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sakura8

sakura8
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Member since: 22.12.2008

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      06.03.2010 19:21
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      Pretty perfect propagator

      Last year I started to grow my own vegetables but it was a bit of a slap-dash job as I only decided to do it at the last minute and therefore I was a bit late with my planting. So this year I decided to get prepared and I asked for this windowsill propagator for Christmas.

      Although I'd had relative success in the past growing seeds in little peat pots and toilet rolls, I wanted something that was easier to manage and maintain. The propagator comes in three parts: a bottom tray to fill with water, a module tray to plant your seeds and a transparent lid that can be turned 90° to allow ventilation.

      The module tray has 49 holes, which is a sufficient amount for the variety of seeds that I wanted to start off indoors. The holes are small but deep to encourage a healthy root system.

      Before I sowed my seeds I drew up a plan on paper so that I knew exactly where I'd planted the different seeds - in the past I managed to mix up my tomatoes and chillies! I then used a marker pen to write on the propagator so that I could match it to my plan no matter which way I turned it.

      Sowing my seeds was easy: I just placed the module tray on top of the bottom tray, before filling it up with seed compost. Then I turned the lid upside down and pressed down on the soil to create holes for my seeds. I had to make the holes deeper for some of my seeds, such as peas, but I did think design of the lid was quite clever. After sowing my seeds and watering them I poured some water into the bottom tray. There are recesses on all four corners to make it easier to pour the water in, but I still managed to spill some. Luckily I had placed the propagator in another tray to catch any stray soil or water, as I didn't want to make a mess all over the carpet in the spare room which is where I'm keeping my propagator. It fits perfectly on the windowsill and as it's a square shape you can turn it any way you like to ensure the plants get an even amount of light.

      When you're ready to transplant your seedlings you just need to pull out the arms on the module tray and the plants will automatically pop-up. In theory this means you can remove young plants with minimal root disturbance. I was worried that I might have some problems if my seedlings wouldn't be ready to transplant all at the same time, but I didn't have any problems removing my peas and bean seedlings when they outgrew the propagator. I simply lifted off the module tray and then used a thick pen to poke the seedling from underneath to loosen it. Out popped a perfectly formed plug plant which I could easily transplant into a bigger pot.

      I love that's it's reusable and dishwasher-safe so you can sterilise it and it's also guaranteed for 12 years, so I think it's a great investment.

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        13.02.2010 14:20
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        One of the best Xmas gifts I received

        I don't expect this review to be read by many people, as making your own fresh pasta is probably viewed as a massive waste of time when dried pasta is such a great product. But I love cooking and I am the type of person who will spend ages making their own dough to make Danish pastries, rather than just opening a packet of ready-made puff pastry.

        I'd never really thought about making my own pasta until I watched a demonstration by Theo Randall at the BBC Good Food Show in London. I was impressed by how easy the pasta dough was to make and how quickly Theo created tasty looking raviolis with just a few ingredients. I wrote about it on my blog and my enthusiasm was picked up by my fiancé who bought me the pasta machine as a Christmas present. What was an even bigger surprise was the signed picture he'd requested from Theo. So I've discovered a blog is a great way to drop hints for upcoming birthdays/special occasions! That is, of course, if your other half reads it and actually pays attention to what you write!

        Anyway, onto the pasta machine....

        My fiancé chose to buy a machine made by Imperia because Theo said that is the brand that most professional chefs use.

        The machine I received is classed as a kit and it comes with a clamp and detachable handle, a star shaped ravioli tray, small wooden rolling pin and two cutting attachments so you can make ribbon shaped pasta.

        On each of the attachments there is a very fine cutter and a wider one. After some research from other sources (the instruction booklet doesn't really tell you anything about the attachments) I have ascertained the following:
        *Spaghetti - this cutter gives rounded strands less than 2mm wide

        * Taglioni (referred to as tagliatelle but this is not what I consider tagliatelle) - this cutter gives very narrow flat strands about 2mm wide

        * Fettucine - this cutter gives flat ribbons about 6.5mm wide

        * Lasagnette - this cutter gives flat ribbons about 12mm wide

        The machine is really easy to put together, apart from the clamp can be a bit fiddly, especially if you don't have a table with a decent overhang to be able to fix it securely. Unfortunately all our tables have an annoying curved edge, so I can't get the machine to clamp very well and it takes two pairs of hands to roll the pasta whilst holding the machine down. Luckily I had my fiancé to help me and we had loads of fun making pasta! The handle turns the rollers very smoothly, so you can quickly produce lovely sheets of fresh pasta.

        The machine is really well-made and it is relatively easy to clean with a dry pastry brush - you should never use water as it will make the machine rust. Before using the machine for the first time, you will need to sacrifice some of your pasta dough to clean the machine by running it through a few times.

