A.J. Loves........

Whether at home or on my travels, I'm always looking for new products to try, pretty things for my home & authentic ingredients to add to my food cupboard.

In this section, I'll share some of my favourite finds so that you can enjoy them too.

 

The National Trust

Last weekend we took a picnic to Attingham Park, a grand stately home residing upon the banks of the River Severn. Set in hundreds of acres of woodland, the estate boasts cattle, deer & wonderful wildlife, all roaming free in an idyllic setting. The house is a treasure too, with rooms bringing history to life & many restorations still underway to preserve the artefacts held within. 

Despite being native to Shropshire, I'm ashamed to admit that this was my very first visit, but it certainly won't be my last! So impressed were we with the facilities, dedicated staff & volunteers, and effort that goes into keeping British history alive, that we decided to join up to the National Trust with an annual membership. 

The members handbook is brilliant, logging hundreds of houses, gardens, parks, castles and pubs to visit, and we even received a free set of binoculars. In the past I had thought visiting old houses & their environs a thing that I might take up on retirement, but how mistaken I was, we're already planning a trip to Warwickshire for another day out of National Trust pleasure. 

Attingham Park in Shropshire

Summer Skin Fix

Available from Boots Chemist & Online

Summer is on the way, which means that your skin will be feeling thirstier than ever, so give it a much needed boost with these great products.

I've been using the 'Bee Sting Fix Cream' by Nip + Fab for over a month now in preparation for my holiday & can't recommend it highly enough. With a silky smooth texture, the cream soaks into the face quickly, leaving it supple & rehydrated. 

I've also been testing their 'Viper Venom Eye Fix' which has a handy rollerball applicator, making it easy to use & perfect for full coverage. It's not quite as effective as some of the top range eye serums but does banish dark circles & lifts tired eyes. I'm looking forward to trying out more products in the range this month & top of my list is the 'Bee Sting Body Souffle' which will be great for after swimming or sunbathing overseas. Why not give them a try & see what you think?  

Japanese Art

Ink painting upon silk circa 1950

Many years ago I spent some time working in the beautiful city of Matsumoto in Japan & returned home laden with souvenirs. One of my most treasured items is a Japanese painting of a mouse eating a radish, an unusual piece but I never tire of looking at it.

Japanese art covers a wide range of styles, but my favourite is the one which I purchased, ink painting on silk as the colours tend to be vibrant & the detail superb. Nature is a common subject of this style, especially wild birds & animals but so too is the cherry blossom for which Japan is known so well.

Nowadays you can find wonderful 19th & 20th century Japanese paintings at auctions, antique fairs & even flea markets, lying unwanted & out of trend. My advice, if a piece captures your eye, would be to buy it & carefully reframe with a good quality mount in a colour to compliment the artwork. There's nothing more beautiful than an Oriental painting to brighten up a room. 

Exquisite Ethnic Accessories

www.kanshicollection.com

A few years ago, whilst living in China, I met the most amazingly fun  lady who also has a talent for finding beautiful things. Scottish-born Karen Wilson has since moved to Thailand & together with her best friend, Sally Al-Habshi, has now launched a wonderful collection of bold accessories. Both ladies have an eye for fashion & compliment their style with ethnic pieces, a passion which really lends itself to the exquisite wares that they source. 

Most of the 'Kanshi Collection' is handcrafted in the Far East by local women, therefore helping the region's communities & showcasing the talent that goes into creating these beautiful items of jewellery, purses, scarves etc. Word has it that a line of homeware is coming soon, which I can't wait to see.

With free shipping within the UK & very reasonable prices for other parts of the globe, these affordable goods make fabulous gifts for anyone who loves their accessories to be unique & colourful. The detail in each piece is amazing, with beads, shells, silk & feathers all used to give vibrant & stylish finishes. I'll certainly be treating myself & friends for many years to come. 

MUA Lip Lacquer

Available from Superdrug £3

At a friend's party last weekend, someone commented that they loved my lip colour which reminded me that I have a secret to share - Luxe Velvet Lip Lacquer by MUA is fabulous! 

It goes on wet with an applicator, like a lip gloss, but dries within minutes to give long-lasting vibrant colour. There are plenty of shades to choose from to achieve your perfect look, I personally love the darker colours in 'Panache' & 'Curious', and the palette goes from palest peach to deepest purple with a good selection in between. My lips withstood the wine glass test, leaving no stains, and I didn't need to re-apply all evening. 

