Monteverde – El Trapiche coffee tour

Mural of people picking coffee berries at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s biggest exports, and during my trip, I was keen to learn more about how the country grows and makes the world-popular drink. So when I was given an opportunity to visit a coffee farm in Monteverde, I jumped at the chance.

View over Monteverde's cloud forest from the El Trapiche coffee farm

El Trapiche is a family-run farm that sits on a steep hillside overlooking Monteverde’s lush, green cloud forest. The farm runs two-hour guided tours around the estate, showing visitors how they grow and produce coffee, chocolate and sugar cane.

A coffee plant featuring green and red berries on the El Trapiche farm

During the tour we walked around the farm’s sprawling plots filled with sugar cane, coffee and chocolate plants, and were shown how they use machinery to turn the fresh produce into the popular food stuffs we know and love.

I’d never seen a coffee plant before my visit and I was fascinated to learn that the beans (or seeds) grow inside small berries (above) that turn red when they’re ripe for picking.

Unroasted coffee beans at the El Trapiche farm

We learned that the farm workers pick the coffee berries by hand and extract the seeds (above), which are then sorted according to size and type, and roasted. Our guide explained that most berries contain two coffee seeds, but some have one (these are the most sought after and most flavourful) and occasionally three.

In a small shed, we were shown the machinery the farm uses to sort the seeds according to their size and quality (above). And our guide explained that the lower quality beans are used to make coffee that’s sold in Costa Rica, while the better quality beans are set aside to make coffee that’s exported around the world.

Cocoa pod at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Having learned how the farm cultivates coffee, we were then shown how it grows and makes chocolate. Now, I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate in my time, but I’ve never spent much time thinking about where it comes from. So I was surprised to discover that chocolate is made using cocoa beans found inside these enormous cocoa pods (above).

Cocoa beans at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Each cocoa pod contains a ton of beans and we were each given a cocoa bean to try. I didn’t find the raw cocoa beans (above) particularly pleasant as they were rather bitter. But our guide explained how they go about turning the bitter little beans into sweet, comforting chocolate.

During the final part of our tour, the focus turned to sugar cane and we learned how the farm extracts the juice from the cane using the machine above, and how it is then used to make products, such as sweets and spirits.

Making sweets at the El Trapiche farm

After seeing how the sugar cane juice was extracted, we had a go at making our own sweets, kneading and scraping the hot sugary liquid that had been poured onto the wooden bench in front of us until it formed a thick, almost fudge-like consistency (above). It was hard work making the sweets and gave my arms a thorough work out, but the delicious end product was worth the effort.

At the end of the tour, we were treated to some of El Trapiche’s produce, including a cup of coffee, made using beans grown on the farm. I’m not a fan of coffee, but I was keen to try some after seeing how it was made and it turned out to be the nicest cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coffee drinker, but if I was to take it up, I’d be looking to buy El Trapiche’s coffee as it’s the only drinkable coffee I’ve tried.

Mural of people collecting coffee berries

I really enjoyed my visit to El Trapiche. I knew nothing about growing coffee, sugar or chocolate before I visited the farm and it really opened my eyes to how these everyday foods are cultivated. Our guide was welcoming, friendly and knowledgeable, and did an excellent job of explaining how the farm grows and makes its products. A fascinating couple of hours.

Advertisements

Costa Rica – top tips

A crocodile yawns on the banks of the Tarcoles River

If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:

Climate

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

You might expect Costa Rica to be hot and sunny as it’s so close to the equator, but the country’s home to lots of microclimates, which means the conditions vary massively from one place to another. During my trip, it was hot and sunny on the coast, but much cooler in the high altitude cloud forest.

The country has two distinct seasons – the wet season, which lasts from May to November, and the dry season, from December to April. I visited the country in November during the tail end of the wet season and it rained a lot. I’m Welsh and I like to think I know a thing or too about rain, but Costa Rican rain was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

It bucketed down like crazy for at least an hour each day and umbrellas were positively useless against the deluge. It was also too humid for waterproofs, which meant unless I wanted to hibernate indoors for huge stretches of the day, I got wet – very wet – every day. That said, you quickly get used to the rain and learn to live with it. And I’m not sure you can say you’ve truly experienced Costa Rica unless you’ve been soaked to the skin at least once. It’s all part of the fun.

