Lit Crawl at Belfast Book Festival

Jan Carson, curator of Lit Crawl, and Keith Acheson, Director of the Belfast Book Festival.

Literary lovers have the perfect reason to rejoice as the 8th annual Belfast Book Festival comes to town. From 6th – 16th June, the city will be buzzing with the written word as it plays host to a range of events. From international writers to home grown poets, musicians, workshops and lunch time events, not to mention a range of family themed events, there is something for all ages to enjoy.

This year’s Festival will also hold the first ever Belfast Lit Crawl for one night only on Saturday 16th June. I was lucky enough to recently get the opportunity to sample a mini selection of what will be on offer on the night, which is curated by author Jan Carson. After meeting up at House bar and restaurant (a sponsor of the festival and one of my favourite venues in the area), where we were welcomed by Keith Acheson, Director of the Belfast Book Festival, we set off on our tour following a large blue balloon along Botanic Avenue until we reached our first stop: the newly opened Tropical Ravine at Botanic Gardens. Although not the first spot to come to mind when you you think of literature, this was an exquisitely unique spot where we enjoyed a bite sized book reading from Sharon Dempsey and musical interlude from Lara Mulgrew.

Sharon Dempsey and Lara Mulgrew at the Tropical Ravine.

From here, we headed to No Alibis book shop to visit the Book Doctors. If you are in need of some fantastic book recommendations, the Book Doctors can prescribe something to suit your literary needs. During our appointment we heard recommendations of Belfast books that aren’t about the Troubles (Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes), must read biographies (Helen Lewis’ A Time to Speak), and musical recommendations that are worth checking out (Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs).

The Book Doctors are in: Jan Carson and David Torrens.

Our taster session finished with a Literary Cocktail back at House, which unfortunately I had to skip even though they looked amazing.

If you are lover of of fiction, and non fiction, and all things in between, Lit Crawl is for you. The night is divided into three sessions, each lasting 45 minutes, to make a fast-paced evening of pop-up events and quirky literary happenings in unusual venues across the area. Perhaps you too want to take a dander to No Alibis and visit the Book Doctors, or pick up an MP3 player at Botanic Gardens (bring your own headphones) and take a poetry jukebox tour? Or sit back and relax in the festival marquee at Lower Crescent Park and have a bite to eat and then head over to Friar’s Bush to visit Belfast’s Books of the Dead. There’s lots to choose from and it’s all FREE.

To find our more about the Belfast Book Festival, which also features Alastair Campbell at Windsor Park; Francesca Martinez at The Crescent; and Steve Parrish at Malone Lodge Hotel; family events such as a Roald Dahl Fun Day at Lower Crescent Park and The Kite Runner at the Grand Opera House; and Poetry NI’s The Belfast Book Festival Poetry Slam!, as well as for more detail on the inaugural Lit Crawl, visit: www.belfastbookfestival.com

Posted: 5/6/2018

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The Biggest Weekend, Belfast

The Bank Holiday weekend got off to a spectacular start when BBC Music’s The Biggest Weekend came to town. With a main stage packed with superb talent including, Beck, Manic Street Preachers, Franz Ferdinand, Orbital, Underworld, Breeders, Ash, Neneh Cherry, to name a few, people flocked to the Titanic Slipways to enjoy this two day Festival.

When Keith and I arrived on the Friday – just in time to catch Father John Misty with the Ulster Orchestra getting the weekend off to a spectacular start – the sun was shining and an impressive crowd had already gathered.

Father John Misty and the Ulster Orchestra

Whilst each and every act brought their A game, personal highlights for me included finally seeing Breeders perform Cannonball live; seeing Manic Street Preachers get the crowd on their feet, even though they had to perform without Nicky Wire; being totally blown away by Beck, who impressed me no end; and most of all, seeing local lads Ash perform Teenage Kicks with members of The Undertones – that’s something I won’t forget.

https://youtu.be/cgLmwaEdGZU

https://youtu.be/VKzZZfd8jFA

Although I have been to several all-day festivals, I have to say The Biggest Weekend – which was simultaneously held in Swansea, Perth and Coventry – has be one of the most remarkable. Not only was the line up amazing for both days – both on the main stage and the 6 recommends stage – but the running of the Festival was splendid. The timings for each performance were strictly adhered to on both days so you knew exactly when your favourites would be taking to the stage; there was a clean up crew constantly circulating to gather empty glasses and rubbish ensuring the Titanic Slipways were kept clean; in addition to three bars there was a drinking water area were you could fill cups and bottles with as much water as you needed; and there was plenty on offer between acts such as a ferris wheel, food stalls and areas to just sit and relax and soak up the sunshine.