        The cutter attachments have a reassuring weight to them and they produce perfectly cut strands of pasta. We have tried the spaghetti and taglioni settings and we agreed they are too thin for our liking as they remind us too much of egg noodles rather than pasta.

        I will admit that I will probably stick to using dried pasta when I want ribbon shaped pasta, but I will definitely continue using the pasta machine to make filled pasta like ravioli and tortellini. I prefer to concoct my own fillings, as the ones from the supermarket usually taste awful. I don't use the ravioli tray as I prefer to just lay out the pasta on the table and assemble the ravioli myself.

        The Imperia machine is very well made and I would definitely recommend it if you really enjoy cooking as much as I do!

        My fiancé bought the machine from Amazon for just over £45 back in Nov 2009, but it has now increased to just under £60.

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        • American Hot Rod / TV Programme / 41 Readings / 40 Ratings
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          21.01.2010 17:18
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          Cars are cool

          American Hot Rod is a reality TV show that was first shown on the Discovery Channel and the first season (2004) is now being shown on the Freeview channel Quest.

          My fiancé and I have a minimal amount of interest in cars (a bit like the majority of people who watch Top Gear for the comedy value rather than a fascination with automobiles) but the advert made the show look interesting and quite fun to watch.

          The show is based around a hot rod shop owned by Boyd Coddington who is apparently a big legend in the world of hot rods. It follows how his crew cope with incredibly tight deadlines as Boyd continues to promise clients that they can make yet another custom built car in just a couple of months. The creation of each car is spread out over a number of episodes, so you're often left on a cliff-hanger wondering if they'll ever get it finished!

          Here's a quick introduction to some of the people in the show. There are so many strong characters in this show, but after the first few episodes some of them left either of their own accord or they were sacked. I have written about them because it shows what kind of relationships that Boyd has with his employees:

          Boyd Coddington - Owner
          ------------------------------------
          Boyd may be an incredible car designer, but his management skills are terrible and this leads to a lot of tension and resentment within his team. To add to the frustration, the crew often have to try and build a car without having all the parts, so you really feel sorry for them when so many mistakes are made and they have to redo their work. This of course leads to a lot of stress and shouting, but as with any reality show that makes good TV!

          Charley Hutton - Bodyshop Supervisor
          ---------------------------------------------------
          My favourite worker was Charley who did some beautiful paintwork in the body shop. He was a supervisor and he tried really hard to pass on his skills to the new guys. He was the kind of guy you would like to be your boss as he was patient and understanding. Charlie is so unlike the other supervisor Duane Mayer, who constantly shouts and throws moody temper tantrums so that nobody wants to be near him!

          Unfortunately Charley left because he wanted to go and do some work for Boyd's competitor, Chip Foose (who was once Boyd's employee but is now his archenemy) and Boyd saw this as the ultimate betrayal so he refused to let Charley come back. It's a shame Charley couldn't return, but he was getting so fed up with having to work all night to meet the deadlines, that if he'd been allowed to stay he probably wouldn't have been happy. He went on to work for Chip and he featured in his show Overhaulin' which I would love to see.

          We learnt that Charley has known Boyd for a long time and even lived with him and his family for 2 years. He regarded Boyd almost like a second father, so for him to decide to go and work for Chip really demonstrates how difficult Boyd was to work for.

          Mike Curtis - Machine Supervisor
          ------------------------------------------
          Mike has a similar story to Charley. He has also known Boyd for many years, but he was forced to leave Boyd's because he was caught designing wheels for Chip on the side. Just like Charley, he was very unhappy with how the shop was being run and how they were being forced to churn out cars.

          I think Mike is really funny as he has a very sarcastic sense of humour. I also found him to be quite inspirational as we learnt that he had a really serious car accident whilst driving with one of Boyd's sons. Mike's face was basically smashed to pieces and he had to have a lot of reconstructive surgery, which has been done incredibly well because he has no visible scars. Unfortunately his top lip doesn't move properly when he talks and he still needed treatment on his face, but he doesn't let it get him down or stop him from doing things.

          Duane Mayer - Project Supervisor
          -------------------------------------------------
          Duane is a real idiot who likes to throw his weight around and often bullies the younger members of staff. He is put under a lot of pressure by Boyd to meet deadlines, but Boyd doesn't help the situation by trying to boost morale and taking the staff on an outing such as indoor skydiving when they should be working on a car. He does seem to respect Boyd so he's never rude to him, he's just rude to everyone else around him.

          In one episode Duane got some of the guys to help him move house because his girlfriend found out he'd been cheating on her. He thought this was hilarious, which says a lot about him!

