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27 June 2017

The Leicester Caffeine Chronicles: 200 Degrees and St Martin's Tea & Coffee

During my recent weekend trip to stay with friends in Leicester, I wasn't expecting to have time to check out many coffee shops. Nor did I have any time to do any research, but having enjoyed an espresso from Leicester-based St Martin's Coffee Roasters at this year's London Coffee Festival, I did have at least one café on my list — and one that is relatively close to both the train station and my friends' house.

We spent Saturday outside the city but on Sunday morning, craving coffee, we ventured into town. The plan was to head straight to the St Martin's cafe located on St Martins Square (apostrophes, or lack thereof, throughout reflect official sources). Walking along Market Street, however, we were intercepted by a woman handing out vouchers for free coffee. I was skeptical but as soon as I spotted the 200 Degrees branding, I knew we were onto a winner. Their Leicester branch opened in March 2017, but, according to the voucher, rather than spending 'thousands of pounds convincing you how good our coffee is, why not just try one for free?' Why indeed? The Nottingham-based roaster also has shops in Nottingham, Leeds, Birmingham and Cardiff; I haven't visited any of the other branches, but had heard good things.

With its sleek, black awning, 200 Degrees stands out from its Market Street neighbours. The interiors are rustic, spacious and — given the dark colours — surprisingly bright inside. Armed with our vouchers, we headed to the coffee bar and made our orders — a cortado (£2.40) and a cappuccino (£2.90). There were two espressos on offer: the 'Brazilian Love Affair' blend and the Fazenda Ouro Verde, a single-origin also from Brazil, and we opted for the latter. There was also a Guatemalan coffee available as V60- or Aeropress-brewed filter coffee (£3.20). I assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that I would be able to have a hand-brewed filter at St Martin's, so I was sorry I didn't also try brewed coffee at 200 Degrees.

As it was a warm day, we went to sit at one of the pavement tables. My friends' dog was welcomed outside and brought his own 'doggycino' (an Acme cup of water). The coffees soon arrived and my cortado was really excellent: sweet, smooth and nutty. My friend also enjoyed his cappuccino. There were plenty of cakes on the counter and the lunch service was just about to start when we were leaving so I didn't get to see the sandwiches and other light meals on offer. Something to try when I return!

After a historical visit and lunch, we finally made it to St Martin's. St Martins Square is actually more of a crescent, with several interesting eateries. Indeed, my friends had eaten before at Crafty, the gourmet burger bar that materialises at St Martin's on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The café itself was fairly busy when we arrived on Sunday afternoon, but there is plenty of seating — mainly rustic wooden furniture with pops of vibrant primary colours — both downstairs and in the upstairs room. It was very light and airy in the café and the décor gave it a cosy, homey feel.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in the market for any coffee beans on this trip, but I enjoyed browsing the colourful selection of St Martin's single-origin coffees. When it was my turn to order, I asked which single-origins were available but alas, there was only one batch-brew option, while the Friday Street blend was in the hopper for espresso-based drinks. As such, we went for the same cortado/cappuccino combo as before, with my other friend ordering a mint tea (I forgot to note individual prices but the three drinks together cost £6.30).

The breakfast and lunch menus (which included avo toast, pancakes and rotisserie chicken, among other dishes) sounded amazing, but after a big lunch, we stuck to a peanut butter brownie (£2.50). It seems I will have my meals all planned for the next time I come!

I've tried the oh-so-drinkable Friday Street blend before (coincidentally, it also uses a Brazilian Fazenda Ouro Verde, which featured in my 200 Degrees coffee, but combined with a Rwandan variety) and enjoyed it, and my cortado was nicely brewed at St Martin's. The other drinks got thumbs-ups too, and we devoured the brownie in no time. There was a really nice atmosphere in the café with a diverse set of customers, from young families, to students and, well, us. It was a lovely place to hang out after our historical learnings.