As this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the fact such high profile events as The Biggest Weekend are finding a home in Belfast is testament to just how far the city has come. I loved every second of it, and as I listened to the sounds from the main stage whilst on the ferris wheel as the sun set, I can honestly say it’s one weekend I won’t forget in a hurry.

Posted: 28/05/2018

Cooking up a storm at Forestside Cookery School

For Christmas this year, my sister Gail and I decided to do something a bit different. Rather than get individual presents for each other, we decided to gift ourselves with an experience we could enjoy together. After much research we opted to book in for a Pasta Making class with Chef Jeffers at the Forestside Cookery School. After much eager anticipation, last night was the night to don our aprons and to cook up a storm.

I have lost count of the amount of times I have been in Forestside Shopping Centre and I could not figure out where the Cookery School was located. Turns out it was glaringly obvious as it is accessed by its own lift, located on the lower level beside the escalators. When the lift doors opened into the restaurant part of the Cookery School I was impressed with the ambient atmosphere that welcomed us. Quaint wooden tables adorned with textured plates and woven coasters were complemented with teal tumblers, jugs of lemonade and still water and candles.

Once all attendees arrived, we were personally welcomed by Chef Jeffers who showed us into the kitchen and directed us to our workstations for the duration of the class. Awaiting us were clipboards with our recipes (which you could jot down notes on throughout and take home with you at the end), which on this occasion was to make Italian sausage cannelloni with tomato ragu and mascarpone cream sauce.

As this was our first cooking class we were both a little nervous, but it could not have been easier. Chef Jeffers provided an informative demo of each stage of the recipe whilst his team of assistants (the fabulous Catherine and Chloe) provided us with pre measured ingredients and utensils for when we attempted it for ourselves.

Gail and I are both pasta addicts and were very excited to learn how to make our own. It was simple, and a great workout for the arms, and as we made it without a pasta rolling machine it’s definitely something I will be trying again at home. The sauces and filling for the pasta were equally as straight forward and the recipe for each, especially after the demos, were easy to follow.

Whilst during most of the classes provided by the Forestside Cookery School you are able to eat the result of your hard labour in the restaurant afterwards, this particular dish took a lot longer to prepare and so we were treated to wine and a charcuterie board with cold meats, crackers, goat’s cheese as well as bread sticks and olives whilst we packed our finished dishes into takeaway container to enjoy in the comfort of our own homes.

I have to say, whether you’re a novice in the kitchen or a budding Masterchef, I couldn’t recommend Forestside Cookery School more. The class definitely allows you to improve your skills in the kitchen and as the process is broken down into easy to manage steps, it provides you with a dish you will have the ability to easily recreate again by yourself. Chef Jeffers and his team were all friendly, fun and approachable, constantly on hand to answer any questions, to check your progress and to help with any issues you might have (for us it was a touch screen hob for which we did not seem to have the magic touch!). The class also had the chance to meet new people and to chat between cooking as well as over the wine and nibbles. It’s a fun evening and regardless of whether you are there solo, with a bestie or with a group, it gives you the chance to learn a new skill, master a new dish and meet new people along the way. I definitely will be back for seconds.

Kellie and Gail with Chef Jeffers of the Forestside Cookery School.

For more information: https://forestsidecookeryschool.com

Posted: 11/04/2018

Willie Mason at the Open House Festival

Willy Mason and Co are Studio 1A as part of the Open House Festival.

I have been a fan of Willy Mason for many years now. I first stumbled across his music in the good old days of MTV2. A few years ago I was fit the burst when I got tickets to see him in The Limelight in Belfast. I loved every minute of this gig; his chilled out vibe, witty interaction with the crowd and, of course, the music.

Mason is one if those rare artists whose speaking voice is every bit as captivating as his singing voice; with a soothing drawl that oozes the blues, I could listen to him every day of the week. And so, I was beyond excited, when I heard he was coming back to Northern Ireland as part of the Open House Festival. The gig, which was in Studio 1A in Bangor, was a rapid sell out and so when a second date was added I didn’t hesitate when it came to booking tickets.

The concert, which took place on a Tuesday night, was a full house. From the opening song I was in heaven. Willy Mason, who was accompanied by a backing band which included the superbly talented Nina Violet, had the crowd in the palm of his hand. With songs that plow incredible depths, lyrics that stay with you and beautiful music that teases and haunts and captivates, a Willy Mason show is an affecting one that will move you from start to finish. As the playlist alternated from numbers with the band, such Where The Humans Eat, If The Oceans Get Rough and We Can Be Strong, to Mason playing solo numbers such as the insanely amazing Oxygen, the set was an intimate affair that did not disappoint.