          Roy Schmidt - Metalworker
          ------------------------------------
          Roy is a real character. He's been a metal worker for over 30 years and you can tell he's fed up of it. He's a really grumpy old guy, mainly because he has to work with a load of youngsters who are next to useless. Roy is semi-retired and he really acts like it; sometimes sleeping on the job! All the other guys tease Roy for being lazy (one day when Mike was working with Roy and learning how to do some metalwork, he said to Roy "Is this the time when we take a nap?"), but they do really respect him and the work that he does.


          I normally avoid all reality TV shows as they are inane drivel, but with American Hot Rod it is entertaining and you also learn something about cars. I never realised how much work went into building custom cars, from machining the parts and putting it together, to preparing the metal for painting, which takes hours of sanding down. It is really impressive work and when you watch these guys create beautiful cars from bits of metal you really appreciate the craftsmanship it entails.

          There were 5 seasons of the show made and Quest is currently showing the first season. Schedule is annoying as one episode is shown at 7pm Mon-Fri and then 5 episodes are shown on Saturday from 3pm-8pm. But the episodes of each car aren't always shown consecutively, so it gets confusing which car project you're watching, especially now that Quest are repeating all the episodes that we've already seen. But it's an entertaining show and well worth a watch even if you don't like cars.

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            08.12.2009 14:35
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            Helps you be a domestic goddess!

            Unless you've been living under a rock, you will have noticed that there seems to be a big craze for cupcakes. As I love to bake I was going to jump on this bandwagon and I stumbled upon the Cakes Cookies & Crafts Shop (CCCShop) website in a search for some funky cupcake cases. I found what I was looking for as they stock a wide range of different patterned cases, as well as lots of other cupcake related paraphernalia like cake decorations, stands and boxes.

            I was just about to place an order as they're offering 3 packs for the price of 2. But then I decided to do something completely different and go down the 'Decorated Cookie' route instead. I did my research and found the easiest way to pipe royal icing onto cookies was to use squeezy bottles that are normally used for chocolate making. The CCCShop is the only website in the UK that I could find that sold them (cookie decorating seems to be more of an American thing) and they also sold the marzipan spacers that I would need to help me roll out my cookie dough to the correct thickness. All the different cookie cutters and novelty cake tins tempted me, but I managed to restrain myself and not fill up my virtual basket with things I didn't really need!

            What I really liked about this website is how helpful customer services were. I emailed them quite a few times with questions about their products, such as how big the nozzles were on the squeezy bottles and in a nozzle set. They were very quick to reply and had good product knowledge. I also enquired when the larger squeezy bottles would be back in stock. They didn't have a date but they put my email on a mailing list so I would be notified straight away when they were available, which I thought was a nice touch.

            I found their prices to be very competitive on a lot of items and I found the delivery charges not too extortionate either, as my order was under £20 it cost £2.99. However the more you spend the higher the delivery charge and it goes up to £5.95 for orders over £40. Delivery was incredibly quick as I ordered late on a Sunday evening and my order arrived Tuesday morning.

            Of course I will always shop around for the best price for my baking equipment, but I was really impressed with the CCCShop website and I will definitely consider using them again, especially since they stock items that other shops don't carry.

            So if you're into baking, chocolate making, jam making or polymer clay modelling then I recommend this site to you!

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              07.12.2009 15:01
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              A great game at a great price.

              Critter Crunch is a relatively new game that is available on the Playstation Network, but which started life as an iPhone game.

              My fiancé knows I love puzzles games so he bought me Critter Crunch after he showed me the free demo, because it has all the addictiveness of Tetris combined with the adorable cuteness of Bubble Bobble. The graphics and background artwork are truly stunning and if you've ever seen the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro, then you will have a good idea of what to expect.

              The super cute character you control is called Biggs and he is a creature that eats the critters, which hang on vines. These critters are different sizes and you must feed smaller critters to larger ones in order to set off a chain-reaction so that they release jewels, which you catch and then feed to your family. The critters are also different colours and you will gain more points by placing the same coloured critters next to each other to set off bigger chains.

              The game play is incredibly simple, as you just use the X button to use Biggs' tongue to grab and swallow a critter, and then press it again to release the critter where you want it to go. The only other buttons you need to use are R1 and the square button for scrolling through and using the Power Foods that you can pick up. These special abilities will help you manage your board of critters more effectively, so that you can create bigger and better chains or get yourself out of a tight spot. Occasionally you have to use the circle button to feed your son when he pops up.

              There are two main modes of play: Single Player and Multiplayer.
              In Single Player mode you have four sections to complete:
              - Adventure
              - Puzzles
              - Challenges
              - Survival

              In the main Adventure section you walk around a map and in each different area you will have Adventure puzzle boards, where you just need to clear all the critters. When you complete these boards then you unlock Puzzle boards, where you have to clear the critters within a certain number of moves and also Challenge boards where you have to clear the critters within a time limit and in a certain way, such as 'Create 5 Food Chains within 45 seconds'. The boards get harder as you walk around the map and I found myself screaming in frustration at the TV "This is impossible!!" on some of them. This is because as the game progresses you get different types of critters, which can either help or hinder you and this makes it much more interesting and fun.