200 Degrees. 10-12 Market St, Leicester LE1 6DP. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
St Martin's Tea & Coffee. St Martins Square, 2-6 Saint Martins Walk, Leicester LE1 5DG. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

26 June 2017

A Weekend in Leicester

Despite my life-long interest in 15th- and 16th-century English history — a passion I inherited from my dad — I had never managed to visit the city of Leicester, whose connection with the Plantagenet king Richard III has been in the news fairly regularly over the past few years, displaced only by a certain football team. My only previous visit to Leicestershire was when I did my PADI Open Water training in the murky quarry of Stoney Cove back in 2002, so it was high time I returned to the county.

One of my school friends is currently studying for a post-graduate degree in Leicester so I went up to visit her and her partner at the weekend. We were blessed with warm, sunny weather and I really enjoyed our adventures in and around the city. My train from St Pancras took about 1h15 and even booking a month in advance only brought the return ticket price down from £60 to £43; Leicester is a notoriously expensive place to visit, it seems. Nonetheless, I was soon walking past the red-brick buildings of the city to get to my friends' house, and then we headed out into the countryside for lunch.

Our destination was John's House, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Mounstorrel, a small village near Loughborough. The restaurant is located in a small complex involving a farm, farm shop and café and wasn't well sign-posted from the road so we missed it first time round, but before long, we were perusing the menus in the reception area, which felt like being in the cosy living room of a smart friend. There were three G&Ts on offer, and I chose one with apple marigold, lime and Mediterranean Fever Tree tonic, which was delicious. We also nibbled on some lovely Sicilian olives.

There was a £70 tasting menu, but although it looked great, we stuck to the three-course lunch, which was just £28. Upstairs in the restaurant, we devoured the freshly baked bread — one variety with onion and one with rosemary — and awaited our food. To start, we all went for the duck confit with brown shrimps, peas and shallots. It tasted wonderful and, like all of the dishes, was beautifully presented. My main course — confit of smoked salmon with shrimps (again!), wasabi, dill and cucumber — was even prettier and superbly combined flavours and textures. The other main course dish was pork belly with sweetcorn and mushrooms, which also went down very well.

For pudding, I had a sort of yuzu and lemon meringue with elderflower sorbet, which, again, was a real treat for the tongue with its sweet–sharp, warm–cold, soft–crisp contrasts. The trifle was also more than a trifle lovely! The service at John's House was impeccable and perhaps the only possible cause for complaint is that there aren't always vegetarian options — both starters and mains on Saturday involved meat and/or fish. After lunch, we strolled around the rustic farm buildings and the vintage petrol pumps.

We then drove to to Bradgate Park, a huge country park a few miles north-west of Leicester. Dozens of red and white deer roam the park, although as it was so busy on such a sunny Saturday, many of them had decided to hide. We did make a few friends, though. We also took a peek at the ruins of Bradgate House, which was completed in the early 16th century by Thomas Grey, the grandfather of nine-day-queen Lady Jane Grey, and grandson of Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was King Edward IV (older brother of Richard III, of whom more later). We couldn't tour the ruins, unfortunately, although there seemed to be a wedding reception taking place.

After our big lunch and lazy afternoon, we spent the evening at home, but went out on Sunday morning in such of further diversions. Although St Martin's Coffee had been on my list since I sampled some of their espresso at the London Coffee Festival this year, I hadn't done any further research for the weekend, but we happened to come across 200 Degrees when walking down Market Street and stopped in there too. I will be writing up a separate post about these two fine Leicester coffee establishments in due course.

As well as a personal interest in the Wars of the Roses (the Starks and Lannisters have nothing on the intrigues and rivalries of the Yorks and the Lancasters), I also had a professional reason to visit the shiny new King Richard III Visitor Centre, which opened in 2014 on the site of the carpark where the king's remains were discovered. More specifically, the publisher I work for published a paper that reports the scientific evidence for the identification of the remains as being those of Richard III, and the story kept my team rather busy around the time of publication.

