When I plan meals for the week ahead, I often go by cuisine. It’s a sure fire way to save money by purchasing ingredients that will stretch across a number of meals. This week happened to be Italian week, a cuisine easily in my top three favourites. Where is the best place to find Italian ingredients? A delicatessen of course.
I had searched through Google for top delicatessens in the Leicestershire area. A lot of the results turned up the predictable names like Carluccio’s or the names of local supermarkets. In amongst them was a standout deli specialising in exactly the kind of Italian food I was after. Just So Italian in Market Harborough.
A short drive out of Leicester, Market Harborough is a pretty town often associated with commuters on the main train line down to London. This is in fact a smart area of Leicestershire which boasts the picturesque Foxton Locks nearby. Walking through town on a Sunday, we ended up heading right through a festival with live bands and street performers.
Just So Italian is situated on Adam and Eve Street. Alfresco seating is available outside in short supply but most welcome on a sunny day like this particular Sunday. We decided to head inside and check out the menu, as rumour had it they serve large boards of antipasto here.
The shop is just like stepping into a delicatessen anywhere in Italy. Seating is fairly minimal with around 8-10 tables plus stools and bar seating in the shop window. Above the seating area you can find shelves groaning with Italian delicacies – pasta, dried mushrooms, sauces and wines plus loads more.
A huge counter showcases meats and cheeses plus sweet cakes and even Sicilian arancini. A main menu stands at the end of the shop for the food offerings along with a menu on each table. Interestingly in addition to hot drinks the cafe also serves alcohol such as wine, beer and the famous Aperol Spritz.
One thing that we really enjoyed about the experience was the relaxed continental attitude and friendliness of the staff. “You pay at the end” said the lady at the counter when placing my order. This is perfect as it saves you going up to the counter multiple times, as the chances are that you won’t be leaving without purchasing a gift to take home.
Coffee is something that the Italians do very well. In this case, my mocha was spot on. A lot smoother than many that I have had before and very well made. Equally so, the hot chocolate is of superb quality. At £2.95 and £2.85 respectively, we were impressed.
We were both in the mood for an easy lunch and lunch doesn’t come easier than an antipasto board. A selection of salami, hams and cheeses from the deli counter garnished with focaccia, olives, sun dried tomatoes, crackers, red onion jam and rocket. A stacked board fit for two hungry people at just £15.25.
Sampling our way through the delights before us, the quality became apparent. Forget your supermarket Parma ham and pecorino, this is the premier league. The gooey Taleggio cheese was a real standout and went perfectly slathered over the salt and rosemary focaccia. The pecorino wasn’t left in the shade either, this had a wonderfully salty flavour. Heavenly with the red onion jam.
The Parma ham here is so different to the commercial offerings. You can really taste a far fresher and more in-depth flavour than something that has come out of a plastic wallet. The spicy salami and salami with fennel were equally as fresh in taste. If ever there was a good alternative to taking a flight over to Italy, this was it.
After we had finished munching our way through the board, we did a little shopping. How can you not? This is a true treasure trove for anyone with even a passing interest in Italian cuisine. We got 100g of pecorino sardo to use in a cacio e pepe plus some dried spaghetti. We weren’t quite finished there though….
I added to our growing bill by purchasing giant penne, dried porcini mushrooms, a few slices of Parma ham, some fiery Calabrian nduja and a couple of cannoli’s for the road. Total money spent, including the meal and coffee – £47.
The service is something that really sets Just So Italian apart. The ladies here are so nice and know their stuff when it comes to food. This is a massive help when it comes to choosing the correct ingredient for what you are making. For example, from the two types of Parma ham available I was advised that one is better for cooking and the other to eat as antipasto.
To not have to trek all the way down to London for a quality Italian experience complete with shopping is something that we are incredibly grateful for. We are extremely lucky to have Just So Italian on our doorstep and even more lucky to have discovered it. Buonissimo!
Trinity Square is home to some superb bars and restaurants in central Nottingham. One of which is Son of Steak. A steakhouse with an affordable menu featuring a good variety of different cuts of beef. Our evening masterclass would unlock all the secrets of what makes a good steak.
The position that Son of Steak occupies in Trinity Square is a prominent one. The whole frontage of the restaurant looks out onto the square and even has a terrace for those warm, sunny days. Entering the restaurant is a bit like going shopping in a store belonging to All Saints.
We were greeted by Josh, who would be serving us the steaks and sides throughout the evening. A small area had been set aside for the event into which a horde of bloggers and social media influencers crammed into. With all the cameras around, you could have been at a fashion shoot.
A table was set up complete with knives and a chopping block and soon after, a whole range of steaks. Two men, one of which was on the meat production and butchery side, the other on the cuisine development side, took the masterclass to the masses.
The evening began with a talk on how the cattle are reared, going into fascinating detail about how low stressed animals create the best meat. A stressed animal will produce meat that is virtually black in appearance from the constriction of blood vessels. This isn’t something that I had considered or even heard about in the process of slaughter before.
After a chat about farming methods and the anatomy of the beast, we got to eat one. The starting steak was a picanha cut. Popular throughout South America and a cut that I have really began to enjoy, this was something that I was really looking forward to trying cooked by a restaurant.
The steak was sliced up and passed around on serving boards. Each table had around two pieces of steak each, as this was a tasting. The picanha had a good flavour but lacked seasoning around the outer crust. You could sense the flavour from the taste of the inside but a pinch of salt really would have benefitted the meat.
Our side dishes were arriving in between each steak tasting. We began with a delicious hash brown in a creamy sauce and also sampled crispy onion bhaji, fries, fried mushrooms and vegan curry.
Sadly the hash brown happened to be the only side dish that we were really into. The chips were flaccid and needed to be a lot more crispy. The mushrooms were incredibly greasy, to the point at which you bite into one and your mouth just fills with oil. The vegan curry texturally was quite mushy.