              There are only 22 areas on the map and each has between 3-5 boards to complete. Once you have completed the whole map in the Adventure section, you can then go onto the Puzzles, Challenges and Survival sections. There are 100 Puzzle boards to complete and 55 Challenge boards, although the ones you complete in the Adventure section are included here. In the Survival section all you have to do is play for as long as possible to rack up points, whilst the game gets progressively faster.


              I completed the whole game in a few days, but I did play it pretty much non-stop as it was so addictive! My fiancé also helped me out on a lot of the Puzzle boards as he's much better at that kind of thing.

              The option of Multiplayer mode means that I can play against people on the Playstation Network (and if we had another controller then I could also play against my fiancé), which is great fun. I would advise completing the game in Single Player mode first as you build up a ranking and gain access to all the special Power Foods, so it's much easier to annihilate your opponent (not that I'm competitive or anything!) by dropping anvils on their head to stun them.

              This game is visually stunning and the game play is really addictive and fun. It might look like a cute kids game, but believe me some of the Puzzles are really hard as you have to think logically about how the different types of critters will affect the others. I highly recommend this game as it's a bargain at only £4.49 and it guarantees hours of mind boggling fun!

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                02.12.2009 13:53
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                Get some.

                I do a lot of baking, so I used to go through a lot of greaseproof paper to line my cake tins and baking sheets to stop things sticking. It was the one part of the baking process that I found to be a chore.

                So when I spotted the Magic Non-stick Liner (which I shall refer to as MNSL) on the Lakeland website I thought I'd give it a try.

                It is a PTFE coated non-stick reusable baking tray liner that is heat-resistant up to 260°C and apparently it will withstand 5 years or more of constant use. It can be cut to any size or shape that you desire, so you will always have on hand the correct size for your favourite cake tins. I thought it sounded like a brilliant product that would save me the time and faff of repeatedly cutting out greaseproof paper. Plus it's environmentally friendly as you're not constantly throwing paper away!

                The initial cost of the MNSL did seem quite expensive, but I thought it would save me money in the long run, as I wouldn't have to keep buying greaseproof paper.

                It is available in two sizes:
                - 25 x 50cm (10 x 19¾ inch) = £4.88
                - 33 x 100cm (13 x 39 inch) = £8.87

                I opted for the larger size pack as I knew I would use a lot. The MNSL comes rolled in a plastic tube, but it is fairly easy to lay flat so you can draw around your cake tin/baking sheet to get the template you need to cut out. A pair of ordinary scissors is all you need to cut the MNSL as it's quite thin and very flexible. The edges are cut cleanly without any fraying.

                So far I have managed to cut out the following:
                - one 20cm (8 inch) diameter circle for round cake tin
                - one 33 x 20cm (13 x 8 inch) rectangle for a swiss roll tin
                - one 33 x 33cm (13 x 13 inch) square for a baking sheet

                I still have roughly a 33 x 33cm square and a 13 x 20cm rectangle leftover, so I can probably get at least another two cake tins lined out of the big square. It is a good idea to have a plan of what you want to use the MNSL for, so that you can cut out the shapes to maximise the space.

                It suggests that you can use strips to line the sides of cake tins and then secure with a paperclip, but to be honest I don't bother with this, as lining the base seems to be sufficient.

                I have found that my cakes come out of the tins with no problems at all, but the real boon has been for baking cookies and macaroons, which can often stick. Everything just slides off fully intact and any little bits left behind are easily washed off. The MNSL is dishwasher safe but I haven't tried putting it in the dishwasher because it is so easy to wash up by hand.

                I initially thought that I would only use the MNSL for baking, but I find myself using it in daily cooking too. It's so handy to line a baking sheet or roasting tin and it minimises the messy washing up, so I use it to roast potatoes and it's been particularly good for roast chicken thighs marinated in a curry paste and mango chutney mixture (trust me it's nicer than it sounds!), which gets very sticky and could easily burn onto a normal roasting tin.

                The makers suggest you can roll out pastry, marzipan or icing but I'm not convinced this would be a good idea as it will slide all over your work surface because it is non-stick!

                But for cooking it's absolutely brilliant and I haven't found a negative impact on anything I've cooked, if anything it's made it better! I'm really glad I found this product as it's well worth the money.

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                • debenhams.com / Online Shop / 51 Readings / 50 Ratings
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                  27.11.2009 13:26
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                  Debenhams have lost another customer.