Whilst the setting of the Theatre perhaps made the audience slightly more polite than say a pub setting – it was more a watch and listen vibe than dance and sing a long one – it was still a wonderful venue with fantastic acoustics.

This was the first gig I’ve attended as part of the Open House Festival (I know, shame on me!) but with such names as PiL and The Undertones, The Low Anthem, Simone Felice and Lisa Hannigan still to play, it certainly won’t be the last.

https://youtu.be/gALstZv5aW0

For more information on Willy Mason visit: http://willymasonmusic.com

For more information on the Open House Festival visit: https://www.openhousefestival.com

Flying High at Vertigo Skydiving

I have always been curious about skydiving. The experience looks completely thrilling – but also absolutely terrifying. However with We Are Vertigo recently launching its latest venture – Vertigo Indoor Skydiving – it is possible to get a taster for free-falling without having to fling yourself out of a plane to do it.

Located at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, Vertigo Indoor Skydiving is Ireland’s only indoor skydiving centre and I was lucky to recently pay it a visit. On arrival I was checked in and welcomed by a friendly member of staff who helped me navigate my way through the Statement of Risk paperwork which must be signed before flying. Once that was out-of-the-way it was time to gear up (with a supplied flight suit, ear plugs, goggles and helmet) before watching a short, instructional video which explained all of the safety aspects of the flight as well as offering tips and pointers on how to make the most of the experience. After a quick warm up to stretch and loosen the muscles, it was time to put theory into practise and get ready to spread my wings and fly.

The instructor, Georgi, who was was friendly and put me immediately at ease, took me through to the tunnel and gave a quick demo before inviting me to join him to commence my flight. I have never tried anything like this before and so it was reassuring that the Georgi stayed with me throughout the duration and helped me to obtain the right posture over the airflow. Once I found my rhythm, we were able to soar quite high together which made for a truly memorable experience.

Once my feet were firmly on solid ground I have to admit I was buzzing with adrenalin and it took a while for the smile to leave my face. The experience, which takes place in a very open space, really replicates the feeling of flying; it was unlike anything I have ever tried before. Whilst it only takes approximately two minutes to free fall 24,000ft, you really use all your muscles and so by the time you are back on the ground you feel like you have completed a fun-filled workout.

From start to finish the staff were welcoming and knowledgable and you feel like you are in safe hands throughout. Vertigo Skydiving is perfect for all ages, whether it is a family day out or for a hen do with a difference; if you haven’t tried it before, one thing’s for sure, you will be flying high once you do.

Check out the video of my flight here.

Flights start from approx £45. If you book another session immediately after your flight you currently can get 20% off your next booking. Vertigo Indoor Skydiving will also be promoting theme days through the year on social media.

For more information visit: www.wearevertigo.com

Posted: 26/02/2018

Sisters’ Night

My sister and I recently organised a long overdue girls night and to make the most of the occasion we thought we would try two new(ish) spots to open in south Belfast: Bull and Ram, and House Belfast.

BULL AND RAM

The sister restaurant of the award winning Bull and Ram in Ballynahinch, Bull and Ram Belfast is located in the Queen’s Quarter of the city. We’ve both wanted to try this restaurant since it opened its doors at the end of last year but we only managed to get a date locked down for Friday night.

Our table was booked for 6pm and from the minute we arrived the service we received was exceptional. We were shown to a table by the window (perfect for people watching) and presented with two menus – an à la carte menu and a pre theatre menu (which runs Monday – Saturday 5-6.30 pm). The pre theatre menu had a varied choice and was great value for money (2 courses £17.50; 3 courses £21; or 3 courses and a cocktail £27) so we both opted for that option.

To start I ordered the braised chorizo with toasted sourdough whilst Gail went for the braised short rib and young buck blue cheese arancini. Both dishes were delivered promptly and smelt and looked divine. Whilst Gail enjoyed her arancini she said the chorizo had the edge which I whole heartedly agreed with; the wonderful combination of flavours really was a treat.

Braised chorizo and sourdough

For mains we both gave into temptation and ordered the dry-aged Himalayan salt chamber steak (for which there was a £3 supplement), served with beef dripping chips, onion rings and pepper sauce. Unequivocally this was the best steak I’ve had; it was cooked to perfection. My granda used to have an expression that when a bit of meat was cooked nice and tender you could ‘cut it with your nose’, I now fully appreciate what that means – it felt like the knife simply melted through the meat.