For optimum results, I would recommend using a clear base lipstick to prep your lips & then apply lip liner to ensure the perfect shape. You're then ready to select a shade. Now for the shock - these beauties are just £3 each! You'll find them in the 'MUA' beauty section in Superdrug & at such a bargain price why not treat yourself to one of each colour. 

Artisan Gin

Wilderer Gin is available from Naked Wines

Everyone has their favourite tipple & for me it's good quality gin but gone are the days of choosing between Gordon's or Beefeater brands. Nowadays, thanks to small artisan distilleries popping up everywhere, the choice is incredible. Each new gin has a unique blend of botanicals & the results are amazing. 

My latest discovery is 'Wilderer Fynbos Gin' from South Africa. This is a very smooth drink containing Wild Dagga, Pelargonium & Buchu which I personally find mixes well with Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic. Created as a limited edition for Naked Wines, this little gem is selling fast. 

Other notables are Chase Elegant which is crisp & fresh & House of Elrick made from Loch Ness purified water mixed with juniper, citrus peel, pink peppercorns & rose petals which lends itself well to cocktails. Silent Pool is another aromatic gin & has a full-bodied taste. One distiller that I order from year after year is Sacred who create the most wonderful spirits, their Christmas Pudding Gin in particular is heavenly. 

I'm quite thirsty now, chin chin fellow gin lovers! 

 

Having Fun With Food

Cute ladybirds made from cherry tomatoes.

Working on my very first recipe book, which will naturally include colour photos, I'm always looking for new ways to display food & to put a fun twist on my cooking. One simple ingredient that can transform many things is balsamic vinegar, you'd be surprised at what it can achieve. 

Here's a fun example on the left. Take a slice of mozzarella cheese & add a fresh basil leaf. Next cut a thin slice from a cherry tomato, so that it lies flat on the leaf & then make a small slit in one end. Add an olive at the opposite end to the slit. Finally, dot balsamic vinegar on to the top of the tomato. Voilà!  Edible bugs! 

Another easy food to experiment with is watermelon, as it's easy to cut & the seeds can be used to create eyes etc. This would make a great healthy option for a children's party, shaping the watermelon into people & adding other fruits such as blackberries to resemble curly hair, pineapple to make skirts & grapes for shoes. 

Balsamic also works well put directly onto a plate. Simply use it to draw lines in a fan shape & add a tomato, strawberry or grape to the top of each line. Now you have a bunch of balloons! The options are endless. My main tip would be to decant the balsamic in to a squeezy bottle with a narrow nozzle as that will give you more control over your 'art'. Have fun! 

Readers Who Review

Read, reflect & review!

As both an author and an avid reader, I never underestimate the importance of a review. Whether it's one line or a couple of paragraphs, every single one matters. It's only since becoming a full-time writer that I've begun to see the effects of these star ratings & comments, and openly ask my regular readers to leave some feedback on my work. 

The more reviews a book gets, the more publicity & free advertIsing it gets on the sales platform, which more often than not is Amazon. Imagine there are millions of authors trying to get recognised in the same marketplace, the books with no, or very few, reviews are less likely to attract new readers because the shoppers look for opinions. Those with positive comments are much more likely to attract more fans, but it's still important to be constructive. If you didn't enjoy a book, explain why or try another by the same author, as you might like it.

I also think it's important for readers to realise that an author has to write many books in order to hone their craft. We're learning all the time & not every work will earn money, despite the hours of intense creativity, frustration & inevitable lack of sleep that goes into each volume. So, very simply, if you enjoyed a book leave an honest & constructive review....and then dash out & tell your friends! 

Being Mad About Hats!

Ah, which one to wear today?

I have a very deep shelf in my wardrobe which is purely devoted to winter hats. There are woollen ones with fluffy pom poms, cashmere slouch hats, beanies, faux fur snuggly fitted hats, felt trilbys and even a couple of baseball caps. You might sit and ponder why one woman needs so much headwear, but there is just one simple answer - I love hats! 

Come the beginning of November when the leaves start to turn, I start wearing them & will continue right up until the April showers have been. I find them warm, practical, stylish & sometimes downright eccentric. There are some really beautiful styles on sale this winter but, once again, it appears to be the traditional woollen bobble hat that is hitting the fashion stakes head on. 

One type of hat that I refuse to wear is anything made of real fur. There are so many fluffy imitations that I feel it would be irresponsible to buy into the fur trade & certainly wouldn't do so for the sake of fashion. 

I think that in most cases specific types of hat suit certain face shapes, although people with heart shaped faces, like me, can wear almost anything on their heads. I don't know if there's any truth to the belief that we lose body heat through our heads but, one thing I can tell you is that I'm not about to take my hat off to find out! 

 

Embracing Scandinavian 'Hygge'

'Hygge' is about textures, warmth & love.

As dark wintery evenings approach, people all over the world are embracing the Nordic concept of cosiness & contentment. 'Hygge' (pronounced hoo-guh) is much more than feeling warm, it's about enjoying the good things in life & also surrounding yourself with people who bring you happiness. 

'Hygge' can be anything from the delicious aroma of fresh bread to a fireside chat with loved ones. We have no one specific word for this in English, which is perhaps why this strange expression is becoming a 'buzz word' across the globe.

Danish doctors recommend ' tea & hygge' as a cure for the common cold & it has been widely reported that Scandinavians are amongst the most satisfied when it comes to quality of life. Perhaps then, the rest of us should embrace a new way of life to bring an inner peace & satisfaction that appears to be lacking. Although drastic overnight change may cause a few raised eyebrows, there are plenty of simple steps that we can take to put ourselves on the pathway to 'hygge'. 

Start by adding texture & to your home. Woollen blankets, cable-knit cushions & fluffy rugs will all aid ambience, while adding scented candles will give a feeling of warmth. Instead of that glass of wine, sip frothy hot drinks & switch off the television to encourage conversation & laughter. Linger over dinner, listen to each other & enjoy your meal. Find something to be thankful for every day & say 'hello' to people in the street. Wear bright colours, breath the fresh air & prepare to allow 'hygge' into your life. Feeling fuzzy yet? 

 

Festive Dieting - The Greater Evil

Healthy eating begins....on January 1st

Every morning in November, bundled up against the freezing weather, hundreds of people trudge reluctantly to the gym, to the park for a power walk or, as in my case, to the local swimming pool to clock up some lengths. We despise going out in freezing temperatures, begrudge the cutting back of calories & feel frumpy in the fitness gear that has been pulled from the back of the wardrobe, crumpled, bobbled and shapeless. 

So why do we punish ourselves? The answer is simple - the Christmas Party. 

On-line shopping baskets are full at this time of year, over-flowing with little black dresses & sparkly bling, all waiting for that magical moment when the shopper is satisfied they've gone down a size & can now click 'Check out.' We've all done it, you know, taking on fitness challenges to lose those extra pounds gained on our over-indulgent summer holidays, and now we all want to look our best for the annual festive get-together. Although Christmas day itself will be one continual feast, of cocktails, canapés, turkey & pudding. 

Many of us will have asked for the latest fitness gadgets, some will hit the sales in search of trainers and rowing machines, while the rest sit at home carefully downloading MyFitnessPal in order to count calories & plan a new, slender self for the coming year. The diet will start, as always, on January 1st because in order to begin we need to rid our homes of the countlesss tins of chocolates, Christmas cake & uneaten icecream that are taking up the cupboard space needed for our new healthy lifestyles. 

By March the rowing machine will look like a clothes horse, the fitness gear will lie underneath a pile of ironing and the trainers will have been nabbed by another household member. Have we discarded our diets then? No, we cry, 'tis a temporary blip, for the summer holidays are coming & our on-line baskets are full of under-sized beachwear! 

 

Shrewsbury - A Real Gem

The town has something for everyone!

As I was born in a small village just a stone's throw from Shrewsbury, it's no small wonder that I'm passionate about this historic Shropshire market town. A place where Tudor, Georgian & Victorian buildings sit side by side on cobbled streets, there is always something to do here. 

In Market Square you'll regularly find artisan markets selling local produce, morris dancing & literary events and just a short walk away in The Quarry, music concerts, beer festivals & an annual flower show see crowds flocking here in their thousands. 

Shopping in Shrewsbury is amazing. As well as all the usual high street outlets, there are wonderful boutiques & gift shops such as 'Vintage Interiors', 'Wisteria Lane', 'Vinegar Hill' & 'Rock Bottom.' And, when you need a rest, there are dozens of quirky cafés & restaurants serving up top quality delicious food & drinks. 

If you're a history lover, like me, there are lots of beautiful churches to explore and Shrewsbury castle houses a regimental museum second to none. At the end of the day why not take a ghost tour of the spooky alleys or spend a night looking for paranormal activity in the Dana prison. With excellent rail links to all major cities & lots of parking facilities, what are you waiting for?

Old School Vinyl

Bringing back memories!

Living in an age where we take technology for granted, it's easy to forget the enjoyment of our youth when the highlight of the week was going down to the local music shop to thumb through their vast collection of vinyl records.