                  I don't normally shop in Debenhams as there isn't a store very near to where I live, but I have used their website before a couple of times and up until now it has been fine.

                  I am on their email mailing list and I received an email notifying me of their Christmas Spectacular sale. I spotted a pestle and mortar set that was reduced from £18.00 to £13.50. This made it cheaper than the one I was going to buy from the Chinese Superstore and since I found a free delivery discount code I went ahead and placed my order on the Debenhams website.

                  The ordering process was simple and straightforward as I already had an account with them, but creating one from scratch is easy enough by just entering the usual details.

                  The free delivery discount code I used was applied to my order without any problems so I was really pleased to be saving on the £3.99 delivery charge. I got a confirmation email straight away and the next day I received another email to say my item had been despatched, so I sat back and waited for my item to be delivered within 2-4 days.

                  A whole week passed and still my parcel had not arrived. Then I received another email to say the status of my order was now "Return in Progress".

                  What?! How did that happen?!

                  Had I received the parcel and sent it back and then suddenly developed amnesia? No, I don't think so!

                  I went back on the Debenhams website to double-check the status of my order and unfortunately they don't keep a record of your orders in the account you create, so it's a bit pointless having an account. So I went to the Contact Us page in their Customer Service section to send them an email to find out what was happening. They endeavour to reply within 2 days but when I received another email to say my order status was now "Return - Refund in Progress" I decided to phone them up.

                  There was no way I was going to pay to call their 0844 800 8877 number, so I looked up www.saynoto0870.com and found the switchboard number 020 7408 4444 and it said to just ask for their Online Shopping Department. I tried calling them twice and each time I was passed to another department and then left on hold for ages. I gave up because there is only so much awful muzak that a person can take.

                  I have checked my bank account and they have refunded the money, so at least that part of their business is efficient and I haven't had the headache of chasing them for my money.

                  I have decided to buy my pestle and mortar elsewhere and not bother asking Debenhams to resend my order because I really don't want the hassle. Since I did not pay for the delivery charge I have not lost out on any money, just my time and effort. If I had paid then it would have been a different matter!

                  I'm really not sure what happened with my order. I have a feeling that they never had my item in stock in the first place and that the whole despatch process was just a big charade. I am suspicious because Royal Mail normally make a few attempts to deliver a parcel before sending it back to the sender. Also, the Debenhams Return Procedure asks you to:
                  * download a Royal Mail returns form
                  * complete the return slip enclosed in your parcel, indicating your reasons for the return, detach and enclose with your parcel
                  * affix the Returns Label to the outside of your parcel

                  So perhaps Royal Mail are also at fault, but I am not impressed with the Customer Service from Debenhams anyway as surely they should have noticed it was a bit strange that their Returns Procedure had not been completed.

                  I don't think I will buy from the Debenhams website again because this experience has shown me how unreliable they can be, so I would definitely not use them for ordering presents for a special occasion!

                  I will be writing to Debenhams to complain, so we shall see if they give me the opportunity to update this review with some good words about their online service!

                  UPDATE:
                  ---------------
                  I finally received a response from the email I sent to Customer Services. They said:
                  "After investigation, we can confirm that the courier has deemed the parcel(s) as 'Faulty' or 'Damaged.'

                  For this reason, the courier has returned the parcel to our warehouse and a refund has been processed."

                  There was no offer of resending me another undamaged parcel. They just expect the customer to reorder the item (and to pay for the postage) and I don't think this is right, particularly as the item I wanted was in the sale and I would now have to pay full price.

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                  • Cuisipro Fine Rasp & Grater / Gadget / 36 Readings / 33 Ratings
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                    25.11.2009 14:37
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                    For all your finer grating needs.

                    A grater is one of the mainstays in the kitchen. I know I couldn't cope without a generous helping of grated cheese on my jacket potato, shepherds pie or all over a huge bowl of pasta.

                    But sometimes you need a grater which is a bit more sophisticated, for ingredients that need to be finely grated, such as whole spices or Parmesan cheese. That's where the Fine Rasp Grater comes into play.

                    It is similar to the Microplane graters that I used when I did my cooking course for grating garlic and for zesting, but I prefer the design of the Cuisipro Accutec Rasp. It is long and narrow, with a plastic cover to protect the sharp blades when not in use. The cover doubles up as a food catcher, as you can attach it to the back of the grater and I find this minimises any mess.

                    Another brilliant feature is the cover also has measurements on it. On the left side it has 1 tsp, 2 tsp, 1 Tbsp, 2 Tbsp and 3 Tbsp. On the right side it has millilitres in 5ml increments, starting from 5ml and going up to 45ml. I find this incredibly handy for when a recipe calls for a specific amount, for example lemon zest, which can be very tricky to get into a measuring spoon without a whole heap of faff!

