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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christmas Attractions : Blithbury Reindeer Lodge & The Magical Journey

We've just spent a busy weekend petting reindeer, visiting Santa and chatting to elves at two different Christmas attractions in the Midlands.

Blithbury Reindeer Lodge, nr Rugeley (WS15 3HY)

The first we went to was Blithbury Reindeer Lodge for a pre-opening evening.

The weather on the evening was awful, with torrential rain and flooding on the roads leading to the lodge, which unfortunately caused some loss of power. This meant that for parts of the evening some areas were only dimly lit as the generator came into use. It kind of added to the intimate feel of the evening, and a warm glow from the roaring open fire made the large barn feel cosy.

We had a tour of the reindeer, from shy baby ones that had only recently arrived, past the famous ones soon to be seen in the 'Get Santa' movie, and lastly to 11 year old Tide, the oldest reindeer on the lodge.

During the evening we had our photograph taken in the Frozen inspired sleigh with 'Sven' the Reindeer, went to Elf school to make reindeer food and learn about how the reindeer fly, decorated cakes and enjoyed storytime with Mrs Claus, and of course we met the big man himself in his grotto where Jack handed him a letter and was allowed to choose a gift to take home.

Following all the fun we then had a browse around the lovely gift shop where I picked up some very reasonably priced Christmas decorations, before heading home.

We will be going back to Blithbury again soon to take a sleigh ride as we weren't able to have one on the evening due to the awful weather. I would definitely recommend a visit to Blithbury if you're in the area, but make sure you wrap up warm and take umbrellas & waterproofs if the weather is wet, as much of the experience is outdoors.

Booking is recommended and can be done so online here, including breakfast with Santa.

A family ticket (2 adults & 2 children) is £49.95 and includes the following
  • Admission to the lodge
  • Gifts from Santa for the children
  • Sleigh Rides
  • Frozen family photograph
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The Magical Journey, nr Sutton Coldfield (B76 9PR)

On Saturday we visited The Magical Journey, the 'Ultimate Christmas Experience' at The Belfry. I had extremely high hopes for this evening out, as firstly The Belfry is England's top golf hotel, and secondly interior designer Laurence Llewelyn Bowen had created the experience. There has been a lot of hype about the attraction, and certain dates have been sold out for ages. With the claims of promising to be 'the theatrical production of the year for your entire family' I was expecting something truly magnificent.

We decided to arrive earlier than our 8pm reservation to have a look around the Christmas market inside the big top entrance. Parking was easy, with plenty of spaces just a short walk from the entrance. Our first impressions were that it wasn't very spectacular looking and could have done with the trees around the entrance being lit up. Once inside the big top it soon became apparent that the 'Christmas market' wasn't going to take more than 5 minutes to look around, and was a bit of a let down to say the least. We made the decision to go and find somewhere else to eat and come back at our time slot, and I left feeling a little deflated.

We arrived back around 7.45pm, checked in at one of the vacant tables, and then headed to the cafe where the kids ate cookies and muffins whilst I enjoyed my first mulled wine of the season.  

We were called at 8pm for our journey to begin and joined a queue where elves chatted away to us while we waited. The friendly elves were the best part for Jack, and he loved chatting to them throughout the evening.

The first room that we entered was a museum with Christmas artefacts such as Santa's babygrow, his cloak, articles from his wedding to Mrs Claus, reindeer antlers and sledges. People were using this room more as a waiting room & were mostly stood over to one side which meant that we had to wait until they had gone into the next room before being able to look at everything on that side. We also noticed that the ceiling looked unfinished and definitely lacked the attention to detail that I was expecting. It was also possible to hear the group before ours cheering & singing in the next rooms.

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The next room was where Mrs Claus was doing some baking, and she did well attempting to entertain and interact with everyone. She explained that Rudi, the baby reindeer had gone missing and it was our mission to help find him along our journey.

The elf in the next room (Simon Cowelf's Academy) asked everyone to vote on their favourite Christmas toy, but unfortunately this didn't go down too well as the children who were asked to help out refused to hold all the toys apart from Olaf!