The next steak cut was a sirloin cut, one of my favourites. Yet again this was cooked beautifully on the inside, lovely and pink. Also, yet again, the steak was lacking in seasoning. We had noticed that some tables had requested sauce on the side, salt and pepper on the tables would have also been a good option to have.
Heading towards the last two cuts, the hosts of the masterclass were really struggling to hold the attention of the group. It’s never good to see people ignoring a detailed and carefully planned demonstration by two people with such knowledge. Nevertheless, our meat magicians carried on and delivered the next cut.
A ribeye steak is something very special, the perfect blend of meat and fat. This steak had actually been seasoned and it made a world of difference. A juicy steak with plenty of fat keeping the moisture coming is always going to be a good thing. Even better news is that this steak is just £16.75 on the main menu.
The final act was to be the butchery of a flat iron steak. This is a tricky steak to get hold of, in the sense of from the animal. Our meat master weaved his knife expertely around the central gristle running through the meat to separate the two whole flat irons. All that is left to do is to portion the steaks ready for the grill.
Tasting the flat iron is like a halfway point between sirloin and fillet. A great steak if you don’t want to splurge on a fillet. Again, the cooking was spot on. Interestingly, the subject of sous-vide came up, which I would use to get the perfect steak. The restaurant doesn’t actually use the method of plastic bags due to environmental issues.
instead, a vapour system is used through an oven giving a similar result. The process is the same during which a steak will be cooked at a specific temperature but using the vapour method instead of a water bath. Once the steak has had its time, it is then seared on the grill and rested to ensure a juicy finish is achieved.
Our masterclass finished with a plate of chocolate brownies, all of which were eagerly devoured. On the whole, we found the experience informative and the quality of the steaks to be decent. With rivals such as Miller and Carter in the mix, Son of Steak have to really be on their game. This masterclass is a unique way of showing off their steaks and gaining interest from new customers.
This week, I thought about raising the stakes, or should that be ‘raising the STEAKS’? I completely lost my mind for a second and began a search through Google for the best beef on the planet. The result? Japanese Wagyu A5.
I should explain that Wagyu is a breed of cattle, not just a code name for expensive steak. Wagyu is actually very affordable depending on the level of marbling that you like in a steak. Some of the best is actually bred right here in the UK, in particular Wales and the Scottish Highlands.
On the subject of marbling, this is what sets the Japanese A5 out in front. The Wagyu A5 is notorious for intense marbling, resulting in a rich, juicy steak. This is achieved by some rather unusual farming methods. Cows are raised in a completely stress free environment and even rumoured to have music played to them or daily massages in some cases.
This labour-intensive strategy produces incredible results in the final product. Cuts of beef that are intense in both marbling and flavour using the simple equation ‘fat = flavour’. I couldn’t believe the prices being quoted online, very few places had this particular grade of Wagyu – and those that did were not selling it cheap.
With prices dancing around the £250 per kilo mark, I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding budget A5 Wagyu. I stumbled across a London Wagyu supplier called Tajimaya. An online shop specialising in both Kobe and Wagyu from Japan. The A5 grade steaks were actually very well priced.
300g of A5 sirloin steak set me back £60. A fair price as it turned out. The steaks are actually good for sharing between 3-4 people, due to the richness. One steak between two of us seemed like a good option. Within a couple of days, my order arrived by courier. I couldn’t fault the customer service.
Wrapped up like a christmas present, this is something very special. Tajimaya had kindly sent through a pack of Kobe air-dried beef for us to try which was a lovely touch. The sight of the heavily marbled sirloin staring back at me was incredible. I have never seen a steak like this before, let alone in my possession.
The steak arrived frozen, which in my opinion, is the best option for storage. The weather in the UK can be very unpredictable and the last thing you need is rain when trying to cook over charcoal. The steak being frozen means that you can pick your day to cook and get the best result.
When the time came to cook the steak, I was taking no chances. I looked at a method involving a sous-vide set up. I’m a big fan of the YouTube channel ‘Sous Vide Everything’ and Guga, the host, had cooked Wagyu A5 using the water bath to get the perfect result. I decided to take the same direction by setting the bath for 57C.
After vacuum sealing the steak in a bag, the meat took the plunge into the water bath. Two hours later, I had a steak ready for searing. When I removed the steak from the bag, I noticed it was incredibly flexible, not firm like a regular steak. I wasn’t going to attempt gymnastics with it but this was so unusual.
As a side dish, I was going to put together some sushi rice. This is simply prepared sushi rice with scrambled eggs and shiitake mushrooms. I made the eggs with a dash of mirin which helps the egg maintain a glossy appearance. I then simply sliced the shiitakes and sauteed them in butter with a dash of soy sauce.
A dipping sauce also entered my mind. I went with a combination of ginger, caster sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Mixed together this made a simple dipping sauce to compliment the steak.
With the barbecue fired up, I could now sear the steak. A really important tip at this point is to make sure that your grill is roaring hot. I cleaned the grate with a grill brush and placed the steak over the glowing coals.
Due to the amount of fat in the steak, expect the coals to flare up. You can control this by spraying a little water from a bottle on the coals to calm the flame a bit, but I didn’t. The wagyu seared in next to no time, literally a minute and a half each side to give that lick of charcoal flavour.
While the steak rested, I plated up the rice and the sauce. Carving into the steak was like cutting through butter. It’s a strange texture as it feels like a firm steak at first but then the knife simply glides through.
So, what does it taste like? I couldn’t believe the amount of juice coming out of the steak, it pretty much dresses itself. The first bite, similar to the slicing, was the firm texture of a steak but then an explosion of flavour and a melting texture in the mouth. This is on another level. It’s almost like someone has taken a steak and injected it with butter.
I was glad to have the steak medium as due to the amount of fat cooking it rare could leave some of the internal fat undisturbed. This could result in a more chewy steak. It is a very forgiving steak though if you like it well done, the sheer amount of juice ensures that there is no chance of a dry steak.