                    The handle is really comfortable to hold and the stainless steel razor-sharp, double-sided acid-etched blades make light work of hard ingredients such as fresh nutmeg and frozen ginger (that's where I store mine to keep it fresh!).

                    It has a non-slip rubber end, so you can rest it on the board and hold the grater vertically if you find it easier, but it is so easy to use that this is really not necessary.

                    It is easy to wash up by hand, but it is also dishwasher safe.

                    I think this is a brilliantly designed product and what's even better is that it costs half the price of a Microplane grater!

                    I got mine from Lakeland for £9.78 back in October, but they don't appear to stock it anymore on their website. It is however available on good old Amazon and other online retailers.

                    Measures 11.5 inches/29 cm long.

                    This Fine Rasp is the first of five in a collection of rasps. The others available are: Extra Coarse Rasp, Parmesan Rasp, 2-Way Rasp and Small Shaver Rasp.

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                    • More +
                      24.11.2009 14:43
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                      Makes you feel like a pro.

                      A blowtorch is one of those kitchen gadgets that I think everybody wants because it's fun to use, but once you own one it rarely makes an appearance in the kitchen. There are loads of different ones available to buy and it can be difficult to know which one will best suit your needs.

                      My brother has a small blowtorch with a pathetic flame, but as he's not the most avid cook in the world, he simply uses it to light his cigarettes! I on the other hand love to cook and I wanted a blowtorch for crème brulees.

                      So I opted for the Master Class Kitchen blowtorch, because it is described as a professional cook's blowtorch and apparently it has been used a lot on television.

                      I ordered mine online from Amazon as they offered the cheapest price (£15.60, but it is available from places like Lakeland for just under £20) and from the photos it looked really well made and well designed.

                      When I received it I wasn't disappointed and quickly prepared some crème brulees to test it out. It doesn't come with any fuel and it is supplied empty, I guess for safety reasons. The 80cc refillable cylinder uses butane lighter fuel and I just bought mine from Amazon as they were doing a deal with the blowtorch.

                      Even though the blowtorch came with clear instructions on how to fill up the cylinder, I was a little wary and I got my fiancé to help me the first time. It was actually very easy to do, so I'm confident of doing it myself now.

                      The blowtorch is very simple to use. Just release the safety lock, turn the dial to release the gas and then ignite using the piezo trigger ignition. The adjustable anti-flare flame is easy to change so that you get the flame to the size that you're comfortable using and it also works at all angles.

                      The chrome-effect non-slip metal body feels very comfortable in your hand and I think it's the perfect size, even though I have quite small hands. It isn't too heavy or bulky so it's very easy to wield this weapon of fire against those poor unsuspecting grains of sugar sitting happily atop my custard.

                      It can be very easy to burn sugar when making crème brulee, but with this blowtorch you feel that you have a great deal of control with the flame so that you can do it slowly and build up a good caramelisation. I love that the nozzle is really long so that the flame is far away from your hand and much less likely to cause you a nasty burn.

                      A blowtorch might seem like one of those superfluous kitchen gadgets, but I think it's essential for a proper crème brulee and this one does the job brilliantly, without any fuss. Highly recommended!

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                      09.11.2009 15:21
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                      Bit of this and that.

                      On Saturday I went to London to meet up with some friends for lunch and as 3 of them are vegetarian, I suggested we go to Tibits, which specifically caters for herbivores.

                      My friends and I are quite into our food, so we like to try new places. I'd heard about Tibits through a food website newsletter and it sounded like an interesting and innovative restaurant. It is basically a self-service buffet and the price you pay is based upon the weight of your food.

                      We arrived about 1pm on a Saturday and it was busy but not packed. We got a table for 5 quite easily. They will take bookings for parties of 8 people or more. The welcome from the staff was warm and friendly and they explained how the buffet and weighing system works. You just take a plate and work your way around the buffet, which is called the Food Boat, and fill it up with as much as you want. Then you take it to the counter at the front of the restaurant and place it on the scales and then pay. You can also get your drinks, pastries, soups and sandwiches here.

                      On the Food Boat there is a choice of around 40 dishes, including salad stuff, couscous, quinoa, veggie chilli, samosas, pasta, horseradish mash, roasted peppers, stuffed jalapenos, nut roast, etc. There is a big basket of freshly baked bread rolls, which are free and I have to say the selection was very good.

                      I am a meat eater and veggie food was new territory for me (I'd never had a falafel before - quite nice!), so my plate of food only cost £5.60. But my 3 veggie friends were like kids in a sweetshop and piled their plates high, so their meals came to just under £10 each. They were worried that they would get carried away as soon as they saw the Food Boat!