Money matters

The national currency is the Costa Rican colón and its brightly coloured bank notes proudly showcase the country’s wildlife. When I tried to exchange my British pounds before my trip, I was (incorrectly) told by the currency exchange that you can’t buy the colón in the UK. So I headed to Costa Rica with a load of US dollars instead, intending to convert them there. But when I got there I was advised to keep my US dollars as they’re widely accepted throughout the country. I picked up some colón along the way, which came in handy for tipping and small purchases, but other than that I used my US dollars everywhere.

What to wear

View of Arenal Volcano from Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

I didn’t find Costa Rica anywhere near as warm as I was expecting. There were some hot and humid moments, but equally there were times I felt decidedly chilly, so my advice is to pack plenty of layers. Loose cotton trousers and tops came in handy, especially when hiking through the rain forest. I’m a mecca for mosquitoes and was worried about being bitten, but the long, loose garments kept me cool and protected my skin from the sun and the pesky bloodsuckers. I was bitten a little, but thankfully not too often.

Leafy green foliage flanks the path through Arenal Volcano National Park

My toed-caped waterproof hiking sandals, which I took to go white water rafting, proved to be fantastic for hiking, especially during the fierce onslaughts of rain, as they were super comfy and dried out in no-time. If I’d taken non-waterproof trainers, I’d have been faced with the unpleasant prospect of wearing soggy, stinky shoes every day, so comfortable, waterproof shoes are a must.  And if you’re planning to take part in potentially muddy activities (mountain biking, horse riding, zip lining), take some old clothes you don’t mind ruining as I know from experience the mud doesn’t come out of pale clothing.

It’s also worth making good use of the reasonably priced hotel laundry services if you’re visiting during the wet season. The climate’s so humid it’s impossible to dry your clothes after you’re caught in one of the inevitable downpours and after a couple of days, your damp clothes begin to pong. Needless to say, the laundry services were a life saver.

What to pack

A roseate spoonbill wades in the waters of the Tarcoles River

The usual essentials for visiting a hot country will all come in handy – suntan lotion, sunglasses, a hat, hand sanitiser and mosquito spray. If you’re planning to see the local wildlife, it’s worth packing some binoculars and a long-lens camera if you have them. I took my long-lens camera, and while it’s heavy to cart about, I was so glad I’d taken it as a lot of the animals are high in the tree canopy. Having my camera meant I was able to get a closer look at the animals and take a ton of photos that would have been impossible on my phone.

Eating and drinking

Ceviche with tortilla chips

Ceviche (above), tilapia and tacos pop up regularly on Costa Rican menus, while casados is a popular and tasty option for lunch. This set meal usually consists of fried meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables, such as plantain, and salad. One of the most unusual foods I had was cactus flower ice cream, a delicious and unusual bright pink, slightly fruity desert.

Be warned, some food combinations can be a little odd – the vegetable nachos I ordered in La Fortuna unexpectedly came with boiled broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. While I ordered a tea with milk at a small bar near the capital San Jose and was given a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it.

Meet the wildlife

A sloth climbing a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one creature you have to see before leaving Costa Rica, it’s the sloth (above). The lethargic fur balls are ubiquitous throughout the country and are usually to be found hiding in plain sight in the trees. Depending on which parts of the country you visit, there’s a good chance you’ll spot monkeys, frogs, tarantulas, iguanas and snakes, as well as lots of spectacular birds and unusual insects. Crocodiles, macaws, toucans, raccoons and an armadillo were just some of the many creatures I saw.

Get active

Looking for an action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled holiday? Then Costa Rica’s the place for you. The country’s diverse landscapes make it perfect for hosting a range of activities. Whether you prefer water sports to hurtling through the trees on a zip line, tracking the local wildlife or getting mucky quad biking, there’s something for everyone. I tried my hand at zip lining, white water rafting, horse riding, mountain biking and snorkelling during my visit, while I also joined lots of hikes, canopy tours and wildlife-spotting trips.

Have your say

Have you been Costa Rica or are you looking to go? If so, please share your thoughts and tips about the country in the comments below. And if you have any questions, please let me know – I’ll try my best to answer them!

Lisbon travel guide

IMG_6747 (2)

A couple of months ago, I found out that a mini-travel guide to Lisbon I’d put together for a friend was doing the rounds of our friends and friends of friends. According to the friend I’d written it for, “it’s like a proper travel guide”. Which got me thinking that, as I have a travel blog and my friends seem to find it useful, I should probably post it.

I’ll blog about my trip in more detail later this year, but for now here’s my mini-travel guide to Lisbon. I hope you find it useful, too – and if you have any other recommendations, please share them in the comments.

City centre

There’s not much to do in central Lisbon itself in terms of sightseeing, I just mooched around the different districts. But the castle on top of the hill, Castelo de São Jorge, is well worth a visit as it has amazing views over the city.

Belem

IMG_6774 (2)

Belém is one of the suburbs and there’s loads to do. Just hop on the number 15 tram from Praca da Figueira (you pay on the tram) and it will take you there. There you’ll find the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery is quite cool to walk around, although the queues are long so it’s worth getting there early. There’s also an amazing palace up on the hill that no-one knows about, the Ajuda National Palace, that’s definitely worth seeing.

Belém is also home to the café that popularised the Portuguese custard tart and you have to visit it – the tarts are fantastic! The Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is just down the road from the monastery, so I popped in there for breakfast before starting my day.

Other sights include the Torre de Belém, a tower on the river, but to be honest it’s a 20-minute walk away and nothing special, so might be worth skipping. I also went to the electricity museum, which was weird, but cool – it’s housed in an old electricity sub-station and is one-half electricity museum, one-half art gallery.

Beach

I went to Cascais, a little fishing port outside Lisbon. It had a little beach and wasn’t really worth the trip, but on the way there loads of people were hopping off the train to go to the various beaches en route to Cascais. I got the train from Cais do Sodré station, so if you want the beach, I’d hop on the train and follow the locals.

Sintra

IMG_6874 (2)

My favourite place I visited. It’s a little town in the mountains just south of Lisbon (get the train from Rossio station). Quinta da Regaleira is a world heritage site in the mountains. It’s a bizarre folly/country house with extensive gardens where they’ve built towers, caves and lakes, and is great fun to explore.

The other thing to do is to follow the knights’ templar trail up the mountain to the castle and palace at the top (it looks horrendous from the bottom, but it’s not actually steep or tiring). You can get the bus to the top of the hill, but I don’t think it would be as much fun.

The Moors’ Castle was built on top of the hill by the Moors in the 10th century and is a series of castle ramparts that go all over the top of the mountain. It’s spectacular to walk around and the views from the top are incredible.

The Pena Palace, meanwhile, is a quirky, kitsch palace with an art deco exterior and extensive grounds. It’s kind of crazy and a complete contrast to the palace at Belém. There’s also a palace in the middle of Sintra, the National Palace, but it isn’t as interesting, so I’d leave it ’til last and do it if you have time.

Food and drink

Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, 18.05.15

The Bairro Alto is Lisbon’s food and drink district, and is teeming with restaurants and bars. I had the most amazing clams (a Lisbon speciality) at Petiscos No Bairro on the Rua da Atalaia. I also had a great meal at O Cantinho do Bem Estar, it’s really rustic, home cooked food. The portion sizes are enormous, it’s crazy cheap (I had a massive plate of food and half a jug of wine for 10 euros) and the people that run it are lovely.

Time Out runs a food market (above) at the market across the road from Cais do Sodré station. There are 30-odd stalls from top Lisbon restaurants, food shops and bars, and you take your pick from them and sit down at the tables in the middle of the market. It’s great and you can try loads of different stuff.

I didn’t get round to it when I was in Lisbon, but Tagide is supposed to be great for lunch. You can get a three course meal, plus wine and coffee for 12 euros or so, and all the food guides recommend it.

You should also make sure to try Ginginha, a Portuguese cherry brandy (sounds disgusting, but really nice!), and white port, it’s not as sweet as regular port and hard to come by outside Lisbon. Also, do you like cinnamon? A lot of the desserts have cinnamon in them, especially those that are branded ‘Portuguese’.

Hanoi – Street food

imag1570-2

One of the things I was really keen to do in Vietnam was try some street food. So on my second night in Hanoi, I joined a street food tour. And I’m so glad I did, it was a brilliant night and ended up being one of my favourite experiences in Vietnam.

After meeting our guide Thian, a cheery Hanoi native, and the rest of our group, we headed to a large wholesale market nearby for baguettes filled with Vietnamese paté. The baguettes are a tasty and popular snack, combining Vietnamese flavours with the classic French baguette. Having devoured the baguettes, we had a quick look around the market, which sold all sorts of food, including more varieties of dried mushrooms than I knew existed and dried fish including squid.

imag1584-2

We came out the other side of the market, where there were a number of streets filled with food shops, as well as a couple of women selling flowers from their bicycles. A policeman was sitting at a table in the middle of the road keeping an eye on all the vendors.

We wandered around the shops, fascinated by all the food stuffs on offer. There were shops selling spices, onions, fruits, nuts, pulses and more, and each vendor specialised in a particular food stuff – the onion vendor, for example, just sold lots of different varieties of onion. Outside the shops, women were sitting on the street in front of buckets preparing their produce, throwing their scraps onto the street.

We stopped to try some local fruits that Thian had bought from one of the vendors – pink dragon fruit, which is sweeter than the white variety, and jack fruit, which had a slightly banana-like flavour. I’d never had jack fruit or pink dragon fruit before and the juicy flesh of the dragon fruit was a revelation and I spent the rest of my time in Vietnam seeking it out.

We headed further up one of the streets, passing vendors preparing and selling meat (all parts of the animal, including the intestines, tongues, ears, feet and so on). The streets used to be home to only the one trade and so were named after the trade they represented – silk street is one such example. One of the streets we passed was the paper street and its shops sold Christmas decorations of every kind, including tinsel, santa suits, lights and more.

Our next stop was Banh Cuon Gia Truyen for banh cuon, a super-thin steamed rice pancake filled with mushrooms and topped with coriander and fried shallots that you dip in a dipping sauce before eating. All I can say is they were really good and didn’t last long.

We continued on to Thai Dat, an outdoor barbecue place that sells textiles by day. We sat on little stools in the middle of the street with a cooking pot on a small table in front of us. Everything went in this pot – frog, chicken, pork, beef, corn, aubergine, cherry tomatoes, pak choi, even sweet, honey-covered bread. We then dipped the food in a mixture of dipping sauces, including chilli sauce, tamarind sauce and kumquat juice mixed with chilli and salt. Everything was delicious and we washed it all down with a cold Hanoi beer.

imag1613-2

As we continued our tour of the old town, Thian pointed out a Vietnamese hearse, which was adorned with ribbon, a rosette and a statue. He then took us up onto a railway line that snakes its way through the city, hidden from the streets below. I was blown away by the railway line as people were living on either side of the tracks, without any barriers separating them from the trains.

We walked alongside the railway line, amazed as the locals (including children) hopped across the tracks. People were hanging their washing outside their homes right beside the tracks and there were even restaurants that opened out onto the railway line.

imag1622-2

We carried on along the track when Thian suddenly announced a train was coming. We quickly hopped off the narrow path onto someone’s porch as the enormous train came whizzing past at breakneck speed.

While we were all acutely aware we were walking beside a railway line, I’d just assumed that small, slow trains used the tracks. I certainly hadn’t realised that massive, rapid locomotives were passing through. We were all dumbfounded as to just how close we had been to the deadly train and were left in no doubt as to how dangerous it was to live right beside the railway line.

imag1632-2

Jaw-dropping experience over, we continued through the old quarter until we reached a tiny dessert place, Hoa Beo. Again we crouched down on little stools as we ate our pudding – a selection of seasonal fruits (strawberry, mango, dragon fruit and so on) mixed with condensed milk, coconut milk, cubes of coconut and water chestnut jelly, and four-to-five tablespoons of ice. The dessert was sweet and delicious, especially the water chestnut jelly.

imag1637-3

For our final destination, we stopped at a secret rooftop café, Café Pho Co, that overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake. We had to walk through a silk shop to reach the café, where we discovered a ton of scooters parked inside the entrance. We then headed up a series of rickety staircases to get to the rooftop. It was a relaxing little hideaway and we were here to taste Vietnamese coffee.