If I had to compare it to something, it would be Iberico pork. The secreto cut in particular. A fatty cut from the shoulder of the pig with such rich marbling and flavour, it’s little wonder they want to keep it a secret. Wagyu A5 sits right alongside this in terms of texture, flavour and quality, in my opinion.
The Kobe air-dried beef was insanely delicious too. It didn’t exactly play second fiddle to the main event like I thought that it might. This may look like ultra-thin slices of innocent looking beef but my goodness the flavours are insanely good. It just goes and goes, absolutely delicious.
Many will baulk at the price of the wagyu but when you break it down one steak can go a long way. Many people gather around hibachi grills at Japanese restaurants to barbecue strips of this prized meat, why not do the same at home? In terms of value for money, you definitely get what you pay for.
I would happily end this article by declaring that Wagyu A5 is the best beef that I have ever eaten. This beef sits comfortably in the premier league of meat. Completely unique and an event in itself. For some, it could be a once in a lifetime experience. For me, I don’t think that I have seen the last of this wonderful steak.
Formerly known as The Orange Tree, the Tree is a completely renovated pub on Leicester’s High Street. A kind invitation for a media get together to go and check out both the pub and it’s menu got us very excited about seeing the new features.
Leicester Festival was in full swing just metres away at Jubilee Square, which meant that the pub was getting busy. Great early signs for the staff with bums on seats and a chilled out atmosphere building nicely. We arrived and were kindly ushered through to the rear of the pub.
The dining area consists of a lovely spread of tables and chairs equally spaced apart. This may be a pub but dining has been carefully thought about, especially with the variety on the menus. We enjoyed a complimentary glass of Prosecco while we had a look at the food offerings.
What struck us straight away was the choices on the vegan menu. With veganism becoming ever more popular, establishments serving food are really upping their game when it comes to providing vegan dishes. Taco’s, curry and pizza’s all came with mouth watering descriptions, enough to tempt even the hardiest meat eater.
It was a wrench not to go for anything vegan but the Armin pizza, containing mozzarella, goats cheese, red onion chutney and rocket, had me hooked. Ali decided on Mac and Cheese throwing in bacon as an add-on at £1. A wise decision, as we all know, bacon makes everything taste better!
Prior to the main courses, we split a plate of BBQ wings with ranch dip between us. All the food arrived at the same time so we wasted no time in getting stuck in. Sticky wings with a sweet, tangy BBQ sauce are always a winner. These were juicy and fantastic paired with the sharp ranch dip.
The pizza was a very decent size. Reminiscent of the huge pie that I had at The Three Crowns in nearby Wymeswold. The flavours of goats cheese, red onion chutney and rocket are simply meant to be together. Does it work on a pizza? You bet it does! The mozzarella helps to elevate the flavours from a salad to a pizza without a hitch. A delicious combination.
Mac and Cheese can either be ridiculously heavy or quite dry. The Tree’s kitchen team have hit this right on the sweet spot. The portion of macaroni glazed in a delicious cheese sauce, bubbling away on the table, was spot on. Adding bacon is indeed a smart idea and should be actively encouraged.
The cocktails at The Tree are also worth a mention. We ordered up a couple of Aperol Spritz which were well made and on a par with those that we have tried previously in Venice. Judging by the full room at the back and standing room only towards the bar, this was the start of a very good thing for The Tree.
With the meals almost finished, we decided to head out to the back of the building to check out the beer garden. This is such a cool space and many people were sitting on the benches chilling out and enjoying the late evening sunshine. A further chat with the PR company that were putting the night on provided a great insight into their work.
Overall, the food was a huge delight, the price was even better and everyone left happy. You can’t really get better than that for a recent opening. The Tree is in the perfect position, right beside the Highcross and amongst the bars and clubs of Leicester’s night scene. We can see nothing but great times ahead for The Tree and their team.
The summer is in full swing and strawberries are ripe for picking. Such ingredients associated with sunshine lead me to think of a dessert. A tropical pairing of Yee Kwan Toasted Coconut Ice Cream with Mango. Of course, I had to include those lovely British strawberries.
This dessert may look a bit technical but I put that down entirely to the presentation. You can have this any way you like. In a glass, in a bowl, the choice is entirely down to you. All I can say is that all the elements together present a true taste of the sun.
Why Yee Kwan Toasted Coconut Ice Cream? Well this is a unique product. I have never tried any coconut ice cream with as much intensity of flavour. Think of the inside of a Bounty bar and you are in the right ballpark. In addition to being utterly delicious this ice cream is also gluten free.
Creating this dessert at home is simple and easy, here’s how to do it….
290g Chopped, fresh Mango
2 Gelatine leaves
50g Caster Sugar
300ml Double cream
100g Pistachios, shelled
1-2 Punnets of Strawberries, hulled
Coconut Yogurt, to serve
Honeycomb pieces, to serve
Yee Kwan Toasted Coconut Ice Cream, to serve
1. Place the mango chunks and sugar into a blender and blitz until smooth.
2. Soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water for 3-5 minutes or until softened.
3. Pass the pureed mango through a sieve into a saucepan. Gently heat the puree up over a low-medium heat. The puree should not boil.
4. Squeeze the excess water out of the gelatine leaves and then stir into the warmed puree to dissolve. Once dissolved, pass the puree back through the sieve again into a bowl to cool completely to room temperature.
5. Once the puree has cooled. Pour the cream into a separate bowl and whisk until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the cream into the puree a little at a time until fully combined. Don’t worry if the mixture looks a little loose at this stage. Place the mousse in the fridge, covered, for 2-3 hours.
6. Pound the pistachio nuts in a pestle and mortar (or in a zip-loc bag with a rolling pin works well too). You want the nuts to be a coarse texture.
7. Once the mousse has set. Give it a stir and spoon carefully into a piping bag. Reserve this in the fridge while you dress the plate.