                      The prices change depending on what time of day you go (take-away is available):
                      Eat in Breakfast = 1.40 per 100g
                      Eat in Lunch = 1.80 per 100g
                      Eat in Dinner = 2.00 per 100g

                      It might seem quite expensive, but it is based on the food being made with "carefully sourced, seasonal GM-free ingredients" (according to their menu). Plus I'd imagine proper veggie restaurants are few and far between and therefore there is less competition, even though Tibits is located in a square at the back of Regents Street, which is full of restaurants.

                      My friends all agreed the food was excellent and that they would come again and bring their friends and family. I did enjoy my meal as the food was fresh, tasty and well made, but I couldn't help wishing I had a big juicy steak on my plate.

                      On the Food Boat there are also a few desserts, so a couple of my friends treated themselves. The cheesecake got the thumbs up, but the fruity tiramisu was considered "a bit weird". Luckily we only got a tablespoon of it to try and the girl at the counter didn't charge for it because it looked so pathetic on the plate!

                      There is a really good selection of drinks, from alcoholic, fruit juices, tea, coffee and soft drinks. There is also a free water fountain for the total purists/skint people. Another money-saving tip: my friend had a Jasmine Tea and I took it up to the counter where they were happy to refill with hot water for free.

                      We had a very leisurely 2 hour lunch in Tibits and although the restaurant did become quite busy, we never felt rushed by the staff to move on, which was great as we had lots of catching up to do!

                      The restaurant has two levels, with the food being on the top level. I think I saw a lift, so people with disabilities or walking difficulties are provided for. Downstairs is where the toilets are located and there is more seating in a more laidback sofa-style arrangement. That's not to say the upstairs is uncomfortable in the slightest. There is a mixture of different tables and chairs, to cater for the lone lunchtime diner to the mother with her pushchair. The décor is pretty funky but not pretentious and the music gives the place a good atmosphere without being intrusive to your conversations.

                      Even though vegetarian food isn't really my cup of tea, I would definitely go back to Tibits because the whole experience was first class and it got full approval from my veggie friends!


                      12-14 Heddon Street (off Regent Street), London, W1B 4DA
                      Telephone: +44 (0)207 758 4110
                      Fax: +44 (0)207 734 0428
                      Email: info@tibits.co.uk
                      http://www.tibits.co.uk

                      Opening hours:
                      Mon - Wed 09:00 am - 10:30 pm
                      Thurs - Sat 09:00 am - midnight
                      Sun 11:30 am - 09:00 pm

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                        20.10.2009 15:36
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                        A good alternative to cast iron

                        I was looking to buy some casserole dishes that could be used on the hob and in the oven. I did consider buying a cast iron pot, but the price and the weight of them put me off.

                        I'd seen these Pyrex Pyroflam dishes advertised in my BBC Good Food magazine and they were £50 for a set of 3 different sized round dishes that all come with lids, which seemed like a good price to me:

                        - 1 litre (6.8cm deep x 16cm diameter)
                        - 2 litre (8.5cm deep x 20cm diameter)
                        - 3 litre (12.6 cm deep x 20cm diameter)

                        To give you some idea of how practical they are in terms of size:
                        * I have found the 1 litre dish the perfect size to make a deep Shepherd's Pie to feed 2 people.
                        * The 2 litre one is great for making a Bolognese/ragu sauce for 4 people.
                        * In the 3 litre one I have cooked a Beef and Ale Stew that will feed 6-8 people. I have also pot-roasted a whole 1.5kg chicken in this dish. It was a tight squeeze and the bird had to sit diagonally in the pot, but it still cooked perfectly OK.

                        Pyrex have always made reliable cookware, but what makes these Pyroflam dishes so different?

                        Well they are made from a material called Vitro-Ceramic which is a unique material that is so heat resistant and durable that it was used by NASA in the design of the Space Shuttle - who would have thought cookware would become rocket science?!

                        The appeal of these dishes is that you should only need one dish to prepare, cook, serve and store your meals. This is because they can be used directly on any hob (except induction), in microwaves, ovens and under the grill.

                        They are also freezer and dishwasher proof. They claim that you can use them directly from the freezer to a heat source, but I don't know of anything that I would be happy to cook without defrosting thoroughly first, so I haven't tested this claim. I have put them directly from the fridge into the oven and it has been absolutely fine, as they are made to withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures between -40ºC and +800ºC. So unless you're going to be cooking on a jet engine you should be fine.

                        I have found them very easy to clean after a nice long soak in a Fairy bubble bath, because the surface is nice and smooth, non porous and stain free. I have cleaned off some seriously burnt on food (for testing purposes of course, not because I had the gas too high, hahaha!) and they still look good as new, so top marks for ease of cleaning.