Vietnamese coffee is a cup of coffee topped with a foaming mix of condensed milk, egg yolk and sugar (above) and I had to give mine a good stir before drinking it as the mixture had separated. I don’t like coffee, so I can’t say I enjoyed it, but the foamy mixture was drinkable enough, if rather sweet. The hideaway café was an unexpected delight and a great end to a fantastic, whirlwind tour of Hanoi’s food.

Route du Vin

Grape vines as seen from Riquewihr on the Route du Vin in Alsace

There are few things I enjoy more than a good glass of wine, so when I discovered Alsace had its own Route du Vin, there was no way I was going to let that opportunity pass.

Snaking its way through the Alsatian countryside in the shadow of the Vosges mountains, the Route du Vin is so-called because of the many, many vineyards in the area. This is wine country and all around us, the fields and hills are filled with row upon row of grape vines.

And all along the winding road are caves selling the wares made from these luscious green vines, the most tempting of which are the caves advertising cremant d’Alsace, the local fizzy, which I’d already sampled extensively and can attest is delicieuse.

A shop selling pretzels in Riquewihr, Alsace

Dotted along the Route du Vin are pretty little towns and villages, the most notable of which are Ribeauville and Riquewihr. We stopped at Riquewihr, a picturesque town of charming, brightly-painted timber houses, many of which have been turned into shops selling Alsatian produce for the visiting tourists, such as pretzels (above) and kougelhopf (an Alsatian cake shaped like a crown).

Pretty clock tower in Riquewihr on the Route du Vin in Alsace

A lot of the wine shops allow you to sample the produce before you buy, and we bought a local Riesling and a Sylvaner. I’m not a big fan of white wine, but the Riesling was very drinkable.

A blue house in Riquewihr, Alsace

My favourite shop in Riquewihr was the cheese factory, an underground warehouse filled with huge rounds of stinky, yellow goodness. It might have smelt decidedly pongy, but the cheeses looked divine.

The other shop worth a visit is the Christmas shop. It looks fairly innocuous from the outside, but step inside and it’s a never-ending cavernous lair dedicated to all things Christmas. I have never seen so many Christmas baubles in all my life.

The Route du Vin is fairly short, but it’s a lovely drive. The vineyards are very attractive, especially when the sun is shining, and the towns and villages charming. Plus there’s the added bonus of lots of wine just waiting to be tasted on practically every corner…

Alsace

Sun shines through the cornfields at Thierhurst, a hamlet in Alsace

I’ve been to large swathes of France, especially the coastal areas, but I hadn’t spent much time in the eastern regions bordering Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, etc. This all changed over the summer when I spent a week in Alsace.

A group enjoys a boat ride on the canal in the centre of Colmar

Alsace is a narrow strip of land bordered by the River Rhine and Germany to the east, Switzerland to the south and the Vosges mountain range to the west. The area is heavily Germanic in influence having repeatedly changed hands between the French and Germans over the centuries, resulting in an intriguing mix of French and German culture. The border town of Neuf-Brisach, for example, switched between France and Germany five times in a 150-year period – that’s once every 30 years!

Pretty clock tower in Riquewihr on the Route du Vin in Alsace

I was staying in a hamlet in the Haut Alsace called Thierhurst where the house we’d rented overlooked a seemingly never-ending series of cornfields. Driving through the region, I was struck by the sheer number of cornfields – there were miles upon miles of them and most of the fields we passed (aside from those along the Route du Vin) were filled with row upon row of corn.

A tarte flambee with onions, cheese and bacon, an Alsatian speciality

As ever I made it my mission to track down the local foods while I was there – the most notable Alsace speciality being the tarte flambée, essentially an ultra-thin pizza topped with cheese, bacon and onions (above). It can be found all over the region and is delicious, although with all the cheese and bacon, it’s quite rich and very filling (not ideal if you’re looking for a light lunch!).

I also really enjoyed the local wines, with the local sparkling wine, cremant d’Alsace, a particular favourite. Do seek it out if you’re in the region, I made sure to pick up a box to take home with me.