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Next up was our train ride to the forest, and for me this was the best part. It was a road train and as the terrain was quite bumpy there was lots of screams and laughter as he carriages rocked from side to side as we sped through the forest singing Christmas songs. Jack thought it was great too but Hanna thought it was scarier than rides at Alton Towers!

We entered 'Uncle Holly's Hut' (an empty tipi) where more elves explained that we needed to keep our eyes open for Rudi before ringing a bell to allow us entry into the forest (the website mentions ringing a large cowbell, however it was actually a desk bell!). Walking through the forest was lovely, and the trees were covered in snow and music played. There were elves all around to say hello to and take photos with, which Jack loved. By the time we reached the next tipi we had caught up with the group in front of us and weren't really sure what to do then, but found a pen of reindeer and assumed that we had at last found Rudi. Considering that the whole journey was about the search for Rudi it was a bit of a let down when we eventually did. We didn't really know where to go from there and followed a small group through the trees and realised that we were just about to enter Santa's lodge. The inside of the lodge was decorated beautifully, with lots of attention to detail that I would've expected more of throughout the experience. Santa was friendly enough and chatted to the children about what they would like for Christmas, whilst they sat on little benches. Photos were taken and presents were handed out to the children before we left the lodge and were once again left wandering around not knowing where to go next. We wandered towards another lodge but backed away quickly before Jack could see, as it appeared to be another Santa lodge. We then headed to the exit where photos were being viewed on screens, however we were told that we were too soon to see ours and were asked to come back in ten minutes. At this point we decided to leave as it was getting late so didn't get to see the quality of the photographs.

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Whilst Jack really enjoyed his adventure, I did feel that it was a bit of a let down, considering that it was to be 'the Ultimate Christmas Experience' and 'the theatrical production of the year', which it was far from.

Improvements that could be made
  • Lights on the trees at the entrance
  • More of a Christmas feel to the market & no empty units
  • Finish off the buildings and soundproof the rooms
  • More theatrical shows, especially in the Simon Cowelf Academy
  • More excitement around finding Rudi
  • Either wrapped, age appropriate gifts from Santa or allow children to choose their own gift
  • Hide the unopened bags of fake snow and clear away the empty plastic packaging
  • Bury the cables in the forest and tipis as they were a trip hazard
  • Have the cables in the big top under the floorboards rather than across the floor with tape over them - it makes the place look unfinished
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The friendly elves definitely made the evening and there were plenty around to chat to.

Tickets for a family of 4 would cost from £55.00 - £75.00 (depending on day of visit) + £10 for a family photograph (optional).

Following our visit it would appear that we weren't the only ones left disappointed and The Magical Journey have been inundated with complaints from unhappy customers. They then made the decision to close the attraction on 23rd, 24th & 25th November to make improvements before reopening on 26th November.

I would be interested to see how different the experience is after the improvements, and in my experience there will have to be much improvement to make it The Magical Journey that I had hoped for.

We were invited to the pre-opening event at Blithbury but were not asked to write about our experience

We received free tickets to the Magical Journey in exchange for an honest review

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Foodie Christmas Book Wish List

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. 
All opinions are mine alone.

Family members often say that they never know what to buy me for Christmas, and I suppose I don't help them out much by saying "I'll have a think" or "oh don't get me anything", after all, Christmas is all about the kids, right? Truth be told, I LOVE it when I get a big pile of presents from my husband but there has always been a joke about how many of them will get returned in January. He's got better over the years and I don't think anything got returned last year, and he has even started taking notice of my subtle hints (it's only taken 14 years!)

Without fail, he buys me a cookery book, although he has been known to buy me one that I've already got, so I thought I would help him out a bit this year, with my book wishlist (It'll be just my luck that he won't read this blog post!)

I popped along to WHSmith to get some inspiration for my list of ten books.

Upon entering our local WHSmith it doesn't appear to be a very large store, however there is an upstairs that is mostly dedicated to books. On the lower level there are a few stands displaying half price books and books for £5, which is where I began my search.