8. Make a swipe of coconut yogurt on each plate. Pipe small mounds of the mango mousse along the yogurt. Decorate with strawberries and the honeycomb. Place a small mound of pistachio crumb on one side of the plate and top with a ball of coconut ice cream. Add a little more pistachio over the top of the strawberries and serve.
The flavours of this dessert are heavenly and it’s so simple to make. I loved the way it also occupied so little of my time. If you are having a party this summer or a special occasion, this is a perfect pudding to wow your guests.
You can purchase the fantastic Yee Kwan Toasted Coconut Ice Cream right here at yeekwan.com
The Fringe is the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. It has been held in the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, since its creation in 1947. Every August for three weeks (2nd – 26th August) performers including street performers, comedians and musicians head to Edinburgh to put on their individual or collective shows.
How do I get to The Fringe?
Visitors travelling up from south of the Scottish Border can access Edinburgh easily through the A1 and M6 motorways. Our journey time from the Midlands was just over 5 hours. We would highly advise leaving early to beat any potential traffic, especially if travelling via the busier M6 onto M75/M8 route.
In our opinion, the A1 is far better in terms of traffic and scenery. The beautiful stretch around Dunbar features the Lothian Coastal Path with stunning views across the North Sea on a clear day.
If you are travelling from further afield, the main airport in Edinburgh is just 15 minutes away from the city centre by train (Edinburgh Gateway) and also easily accessible by bus and tram. Full information on how to get to and from the airport can be found here https://www.edinburghairport.com/transport-links
The main train station in Edinburgh is Edinburgh Waverley which is right in the centre of the festival.
Where can I stay?
With over 53,000 performances across over 3,000 shows in 300 venues – there’s a lot of competition for accommodation in Edinburgh during the Fringe.
Fear not however, there are great options available in the city centre with good prices to those who book at the earliest possible opportunity. The prices, due to the popularity of the festival, do come at a premium however. Expect to pay around £130-180 on average per night for anything above three stars.
We chose to book late and got ourselves a 4 star hotel in South Queensferry at The Dakota. A 17 minute train ride away from the city centre, this was a great option situated by the picturesque Forth Bridge. Staying outside of the city centre can also be a lot more calming away from all the crowds.
Nearby towns and cities are also a good strategy to check out, especially as many of them have good transport links to Edinburgh. A train from Glasgow will generally take around 45 minutes – 1 hour and run until just before midnight for the return journey. Megabus also operate a good service between Edinburgh and Glasgow generally at fair prices.
How do I go about seeing a show?
Any pre-booked tickets can be collected from the various collection points listed on the Fringe website, we collected ours from the machines at Waverley train station using the card that we purchased the tickets with. A simple swipe and the tickets just print out for all the shows booked.
The great news is that a lot of the shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe are free of charge. This means that you can happily turn up at most shows, take a seat and enjoy watching a comedian or show that you may never have heard of or seen before.
For ticketed shows, usually for bigger names such as Frank Skinner or Al Murray, the prices are very decent. Many comedians will use Edinburgh as an opportunity to test new material ahead of stand-up tours later in the year. Our tickets to watch the impressionists ‘Dead Ringers’ and comedian Frank Skinner were £17 per person for each show.
The hardest part of actually seeing a show can be deciding who or what to see. Many comedians will hand out flyers prior to their shows outside the venue. This can be a great opportunity to roll the dice and check out an act that you may never have thought to go and see. Generally the shows last for around an hour in duration.
The Edinburgh Fringe website is a really useful tool when trying to narrow down your choice of shows. We would highly recommend compiling a shortlist or itinerary of shows that take your fancy. This really helped us get our timings right between the venues to ensure that we got to see everything that we wanted to see.
Many shows, as mentioned earlier, are free or on a ‘PWYW’ basis (Pay What You Want). This means that you have the option at the end to give what you thought that the show was worth. Many comedians will hold bucket collections at the end of the show and contactless donations are also available for those who have no spare change to give.
What is there to eat?
Edinburgh is blessed with a whole range of superb restaurants. You can eat anything from Michelin Star food at The Kitchin in Leith to superb street food all across the city.
Hopping from venue to venue, street food was our go-to when it came to eating in the city. Small villages are set up in places like Princes Street consisting of bars and street traders. A stall specialising in halloumi fries were the most popular during our visit to Princes Street.
George Square Gardens also has a street food set up. Perfect if you are visiting either students or venues around the area. One of the best street food areas that we found had little more than two stalls.
Gladstone Court, tucked away off Canongate, is home to The Haggis Box. A small hut dishing up Scotland’s national dish – Haggis, Neeps and Tatties. The haggis here costs £6 with the option of whisky and mustard sauce for £1 more. 100% worth the extra investment.
Other great places to eat include ‘Oink’ who have branches at Victoria Street, Hanover Street and Canongate. Oink specialise in hog roast sandwiches complete with various different sauces, haggis stuffing and some of the best crackling that you’ll ever eat.
Another Scottish delicacy to try, although not for the diet conscious, is a deep fried mars bar. A speciality in the local chip shops, it’s a huge whack of calories to keep you marching up those steep hills. A mars bar is dipped in batter and deep fried until gooey and delicious – we loved it and highly recommend that you give it a go.
What are the venues like?
The venues all vary in size and capacity. Many are simply rooms with chairs and a stage in the basement of a bar or above a pub. This allows for an intimate setting where it is simply just the crowd and the comedian. Pure comedy.
Unlike at Leicester Comedy Festival, we found that the venues were air conditioned a lot better. This provides a welcome relief for those performing in hot and sweaty rooms with the audience also being far more comfortable.
It’s highly advisable to arrive at your selected venue in good time. Many of the more popular shows involve a queue and many are on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Sometimes it isn’t obvious where the show is taking place within the venue but normally there are Fringe staff on hand to advise or staff at the venue behind the bar that you can ask.
