Sunday, 12 January 2014

New Year in Sri Lanka




Firstly, Happy New Year all!!

Sunrise 1st January 2014 over the Knuckles mountain range Sri Lanka

Secondly, an apology....I'm sorry I've been rubbish at bloging in 2013.

You see our precious small monkey gobbles up all my time and I'm so knackered when I do get any downtime *rarely* I just want to sit in a quiet, darkened room and rock myself back and fourth like a mental patient...certainly not think or write.

However, as precious small monkey approaches being 1 year old in March *eek! my 2014 resolution (along with a pledge to run a half Marathon...I regret this already!!!) is to blog more...so here goes.

 GO TO SRI LANKA!





If you live in the UAE it's 4 hours and a curious 1 and a half (?!) hour time difference to Colombo and cheap as chips with Fly Dubai. In just 4 hours you can brush off the dry desert dust and be in the lush green paradise that is Sri Lanka.





We planned to go for New Year when we were craving a 'green fix', in September before we knew Dubai was aiming to stage the world record fire works display in our backyard doh!!...

An hour or so drive from Kandy to the Pinnawalla Elephant Orphanage


Instead of 450,000 fireworks in stark contrast on NYE we looked out at the vast Knuckles mountain range and watched shooting stars - natures own fireworks and imo more speculator!

I'd been told it was better to tour Kandy rather than industrial Colombo, so on day one we stayed at a guest house in Kandy.


There we had the best Sri Lankan food of the trip, with some kind of caramelised aubergine, coconut carrot curry and spicy roast potatoes yum!






Although it's better than dying or being poached in the wild, it still felt 'zoo' like and we witnessed some bad handling of the elephants:-(







We spent the next morning exploring Kandy, which is the Sri Lanka I'd imagined.



A brightly coloured, bustling, colonial town full of Tuk-tuks and terrible pavements.

Full of wonderful sights and smells.

I witnessed a white haired, approx 80 year old lady simultaneously push a goat and a large wheel-barrow up a steep hill, amazing!

Buddhist monks walk around town carrying laptop bags.

Loved Kandy, I wish we could have spent a few more days there.











But we only had half a day there so just time to take in a few main sights - we visited to the Bhuddist Temple of the Tooth which smelt of fragrant jasmine and afterwards we pottered around the outside market munching on fresh mango.










For the rest of our 5 days we were to stay at Madukelle Tea plantation and Eco lodge, over an hour and white knuckle, bumpy mountain drive from Kandy.

Note: in Sri Lanka it takes you ages to get anywhere, not due to distance but due to the precarious roads and awful driving, our driver and guide was a lovely man named Sunny. Contact me if you plan to visit and I'll give you his number.




As we whizzed around the narrow single lane mountain roads a sheer 700 meter drop down, passing small villages and swerving lumber wagons, buses, skinny dogs who for some reason all like to sleep in the middle of the road (!) I wondered if any place would be worth this journey.

Then the asphalt stopped and the road actually got worse, even bumpier and windier...and just as I'm about to scream "let me out!!" there's an opening in the trees and I catch a glimpse of the Madukelle Tea plantation and well, I just stared, silent and wide eyed at the awesomeness and beauty.


 Madukelle is by far the most stunning place I've ever stayed and I've stayed at a fair few amazing places.


A 25 acre working tea plantation supporting the local tea economy plus a dozen eco tents providing a tranquil escape for tourists.

Breakfast 1000 meters above sea level
The main house is inspired by the grand colonial houses of old, offering a sympathetically styled interior with a traditional yet modern edge.




It's a delightful space, with it's open fire and rustic decor, mismatched furniture and garden staircase down to a cliff side infinity pool, all make it simply breathtaking.




The eco tents/lodges adopted from the African game reserves not only disrupt the natural environment as little as possible but also give you stylish and functional accommodation and spectacular views, proper Glamping baby!!




You can come straight out of your lodge and do one of the many picturesque walks, 30 mins down to the water fall and watch villagers doing their washing or trek up the mountain, passing tea pickers with bales of tea piled high on their heads.


Or visit the local Tea factory and learn about the rarefied art of Tea production.......





As we wondered up the misty mountain one afternoon, beautiful pan piped music rolled down the mountain side from the neighbouring Tamil village...it was honestly like a movie scene!