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Primrose Bakery Christmas - Martha Swift

Primrose Bakery Christmas - Martha Swift
I'm a sucker for Christmas books, which I use for inspiration during the eating season and this one is full of tempting recipes for cakes, cookies, edible gifts and more.

The Way I Cook - Lisa Faulkner

The Way I Cook - Lisa Faulkner 
I've been a fan of Lisa Faulkner recipes since I saw her make a nut roast on tv a few years ago, as it's become a favourite on our Christmas dinner table ever since (even for meat eaters)

Family Sunday Lunches - Mary Berry

Family Sunday Lunches - Mary Berry
It's Mary Berry making Sunday lunch, what more is there to say!

Great Outdoors Cookbook - Phil Vickery The 

Great Outdoors Cookbook - Phil Vickery
This book is full of inspiring recipes and ideas for cooking and eating outdoors (and we all know that food tastes better outdoors). There are sections on how to make a Dutch oven, cooking on a bbq (including the Christmas turkey) and open fire, as well as cooking a feast on one or two rings (a necessity when camping), and 'from the flask'.

The Camper Van Cookbook - Martin Dorey

The Camper Van Cookbook - Martin Dorey
This book looks like a great read as it's not just a cookbook and instead seems more like an essential handbook for the camper van owner. We may not own a camper van but after enjoying our recent motorhome holiday it's definitely something I want to do again. There are music play lists, essential kit lists (including cooking equipment and games to take), as well as cocktail recipes, how to tell the time without a clock and surfing tips. It looks like a really entertaining read.

Mug Cakes - Mima Sinclair

Mug Cakes - Mima Sinclair
I've made cakes in a mug before but this is a complete book dedicated to mug cake recipes, including a Christmas cake, honey cake and a black forest cake, to name a few.

Salad Love - David Bez 

Salad Love - David Bez
I love salads and Salad Love has a different salad for each weekday, with a full colour photo for each recipe, made from fresh ingredients with the minimum of effort - a must for everyone wanting to get more of their 5 a day.

Men's Pie Manual - Andrew Webb 

Men's Pie Manual - Andrew Webb
Well, I know I'm not a man but I couldn't resist giving this book a mention, as I love the 'Haynes Manual' style and the delicious looking pork pie on the cover, and step by step instructions for some of the recipes.

River Cottage Fruit - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

River Cottage Fruit - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (I bought this one)
If you love fruit then this book is definitely for you; full of all manner of recipes for different fruits from summer berries to tropical favourites, with a colour photo for every recipe (which all cook books should have, in my opinion).

River Cottage Fruit - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall River Cottage Fruit - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Nigella Express - Nigella Lawson (I bought this one too)
'Good Food Fast' is what this book is all about - fast food, short-cuts and time saving ideas. It's worth buying for the Lazy Loaf recipe alone; an easy to prepare muesli bread that takes seconds to prepare and 1.75 hours to prove & bake.

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After watching Tom Kerridge's Best Ever Dishes on tv I'd like to add an 11th book to my list now too, as everything he made looked 'proper lush'.

Tom Kerridge's Best Ever Dishes

So here is my final top 11 foodie cook books for Christmas 2014

Primrose Bakery Christmas - Martha Swift
The Way I Cook - Lisa Faulkner 
Family Sunday Lunches - Mary Berry
The Great Outdoors Cookbook - Phil Vickery
The Camper Van Cookbook - Martin Dorey
Mug Cakes - Mima Sinclair
Salad Love - David Bez
Men's Pie Manual - Andrew Webb
River Cottage Fruit - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Nigella Express - Nigella Lawson
Best Ever Dishes - Tom Kerridge

Creative Uses for Christmas Leftovers

Christmas dinner is the highlight of holiday celebrations for so many families. Maybe you make your Gran’s stuffing recipe year after year, or spend a month soaking your traditional Christmas pudding in brandy baths. Whatever your clan is noshing this year, you’ll want to make it stretch even further after the holiday, so you don’t waste a single bite of this homemade holiday deliciousness—and you get to do a little culinary exploration beyond the basic sandwich.

To help you out, here are six favourite recipes for using up the leftovers from your Christmas feast.