What are the best bits?
The buzz and the atmosphere at The Fringe is something truly unique. Everyone is out to have a great time and enjoy the beautiful city of Edinburgh. The street performers on The Royal Mile and at the bottom of Victoria Street provide a great way to enjoy a few minutes just standing and admiring while soaking in the atmosphere.
Finding the next big thing when it comes to comedy has long been a trademark of the Fringe. Many hopeful acts perform their sets with a view to being discovered and making it big. You could be watching the next Lee Evans or Peter Kay in any random venue.
The level of talent at The Fringe is very high indeed. We were amazed by the performances down the streets and in the bars and pubs. The mixed bill shows are a great way to see many acts perform a few minutes in the same show.
What are the not so good bits?
As with every major event, where there are crowds there will be opportunists. Keep your belongings safe and try to stay alert throughout your visit to deter pickpockets. Generally there is a really good police presence in the main areas such as The Royal Mile.
Some of the organisation can be a bit hectic at times. Some pubs advertise shows but don’t disclose which room they are taking place in. This can be problematic when two shows are taking place at the same time. It’s definitely best to check with either the Fringe staff or the bar staff at the venue.
The crowds throughout the day are all in good spirits and there are rarely any incidents. However, as the night goes on and the alcohol begins to flow evermore, there can be a change in atmosphere. Stay safe and always have a plan B for getting back to your accommodation if you plan to stay out late.
What essentials should I bring with me?
As my Scottish grandma used to say “If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, just wait five minutes”. This is scarily accurate. On day one we had tropical conditions in the afternoon with bright sunshine and then a torrential downpour of rain.
Even though it may be August, take a rainproof jacket, preferably with a hood. Umbrellas are also a good investment. If you arrive without an umbrella, I can strongly recommend Primark as a place to purchase a good one for £4 to get you through the festival.
Comfortable shoes are also a must. Edinburgh is famous for its steep hills and rough cobbled streets in places. This is also a great opportunity to work off all those chips and deep fried mars bars!
A map is also a useful tool as Edinburgh can be a maze of streets, often on different levels. A good mobile maps app such as Google Maps is handy for navigating your way between the venues. Leave plenty of time to get around.
With an imminent trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam planned, a guide book is a welcome tool to have. Culture Smart, who kindly sent me a copy of their guide, offer a completely different insight into destinations.
This isn’t a guide book full of recommendations on where to eat, stay and party. This is a book designed to look into the inner workings of Vietnam, the do’s and don’ts and best practices. In other words, this is a fail-safe guide against making a faux pas when in Vietnam.
The book is written by a trusted source. A man named Geoffrey Murray, an Australian who has worked in Asia for over 40 years. Geoffrey also has the distinct honor of being named a ‘Vietnam War Veteran’ due to being a news agency war correspondent back in the 1960’s during the Vietnam War. If there’s anyone who knows about Vietnam top to bottom, it’s this man.
Geoffrey has compiled a guide focused on giving an overview of Vietnam. From the climate, history, food, local customs and even going into such detail as what to do if you’re in desperate need of the toilet on a highway. There are inclusions in this book that you seldom see in any other guide book.
The book contains a few pictures but in black and white form. The contents are all clearly displayed making each section easy to navigate. With the book size allowing it to fit easily into a deep pocket or bag, this is extremely helpful when travelling around with the tourist in mind.
I’m not sure that I will be invited into people’s homes during my stay in Vietnam. However, if I am, I owe a huge debt of thanks to Geoffrey. The guide on how to behave, rules on gifts and making a good impression is vital for anyone planning to visit the Vietnamese in their own homes.
Likewise, if you are travelling for business. A guide on meeting etiquette and even how to dress is provided in the book. With Vietnam now possessing a rapidly growing economy, this is extremely useful knowledge for any potential businessmen heading into the country.
I will take a lot of knowledge from this book. There are facts and information that I never would have thought to consider prior to a trip to Vietnam. In all honesty I will take a great deal going forward thanks to Geoffrey’s work. I now feel like I know Vietnam a whole lot better.
With the Forth Bridge providing a beautiful backdrop, Dakota Hotel was our base during our weekend spent enjoying the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For £150 for a one night stay, this was one of the better options in the Edinburgh area at 4 star level.
The hotel is within easy reach of major motorways and roads surrounding the city leading towards the Forth Bridge. Any hotel with free parking is a godsend in Edinburgh and thankfully Dakota have ample space during your stay.
Situated on a retail park, there are no shortage of places to eat and drink. Tesco directly opposite is open until midnight through the week and 10pm on Sundays. Frankie and Benny’s and Burger King provide eating options with the hotel having its very own Bar and Grill.
We checked in late to the hotel after an early arrival. With the festival being on, we wouldn’t be back at the hotel until later in the evening. Once we did venture inside the hotel, the scene that greeted us was a smart and chic space.
The bar area is beautiful and rivals some of its 5 star counterparts. The staff are friendly and informative with regards to onward travel into Edinburgh. We took a train from nearby Dalmeny station which was £4.80 return per person to Waverley station in the city centre. Buses are also available right outside Tesco reaching the city in 40 minutes for just £5 return each.
Our room was a lovely size with one of the softest most comfortable beds we’ve ever had. A nights sleep in this is a real luxury and much appreciated after a day at the Fringe. Tea and coffee making facilities are also in the room as well as USB points in the wall, very handy and something that we haven’t yet seen in other hotels.
Sky TV is also provided in the room with a complete list of channels. The bathroom came with a shower but no bath, full toiletries were also provided. The sleek look of the room really gives off a stylish vibe. Staying here is a thoroughly relaxing experience.
It was a shame that we only had one night at Dakota. Legend has it that the breakfast here is a good investment. We had slept in after an early start the previous morning and a late finish at the Fringe, so we sadly missed out. Saying that, why would you want to leave the world’s comfiest bed?