A blue house in Riquewihr, Alsace

I really enjoyed Alsace, it’s so different to the other parts of France I’ve been to and has a very distinctive culture. I especially enjoyed all the quaint, brightly painted houses in the region, while the scenery was superb and the wine delicious.

It was great to see another side to what is probably my favourite country, and it’s made me want to further explore the eastern border areas. Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging in more detail about the places I visited, so keep an eye out for more about my Alsace adventures.

Japan – food

A box of sushi in Sendai

One of my favourite parts about travelling is the food. I love trying new foods and seeking out regional specialities – and my trips to Japan have been no exception.

The first time I went to Japan 10 years ago, my friend and I decided in our wisdom to eat nothing but Japanese food, morning, noon and night. I lasted three days. On the fourth day, we visited Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market at the break of dawn where I was given raw tuna and crab to try, and then I cracked. I was desperately craving western foods and ended up demolishing an entire tub of Pringles-like crisps for lunch and a bowl of cereal for dinner.

For my second visit, I decided to be much more sensible, opting for a mostly western breakfast and then Japanese lunch and dinner, with the occasional sandwich thrown in. As much as I’d like to eat nothing but local food on my travels, I find my body sometimes struggles to adjust to the new foods. This plan proved far more successful and I ended up enjoying a much broader range of foods, too.

A plate of takoyaki at Osaka Castle

One of my favourite Japanese discoveries is takoyaki (above). When I mentioned to my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law that we were going to Osaka, she squealed in delight and insisted I had to try takoyaki while I was there. I therefore made it my mission to track it down.

Takoyaki are balls of batter stuffed with octopus and topped with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. I found some for sale in the grounds of Osaka Castle, and while I was a little unsure of it (I’m not the biggest fan of octopus), it turned out to be really tasty and I was glad I’d sought it out.

Another food I really enjoyed was chocolate and melon bread. They’re small sweet rolls with a swirled chocolate and pale green melon design. I found them in a cafe called Afternoon Tea in the shopping centre attached to Sendai’s main railway station where we had breakfast each morning in Sendai. It was so good I had it every day (along with another bread or pastry offering, such as red bean paste buns) and I wish we could get it in the UK!

Other firm Japanese foodie favourites from my travels were green tea ice cream, which I had on both trips to Kyoto, and is simply delightful, and cassis and orange juice, which I first tried in Sendai. Although it sounds a bit of an odd combination, the two work really well together and it ended up becoming my cocktail of choice in Japan.

An ice cream stand selling whitebait, jellyfish, green soybean and grating apple sherbet ice cream at Zuigan-ji Temple in Matsushima

Japan is home to some weird and wonderful foods, and I particularly enjoyed discovering some of the more unusual foods the country had to offer. In Matsushima, for example, we found a stall selling a huge variety of ice cream flavours (above) – some everyday, others decidedly less familiar. I wasn’t brave enough to order the jellyfish or whitebait ice cream (although I was intrigued), instead opting to try the wasabi ice cream, which really tasted of wasabi and was unlike any ice cream I’ve ever had.

A reconstituted fish lollypop in Matsushima

I also tried what I thought was a grilled squid lollypop (above) from a street food vendor where all the young Japanese were queuing up. But on eating it, I think it was reconstituted white fish… But that’s part of the fun of trying different foods when you’re abroad, following the locals’ lead come what may and enjoying (or in some cases immensely disliking) the new experience.

The Ginstitute

Portobello Road Gin

Gin has never been my tipple of choice, I’m more of a rum and tequila girl, but when one of my friends asked if I fancied spending an afternoon making my own gin, I jumped at the chance.

The Ginstitute experience at The Portobello Star in London’s Notting Hill is essentially a three-hour masterclass in gin – an hour-long history of the spirit, followed by a gin making tutorial.

While the history of gin was fascinating (I had no idea there was so much drama attached to it), it was the gin making that I really enjoyed. During our tutorial, we sampled and learned all about the different botanicals that can be used in gins and that when combined, give each gin its own distinct flavour. Botanicals included citruses such as lemon peel, smokier flavours such as celery salt, spices such as cinnamon, florals such as rose and then random stuff like asparagus.