The dusky light creates a dreamscape as the Tamil music fills the valley


Once back at the lodge and just time for a quick dip in the pool, afternoon tea on the veranda and I'm just about ready for a glass of red curled up by the fire, thank you very much..





We sat one evening on our little terrace having tea and our duty free Twix's whilst watching monkey's play in the tree next to us as bats flew overhead. Heaven.

Our own precious small monkey was quite a tourist attraction himself, attracting attention everywhere we went.

At the Tea factory the women downed tools and took it in turns holding him and whilst out walking people from the mountain remote villages would leave their chores and houses to come and stare at our little chubby Buddha.

The Sri Lanka people were all very warm and friendly, and precious small monkey was welcomed and made a fuss of everywhere we went.


What makes Madukelle really special is it's unique character - the small touches,  it's organic gardens with roses and a homemade scarecrow, that are lovingly tended and grow much of the food consumed.



A foundation the lodge has set up to support the local school, a Christmas wish tree on which local children wrote their Christmas present wishes so that guests could donate and buy them, school bags and headphones were the big ticket items for Santa on the Madukelle mountain.




The quirkiness and friendliness of the staff, nothing is too much trouble - that said you don't always get what you've ordered but any mistakes are promptly corrected and it all adds to the charm of the place.



Just some 'cushion porn' for me I loved these handmade cushions!!

Why we loved it so much, and it's not just down to the astounding panoramic views - natural beauty nestled in the melty-emerald green mountains, or the exquisite designed lodge. No, what Madukelle is, is our life dream incarnate.... we'd love to own a place just like this one day.


The best Nativity I saw all Christmas on the side of a remote Sri Lanka mountain who'd have guessed!

We got to meet Madukelle's  flamboyant French owner Philippe and I was a little in awe as he told us how he'd searched the globe for 2 years looking for the perfect spot and then spent a further 4 years in a labour of love to build the estate.

He explained in his husky French accent how he considered a vineyard or other crops at various gorgeous locations in the world. But it was...." Zee beauty of zee tea and zee warmth of zee Sri Lankan people" that had made him plump for Madukelle.




At this point, our first born babe in my arms, I asked Johan not to be offended if I divorced him immediately to run off with Philippe...interestingly Johan said he wouldn't be bothered at all if it meant he'd get free holidays at Madukelle...and in fact he was considering trying to run off with Philippe himself.....that is how gorgeous Madukelle is!!

I had also wanted to write about the trials and tribulations of doing this type of trip with a 9 month old baby...but that is a whole other post.

Needless to say we 'coped' and did have a great time... but the learning was - I think we'll wait a couple more years before we're quite so brave/naive/adventurous as to try it again!





Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Carrot Cakes of Dubai



A good looking carrot cake 
Whilst pregnant I aquired a 4 O'clock cake habit. I told everyone that this was due to a 'pregnancy craving'.....this was in fact a huge lie!.........I wasn't really 'craving' anything at all, I just like to eat cakes and reckoned that being preggers was the perfect excuse to justify eating cake every day!

A particular favourite is Carrot Cake, I simply adore a whacking great chunk of the not so healthy as it sounds carrot cake, which disappointingly can't be counted as one of your 5 a-day fruit & veg intake either.

However, there can be so much variance between one carrot cake to the next it's always a gamble when ordering carrot cake in new Cafe. So to help you all, I very altruistically tasked myself to find the best carrot cakes of Dubai and report back.......please no medals.

Some carrot cake history

Carrot cake  has interesting origins dating way back to the Middle Ages when refined sugar and imported dried fruit were rare and expensive, so poor folk used carrots as an alternative sweetener. It then became fashionable again during the second world war when war time rationing made sugar and fruits become rare again, however there was a surplus of carrots!


War time poster

All carrot cakes are not created equal and I have a very specific criteria about the correct combination of components that make up a perfect carrot cake, a great article exploring this further and comparing different recipes can be found in here.

My prefect carrot cake criteria:
  • Must include large soft sultanas - not spiteful little raisins
  • Must include walnuts - not pecans, pine nuts or any other type of nuts and not too many either
  • A musky, soft spiced cinnamon crossed with mild ginger flavour
  • A moist, firm texture with rich dark colour - I don't trust a pale carrot cake
  • Fleck's of actual carrot you can see
  • Must have cream cheese frosting - sounds obvious but I have heard tell of Carrot cakes with no frosting?!....the point of which I can not comprehend.
  • Multiple layers of frosting not just on the top
  • Extra points awarded for a little marzipan carrot decoration!

