Wednesday, 30 March 2016

One-pot wonder: Lamb shanks with beans and chorizo and Murviedro Colección Reserva

While I don't celebrate Easter, it didn't stop me from rounding up my nearest and dearest and feasting on a bit of lamb. Though just like last year, it was far from traditional and sought its inspiration from my dear Andalusia. 

Star of the lunch was this robust and comforting one-pot wonder and a sure sign of me missing old stomping ground. But you know what - not long now! Next month I'm back! Back, baby! 

I used lamb shanks (my favourite) and bathed them in the oven for 3 hours with chorizo, beans, red wine and herbs. And the result... well, just look at it. Muy, muy bien.

Serves 4

Lamb shanks, beans and chorizo:

4 lamb shanks

200 g cooking chorizo, cut to 1/3 inch slices 
1 (red) onion, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
1 tsp pimentón
1/2 tsp chilli powder
4 sprigs of rosemary 
a large handful of thyme leaves
4 bay leaves
2,5 dl red wine
500 g passata (or crushed tomatos)
4 tins (á 400/ 240 g) large white beans
salt, pepper

To serve: fresh parsley, the finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon.

Sear the shanks in a bit of oil. Season and move aside. 

Add some more oil into the pot. Brown the chorizo lightly. Then add onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Let them soften. Then add pimentón and chili and let them, too, come to life for a couple of minutes. 

Add tomato concentrate and red wine. Bring to boil. Add herbs and pour in the passata and beans (drained and rinsed). Mix it all evenly, taste and season. Place the shanks into the pot and transfer to oven, pre-heated at 150° (130° will do if it's a fan assisted one). Cook, covered for 3 hours, turning the shanks halfway through.

Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and go loco. You know you'll want to. 

The dish had quite a bit going on (robust nature, lamb, the heat and fat of the chorizo, herbs, tomato...), it took me a while to settle on the wine. But sure enough, it comes from Spain. 

Murviedro Colección Reserva (Tempranillo 40%, Monastrell 40%, Syrah 20%) is a great find. Matured in French and American oak for 12 months, one thing this wine doesn't lack is character. It's robust and full-bodied but with matured tannins and notes of dark berries. A great wine for dark, herby game and lamb dishes. 

PS. While, post-Easter, you might not want to see another lamb for a while, do check out my other Andalusian-inspired recipe for lamb shanks braised in sherry and all those warm spices. Muy bien, this too. Si, si!





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Sunday, 27 March 2016

St.Peter's Church - best views over Riga

Weather in early March does not spoil those exploring the windy streets of Old Riga - at times you need both your hands to wrap your coat tighter around you.

On a Sunday afternoon the street are eerily deserted. All of a sudden there's a wistful echo of a lonely cello. An old man, huddled in the corner of Riga Dome Cathedral's courtyard is playing a melody that stops me on my tracks: Finlandia hymn, an ode to my country and the struggle it had to go through in order to gain and maintain her independence against the Soviet.

All of a sudden I feel warm and proud. I wonder if he knows the lyrics? How do they make him feel? Then the patriotism gives way to sadness and solidarity. How differently things would have turned out for this nation, had they, too,  succeeded in their struggle against that same enemy...

Where ever you turn, you only seem to run into one of the many churches in Old Town. And there are many: Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Reform.

Their spires are a permanent fixture of skyline where ever you look.

The oldest churches, located on the bank of river Daugava form an interesting exception: instead of cross, their towers sport a rooster.

There are several explanations for this. According to pagan tradition roosters ward off evil spirits, whereas the more Christian interpretation explains roosters symbolize watchfulness and vigilance before the Lord.

For best, 360-degree panoramic views over the rooftops of Riga, you should head over to St. Peter's Church (for blog's walking tour on these picturesque streets, see here).

Built in early 13th century its architecture represents Gothic, Roman and Baroque features. The tower of this Lutheran church is the highest in Old Town. In 1997 it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Admission to the top is €9. Luckily these days there's a lift in the third floor that saves you from a very steep and painful climb to the top (anybody remember Seville?)

It's windy at the top and with only a narrow corridor circling the tower you need to be prepared to fight for the best spots with Russian tourists waving their selfie sticks and the Asians armed with their state of the art Canons. But the views are spectacular.

I immediately spotted several monuments familiar from the last trip. 

That one in the middle is the Freedom monument, which I was told was so heavily guarded during the Soviet Era you couldn't even dream of approaching it. Even loitering in the vicinity for too long was considered so suspicious it could warrant you an interrogation (for more on KGB's head quarters in Riga which still today leaves a visitor silent with disbelief, please see here).