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Turkey burgers

Turkey is lean and healthy, but it can go dry easily, so you’ll want to be clever in using up the bird. We love the idea of making burgers with leftover turkey, so you can get all the health benefits and none of the dryness. To boost the moisture and flavour, this recipe uses stuffing instead of the usual bland breadcrumbs to hold it all together. Don’t have a meat grinder at home? That’s no problem. This recipe works with finely chopped or shredded meat, so you can either go at it by hand or in your trusty food processor.

Turkey curry

If burgers feel a bit tame (the you can’t yet stomach the thought of more bread), why not use your leftover turkey for a flavourful and healthy curry base? All of the ingredients for this vibrant curry are easy to find in your local shops, nothing too exotic needed (if the mango chutney poses any problem, you can substitute with any sweet chutney you like, such as date or apple). This recipe really is as easy as curry get, especially when you use stock rather than water—the flavours of the stock really add a special richness to the dish, without requiring any time or effort from you except what it takes to open the can!

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Cheeseboard and onion tart

If you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of buying lovely fresh cheeses for your Christmas meal, don’t let it all go mouldy in the fridge! This tart is a savoury way to use up the odds and ends of multiple cheeses, and combine them into a rich and satisfying take on a quiche. The crust is simple enough to whip up, even if you’re sick of holiday baking—just pulsing the ingredients quickly in a food processor gets the crumbly, buttery dough all ready in two ticks, with no tiresome kneading or cutting in butter chunks. While you could serve up this treat plain, the addition of onion adds sweetness without adding cost, or much effort.

Fruit squares

This tasty bar bake is a fabulous trick for using up figgy pud, cranberry sauce, mincemeat, extra raisins from baking, or any other fruity bits lying around the kitchen. Sandwiching these rich sweeties in two layers of dough will give you a bar that’s sticky and scrumptious on the inside, but neat to pick up on the outside, with the creamy buttery goodness of the pastry to balance the intensity of the fruit flavours. Once baked, these also freeze beautifully and make for an extra-special surprise tucked into a child’s lunchbox or brought to a New Year’s party.

Mulled wine sorbet

If you’ve gone to the trouble of mulling wine for a holiday party, don’t let it all go to waste! Even if you’ve had it sitting on the heat or in a crock-pot for a while and lost some of the alcohol, that’s no problem—this sorbet recipe starts by boiling off the rest of the booziness, anyway, until you’ve got a rich, delicious syrup to freeze into cubes and blend with yoghurt or cream. The final product is smooth and low-effort. You will want to set aside some time in advance for the boiling and freezing, but it’s easy to keep these going along in the background of tidying the house or preparing the rest of the meal.

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Eggnog Pancakes

For a real transformation of a humble ingredient, look no further than these eggnog pancakes. A simple tweak to a basic pancake recipe, using eggnog in place of milk in the batter, makes for a subtly cheery breakfast treat. The extra fat in eggnog will make sure they are moist and fluffy, and you don’t have to feel bad about throwing out unfinished ‘nog after everyone’s had a sip and half (about the most anyone can ever stomach, we find!).

There are plenty of creative uses for all your lovingly prepared Christmas dishes. Who knows, maybe you’ll even invent a new Boxing Day food tradition!

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Fruits of the Forest Christmas Cake

Traditionally the last Sunday before advent is known as Stir It Up Sunday. On this day families gather in the kitchen to make the Christmas pudding and cake, and all take turns in mixing the ingredients, and making a wish.

As this Sunday is Stir it Up Sunday, Urban Fruits will be hosting a twitter party from 2-4pm where you can put your questions regarding your Christmas baking to them. Just make sure you follow @UrbanFruit and the #StirUpSunday hashtag.

Here's Jack helping out with our Fruits of the Forest Christmas Cake, which is based on my Nan's old recipe. The full recipe can be found on the Great British Chefs website here.

Fruits of the Forest Christmas Cake Fruits of the Forest Christmas Cake

If you need further inspiration to make a not so traditional Christmas cake then check out the other blogger recipes involved in Stir it up Sunday with Urban Fruit.

This recipe has been commissioned by Great British Chefs


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