The measure used is my own stars system whereby the maximum is 5 stars *****, which equals a perfect carrot cake!



Rich - MOE  *1 Star



Rich Cafe was a new try for us and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it as I liked the décor and menu a mix.

The cakes were shown off in a beautiful glass fount counter and looked amazing.


However the size of the carrot cake is frankly scary and I'm not one to pass up a generous serving of cake but this slice was gargantuan, too big in fact.


The texture was dry and the flavour bland and often felt like chewing a mouthful of wood chip just to get through it. The frosting to cake ratio was uneven but again that was likely due to the enormousness of the cake.

Wouldn't recommend this carrot cake, which is a shame as really liked the place and everything else we ordered was yum! I have since tried their red velvet cup cakes and they are amaze-a-balls so don't let the disappointing carrot cake put you off.





Hey Sugar -  3.5 stars ***/*



I'm a bit of a traditionalist and wasn't convinced carrot cake could successfully make the transition to cupcake, but my reservations we offset by this little delight.












On balance this is a pretty, generously frosted cupcake underpinned by a lovely moist carrot cake, with lots of real carrot flecks.It also had a little frosting carrot topper, super cute!

The only downside for me was the light cake colour and the frosting was a little on the runny side not as firm as I would have liked, but a decent and enjoyable afternoon tea scooby snack nonetheless.







Costa Coffee - 2.5 Star*** 

A pretty average coffee chain carrot cake which is either improved or made worse depending on the day and the level of freshness.

On a good day the cake is fairly moist another day having sat on the cabinet a wee while to long it was dry and stiff around the edges. The frosting is decent enough and the size of slice was just right, the cake features walnuts and bits of carrot and a nice touch was the nut crust, but unfortunately not to my taste, made it over kill on the nut front for me.

There's just  nothing particularly remarkable about this cake...it's just a bit Meh!

Lime Tree Cafe - **** 4 stars



I'd heard tell that Lime Tree offer the best carrot cake in Dubai and with a reputation like that this cake had a lot to live upto.

The slice is on the large side, it's a whole lunch on it's own!  However, as it's moist and not not sweet so it's actually doable.
The cake has good combination of key ingredients apart from sultanas which were absent.

The colour is dark and the flavour is spicy and well balanced with little flecks of carrot throughout.

The frosting is dreamy - perfectly sweet, cream cheesy texture but could have done with another layer or the inner layer being a bit fatter to balance the cake to frosting ratio.

This cake is decorated with a little fruit which bares an unfortunate name that I always confuse with a rather nasty STD  - the fruit being Physalis  the other being Syphilis! I'd much prefer a marzipan carrot.

I do like the detail of a little sprinkle of icing sugar on the cake and plate though when served, class.

There is no denying this is a very good carrot cake, however is it worthy of the title 'The best carrot cake in Dubai' ...erm no, close but no cigar.

The American Hospital, post natal menu - * 1 Star

Ok I included this one for a laugh, but during my post delivery stay in hospital when carrot cake appeared in a tick box for my daily menu I couldn't resist!

And you know what, aside from the awful cling film squashed presentation it wasn't that bad, better in fact than some I've had in restaurants and cafes see below!








Gloria Jean's -  Mardif city mall, Minus - 1 * Star

What a strange tragic place Gloria's is, I can't see exactly what there UPS is but it ain't the carrot cake that's for sure!

Gloria's is like a really bad rip of Starbucks to the point of ridiculous, why do all coffee shops now all look like mahogany Starbucks clones??

I don't get why people start a coffee shop that's a bad version of the world's leading coffee shop. How are they differentiating themselves from the market leader?

At the very least they should've got some new interiors designers -  if you look at Starbucks, Costa, Nero, Caribou and the likes of Gloria's they are all the same pretty much. Please note coffee chains: We consumers are so very board of that tried 90's Central Perk format.

Note the sweaty marzipan carrot atop ack!
Aside form this, my major gripe with Gloria's was that carrot cake itself was disgusting, no other word for it.

The actual cake wasn't to bad it was fairly moist and tasty with a liberal spattering of walnuts, it was missing the vital sultanas ingredient however. The size was on the small side but it was  the frosting that made this carrot cake just awful.