If you are up in Edinburgh for the Fringe then Dakota is a great place to stay. With good links between South Queensferry and the city centre by bus and rail, Dakota provides an oasis of calm away from the crowds.
When there’s a line coming out of a shop selling roast meat, you know that it’s impossible to walk by. Oink are specialists in hog roasts, reputedly some of the best in Edinburgh. We stopped by at their popular branch at Victoria Street for some lunch.
Now I say branch, that’s because Oink have shops not only at Victoria Street but also Hanover Street and nearby Canongate. It seems that Edinburgh natives can’t get enough of roasted pig in a bun. Luckily when we arrived at Victoria Street, the line wasn’t too long.
In the window, you can see the pièce de résistance, the whole hog. Shredded up and placed into buns that come in three sizes – piglet, oink and grunter. Piglet is almost like a slider in size and more geared towards children. Oink is a perfect medium and grunter is for those wanting a serious amount of meat. We stayed in the middle.
The space in the shop is extremely tight. Very few seats are available and many people choose to take away. The ordering process works like this – first, select your size of sandwich, your stuffing (choose from regular sage and onion or haggis) and then your sauce(s). Dead easy.
There’s also the option of having crispy crackling on the sandwich. To be honest, you’re out of your mind if you don’t get some on there, so be sure to do so. We grabbed a couple of drinks (Coca Cola and Irn Bru) and were informed that for the addition of either shortbread or crisps we could make a meal deal for £7.50.
With us being in Scotland, we just had to have shortbread. Deal done. Down the street we went clutching our goodies and by pure luck we found a bench right in the centre of all the madness to enjoy our food.
I had gone with mustard mayo on my sandwich while Ali had opted for apple sauce. For me, the sandwich was alright. The sauce was good, the meat seemed a bit devoid of flavour – certainly nothing for The Rib Man to worry about. The haggis stuffing didn’t really taste of much either.
The apple sauce and pulled pork combo fared a lot better. The sweet sauce worked a lot more in harmony with the meat. I would lean more towards this combination of flavours if we happened to stop by at Oink again.
The major highlight of the whole experience was that crackling. Wow! This stuff is like shards of pork flavoured glass. Loads of flavour right there and very moreish. The shortbread was also baked beautifully and came with a rich,buttery flavour – yum!
For the price, the food wasn’t bad. Does it justify the rave reviews though? I’m not so sure. Oink is quite clearly very popular amongst the locals and tourists in Edinburgh but for us it falls into the ‘it’s alright’ category. Maybe i’m just being a grunter…
Opening Times: Monday – Saturday 1100-2200, Sunday 1100-1900 (or until the pork runs out)
Edinburgh is a city with so much choice when it comes to eating out. You could go to the poshest of restaurants or have tasty food in the backstreets, whatever your budget, Edinburgh has you covered. We were seeking out two delicacies on our way around the city – Haggis and a Deep Fried Mars Bar.
Neither of these dishes sound very appealing at first glance. Let’s begin with the haggis. This is the national dish of Scotland, traditionally served with neeps and tatties. Or to translate into English – swede and potatoes. Properly done, haggis is actually very tasty. A world away from the horror stories of boiled sheep’s stomach.
I had been trying to research a decent place to find the dish in its entirety. With being at the Edinburgh Fringe and on the move, street food seemed like a good option. Yes that’s right, you can have haggis, neeps and tatties on the street and I’ll tell you exactly where. Just off Canongate at a tiny courtyard named Gladstone Court.
The rain was pouring as we dodged the flyering acts on Canongate. This is the bottom end of the Royal Mile so it’s not exactly unexpected. Luckily we made it into Gladstone Court where three street food vendors are set up to trade. One of which is the Haggis Box.
For £6 you can grab a portion of haggis, neeps and tatties and for an extra £1 you can top it off with a sauce – I chose the whisky and mustard cream sauce. You can also opt for red wine gravy as a gluten free option. The lady inside the box was really friendly and declared it the best haggis that I would ever eat, a strong statement.
Mounded up like Ben Nevis, this was a decent portion. Mashed potatoes on the bottom, swede in the middle and a huge scoop of haggis on the top, all doused in the whisky sauce. As the rain continued to pour down it occured to me that this was perfect weather for this kind of food.
This is a true taste of Scotland. Each and every part of the dish had great flavour. Haggis has the texture of very fine mince with pieces of pearl barley. It’s fantastic paired with neeps and tatties but the sauce really tops it all off. We were delighted to have stopped by and left full and satisfied.
Main course devoured, we headed to the bottom of Victoria Street, around 10 minutes walk away (downhill thankfully). At the bottom of the street sits Grassmarket, a popular place for street performers during the Fringe along with a small market selling food and antiques. We were here to visit Castle Rock chip shop.
Pride of place in the window is a sign declaring ‘Deep Fried Mars Bar Sold Here’ exactly what we were after. I must admit it does feel weird asking for deep fried chocolate but this is nothing new for the staff “How many do you sell of these?” I asked “Oooh boxes and boxes” replied the lady behind the counter. The service here is really friendly and good humoured.
After further discussion, the lady likened the product to a crepe which I could definitely see why. £2.50 later, I was the proud owner of a heart attack in bar form. Outside I went and it was instantly seen by passing tourists who went inside to grab themselves a bar of Scottish culinary heritage.
I have to admit, it was love at first bite. The lady in the shop was correct, it really does have the same qualities as a crepe. The chocolate was still intact, just slightly melted around the edges. The batter just adds that lovely crunch and from then on it’s just pure chocolate heaven. It looks so wrong but it could not be more right, in our view.
We had accomplished our mission of seeking out two notable delicacies of Scotland. We were really surprised that we actually enjoyed both of them to the point that we would happily have them again. Quick and convenient plus tasty equals satisfaction in our book.