Dry-aged Himalayan salt chamber steak

After our mains we were too stuffed to get dessert so we opted for a cocktail to finish off our meal. We both enjoy an espresso martini and whilst they didn’t have any on the cocktail menu, Patrick, our fantastic server for the evening, said they would still be able to make them for us. When they arrived, they were chilled and smooth and the perfect conclusion to our experience.

From start to finish I loved everything about Bull and Ram. The staff were professional, attentive and dedicated to ensuring that you enjoy every aspect of your visit. The atmosphere is intimate and welcoming whilst caliber of the food and drinks is truly remarkable. I really have fallen for this restaurant and will definitely be back.

HOUSE BELFAST

A sisters’ night would not be complete without a nightcap (or three) and so we headed to House Belfast, the new kid on Botanic Avenue. Formerly Madison’s, this new venue, which offers food, drinks and accommodation, is unlike anywhere else in Belfast. When we arrived we were met at the door by a lovely member of staff who enquired if we were there for food (if you do fancy trying a bite to eat I would recommend booking a table in advance as it was absolutely buzzing when we visited). When we said we just fancied a drink however, he showed us to a table at one of the three bars in the downstairs area.

The vibe at House is eclectic and cool with fab accessories, cosy nooks, colourful bars and the pièce de résistance, an indoor cherry blossom tree; this really is one photogenic hot spot!

Rose Spritz (left) and Mariposa cocktails

Once we had a look over the drinks menu, we thought we would continue the cocktail theme with a Rose Spritz for Gail and a Mariposa for me. Both cocktails were colourful, fabulously presented and absolutely delicious. As the bar we were seated at specialised in whiskeys we thought this would be the ideal nightcap. With bottles on display ranging from Writer’s Tears to a classy Midleton 2017 this is pure heaven for any whiskey fan. Kyle, who was tending the bar, was an absolute legend; not only was he attentive throughout our visit but he was knowledgeable and professional and when it came to selecting a whiskey he gave us more of an insight into the ones we were interested in trying. In the end we sampled the Jameson The Distiller’s Safe and the Teeling Rum Cask Finish Irish Whiskey; both were beautiful.

As our evening came to a close I can honestly say it was a successful sisters’ night; not only did I get to catch up with my bestie, we also got to discover two outstanding gems in Belfast’s ever developing hospitality scene. With both boasting a superb product and faultless customer service, I would not hesitate to recommend Bull and Ram or House if you have yet to try them.

Posted: 11/02/2018

Review: Jake O’Kane at the Waterfront Hall

My sister Gail (left) and me with Jake O’Kane after his hilarious Still Sittin on the Fence show at the Waterfront Hall. 

My parents are huge fans of local panel show The Blame Game as well as one of its  resident panellists: Jake O’Kane. After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to secure tickets to see the live recording of the show, they also tried to book tickets for Jake’s stand up appearance last year to no avail. And so, when my sister Gail saw the announcement of tickets going on sale for Jake O’Kane’s Still Sittin’ on the Fence series of shows at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, we knew we had found the perfect Christmas present for the parentals as well as an ideal family night out. 

The show ran from 9-13 January and we were lucky to book tickets for the four of us at the Saturday night show, which was consequently the last night of its run at the Waterfront Hall. 

Once seated, the audience’s funny bones were warmed up by north Belfast comedian Terry McHugh . From his relocation to Co Tyrone with his ‘culchie’ wife to his daily shenanigans as a father of three (you’ll never think of an iPhone in the same way) to his unbreakable mother who has survived seven mild strokes, two major ones and tried to walk off a heart attack, McHugh’s take on family life is unique and highly amusing and by the time he left the stage a smile was already firmly in place on my face. 

Whilst I enjoyed a really good chuckle at Terry McHugh, I literally howled with laughter once Jake O’Kane took to the stage. The show is a loose end-of-the-year review, looking back at what made 2017 memorable – for all the wrong reasons. His repertoire of material combines so many subjects, such as local and international politics, from the fall out of Brexit to his campaign to harass MLAs on a daily basis on twitter; the pitfalls of being ginger; recent health scares; the legacy of a mixed marriage; and why you should never, ever, swim with dolphins. The end result: pure, unadulterated hilarity. From start to finish I crackled so much my stomach ached. And I wasn’t the only one. The audience were constantly exchanging tear filled glances whilst practically doubled over from laughing so much. 

Jake O’Kane’s end-of-the-year shows has become an annual must-see and now I know why. With the structure, material and timing to make the audience laugh with total abandon for the full duration, Jake O’Kane’s Still Sittin’ on Fences is, in my opinion, a comedic masterpiece; this is one comedian that I would happily watch again and again. 

For more information on Jake O’Kane and his upcoming gigs visit: https://m.facebook.com/jake.okane/