that gently works to calm the nerves and relax the muscles using aromatic, sensual oils. A sublime massage focusing on relaxtion, but vigorous enough to gently work out any uncomfortable knots. An hour’s treatment left me supremely relaxed and my mind in a state of calm, with stress merely a distant memory.

After my massage I’m taken to the relaxation area where I’m given a refreshing jasmine tea to slowly savour whilst I prepare myself to step back into normality. With friendly staff, wonderful soothing treatments and a luxurious setting, this spa really is a treat that you won’t want to miss out on.

Thai Square Spa is at 25 Shelton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9HW. 020 7240 6090. For a full list of treatment options visit www.thaisquarespa.com/coventgarden

Vietnamese Pho with king prawns

One of my absolute favourite meals is Vietnamese Pho. I just love the freshness and aromatic tones of this flavoursome broth. It’s such a cleansing dish packed with spicy ginger, fragrant lemon grass and a welcome kick of fresh chilli. If you’re feeling a little under the weather this is the best dish to warm your cockles, plus it acts as a great decongestant.

I usually go to my favourite Vietnamese restaurant at the end of my road for these culinary Asian delights. Any of you Hackney dwellers will know and frequent the fabulous Tre Viet, and for those further afield who don’t, I would highly recommend. With a mind-boggling array of authentic, mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes, plus the option of BYO, it’s always a preferred option in my book. The prospect of attempting to make any dish myself for the first time is always a little unnerving, especially when you know you can grab the perfect plate less than two minutes down the road and for less than £10; the second option usually prevails.

I decided to bite the bullet the other night and recreate a Pho noodle broth myself. A scary thought, but if it turned out to be complete a disaster I could always skip down the road to the takeaway and pretend to my housemate that I really had made it from scratch.

What I have been missing out on! It turned out to be a huge success. Apart from perhaps cooking the noodles a little too long, everything else was a winner. Vegetables were suitably crispy, the broth was packed with flavour and the chilli kick we were after definitely hit the mark. Plus it was a great warm up for the Comic Relief chilli-eating competition my housemate had entered herself into, and won I hasten to add!

I used prawns for this broth but you can use anything you like; thinly sliced pork, beef, fish or even just veg. The flavours of the broth are so wonderful, the meat or fish is just a welcome addition to the dish.

Vietnamese Pho with prawns

vietnamese-pho-noodle-soup-asian-recipesIngredients

3 red or birdseye chillis
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stick of lemongrass, cracked with the side of a knife
2cm piece of ginger, squashed slightly
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced diagonally
600 mls of good quality chicken stock
3 tbsp of Asian fish sauce
Handful of parsley leaves
Handful of basil leaves
150g cooked king prawns
150g rice noodles
100g bean sprouts
100g choy sum (fresh Asian cabbage leaves)
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 boiled egg

Method

1) Place the lemongrass, ginger garlic and 3/4 of the chopped chilli into a pan with the chicken stock. Bring to the boil for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat and leave to simmer for another 15 minutes for the flavours to really infuse.

2) Add the prawns and the choy sum (fresh Asian cabbage leaves) to the soup, and add three of the spring onions, the fish sauce and the fresh herbs. Leave aside a small handful of each herb for garnishing. Put the lid back on the pan, and leave it whilst you carry out step 3.

3) In a pan of boiling water, cook the beansprouts for 1-2 minutes, or until they are just tender. Drain them and add them to the soup. Place the egg into the boiling water, you need to boil for about 5-6 minutes. To save water add the rice noodles to the egg, and leave to cook for 4-5 minutes. Remove the lemongrass and ginger and from the soup.

4) Remove boiled egg and place into a bowl of cold water. Then peel the shell neatly.

5) Divide the cooked noodles between two deep bowls. Pour a generous serving of your broth and vegetables over the cooked noodles. Cut the boiled egg in half and place on top of the soup.

6) Garnish with a little of the basil and parsley leaves, a few slices of red chilli and spring onion. Serve with a wedge of lime.