It costs £8.95 to visit the museum, although you can return as many times as you like within a year using the same ticket. There is a lot of information there on the history, the king's evolving reputation, the discovery in the carpark and the scientific study of the remains, but it's well presented and very interesting. We spent a fascinating hour there.

Afterwards, we headed into the Lanes, a charming, pedestrianised shopping area. We had a decent, although not outstanding, lunch at a Central/South American cantina in St Martins Square; the BBQ joint just opposite may have been a better bet, and of course, if St Martin's Coffee's burger bar, Crafty, had been open, that would have been an obvious choice. My friends had been to the latter before and spoke highly of it. Instead, we settled for coffee and pudding at St Martin's and then continued our stroll through town.

A lot of the shops seemed to be shut on Sundays — I was particularly disappointed I couldn't go into a homeware store called Harriman & Co — but we had a wander through the shiny new shopping centre, before returning to my friends' house via New Walk, a leafy, pedestrianised promenade, which claims to have been traffic-free for more than 200 years.

By then, it was time for me to take the train back to London. In an effort to save a few quid from my ticket price, I'd decided to take the slow (2h15) train home. A mistake, perhaps, although the journey was pleasant enough with some lovely views of the English countryside at golden hour. More importantly, it's been good to remember that just because a train ticket to a UK city costs the same price as a flight or Eurostar ticket to somewhere in mainland Europe, it doesn't mean the former should always be eschewed. I still have so much of my home country to explore and really must get better at making time to do so.

23 June 2017

Long Weekend in Cannes: Bex's Guide

I can't pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with the French Riviera but it was more than two decades ago. We returned many times on family holidays, and Cannes — a rarity on the Côte d'Azur with its sandy, not rocky, beaches — soon emerged as our favourite town. My parents now have an apartment there and I usually go once or twice per year — once in the summer and once for Christmas. Spending a long weekend there last week reminded me that I still hadn't put together a guide for my favourite things to eat, drink and do in Cannes, so without further ado, here it is!

There are some very good restaurants in Cannes but, as will become a theme for this guide, many are expensive — and some over-priced or include an 'view tax'. I've listed some of my favourite places to eat and drink below but also check out the food listings in the 'retail therapy' section, because if the weather's nice, a warm poulet rôti, some freshly baked bread and fresh fruits from the market make for a perfect — and more reasonably priced — beach picnic.

For a cup of speciality coffee... Cafe Itineraire (10 Rue Hoche).

For a superb Italian lunch... Da Laura (7 Rue du Vingt-Quatre Août) or if they're full and/or you want pizza too, try San Telmo (31 Rue Hoche).

For a special beach lunch... La Guerite (Île Ste-Marguerite; you can go by boat). In town, we like Plage Royal (Boulevard de la Croisette nr Rue du Commandant André). NB all of the Croisette beach restaurants are pricey and you are definitely paying for the location.

For a casual-cool bistro... Pastis (28 Rue du Commandant André) or Bobo (21 Rue du Commandant André).

For pizza and people-watching... Le Vesuvio  (69 Boulevard de la Croisette).

For impeccable, freshly caught seafood... Astoux et Brun (27 Rue Félix Faure).

For a classy cocktail in art-deco surroundings... Bar l'Amiral at the Martinez Hotel (73 Boulevard de la Croisette).

For drinks on the Croisette... Caffe Roma (1 Square Mérimée) or Le 72 (71 Boulevard de la Croisette).

If you're into high-end designer shopping, you will be well catered for in Cannes. Most of the luxury boutiques are on the Croisette, although you can also find some amid the high-street and mid-range stores on rue d'Antibes, the main shopping street. Here are some of the other, more affordable shops that I like:

Fashion: 1.2.3 (81 Rue d'Antibes); André (96 Rue d'Antibes); Banana Moon (78 Rue d'Antibes); Comptoir des Cotonniers (10 Rue d'Antibes); Delta Machine (13 Rue Hoch); Grain de Malice (37 Rue d'Antibes); Lolë (10 Rue Macé); Longchamp (17 Boulevard de la Croisette); Minelli (66 Rue d'Antibes); Petit Bateau (50 Rue d'Antibes); Princesse Tam Tam (67 Rue d'Antibes); Vilebrequin (77 Rue d'Antibes); and Zadig & Voltaire (6 Rue du Commandant André).

Food: Boucherie Christophe (88 Boulevard Jacques Monod)Boucherie Pierre (32 Avenue de Lérins); Cesarine (10 Avenue de Lérins); Ernest Traiteur (52 Rue Meynadier); JP Paci Chocolatier (28 Rue Hoche); Marché Forville (5-11 Rue du Marché Forville); and Monoprix (9 Rue du Maréchal Foch).

Home: Augustin Latour (8 Rue Chabaud); Bathroom Graffiti (52 Rue d'Antibes); Bouchara (3 Rue Chabaud); Galeries Lafayette (6 Rue du Maréchal Foch); Geneviève Lethu (6 Rue du Maréchal Joffre); Gypsy Coffeeshop (27 Place du Suquet; I'd skip the coffee, though); and Monoprix (9 Rue du Maréchal Foch).

Other: Arta Photo (2 Rue Macé); Cannes English Bookshop (11 Rue Bivouac Napoléon); Festival de Cannes boutique (1 Boulevard de la Croisette); Fnac (83 Rue d'Antibes); and Sephora (90/94 Rue d'Antibes).

Spending a day (or three) on the soft, sandy beaches of Cannes is a must-do for your stay if the weather is warm enough. The 'season' usually runs between mid-June and mid-September, but note that the Mediterranean can be quite cool even in the height of summer. Renting a lounger and parasol at one of the private beaches (such as Zplage, pictured below) that line the Croisette can be very expensive, especially if you want to be in the 'front line' or on one of the pontoons.

There are plenty of great public beaches, though, which you can access freely. The sand is soft and clean so you might not need a chair or a parasol. Some of my favourites include:

Plage Zamenhof. Nestling in the southeastern corner of the Croisette, Plage Zamenhof is my favourite beach in town. It's a decent size, the turquoise waters are clear and clean, the waves tend to be gentle, there's a sandbar you can swim out to and there are great views of the Croisette and the distant Esterel mountains. If you'd like to rent a lounger and/or parasol, look for the royal blue and white colours of the municipal beach near Plage Juliana. You can hire a deck chair and parasol for €15 for a full day (a fraction of what you'd pay at the private beach clubs).

Bijou Plage. Down towards the Pointe de la Croisette in the Palm Beach area, Bijou Plage is another great public beach, which is particularly good for families as it's located in a sheltered cove. There are nice views of the Iles de Lérins and there's a good (if pricey) beach restaurant of the same name. Nearby, you can find a 'handiplage', which offers disabled access to the sea.

Plage du Mouré Rouge. On the opposite (eastern) side of the Pointe de la Croisette, the beach near the Mouré Rouge, which we call Sunrise Beach (you can guess why), is a little quieter than some of the other public beaches. The sea can be quite seaweedy and the sea bed a bit rockier, but there are plenty of water sports rental options.

Plage du Midi. This stretch of beach is located at the opposite end of town to my parents' flat (out west towards La Bocca), so we rarely go, although I often go running down that way. You don't get a Cannes town view from the beach but the vista of the dramatic Esterel mountains will make up for it, and the beaches are just as nice as those in town.

Le Suqet. Cannes's pretty historic quarter, set on the hill at the western end of the town, is fun to explore. The steep-ish steps of Le Suquet that lead up to the Musée de la Castre (6 Rue de la Castre) are well worth the climb when you have an amazing panoramic view of the city and the bay when you reach the top. Try to go for sunset or golden hour. There are lots of restaurants on Rue Saint-Antoine and Rue du Suquet; some are rather touristy but there are gems too.

Palais des Festivals (1 Boulevard de la Croisette). Even if it's not the Film Festival, there's usually something going on at the Palais des Festivals. The tourist information office is located here — they have a wealth of leaflets and brochures highlighting local events and activities from SCUBA diving to jazz concerts. Don't forget to pose for a photo on the red-carpetted steps outside.

Iles de Lérins. These islands are a short boat ride away from Cannes. The largest, Île Sainte-Marguerite (where the mysterious man in the iron mask was imprisoned), is good for (rocky) beaches and hikes, while its smaller sister, Ile Saint-Honorat, is home to an 11th century monastery and has a fortress to explore. The two smallest islands are uninhabited.

Antibes. This coastal town lies six miles east of Cannes (an easy 12-minute train ride). There's plenty to see and explore, including the Fort Carré, the Garoupe Lighthouse, the Picasso Museum and the market. For a special meal, try the Michelin-starred Figuier de St-Esprit, and for a green-tinted tipple, head to the Absinthe Bar (25 Cours Masséna).

Just over a mile south, on the other side of the peninsular, Juan-les-Pins is also worth exploring. For cocktails with a sea-view at Fitzgerald's old haunt, the Belle Rive is a great choice. I haven't eaten there but my parents have had many lovely meals there.

Château de la Napoule. Some five miles west of Cannes in Mandelieu (a short drive or train ride) is a castle whose origins date to the 14th century. It's now a museum and arts hub with lovely gardens.

Nice. Capital of Alpes-Maritimes region and France's biggest city, Nice is located 20 miles east of Cannes. There are frequent trains from Cannes that take just under 30 minutes, and plenty to do at the other end, including various museums (the Musée Matisse, for example, and the natural history museum), parks, markets, and, of course, shops, restaurants and beaches.

Sanremo. If you fancy a proper pizza or espresso, you'll need to head over to Italy. Sanremo, a few miles over the border, is a 90-minute drive from Cannes or a two-ish-hour train journey (the trains run infrequently, however, so check times in advance). It's a historic seaside town with decent beaches — deckchair rental is much cheaper than in Cannes!

Accommodation: As a result of my parents' flat, the only Cannes hotel I've stayed in is the Martinez, a gorgeous, luxurious art-deco hotel, which I would highly recommend if your budget stretches. Prices do drop as distance from the Croisette increases. Various friends and family members have had good experiences at the Splendid, and there are some good options on AirBnB.

Arriving: If you are arriving at Nice Côte d'Azur airport, you can take the 210 express bus to Cannes city centre. The buses run about every half an hour, the journey takes about 45 minutes and a return ticket costs €33. The N200 'local' bus is slower (the journey is about 1h15) but it only €1.50 one-way; you'll need to pay a surcharge if you have a lot of luggage, though. Taxis to Cannes cost about €80 one-way and aren't much faster than the express bus. The main train station in Cannes is very central and an easy walk from most central hotels.

Getting around: Cannes is a relatively compact town and is best explored on foot. There are double-decker public buses that run up and down the Croisette and, of course, various taxis, boats and helicopters (!) too.

Money: The Euro (€) is the French currency and you'll probably need a fair few of them if you come to Cannes. Credit cards are widely, but not universally, accepted, although it's useful to have some cash to use at smaller shops, markets and cafés. There are ATMs throughout the city centre.

When to come: July and August is peak season in Cannes. The weather is gorgeous — sometimes a little too hot — and there's a lot going on, but the beaches and restaurants are usually busy and the hotel prices shoot up. I prefer to come in June (although the Cannes Lions festival can be busy) or September, when the sun is usually shining, the sea is usually warm(ish), the beaches aren't super busy and the town isn't too crowded. If you're a movie buff, you may enjoy visiting during the Film Festival in May; you may spot a few celebrities, but getting to see any films (unlike in London) is difficult even for residents. April, May, October and November usually involve pleasant, if less predictable weather, and you may not get so much beach time; some of the beach clubs will also be shut for the season.