Rome wasn’t built in a day…but I (sort-of) became a Roman chef in a day!

Ben and I recently arrived back in Sydney from a three week whirlwind trip to Europe.

I was a bridesmaid for my best friend Melissa as she married her now-husband Bradley in Cornwall, UK which was the main reason we went. But we wanted to make the most of that ever-so-long flight.

Me with the beautiful bride, Melissa.

Me with the beautiful bride, Melissa.

So, we were lucky enough to fit in a few short trips before we travelled over to the UK, to the city of love, Paris and then on to Rome!

We had a wonderful first day seeing the sights – the Colosseum, Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and the Trevi Fountain. We sampled delicious pasta, ice cream and pizza – and the sun was shining gloriously.

Me at the Colosseum

Me at the Colosseum

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for our final day so we didn’t get to see the Vatican, but day two was truly the highlight of our European adventure.

Ben turned 30 at the end of March, and his sister Claire very generously booked for the two of us to attend Cooking Classes in Rome.

Cooking Classes in Rome is Run by Italian Chef, Andrea Consoli. Visitors to the city can sign up for a five hour class beginning at 10am, where chef Andrea educates, entertains and carefully explains how to prepare four courses of traditional Roman dishes.

Chef Andrea with Ben and I

Chef Andrea with Ben and I

Classes are held for up to twelve people at a time and when all food has been prepared, Andrea turns into your waiter and serves the food in his dining room, with accompanying wines if you choose (and of course we did!).

This is a very popular thing to do in Rome, for good reason, see the TripAdvisor reviews here where it is rated #1 of classes and workshops in Rome, so expect the class to be full.

When we arrived at the location, we were sat at what would later be our dining table, where we got to know the other students and were served some delicious coffee and snacks. We were then taught about the dishes we would prepare, given aprons and directed into the kitchen. At first glance it’s a fairly small space, but this works out well as you’re forced to “get to know” your fellow students quickly and you truly feel like part of a “real” kitchen.

In the middle of the room all of the fresh ingredients were laid out. Andrea explained the importance of using fresh seasonal produce for the best flavour.

Fresh Ingredients laid out

Fresh Ingredients laid out

We were told many interesting facts about Italian food – the origins of different dishes e.g. Spaghetti alla puttanesca AKA “in the style of the whore.” – Chef Andrea explained that this dish was a favourite of these women to prepare as it was cheap and quick. They would leave steaming bowls of it by the window to draw in hungry patrons!

Chef Andrea explains...

Chef Andrea explains…

We were then divided up into pairs and helped with preparing and then cooking the dishes. Chef Andrea was never too far away and happy to answer any questions. He would stop us from time to time and show us how to do parts which were a bit trickier. He also called us out on our often patchy understanding of Italian food…

He was particularly unimpressed by my assumption that there is alcohol in tiramisu! Well, I now know that alcohol is only added to the tiramisu if it has not been eaten quickly – due to the raw egg content – as a preservative!

Starter – Carciofi alla Romana – Roman Style Artichokes

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Preparing artichokes…

We were taught how to prepare and carve the artichokes – which was definitely not my strong point – there wasn’t much artichoke left after I’d finished! Then we stuffed each artichoke with mint, salt and pepper after which they were steamed in olive oil and water.

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Artichokes in oil

First main course – Homemade Cavatelli shaped pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil leaves

Chef Ben!

Chef Ben!

This was probably the most interesting part for me – making fresh pasta from scratch. The pasta was made with semolina or durum wheat flour – no egg (which may surprise you) and water. The flour and water was kneaded into a dough, then using the below device and a special technique we learnt, it was rolled into the cavatelli pasta shape! It was then boiled until the pieces floated to the top. The end result was “al dente”, still firm.

Making the dough

Making the dough

Making pasta

Making pasta

Pasta

Pasta

When we returned to the UK we actually made this dish again for my mum, dad and sister – I forgot to take a picture but I can vouch that it turned out exactly like it did in the cooking school. We will certainly be preparing this dish again, nothing beats fresh pasta, it is divine!

Second main Course – beef “carpaccio” with cherry tomatoes, arugola and shaves of Parmesan Cheese

This dish contained thin strips of beef, which were fried lightly with garlic then mixed with arugula (rocket) and fresh diced tomatoes. I’ve never fried rocket before, but the end result was really tasty.

Lightly cooking the beef

Lightly cooking the beef

Side dish – Broccoli Romaneschi (Roman Style Broccoli)

The Roman broccoli is quite strange looking and took a long while to prepare. Ben and I were tasked with the titillating job of removing each tiny broccoli floret, and then pulling off the even smaller parts, before it was fried with garlic and chilli.

Roman broccoli

Roman broccoli

I have to say this may have (surprisingly) been my favourite dish of the day! It was aromatic and delicious.

Dessert -Traditional Tiramisù

Some of the group were surprised to find out that real tiramisu contains no cream, it’s egg whites, yolks and mascarpone cheese that provide the dessert’s creamy element.

Egg whites

Egg whites

Ladyfingers

Ladyfingers

We dipped ladyfinger biscuits into freshly brewed espresso, then whisked the egg whites with sugar. The yolks were then whisked with sugar and mixed with the mascarpone cheese. It sounds a lot easier than it was, but the finished dish was by far the best tiramisu I have ever tasted.

Time to eat!

At the end of the cooking class, we were sat at the table to devour our creations and a few glasses of wine – matched perfectly with each dish.

Beef with rocket and tomato

Beef with rocket and tomato

Cavatelli pasta

Cavatelli pasta

Artichoke

Artichoke

Roman Broccoli

Roman Broccoli

Tiramisu with a personal touch!

Tiramisu with a personal touch!

Cooking students dining together

Cooking students dining together

I can’t recommend Cooking Classes in Rome highly enough, it was interesting and so much fun.

It is a refreshing break from the crowded tourist traps and a productive way to spend your time in Rome if you only have a few days.

I’m certain if we go to Rome again, we will return! You can check out their Facebook page here.

Coco xo

5 tips for surviving (and enjoying) your first hike

Despite living in the land of swimming, surfing and sharks, and try as I might to fight it, I much prefer land activities to watersports – unlike my fiancé who is a complete water baby.

I have become more appreciative of the outdoors since living in a warm climate. It helps that it is easier to get up and about when the sun shines more often than not, and you rarely have to wear a jacket.

Over Christmas, Ben and I decided to take our first non-Europe/Australia holiday to New Zealand. Just a short three hour flight; I expected it to be similar to Australia but boy, was I wrong.

My first ever (proper) hike – The Milford Track

The biggest achievement from our two weeks in New Zealand was completing the Milford Track – a four day hike, carrying 10+kg backpacks, combatting relentless sandflies, staying in basic huts and preparing our own food – mostly freeze dried – that we carried with us in our packs.

Me on the boat from Te anau downs to the start of the Milford track

Me on the boat from Te anau downs to the start of the Milford track

The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ of which there are nine. It covers 53.5 km in Fiordland National Park, which is situated in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island. You are in the middle of nowhere, and have to take a two hour boat journey from the nearest town, Te Anau to get to the start of the track.

There are two options to complete the route: a guided walk and an unguided walk. We did the unguided – which takes a day less, but is very basic and requires a reasonable amount of preparation including ensuring you are fit enough to carry a heavy pack for several days.

Ben and I at the start of the Milford Track

Ben and I at the start of the Milford Track

You begin the hike in groups of around forty, and have a day to reach each hut, but you can walk at your own speed. There is sufficient time to stop along the way – for a snack, a swim or even spend a few hours reading if you find somewhere scenic to relax.

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At one of the highest parts of the track – snow in December in the southern hemisphere!

 

The hike was absolutely beautiful, and I often had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming.

It evokes a real sense of freedom to be far from civilisation on an enforced digital detox! There were moments where I wanted to give up (although that’s not an option, unless you want to pay the extortionate chopper fee!), but the sense of achievement at the end was totally worth it.

There were some unexpected parts along the way, and things I wish I’d known beforehand – so I thought I’d share some advice to any newbies like I was.

Five tips for surviving and enjoying your first hike

…from absolute firsthand experience!

1. Do your research on bugs

It sounds like it wouldn’t be a huge deal – I mean, I live in Australia, there are mozzies here – no big deal, right? WRONG! One of the most challenging parts of the Milford Track was dealing with the sandflies. Trust me – even this guy agrees: ‘Sandflies are almost more annoying than mosquitoes, they are smaller but their bites itch even more than mosquito bites.’

At some of the huts I felt like I was going crazy! If I had known before, I would have bought industrial strength bug spray, but I only had some natural eucalyptus stuff which didn’t do a thing. One time I was in bed and they were flying around my face and I had a small hissy fit, a guy leant me his bushman repellent, two sprays and they left me alone. Lesson learnt!

So my advice to you, do some thorough research on any creatures – bugs or animals that may impact your experience and be fully prepared 🙂

2. Bring books and activities to pass the time

If you finish the track several hours faster than expected (which we did a few times) – you have quite a lot of time to kill in the huts. And you can’t go onto the next hut as everyone must stay in a group – there is also a group ahead of you, and behind. I was really glad to have a book with me, and we wish we’d also bought cards.

3. Chat with an experienced hiker before you go

We’re lucky because Ben’s mum is a seasoned hiker (or tramper as they call them in NZ). She goes on many trips – usually solo – all around the world and has done the Milford Track several times. She lent us cooking utensils, clothing, packs, waterproofs – she was a lifesaver.

She also advised us the best frozen packets of food to buy and other things we would never have known! I’m certain if not for her guidance beforehand, we would have forgotten several important things.

An example of the culinary delights available for pack hikers.

An example of the culinary delights available for pack hikers.

If you don’t have someone to check in with for advice, there are quite a few guides online and the Great Walks have a packing list here which is a good place to start.

4. Don’t underestimate the weather

Prepare for the worst – the weather took a turn for the worse on our last day. There was flooding on the track and more rain headed our way!

Being told the bad weather news.

Being told the bad weather news.

The ranger came and told us that we might not be able to leave as planned, which we were quite disappointed about given it was new year’s eve and we were looking forward to partying in Queenstown.

The track ahead of us was closed, so there was literally no way out!

There's no way you're getting past this piece of string...

There’s no way you’re getting past this piece of string…

At 6am on new year’s eve we were awoken by a ranger and ushered into the communal kitchen. We were you must pack and we must leave in 30 MINUTES or you won’t be able to leave the track and may have to pay to be choppered out!

So, we all packed and got ready to leave. In single file we were told to follow the ranger – and we did so for around 3 hours out of the final 6. We had to wade through flood water up to our waist, in the pouring rain. It’s one of those situations where at first you’re squeamish and uncomfortable – but you get to the point where you accept your fate and just focus on getting to the end.

Without wearing waterproofs and having sensible footwear, we might not have made it out in such good shape. We were wet, like everyone else, but thankfully we had our waterproof pack covers and waterproof jackets so it could have been a lot worse!

5. Be mindful and slow down

I found myself drifting off and focusing on the track ahead rather than my surroundings – especially after a few hours – I had to drag myself back into the present so I was able to look around, reflect and appreciate the beauty.

Being aware of how much better life is when you practice mindfulness is essential to being able to do it. Check out this guide from Zenhabits for some useful tips if you are not familiar with the concept.

And it’s not just a tip for hiking, it’s probably worth another blog post altogether because it is easy to underestimate the effect that being present in each moment has on the enjoyment of everyday life.

I look forward to returning to New Zealand sometime and tackling a different walk – it’s a wonderful place and so easy to get to from Australia.

Have you been hiking before? Where did you go? What advice would you give to a first timer?

Coco xo

Happy healthy Halloween!

Happy Halloween folks!

I’m feeling festive this week, so I decided to write about the scariest and arguably the sweetest holiday of the year, Halloween.

Celebrated annually on October 31 – tomorrow – Halloween is a favourite fun holiday for many children (and adults) around the world.

If dressing up, pumpkin carving and sugary treats are your thing, then this celebration is for you!

Photo credit: @Kiuko on Flickr

Photo credit: @Kiuko on Flickr

Origins of Halloween

Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain. This was a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture where the ancient Pagans would take stock of their supplies in preparation for Winter.

They believed that on October 31, the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and cause havoc for the living world.

Trick-or-treating as it is known today, is similar to the late medieval practice of “souling,” that originated in Ireland and Britain when the poor would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1st), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2nd).

Interesting fact: Shakespeare mentions “souling” in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

Read more about the origins of Halloween.

Halloween and I

So it comes as no surprise that Halloween is a solid favourite for kids around the globe, they get to dress up as ghosts and witches (or anything if you’re stateside) and eat lots of sweets. What’s not to like?

I used to love Halloween as a child in England, peering out of the window and watching at all of the groups of adults and children dressed up roaming the streets trick-or-treating. It’s also the time of year to watch one of my favourite movies, Hocus Pocus!

I remember having Halloween parties at my house with games like bobbing for apples, and trick-or-treating with my sister Sarah, coming home with a huge bag of goodies that would be distributed carefully by my parents to ensure that we didn’t throw up.

My sister Sarah and I, dressed up many moons ago for Halloween.

My sister Sarah and I, dressed up many moons ago for Halloween.

My parents were fairly strict when it came to sweets and chocolate as a child, but they did let us celebrate Halloween when we were young, and the sweets that came with it.

Here's a picture of me with my carved pumpkin

Here’s a picture of me with my carved pumpkin

I have noticed that people – particularly parents – are becoming increasingly aware of their sugar intake and the real health risks we are exposed to – and rightly so, as research has shown our consumption has skyrocketed over the years. And it has disastrous impacts on our health including increasing our risk of Diabetes and putting a lot of stress on our liver. Not to mention rotting our teeth. Sugar also has no nutritional content.

It’s unrealistic to stop eating sugar altogether (and I love sweets, but I try and keep my intake in check), but we are now equipped to research what we’re putting in our body and make better choices.

I have found an impressive array of healthy alternative Halloween treats online, so I thought I would pick my favourites and share them with you on the Happy List today – in case you’re thinking of dishing out something a little kinder on the teeth, and the waistline!

Chocolate chip pumpkin protein bars

These Chocolate chip pumpkin protein bars look amazing, and with an added protein kick even the most health conscious can find an excuse to try!  Find the recipe here on Popsugar.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Protein Bars

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Protein Bars

Pumpkin caramels

I have a really sweet tooth, so these Pumpkin caramels look like just the thing to hit the spot! You could devour these in-house or prepare these for trick-or-treaters. Find the recipe here on the Food Network.

Pumpkin Caramels

Pumpkin Caramels

Grape and raisin spiders

I LOVE these grape and raisin spiders which I think would be great for the kids, and are less processed than your typical Halloween sweets. They also look really creepy! Find instructions on Eating Richly here.

Grape and Raisin spiders

Grape and Raisin spiders

Three ingredient Halloween apple bites

How amazing and scary looking are these three-ingredient halloween apple bites? Bound to go down well with the kids, plus all you need is a bunch of apples, nut butter or jam and some slivered almonds! Easy peasy and really effective. Instructions are here on Oh She Glows.

3 ingredient Halloween apple bites

3 ingredient Halloween apple bites

Spooky Halloween chocolate mousse

I’m a big fan of the healthier chocolate mousse recipes – like my avo-choc mousse here. You really can’t taste the difference. I think kids and adults will both love this vegan mousse recipe, and with some decoration like below, they would make a fantastic Halloween snack. Recipe is here on I Quit Sugar

Spooky Halloween Chocolate Mousse

Spooky Halloween Chocolate Mousse’

 

Banana Ghosts and Tangerine Pumpkins

You can’t help but fall in love with these cute tangerine pumpkins and banana ghosts, and the kids will love them too! Instructions can be found here on Weelcious.

Banana Ghosts and Tangerine Pumpkins

Banana Ghosts and Tangerine Pumpkins

So there you have it! Got any favourite healthy Halloween alternatives? Let me know in the comments! And have a fun Halloween!

Coco xo