Cocktails are everywhere around the Fringe Festival. Pop up bars and pubs are seemingly there in every direction. Not all of them are immediately obvious though. We headed to a speakeasy hidden underground just off Hanover Street – Hoot The Redeemer.
Appearing as an extended doorway of the adjacent Bella Italia, you wouldn’t even know that this was the entrance to a bar. A quick walk down a flight of stairs to the bottom brings you face to face with a fortune teller. Behind the fortune teller is the door to gain entry to the bar.
If quirky is your thing then Hoot The Redeemer is your place. We loved the small, intimate atmosphere. Heading to the bar, the staff were so nice and welcoming. With the Fringe being on we were glad to have reserved a table, highly recommended as this is a popular place.
The theme of the menu is based around tarot. The cocktail menu reads like a pack of cards. There are also cocktail slushies, ice creams and even options to put your trust in the hands of the barman. A large grabber machine is a popular choice for those of an indecisive nature.
By operating the machine, you can grab a ball that has the ingredients within it for a cocktail, or a certain flavour. Take that to the bar and the staff will knock up a cocktail using those ingredients.
Narrowing down our choice of cocktail from the tarot cards menu was tricky – all of them sounded so good. In the end we went for ‘The Lovers’ which was a blend of apple brandy, creme de cacao, rose syrup, lemon juice, prosecco and bitters.
I was feeling devilish so I went for ‘Death’. A cocktail consisting of bourbon, benadictine, cherry brandy, sherry blend, bitters and coffee mist. Table service is available but during quieter periods ordering from the bar is a lot easier.
Our cocktails arrived looking simple and in keeping with the style of the venue. The Lovers cocktail had a pronounced fruity punch with a really good balance running through the flavours. Death wasn’t going to let me off lightly – this cocktail was incredibly strong. It tasted like cherry meets sherry, definitely one to drink at a slower pace.
A unique feature of Hoot The Redeemer is alcoholic ice cream. Made fresh daily, the ice cream comes in the form of a cocktail. Each tub costs £4 and is dispensed via a vending machine by the bar. This is something completely new to us.
There are a lot of different combinations to choose from but we settled on ‘Edinburgh Rocks’ containing whisky, honeycomb and salted caramel. To go with that we got an ‘Espresso Martini’ ice cream out of the machine. A mix of vodka, coffee liqueur and espresso.
Each ice cream comes in a little pot with a small spoon (more of a shovel) secreted within the lid. The flavours of each ice cream are epic and go really well with a cocktail. The staff also bring over a unique flavour of popcorn which was lime and chilli on our visit.
The bar began to fill up but this is one of those places that you can stretch your legs out and just relax in for ages. The staff are attentive and always ask if you would like more drinks. Considering this was a small room full of festival goers, the noise levels were perfect.
As always though, there comes a point when you have to drag yourself out of your comfy seat and head for the exit. A final bill of £17 for the cocktails plus £8 that we had spent on the ice cream machine was a decent total for the experience.
Hoot The Redeemer is something completely unique in our experience of cocktail bars. It’s like going back in time with added twists to bring out your inner child-like enthusiasm. It may be tricky to find but once you do, you will be glad that you took the time to look.
The choice of shows to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be overwhelming at first glance. Over 53,000 performances take place over a three week period in 300 venues across the city. Narrowing down the number of shows to go and see took us a fair while.
The best place to start is the Fringe website. All the acts are listed on the site in alphabetical order. You can filter the date and time of the performances happening to help scale down the shows into some kind of order. From this, we created an itinerary based on what times the shows began and the distance between venues for the next show.
An itinerary is an absolute must if you want to take in numerous shows throughout the day. Also if you have a particular act that you would like to see or a popular show that is first come first served, as many are. The real benefit of the Fringe is that many shows are free to enter and you can pay what you like at the end, or what you feel that the show was worth.
We arrived in the city at midday. The perfect time for starting to hunt for venues and shows. To begin with, we took in the atmosphere of the street performers in and around the Royal Mile. These shows are often magic acts, musicians and daredevil acts – hugely popular with the visiting crowds.
The Free Sisters, Cowgate
Our first gig was a compilation show at The Free Sisters, Cowgate. This is a pub with a large courtyard that features a big screen showing live sport. There are also street food stalls dotted around the courtyard selling such items as burgers, ribs and ice cream. All prices for food were around £8-10.
A huge bar sits one side of the courtyard with a real summer vibe, the kind of place that you would come to watch a World Cup football match with a nice cold beer. Inside, there are two rooms on the ground level with two on the upstairs. There is also a hostel on the upper levels above the performance areas.
We were here for ‘Funny Cluckers’ a popular compilation show which drew a sell out crowd. We began queuing from 14.10 for the show at 14.45 which proved to be a good move on our part as the line ended up all the way down two flights of stairs!
The room itself was a decent size with a low ceiling and much appreciated air conditioning. The weather outside was unusually warm for Scotland. Seating came in the form of fold up chairs, the kind that you see WWE wrestlers hitting each other over the head with.
The mixed bill allows you to really see a good number of comedians within an hour. Each act did 10 minutes with our MC Ian Fox working the crowd in between the comics. A standout act was a conspiracy theorist named Rod Shepherd who had a unique style of comedy featuring quick fire theories. It sounds mad but it was absolutely hilarious.
Two of the four acts were really good but two were quite poor. That’s the luck of the draw with the mixed bill shows but either way you’re guaranteed a good laugh and a good time. As a venue, The Free Sisters is popular with the Free Fringe and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC)
A world away from the merry pub vibe of The Free Sisters, the EICC is a plush conference centre literally on the fringes of the Fringe. A walk of about 15 minutes from Princes Street through the pouring rain got us to the EICC to watch Dead Ringers.
There are numerous staff on hand guiding you to where you need to be. The centre plays host to a number of different shows throughout the festival so it is key that you know where to go. We were pleasantly surprised to find a full bar and some street food in the show waiting area.
