Mussels and Monarchs: A trip to Utrecht gives me the butterflies

A swing along the Oudegracht (Old Canal)
©Rob Watson

Utrecht is Amsterdam without the crowds of tourists, the drugs, the rubbish or obvious red-light district. In other words, it has the canals, the Dutch and the cheese but everything is clean and fresh belying its age.

The University opened its doors here in 1639 and liberal thought and student culture has been a hallmark of the city ever since. There is a relaxed, almost hippy vibe about the town  that brings back memories of my youth when flower power was popular in California.

 

A burst of colour at Botanische Tuinen

Speaking of Flower Power, for a first time visitor, a visit to Utrecht’s Botanische Tuinen (Botanical Gardens) on the eastern edge of the city is a must.  Maintained by Utrecht University, the exhibits are extensive, vast even and well thought out with much of the signage translated into English.  There are rockeries, themed gardens, fields of hostas, perennials of every description and colour, climbers, carnivorous plants and much, much more.  Bromeliads have there own separate greenhouse that is climate controlled and also boasts a butterfly aviary. Accessed through sliding doors and then a plastic strip partition, the minute you walk into this aviary, butterflies surround you.  There were monarchs, beautiful blue gossamer-winged butterflies, literally dozens of exotic coloured creatures.  They were busy finding food and would alight on plants all around us. It was truly magical.

Red Bike, Oudegracht

After our visit to the gardens, it was off to the Utrecht Mussel Festival.  Held once a year in the east end of Utrecht near the Wittervrouwen District, the event only lasts one day.  On the banks of the Keistraat Drift (canal) tents offering shellfish, beer and wine had been erected. There were also bouncy castles and everything was in place when we arrived.  An outdoor seat at the Tilt bar and restaurant was secured before taking advantage of the steaming mussels and oysters.  A very nice Domaine Gibault 2011 Plantine (similar to a Sancere) washed the seafood down.  Fishermen in jauntily coloured shirts had formed a chorus and we were treated to traditional sailors tunes mixed with more current pop songs.  It was a very relaxing atmosphere and everyone was enjoying the music and the mussels.  A seafood event can’t get much better than this!

Oysters with a hoppy Belgium beer

A walk down the canal lead us to the confluence of the two main canals in the centre of town.  As the weather was fine, we stopped to have a beverage at Ledig ERF enjoying watching people go by.

There must have been fifty beers on the menu, but most were Belgian.  My brother-in-law’s partner, who lives in Brussels, verified this for us.

 

Canal boat motoring along Oudegracht

 

 

Also worth seeing is St Martin’s cathedral (Domkerk) which was first built in the 700s near to the site of the current cathedral.  Worship has taken place here since the middle ages.  And a walk along the city’s main canal will eventually lead to art shops and artist’s studios.  A dreamy, picturesque spot such as this would be hard to find anywhere else in the world.

 

 

Stena Line (08447 70 70 70) offers twice-daily return six-hour crossings between Harwich and Hook of Holland. Rail and sail tickets are available from £78 per person return (www.dutchflyer.co.uk). Cabins for overnight crossings start from £15 per person each way (based on two sharing).

 

Baking with Bruce

 

The finished product, first loaf of bread
Flowers in our Lily of the Valley Hotel Suite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A white fluffy storm is brewing.  I am up to my eyes and elbows in it.  But it is not clouds, hail or snow.  Nor dandelions, cottonwood or even will o’ the wisps.   It is flour.  Strong white flour. Spelt flour. Flour, flour everywhere and not a drop to drink!

Yes, I am baking.  I am going to be baking the bread for the lunch service at The Wildflower Restaurant based at the Moorland Garden Hotel.  I am under the supervision of Bruce Cole, Head Chef and hubby is my assistant.  I have never baked bread in my life!  A contestant on the great British Bake Off, I will never be.  I watch the participants on that programme with complete awe.  I sweat and shed tears on their behalf.  How they can cope with experts critiquing the sheer hard graft that is baking, I will never know.

White loaves finished. Check!

But baking with Bruce is an altogether different proposition.  Originally from South Africa, he trained for many years as an apprentice, as well as doing a business degree, before progressing into working in kitchens and in hospitality.  Bruce has been at the Moorland Garden Hotel for 6 months and feels it will be another two before he completely settles in (!) I get the inkling this guy really knows what he is doing. And he is very patient with me and my lovely assistant. Guiding us through the kneading process and right through to getting our loaves oven ready.

Bread making in action

Under his tutelage, I carefully weigh out the ingredients to be mixed in the forty year old bread machine.  It still works a treat.  We quickly get our first blob of dough into the pan, cover it with cling film and transfer it to the shelf above the heat lamps in another section of the kitchen.   As it starts rising nicely, we make up the granary bread with a fantastic crunchy Cotswold flour.  The yeast feels like play dough and is such fun to manipulate.  I am really enjoying this!

 

During a quick break, as the bread is rising, we talk about sustainability.  Bruce is passionate about ensuring that the meat and fish are all traceable, sustainable and local.  The night before I had dined at the hotel’s The Wildflower Restaurant and must admit that the Hake I ordered was absolutely superb. Incredibly fresh and baked to subtle perfection.  Bruce, or one of his chefs, go to the fish market in Plymouth in the early hours of the morning to select the best catch for the hotel’s guests.  And I could certainly tell my fish had been recently caught.  My husband munched on his rib eye steak which was from an animal raised locally. In fact, virtually all the produce used by the hotel is grown locally and cheeses are sourced from producers around the Dartmoor region.  Cheddar Cheese from Quick’s in Exeter and Cornish Yard, an excellent bleu cheese, are both on the menu.

Crunchy Dark Flour

 

Finally we try out the finished baked bread.  With local butter on top.  It really is amazing how good fresh baked bread tastes.  And I was so pleased I had helped to make it.

In his spare time, Bruce often travels over the Tamar River to nearby Saltash in Cornwall.  There, at the China Fleet Country Club (which was originally run by the Navy and started in Hong Kong) he unwinds with a game of golf.  The country club also boasts a driving range.  The Farmhouse Restaurant and Brasserie do a good job of serving up fresh fare to guests and there is good self-catering accommodation here…perfect for families.

But do check out the Moorland Garden Hotel if you want to experience Bruce’s cooking at The Wildflower Restaurant and then get out and experience the wild beauty of rugged Dartmoor.

 

Rooms at the Moorland Garden Hotel cost from £100 per night on a bed and breakfast basis, and from £150 per room per night including 3 course dinner www.moorlandgardenhotel.co.uk. Avis can drop off a rental car at the hotel for a £15 additional charge: