THE BAR MITZVAH GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING (or how I discovered the great British outdoors and seriously good British food…)

In April of 1973 I became 13 and was subsequently bar mitzvahed (yes, it is a verb in the Anglo-Jewish vernacular) . The event itself was typical of most traditional bar mitzvah celebrations, and followed the orthodox coming-of-age for boys format in most respects. This included all the usual suspects vis-à-vis the presents I received – except for one wonderful surprise gift. Unbeknownst to me, my mum and uncle (her brother) had planned a five day visit to the Lake District especially arranged around two of my passions; of landscape photography, and far more importantly, an abnormally precocious love of gastronomy.

Since my first visit to France three years before I had developed an unusually sophisticated palette in a juvenile, so much so, that it formed almost as important a part of my early teenage years as more typical factors such as a parallel ever-growing fascination with members of the opposite sex.

Many reading this now, especially non-British readers might be surprised that my mum and my uncle didn’t take me back to France, or to Italy or Spain, or just about anywhere in the world beyond the British Isles – if not for the photography element of the trip, certainly for the cuisine component. And while it is undeniable that in that dark long-ago of 1973,  a full decade before the reawakening of fine British gastronomy, good British food was hard to find, there did exist a few pioneering outposts of fabulous British cooking.

Of all the pioneers manning these few gourmet mission stations none played a more heroic role in the resurrection of fine English fayre than the formidable Francis Coulson at his famous Sharrow Bay Hotel on the shores of Lake Ullswater  in Cumbria, in north western England. Since 1948, ably assisted by his life-partner, Brian Sack, he reminded the British of the fact that their countryside and its surrounding waters comprised a national food larder as rich as any on the planet. Furthermore, he devoted his life to demonstrating  exactly how make the best culinary use of that copious store cupboard.

When mum took me to Sharrow Bay in 1973, Coulson was in his pomp, both in regards to his international reputation and the output from his hotel kitchen, and thus I was one privileged bar mitzvah boy! Not that the my rabbi back in north London would have approved, but to this day, my first taste of a Cumberland sausage, in the heart of Cumbria, at our first breakfast remains one of the many abiding and formative food memories of those fantastic five days. Manx kippers, and fried duck eggs were other breakfast wonders but after days walking along the lake shore and up and down the local fells it was the suppers that really sent me into bouts of ecstasy. “I’ll never forget” is possibly the ultimate cliché, but I can’t think of any other way to phrase my first experience of British game in the form of Coulson’s famous roast grouse, and the intense redcurrant jelly accompaniment. Other gamey wonders included saddle of hare and the finest venison stew I was ever to taste – at least up till now, and as for the Herdwick lamb chops and the trout, fresh from the lake itself cooked to perfection. And then the steamed puddings – simply the lightest, most unctuous, most well-crafted puddings in the universe. And I could go on, and on.

But oh, I almost forgot! There was also the photography, and while sadly for you, I can’t share the experience of the Sharrow Bay’s phenomenal kitchen, I can at least reveal something of the stunning scenery in which it sits. I’ve rendered these ancient images (originally taken on my trusty old Canonet 28) in a watercolour style, which I believe faithfully captures the dramatic beauty and changeability of the Ullswater environment.

In the mean time, anyone reading this with a curiosity for traditional British food at its finest or the majestic wonder of Lake Ullswater and its surrounding countryside, could do a lot worse than saving up for a few days at the Sharrow Bay – the best Bar Mitvah gift or any gift for that matter, ever!






Yesterday afternoon I was pouring through my collection of Indian cookery books looking for something different to do with a chicken breast languishing in my fridge. As often happens on these occasions, after ten minutes or so of not finding quite what I was looking for,  I was about to revert to my trusty old Madhur Jaffrey butter chicken when a piece of paper being used as a bookmark caught my attention.  Frayed and food-stained, it turned out to contain a barely legible biro-scrawled recipe for a chicken curry. After further examination, I noted that it contained some unusual culinary bedfellows for an Indian chicken dish – things like  olive oil, ground caraway seed, lime juice, and most particularly, both bay and curry leaves. Then suddenly I remembered a swelteringly hot and sticky afternoon spent in a hotel kitchen in southern India in the autumn of 2003.


We were guests at the aptly named Ideal Beach Hotel, in Mahabalipuram, on India’s Tamil coast, resting up for a few days before travelling inland to Coimbatore (where my wife Dido was to help in the establishment of a clinical education centre for children with autism).

I think it was on our first evening there, during supper, we got chatting with a very affable American couple at the next table who turned out to share our enthusiasm for the delicious local cuisine. At some point during the meal the four of us were invited by the maître d to visit the kitchen the following lunchtime to watch our food being prepared. Cathy – the lady of the American couple and a veteran of the Ideal Beach Hotel – chose the menu, including the lime chicken curry which turned out to be as delicious as it was unusual.

The rare blend of ingredients and spices was explained by the fact that our young head chef, although a Tamil, had been trained in Bengal and enjoyed fusing the two distinct culinary traditions.

2003 India Lunch with Cathy & Richard
Cathy, Richard, Dido and yours truly enjoying our curry lunch

Fortunately Dido had the presence of mind to record the preparation of the curry and – albeit thirteen years late – I was able to decipher the recipe and apply it to the chicken breast in my fridge.  And, it was absolutely delicious! The caraway, lime, bay and curry leaf are a group marriage made in heaven – a complex and unctuous harmony of savoury, fragrant bitter sweetness that transforms humble white chicken meat into a thing of olfactory delight.

There are two ways to sample this fabulous curry – either follow the recipe below, or better still, go and visit the Ideal Beach Hotel. I can recommend both.

(Chapatis and a hot lime pickle are excellent with this curry also, if using fresh curry leaves, add at the same time as the lime juice.)




¼ cup:                             olive or coconut oil
200gm / 8oz:                       diced chicken breast


5cm / 2” stick:                                cinnamon
2 – 3:                                           cloves
2 - 3:                                    cardamom pods
1:                                             bay leaf
1:                                onion – finely grated
5cm / 2” piece:    ginger – peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves:          garlic – peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp:                                           water
1:                           large, ripe tomato chopped


½ tsp:                                        turmeric
1 tsp:                                    chili powder
1½ tsp:                          ground coriander seed
1 tsp:                                     groud cumin
1 tsp:                                    garam masala
1 tsp:                             ground caraway seed
1 tsp:                               whole fennel seed
1 tsp:                                            salt
3:                                        curry leaves
½ ltr / 1 pint:                                  water
To taste:                                         salt
¼ cup:                                      lime juice

  1. Blend the ginger, garlic and water into a paste
  2. Heat the oil in a kadai or a heavy skillet on a medium high heat
  3. Brown the diced chicken thoroughly, then remove from kadai and put aside (retaining the juices)
  4. Add masala I to the kadai and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly until well browned
  5. Add onion to kadai and stir-fry until browned
  6. Add the tomato to the kadai and fry for 2 minutes until oil separates from the masala, onion and tomato paste
  7. Add the ginger and garlic puree to the kadai and stir for 1 minute
  8. Return the chicken and its juices to the kadai and stir well
  9. Add masala II and the curry leaves to the kadai and stir well, making certain the chicken is well coated
  10. Add the water, making sure to deglaze (scrape) the bottom of the kadai
  11. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for half hour
  12. Remove cover and cook over a high heat for about 10 minutes, until the sauce begins to thicken
  13. Add more salt (if necessary) and the lime juice, stir well and remove from heat
  14. Remove cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods before serving

    Two Chefs
    Our chef (right) and an assistant


Life’s a funny old thing, full of unexpected twists and turns. For instance, who knew just a few years ago, that the city of Little Rock, Arkansas would become one of my most regular travel destinations?

But unexpected things like that can happen to you when Little Rock ends up as your in-laws’ home town (how that came to pass is another story altogether).

And, as it happens, and contrary to nearly everything I’d been led to expect from its hillbilly caricature, Little Rock turned out to be an agreeable and welcoming town.

Bisected north from south by the Arkansas River, the city is unusually contained by American standards, surrounded as it is on most sides by wooded hills. The downtown area is on a reassuringly human scale for European sensibilities, and fairly pleasant to stroll around. The Arkansas State Capitol building (a virtual, smaller replica of the Capitol in DC) and the Old State House are both highly photogenic, and with its river walks, river market, excellent Historic Arkansas Museum and the Clinton Library, there’s enough to keep the average traveller interested for a day or two. Moreover, easy road access to the stunning Ouachita Forest and Lake, not to mention the nearby Hot Springs resort ensures that there’s plenty on offer for lovers of the American big outdoors.

And if all this weren’t sufficient reason for visiting then I should also mention that Little Rock has a rather special hotel; The Capital…

Ask the average Brit to name an iconic American hotel / city synonymy, the one that they would probably first think of would be the Waldorf Astoria / New York City. Asked to name another, they could then suggest the Beverly Hills / Los Angeles. If they were more than usually informed they would even be able to list a few more, such as the Biltmore / Miami, the Monteleone / New Orleans or the del Coronado / San Diego (of  Some Like it Hot fame).

In fact just about every US city, large and small, from Spokane in the north to El Paso in the south has an iconic hotel that reflects the spirit, texture, and the history of the host town.

And as it turns out, Little Rock is no different.

Entering the Capital Hotel is the epitome of that cliché, entering a different world. More Claridges than Dorchester (for the benefit of my British readers), it’s an oasis of 19th century, understated grandness and subtle, tasteful decor. From its colonnaded, high ceilinged foyer to its immaculately appointed rooms and suites, the Capital offers an exceptionally comfortable experience embellished by flawlessly competent and courteous service.

In fact, the service at the Capital is worthy of special mention, for it somehow pulls off genuine southern charm without being gushing or over-the-top. So much of north American Hotel and restaurant service these days, and not merely in the South , is so intensely “friendly” and overly attentive, to non-Americans at least, it often feels more like your being dared or challenged not to have a good time. But, under the skilled guidance of its genial and dapper manager, Michael Chaffin, the staff at the Capital, exude the kind of confidence and assuredness that guarantees those fortunate enough to stay there the feeling of being sincerely valued and cared for.

Like all great American Hotels the Capital takes its restaurant and particularly its bars very seriously. So, it’s hardly a surprise that its main bar — the stylish-yet-business-like Capital Bar and Grill —  is the place to be seen for anyone who is anyone in Little Rock; from brunching politicians to lunching celebrities to cocktail sipping businessmen and women. A solid, reasonably-priced menu of both typical, and not-so-typical bar snacks and entrees, plus a well-stocked bar, all contained within a relaxed, informal ambiance (often enhanced by a live jazz trio) make the bar a must-visit, even for non-guests of the hotel.

One Eleven at the Capital constitutes the hotel’s main restaurant and doubles up in the morning as the breakfast dining room. It also has its own, beautifully elegant bar manned by seriously skilled and intuitive bartenders whose cocktails are simply fabulous. (They even stock Lillet Blonde aperitif for those brave enough to try an authentic Vespa (a la Casino Royale).

Formally known as Ashley’s, the recently re-vamped restaurant itself now has a Michelin decorated French chef whose menu reflects a noble intention to bring his native expertise to local raw materials. And for the most part he succeeds brilliantly — the shrimp (prawns) and grits for example were an orgasmic revelation and worth a trip to Little Rock all on their own.  However, even where the dishes don’t quite attain this kind of sublime perfection, everything we sampled was at the very least, delicious and perfectly cooked. Moreover, the Capital has a vast cellar, stocked with plenty of fine wines to match the quality of the food.

All in all then, a stay at the Capital Hotel — even if only for one night — is an experience worth saving for and sufficient reason in itself to visit Little Rock.

Those readers interested in the hotel, and particularly its colourful history can find everything you might want to know here:

When I started this blog the only thing I ever meant to advertise was my own books. But, our experiences over the past few years at the Capital have been so pleasurable that I felt it was about time I let the world know about this southern gem of a hotel.