Around 15 minutes before the show, the crowd began to line up behind a sign indicating the start of the queue. Everything was very orderly and the crowd a lot more mature for this show. A brief trip up an escalator and we were into the theatre.
The Pentland Auditorium is a large theatre with ample seating for a large crowd. The simple stage set up was just four chairs, four tables, four microphones and a keyboard. It was such a treat to sit in soft, comfortable chairs after the hard backs of the chairs at The Free Sisters.
Dead Ringers is a show that I loved a few years back. I continue to be intrigued and entertained by impressionists such as Jon Culshaw, who would be performing. Joining Jon on stage would be Jan Ravens, Lewis MacLeod and Duncan Wisbey.
The show began with the impressionists reading from scripts, just as they would in the Radio 4 show. A lot of the impressions and topics centred around politics with many of the same characters being done again and again.
For me, this was a bit disappointing. I had huge admiration for Lewis MacLeod’s Donald Trump Impression and Jan Raven’s take on Alex Jones but for us it was all a bit average. It’s definitely a show to go and see but we would have liked more variety in the sketches. For £17 it wasn’t a bad show as it did have its moments.
George Aikman Lecture Theatre
The posters for this show were all over town and perhaps not surprisingly so. This is a former winner of the top prize at Edinburgh Fringe back in 1991. A stand up who is nailed on to sell out theatres up and down the country with this being no exception. Frank Skinner.
Skinner is a comedian that I discovered very late in the day. Watching him on the telly growing up, I saw him as more of a chat show host or a brief pop star. I hadn’t dipped into his stand up career until late last year and I was crying with laughter at what I saw.
At the age of 62, I never thought Frank would return to stand up after sporadic tours down the years. Tonight though would be the night to see him live and in person. In the pouring rain, we dashed over from the EICC to the George Aikman Lecture Theatre.
The theatre is part of the University of Edinburgh just off George Square Gardens. A huge street food village had been set up just outside, which was definitely warmer than we were. Standing outside in the pouring rain would have been pure agony but for a chat with a lovely couple behind us from northern Aberdeenshire.
The organisation suffered massively at this point as another popular show featuring Irish stand up David O’Doherty was just emptying out. People stood in front of the theatre causing a delay in getting Frank Skinners audience in. Five minutes before the show was due to begin, we were let inside.
Staff, to their credit, were filling the rows quickly. We ended up on the third row beside the couple that we had met in the queue. Frank emerged to a warm reception and quickly settled into his act.
If you are going to see any tour this year. Make it Frank Skinner’s. I had feared that following his rather tame ‘Man in a Suit’ tour back in 2017 that the old magic had gone. This was more like the Skinner that I had roared with laughter with on YouTube.
It’s a pleasure to witness someone make a difficult job like stand up look so easy. Going back and forth with the crowd and his own material effortlessly, Frank is hands down the best stand up that I have ever had the good fortune to watch.
The Hanover Tap
A little way up Hanover Street sits the Hanover Tap. A popular pub during the festival and home to Comedy 101 – our second mixed bill show of the Fringe. The comedy would be held in the basement, a space known as ‘The Wee Tap’.
I really liked the system at the Hanover Tap. You approach the bar, order a drink and the bar staff hand you a token for however many people are in your party. This guarantees your entry for the comedy.
The one slight issue with the venue is when a show is due to begin, the bar is full to capacity. When the basement empties out it can get a bit tight getting through the bar area. Other than that, the Hanover Tap is a cracking venue for a pint and a few laughs.
We took our seats at the back with a view to an early exit as we had a gig further down the road at the Newsroom. The Wee Tap can actually fit a heck of a lot of people in as the seating stretches all around the side of the stage as well as directly in front. Some people were permitted to stand near the bar area with the place full to capacity.
The show was titled 101 Comedy Club. A mixed bill of four comedians, exactly the same format as ‘Funny Cluckers’ at the Free Sisters. The acts throughout the gig were all roughly the same level which made watching all the more easy. Many laughs were had and after act number 3, we made for the exit back out into the rain.
Our final stop on our journey through the Fringe was at the Newsroom to catch a show by a comedian actually known to us. Mark Row appeared on a show that we were attending in Nottingham at the Canalhouse. That night, Mark had a great set and stood out from the other acts by a mile. We had been keeping an eye on his progress since then.
This was actually made a lot easier as Mark had made a documentary back in 2017 following his journey from zero stand up experience to his very own show at the Fringe. This documentary is mandatory viewing for anyone wanting to step into the world of stand up.
At this year’s Fringe, Mark wasn’t alone. A comedian based in Nottingham by the name of Matt Bragg was going to be joining Mark in the venue throughout the festival. We were delighted with this as we would be getting two comedians in one show.
The Newsroom is a lovely venue with a sense of style about it. The bar staff were really friendly and a good group was starting to form inside for the gig. Downstairs, the room that Mark and Matt have managed to secure is a great size with superb air conditioning and decent sound.
A scattered crowd came in to watch the show. Two lively Scottish lads keen on cocktails decided to take seats on the front row. With the show getting underway, Mark went on to do his stint on the stage.
What’s great about Mark is his delivery and building a relationship with the audience. Gags relating to his career as a teacher, his experiences as a parent and life in general all went down very well. The lads on the front row decided to talk amongst themselves which Mark quickly addressed and prevented any further disruption, the sign of a decent comic.
Matt Bragg then took to the stage and the pace changed completely. Matt’s set was a little more subtle and gaining giggles from the crowd rather than full on laughs. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set nonetheless and a show well worth going to see.
This was sadly our last gig of our tour around the Fringe but what a tour it was. The sheer number of venues makes getting around incredibly difficult just by picking random shows. An itinerary is highly recommended in order to get the very best out of your trip to the Fringe – have a wonderful time!
You can find Mark Row’s documentary ‘A1: The Long Road to Edinburgh on this link