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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A Taste of Dresden

I recently was fortunate enough to be invited to Dresden to attend the annual German Travel Mart. Whilst my full review will appear in the Ulster Tatler, it was such a unique trip that I thought I would share a few of the many snaps I took along the way.

Dresden, which is the state capital of the German state of Saxony, is distinguished by its museums and culture, its classic architecture and its picturesque views, particularly of the Dresden Elbe Valley which stretches along the river Elbe. From the inviting new town to the charming old town, there really is something to see, somewhere to explore and adventures to be had, by all.

Here’s just a selection of some of my favourite snaps from my first glimpse of this fascinating city.

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

Behind the Scenes at Anfield

My knowledge of football resembles this iconic scene in The IT Crowd when Moss and Roy attend a match:

And so, when Keith and I decided to do the Anfield tour during a recent trip to Liverpool, I didn’t have high hopes that it would be my cup of tea. Whilst I still can’t say I am a virtuoso of the ‘beautiful game’, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much I really enjoyed a peek at behind the scenes of the home of Liverpool Football Club.

When we checked in, all the staff were friendly and welcoming and quickly pointed out where we could collect our multimedia audio handsets for use throughout the duration of the tour. The tour is self-guided which I preferred as it meant you could explore at your own pace and linger a bit longer in the areas that interested you the most. The handsets were fantastic for providing a bit more of an insight into each of the stops you make throughout the tour; from the Carlsberg Lounge to the history of The Kop.

Highlights for me were the press room (naturally), the home and away changing rooms, getting to walk past the famous ‘This is Anfield’ sign and through the players’ tunnel and also getting to take a seat in the dugout. Needless to say there were several photo opportunities throughout!

Whilst the tour was self-guided there were a number of amicable guides throughout the stadium who were happy to answer any questions and also ensured you were on the right track to see the most interesting parts of the tour – and that you didn’t get lost – a bonus for me as I can get lost in my own living room.

There was definitely a lot to see throughout the stadium tour, and with your ticket also giving you free access to the interactive museum also on the grounds, which tells The Liverpool FC Story and also contains the Steven Gerrard collection and a fitting tribute to victims of the Hillsborough disaster, the ticket fee was definitely good value for money in my opinion.

If you are visiting Liverpool and have not toured the Anfield grounds before I definitely recommend a visit to the stadium – you don’t even need to be a football fan to enjoy it but when you see a match after it – whether under duress or not – you will get a buzz to know you have been in Jurgen Klopp’s seat!

For more information:

https://stadiumtours.liverpoolfc.com/tours

Posted: 8/4/2018

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

Dining at Cyprus Avenue 

During the Christmas break my Geordie sister (from a different mister), Frankie, came for a visit to Belfast. Everytime she comes to town my sister Gail and I try to think of somewhere new to try whilst she’s here. This time Gail suggested Cyprus Avenue for lunch. 

Located on Upper Newtownards Road, beside the Avenue made famous by Van Morrison, Cyprus Avenue is a gorgeous restaurant that blends together deep teal tones with exposed brick work and dark wood to create a wonderfully warm and inviting space. We were seated in a booth towards the back which gave us the perfect spot to soak up the atmosphere in the restaurant as well as to peruse the offerings on the menu. 

It is very clear that local produce is very important to the restaurant. Not only is the menu filled with it (with dishes comprised of such delights such as Strangford mussels and Finnebrogue venison) but there is fantastic artwork adorning the walls by AJ Laird Art, which showcases the suppliers Cyprus Avenue works with on a regular basis; this is such a wonderful touch to the decor which also helps illustrate the ethos of the restaurant. 


After we pored over the menu we decided to have the breads and tapenade to share as a starter. It was fresh and delicious and the perfect way to whet the appetite. 

BBQ boneless beef ribs

For mains Frankie and I ordered the BBQ boneless beef ribs served with roast corn, CA slaw,  and Corey’s seasoned fries. Gail opted for Darren Rogers’ pork, apricot, treacle, Leon’s veg and confit potato. When the beautifully presented mains were served, it was a testament to how well they tasted that all conversation at our table seemed to cease. The ribs were succulent and tender and the slaw proved a wonderful accompaniment. The fries were full of flavour and so moreish. Gail thoroughly enjoyed the pork dish which was cooked to perfection and superbly matched together a wonderful mix of flavours and textures. 
Darren Rogers’ pork dish

Although seriously tempted by dessert (the idea of the warm caramel shortcake and Valhrona chocolate brownie sundae had me practically salivating whilst Gail was very intrigued by the Cyprus Avenue cheese on toast with mushroom ketchup), we were too stuffed and so opted for a selection of coffee and herbal teas (served in gorgeous glass pots) to conclude our meal. 

Cyprus Avenue is a wonderful spot. With beautiful surroundings, quality and locally sourced food and fantastic service, the overall experience was superb. Whatever the occasion, wether a girly catch up, a family meal or an intimate dinner for two, Cyprus Avenue should definitely be on the menu!

Sisters reunited: Kellie, Gail and Frankie 

Posted: 06/01/2018