Nowadays we have CD's, iPods, Amazon Dot & Echo, Spotify on our phones & just about every method of listening to music that we could possibly need or want. So what happened to all those L.P's? 

I'm glad to say that vinyl albums are now getting a revival thanks to companies reproducing turntables and stores like HMV stocking both new & old artists on records as well as their modern counterparts. We have one in our house & what fun it has been restocking old favourites & dusting off the stashed away music of our younger days. There's something strangely satisfying about the whole process of taking a record out of its sleeve & watching it rotate. Welcome back my old rock heroes, you shall sleep no more! 

Bathroom Beach Vibes

seasideandnautical.co.uk

If you're looking for ways to spruce up your bathroom without a full make-over, why not add a nautical feel with some beach themed accessories? 

These fabulous hooks are just £13.25 from seasideandnautical.co.uk & Dunelm do a set of three costing just £10. There are plenty of other great pieces to choose from too. I found a lighthouse shaped light-pull, a handy little wooden chest for keeping cotton buds and other bits and a beach hut shaped mirror. 

With so many items of a similar theme, you can keep your bathroom walls just one colour & add to the nautical feel over time. The look is fresh & modern and won't date, creating a perfect haven to relax in a bubbly bath. 

The All-Seasons Jacket

PVC Biker Jacket

We've hit that time of year when it's getting chilly outside but not yet cold enough to put on our heavy winter coats. For me, the fashion dilemma was easily solved by this wonderful pale blue biker jacket. 

Leather-look & lightweight it's the perfect item to wear over floaty dresses or a t-shirt & jeans. I'm going to invest in a thick woollen scarf to take this look into winter too. Pastel coloured jackets have been around for a while but this style gives them an edgy look, featuring plenty of zips & a silky lining.

My jacket, pictured here, is from Dorothy Perkins but stock has quickly sold out. However, River Island do a slightly paler blue one for £60 & Mango have a pink one for around £45. No matter which you choose, it won't break the bank & will be a key piece that you'll wear for many seasons to come. 

Vintage Boxes

From £8.99 for a set of three, Amazon

These gorgeous vintage-style boxes are not only pretty but practical too. 

I bought a stack of three, in varying sizes, to keep bits & bobs in and they've proven to be very sturdy & useful. I hate clutter & when I saw these I knew it was the perfect storage solution for make-up, hair accessories & rollers. 

Resembling turn of the century hat boxes, they match my bedroom decor & are easily stacked to create a feature. The boxes can be found at many stores & of course on-line & there are prices to suit all budgets. Some really beautiful designs can be found at Maisons du Monde & Orla Keily. 

As they become more & more popular, it's worth looking out for original hat boxes at antique fairs, you might snap up a bargain! 

Black Cantor Lily

A beautiful new addition for just £10

Up until a couple of weeks ago I had no idea that you could get black calla lilies. Spending a day at the Shrewsbury Flower Show really opened my eyes and the wonderful displays had me thinking about the possibilities for adding some unusual plants to my own garden, although I'm not the world's most green-fingered nature lover! 

On discovering the beautiful black cantor calla lilies, I imagined how beautiful they would look outside my new lavender coloured summer house, a lovely contrast & something quite oriental looking. 

I bought just one plant, not wanting to tempt fate, to see how I get on with nurturing it. I followed the advice from the seller & immediately transfered my lily to a large outdoor pot, watering the roots well before adding extra soil and handling the plant carefully. That was two weeks ago, with just one prominent bud emerging from the main stem, and I now have ten beautiful black cantor heads pushing their way upwards. I'll pop my new addition inside the summer house before we get frost but so far it's been a breeze to look after, just regular watering, and it looks incredible. 

 

A Taste of Anglesey

Available from www.halenmon.com

On a recent trip to Anglesey, we stopped off to buy some of this famous sea salt & I'm so glad that we did! 

The clever people at Halen Mon have infused the natural product with herbs & spices to create a unique blend of flavours which create endless possibilities when looking to put a twist on your favourite meals.

I added the roasted garlic salt to a mushrom risotto & it tasted delicious. Another great flavour is the smoked over oak, which equally compliments scrambled eggs or desserts. The spiced & chilli garlic salts are perfect for bbq meats while I found the celery flavour perfect in a stew. There's a vanilla salt too, which is one to really experiment with as it works in both sweet & savoury dishes.

The company do gift hampers, such as the one in the photo or you can buy single bags of your favourite flavoured salt as well as a range of other goodies. 