To make your own gin, you start off with a base of Portobello Road’s signature gin, then choose your preferred botanicals to add to it – the idea is to choose a mix (no more than seven) from across the spectrum, making sure to include one from each of the four groups eg one floral, one citrus, etc. The gin instructor then takes your choices and adds a bit of each one to create your own unique gin.

What surprised me most was how different everybody’s custom-made gin tasted. There were seven of us in our group and each gin was markedly different. My gin, according to my far more knowledgeable friend, apparently tastes quite similar to Hendrick’s.

Throughout the experience, we were furnished with a constant, flowing and very welcome supply of gin with a gin and tonic on arrival, followed by a Tom Collins (delicious; gin, lemon, sugar and soda water), followed by another gin and tonic, then another Tom Collins, and at the end, a gin martini…

We left The Ginstitute very happy (having stayed on afterwards for more gin cocktails in The Portobello Star) armed with two bottles of gin and some tonic. What’s more, The Ginstitute keeps a record of the gin you made, so you can order more bottles in the future.

The whole experience was great fun and one I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re looking for something special and a little bit different to do. I certainly came away with a new found respect and appreciation of gin. Cheers!

Info
The Ginstitute, The Portobello Star, 171 Portobello Road, London W11 2DY
£120 per person (includes five cocktails and two bottles of gin)
theginstitute.com

How to… make the perfect mojito

IMAG1154

Cuba is the home of the mojito, so naturally I made sure to sample as many as possible while there. Keen to recreate this refreshing cocktail at home, I paid attention to how they were made and even had a mojito-making lesson from a barman in Havana. Many Cuban bars use a combination of sugar syrup and soda water, but a few used lemonade instead, and when I was attempting to perfect the recipe at home, I found that sprite or lemonade worked just as well – and was super convenient, too. Here’s my tried and tested cheat’s mojito recipe:

Ingredients

White rum

Sprite or lemonade

Handful of mint

Juice of half a lime

1sp caster sugar

Handful of ice cubes

Method

Tear five or six mint leaves into a mortar, add the lime juice and the sugar, then use a pestle to grind the ingredients together until the mint breaks down. Pour into a glass, add a spring of mint, a good glug of rum and the same amount of lemonade. Give it all a good stir, then add the ice. Serve and enjoy.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Steeped in history, the captivating old colonial city of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with its cobbled streets – complete with cannons that stick out from between the cobbles – and its colourful, characterful buildings it’s easy to see why.

The Plaza Mayor in the city centre (above) is wonderfully preserved and is home to the lovely Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, an art gallery and a number of museums, one of which, the interesting Museo de Arqueologia Guamuhaya, once welcomed the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The curious museum is devoted to local archaeology and its exhibitions take visitors on a journey from prehistoric times to the 20th century.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

Away from the main square, a handicrafts market snakes its way through the maze of narrow streets and it’s well-worth a browse, especially for pretty tablecloths and exquisite wooden carvings. For spectacular views over the city, climb the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (above), then for a spot of revolutionary history, visit the Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos on its ground floor. The museum is dedicated to the revolution and features a poignant gallery that includes a photograph of every revolutionary who died during the conflict.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

Nearby is Canchánchara, a bar famous for its namesake cocktail (above) – a blend of white rum and honey, heated with lime juice. Served in small terracotta bowls, it’s delicious and as I start to sip my drink the band strikes up and I spend an enjoyable afternoon sipping cocktails while listening to the irresistible live music.

Dinner is a fantastic affair at the Taberna el Barracon. The food is exceptional and I enjoy a tasty salad with pickled cucumber, tomato, green beans and cabbage, followed by a magnificent plate of lobster, shrimp and fish cooked in the chef’s special sauce and served with plantain chips.

As night descends, the fun continues at the Casa de la Musica. Situated on a series of stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor, the Casa de la Musica is the place where Trinidadians gather each evening to listen to live music and dance. The outdoor event takes place every night, even in bad weather – when the heavens open, the musicians will wait for the rain to stop before they start playing again. The bands are incredible, as are the dancers. One performer picked up a table using just his teeth, while four of them used their gnashers to pick up a table that had a woman from the audience sitting on it! It’s great fun and not to be missed.