And hey - there are the zeppelins of the Central Market! (For a full tour of this glorious place, just click here).

And behind the market, there's that great love of mine: Stalin's Birthday Cake. Every bit as gorgeous as it was the first time around. 

Behind that, you can see the Old Jewish Ghetto, which I couldn't skip this time either. 

For a video footage from the top, just check my Twitter feed.

But no, Riga still had some surprises in store for us. As we exited the church, we were hijacked to play a part in a Dutch role playing game, in which we had to re-enact Rembrandt's Night Watch.

As a souvenir I was awarded the plastic machine gun I'd been given as part of my role. Just imagine the reactions the butt, sticking out of my hand bag for the rest of the day evoked in people...





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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Baltic Beach Hotel & Spa - award-winning luxury for all the senses

While our hotel in Riga left a bit to be desired for, that can't be said about our hotel in Jurmala: Baltic Beach Hotel & Spa. Oh, no. 

This place was one of the absolute highlights of our girls' weekend away and love at first sight for both of us. 

Well, maybe not the first sight... as the sheer size of this massive concrete complex is a bit daunting and reminiscent of Soviet era, which is not exactly known for its aesthetic value.

Indoors, however, this place won us over the moment we walked in and were seduced by all the gold, glitz and glamour we both so love.

Oh, in case travelling with a group of friends or a family, you can also book a stay at a beautiful and separately located Art Nouveau- villa with three bedrooms

The retro vibe is a conscious choice and for instance the lobby bar (aptly named Retro) is styled in the spirit of the 70's.

The bar (open 24/7) is also a great destination for its Champagne selection alone...!

Baltic Beach is a five star-hotel which becomes evident peeking into its exclusive shops alone. They clearly cater for a five star- clientele, too - stocking international designers, furs... and real estate. 

Our room was Superior class room in hotel's 6h floor (prices starting at €142 per night).

We nodded approvingly already as the lift doors slided open and we saw the corridor...

... but as we got to the room, any kind of worldly coolness melted away.

"Lets not go back to Riga", suggested my companion. "Lets just stay here. For the rest of our lives!"

Can't say I disagreed - in less than 5 minutes I'd unpacked, changed into my usual holiday dress code of huge, soft robe and slippers and was drawing my first bath (sorry, nature...) of the day.


And seeing how we came to Latvia to spoil ourselves rotten, one of the reasons we decided on this particular hotel was its award-winning spa.

We particularly loved the hammam and the Amber treatment room, which is said to clear away any negative energy.

You should definitely check out the spa even if you're not staying in the hotel: a 2-hour visit will only set you back €36-43 (depending on the day of your visit).

Its location, right on the beach, could not be more perfect. Majori train station is only a 5-minute walk away and those charming wooden villas can be reached within minutes, too.

Baltic Beach truly is a perfect choice in every account: for us the deciding factor was all the great restaurants it houses. Out of 3 restaurants we wanted to try while in Jurmala 2 were located in this hotel. 

The staff at the spa and reception took such good care of us and in the morning we woke up, blissfully relaxed high on happiness - always a sign of a great holiday.

And we still had the breakfast to look forward to!

The airy breakfast room was full of light and reminiscent of a ball room. The breakfast was, as could be expected based on everything else so far, perfect. Even scrambled eggs, which never should make an appearance at a buffet, had somehow managed to avoid their usual rubberiness.

The unequivocal star of the fresh and extensive selection was, however, bacon - hands down the best bacon I've ever had at any hotel breakfast. It was nestling at a serving dish lined with slices of toast that absorbed all the extra fat, ensuring every single rasher was crisp and crozzled to perfection. 

For a small surcharge you can also feast on breakfast classics such as Eggs Benedict.

There's plenty to choose from - including some more sinful treats...

...without forgetting the healthier options. 

Cocooned in a bubble of happiness the only words to gently remind us we weren't still dreaming were quietly whispered questions about "whether the ladies would care for another Mimosa?"

Well, yes the ladies would. The ladies are on a holiday, after all. And life just couldn't be better.

To top it all off, there was a Virgin Mary Bar as well. I stand corrected- life could get just a little better.

So, trust me. If you're ever in Jurmala, don't even think about staying anywhere else. This place caters 5-star-luxury to all your senses. And we can't wait to go back for some more!

*In collaboration with Baltic Beach Hotel & Spa*





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