Flavours of France

BBC Books £20

I love experimenting with new recipes & I'm always trying to push myself to improve my culinary skills, getting a lot of inspiration from professional chefs and worldwide cuisine. So, what better way to tackle French cuisine than this wonderful book by Rick Stein. Packed with delicious delicacies from all across France, it's beautifully illustrated & contains background information about various regions & dishes. Guiding you through everything from simple soups to sumptuous desserts, the recipes are uncomplicated but ensure perfect results every time. Dishes include a hearty 'Bullfighter's beef stew', packed with flavour & perfect for a winter supper, an amazing Provencal fish pasta with fennel & tomatoes and the most incredible lemon cheesecake. I'm planning to attempt the salmon en croute with tarragon butter next, it looks just the right dish to impress dinner guests without taking too long to prepare. All in all the perfect recipe book to broaden your horizons although I haven't yet been brave enough to tackle the Gascon garlic soup! 

 

Book Buddy

MelvisMakes from £11.00 on Etsy

I have recently discovered this ingenious product thanks to an on-line book group.

Simple, yet essential to all book-lovers, this fabric 'Book Buddy' from MelvisMakes is the perfect way to carry your reading material without damaging the cover or pages. Safe from the sharp edges of keys, and other items in your bag, the soft pouch ensures that your book will stay in pristine condition no matter where you go. It comes in various sizes to suit your average book size too. 

There are lots of beautiful designs to choose from but naturally, being a crazy cat lover, I'm ordering the design featured here. I know that my friends will want one too, so I'll be gifting one each for birthdays. 

The company also sells a variety of other gorgeous products, including tablet pouches, but for me the 'Book Buddy' is a winner. 

 

Aboriginal Art

'Bushtucker' by Julie Nabangardi Shedden

Some years ago, on a trip to the West Coast of Australia, my husband & I hired a car and drove out to an Aboriginal art centre located up in the hills. It was an amazing experience, learning all about the culture of the native people. We heard men play the didgeridoo, learned about traditional weapons & crafts & ate a fabulous meal cooked by the Aborigine community. 

Most amazing, for me, was the artwork. Each painting depicts a story or dream & the detail that goes into each piece is incredible. Many of the tales have been handed down through generations, ensuring that the culture stays well & truly alive as ancestors pass on. Naturally, we couldn't leave without choosing a couple of Aboriginal paintings for our walls, one of which is 'Bushtucker', a vibrant piece of art showing the lizards, grubs & bugs that would have been traditionally foraged for. It has pride of place on our living room wall as a proud reminder of the wonderful people that we had the fortune to meet on our travels. 

Vikings

Available on Amazon Prime

Being a huge fan of 'Game of Thrones', I have been looking for a box set to keep me on the edge of my seat & this one fits the bill perfectly.

Following the journey of Ragnar Lothbrok, from farmer to warrior, this epic tale has authentic settings, great acting & historical foundations. 

As we see the scenes unfold, Ragnor embarks on a journey to the West, where he believes that lands are rich & can offer his people fertile soil & opportunities, regardless of the fact that they will have to fight the Britons & encounter feuds with English kings in order to stake their claim on a new settlement. 

There are twists & turns in the plot, seeing the Vikings turn on each other out of greed & vengeance but never a dull moment. Having watched four seasons, back to back, I'm eagerly looking forward to the next as the sons of Lothbrok seek their own paths, each as fierce, brave & passionate as his brother. Compelling viewing. 

 

Colombian Rush Body Scrub

£25 from the Natural Spa Factory

Having just returned from a holiday in the sun, I need a good body scrub to keep my skin in tip top condition & this great product does everything it promises. 

Oozing with crushed coffee beans, green cardamom & bitter dark chocolate beans, the smell & texture is incredible. Best used on damp skin, simply rub in & shower off, you'll find the aroma intoxicating. 

It's a bit expensive for everyday use, £25 per tub, but used weekly it will last a long time as you only need a scoopful for fabulous results. Coffee lovers will appreciate the distinct fragrance that lingers in the bathroom long after your shower is over. 

Navy Canvas Trainers

£19.50 from Marks & Spencer

I love these! 

Created with Insolia Flex technology for added comfort, these trendy canvas trainers are ideal for the summer. I sometimes find that flat footwear can cause heel pain when worn for a long time but these great shoes ensure that you can walk for miles.

They are also available in grey but I think the navy & white are very stylish & great to wear with cropped jeans, linen trousers or even a smart skirt. At under £20 you can't go wrong.