Firstly, it only had one layer on the top yet I could have forgiven that. But secondly and worst is that I don't know what the frosting was!

I'm not even sure it was frosting, it was like a cross between a tasteless synthetic cheese cake and congealed blancmange.  It was vile. And had obvs been sitting in the counter far too long as the marzipan decoration was.....wait for it - SWEATY!!...vomsville.

Worst still is even though we were sitting inside we got our coffee served in paper cups and the cake was on a polystyrene plate with plastic fork?!! This infuriates me two fold as;
a) it's really bad for the environment and b) it soooooooo very uncuoth!!!
Won't be seeing you again Gloria Jean!

Caribou CoffeeIbn Tutta Mall, ***/* 3.5 stars


Surprisingly good! Somewhat tiring of the challenge i'd set myself  I was about to pass up the chance to sample this carrot cake.  I'm so glad I 'forced' myself to give it a try as it's by far the best of the coffee chains.

It was a light, moist flavoursome cake with a scrummy cream cheese frosting that was ideally proportioned. The pièce de résistance was lots of lovely juicy sultanas and a precise scatter of walnuts, all in all a thoroughly good carrot cake!

The only down side was again like Gloria Jean that even though we were sitting in, the cake and coffee got served up in a paper cup and a polystyrene plate and plastic fork...it flattens the entire the experience for me I'm afraid so I've had to deduct half a star.





Coffee Bean MOE - * 1 Star

This cake was compact and moist, offering good nuttiness but had no sultanas.

The ratio of cake to frosting was  good, three layers in total of the right thickness. However, it was let down by the frosting being rather flavourless and synthetic.

This was not an exactly an offensive cake, it was a moderate effort but terribly bland and just wasn't interesting enough to warrant the calories!









Starbucks - Big Spinney's, Al Wasal Rd *** 3 stars



My hopes weren't that high but this carrot cake was actually good.

Starbucks seem to have made a big improvement in their food selections over the last year or so. Likely responding to competition by trying to move more towards an artisan feel for food, rather than Mac-starbucks which is where they where heading previously.

Decent enough cake this, firm texture, a tad on the dry side though and not especially generous on the fruit, nut or carrot fleck front.

However, the frosting was yummy and I particularly like that you got 4 layers of frosting nicely distributed throughout the cake which resulted in even fork fulls of cake and frosting. Indeed this was the only cake that gave 4 layers of frosting and I likely!!







The Ritz Carlton, Abu Dhabi,  0* Zero stars

I'm usually a massive fan of The Ritz cakes they do an awesome afternoon tea with amazing scones. However, after a recent trip to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi we were in need of some refreshments and stopped at the Ritz for their evening buffet, which was great aside from the terrible mini carrot cake on the desert section.

Neither the cake nor frosting tasted of anything at all and the cake was so dry it felt like I was chewing on a bath sponge! The carrot cake I had at the American hospital was much, much better, The Ritz should be ashamed!




Sophie's Cafe - Shoreline #8, The Palm ****/* 4.5 stars

Tucked away in the basement car park as part of the RIVA Beach club is Sophie's. It's a welcome addition for locals as it's convenient serving great healthy salads and fresh juices plus a selection of home-made artisan cakes and cookies.

It is a little on the expensive side though and it's an odd little location for such a nice café, but the food is really good quality and portions are generous.

The carrot is delicious, nearly everything I want from a carrot cake.

Luscious moist texture, lots of lovely walnuts and sultanas I'd even say they might add some other kind of dried fruit, I'm not sure but it works.

It has a delicate, yet confident mix of flavours with each mouthful offering something different from smoky cinnamon |& ginger to a gorgeous subtle whaft of citrus.

The frosting is just sweet enough, just cream cheesy enough and soft yet firm enough and the ratio balanced well to the cake proportions.

Juicy sultanas

I also loved that it feels very home made with wonky edges. Plus it's presented in glass cloche arranged on a table amongst the other cakes on staggered wooden plinths so the customer can get right up to the cake before you choose it, as opposed to having it behind the counter - nice touch I love.


Flecks of carrot











Yes this is my favourite carrot cake in Dubai so far, it even bested the legendary Lime Tree one.



However, my search will continue or I supposed what I should do is make a carrot cake myself, maybe then I could award myself  the crown of "Best carrot cake in Dubai!"....watch this space.