                        So what are they like to cook with? Well at first it seemed a bit alien to be putting the dishes directly on the gas hob, because they are light and quite thin and you think that they might break. But they are made of strong stuff and nothing untoward happens as you crank up the heat to preheat them for 2 minutes, as suggested in the little manual that comes with the dishes. You're then advised to reduce to heat to medium-low to ensure even cooking without burning (OK I admit I didn't read the manual before using them when I burnt the food!). So if you follow the instructions then you will be able to successfully brown your bits of meat or onions to a nice golden colour.

                        They are brilliant at retaining heat and I have found using them on the hob and in the oven to be very good. I would like the handles on the dishes to be a big bigger, because when using them on the hob you have to use an oven glove to hold it steady as you stir your food and it is a bit difficult to grip. Also, the clear glass lids have a handle on the top, which means they aren't as easy to stack for storage as the old style Pyrex casserole dishes, so points get deducted for this design flaw.

                        I would also prefer the dishes to be a bit shallower and wider in diameter, so that it would be easier to fit a whole chicken or joint of meat inside. I think an oval design would be much better. A wider surface area would make it easier to brown more pieces of meat in a single batch, but then again the limited space does force you to not overload the pan which is a good thing.

                        Overall, I think this is a good set of casserole dishes as they are multi-purpose and they should last a long time. They come with a 25 year guarantee so that is added peace of mind. I think they are an excellent alternative to the expensive cast iron pots.


                        ************************************************
                        These dishes are also available to purchase separately.

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                        • Shoe-Shop.com LTD / Online Shop / 51 Readings / 49 Ratings
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                          16.10.2009 20:00
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                          Makes shoe shopping an absolute breeze!

                          I know you should always try shoes on before buying them and that buying online can be a risky business, but I loath traipsing around different shops looking for shoes. So I was fortunate to stumble upon shoe-shop.com, which has a wide range of male and female footwear from many different top brands. I have just bought a pair of boots and I have to say how impressed I am with their service.

                          First of all, the website itself is a joy to use. It is uncluttered and easy to navigate by using the menus or by the search function. Footwear is split into 2 main categories 'Classic & Comfort' or 'Fashion', but you can also 'Shop by Brand' or 'Shop by Store' where if you have specific needs such as small or large sizes then it's a quick shortcut.

                          For me, comfort always comes before fashion, so I had a quick browse in the appropriate section and I spotted a couple of pairs of boots made by Pavers. I love the amount of detailed information this website gives you about the products, such as the heel height, materials used and whether there are any zips etc. There are clear photos of the footwear from various angles which you can zoom into, which is great when buying online as it gives you a really good idea of what you might be buying.

                          Another great feature is the reviews that other customers have left when they have purchased particular items. The reviews are short but they are in a template format so it is easy to see if other people think the shoes are comfortable or true to size.

                          Shipping information is readily accessible so you don't have to go on a mad hunt for it around the website. Standard delivery costs £2.99 per order, however some items are eligible for free delivery.

                          Once I'd decided which pair of boots to order, the checkout process was very simple and straightforward. Voucher codes are accepted and I managed to get 10% off using a code I found on Hot UK Deals.

                          I received a confirmation email almost instantly and they also sent me another email to let me know when my item was dispatched. I was expecting to have to wait 3-5 days for delivery, but I received my boots 2 days after I'd placed my order, so I was incredibly impressed.

                          I had paid an extra 99p for the Returns Paid Service, which means that you can return the items at no further cost to yourself. Otherwise you can use the returns label in your parcel to return your goods and they will deduct £2.50 from your refund amount to cover the postage. As it happens, the boots fit perfectly, so I kind of regret paying the extra 99p, however I did get free delivery for my boots in the first place so it's not too bad.
                          In conclusion, I can highly recommend shoe-shop.com for their choice and delivery service and I will definitely be buying from them again in the future.

                          Notes:
                          shoe-shop.com is the largest online shoe-store in Europe and is the sister company of Pavers.

                          www.shoe-shop.com
                          www.pavers.co.uk

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                            15.10.2009 19:04
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                            An album that grows on you.

                            Newton Faulkner burst onto the music scene with his hit 'Dream Catch Me' and his excellent cover version of Massive Attack's 'Teardrop' on his album 'Hand Built By Robots' in 2007.

                            With a strange name and appearance (long ginger dreadlocks), he's not your typical musician pin-up, which is great as his folk-rock music and talent speaks for itself. His unique guitar playing style is jaw-droppingly impressive, as he uses it as a drum just as much as a guitar. I saw him live in November 2007 and I was blown-away and I was eagerly anticipating his next album.

                            'Rebuilt By Humans' is his follow-up album, apparently named because he broke his wrist after slipping on ice and doctors had to rebuild it with a metal plate. The question is, does it suffer from the 'difficult second album syndrome'? And will his guitar playing be as good as before?!

                            Well the first single released from the album was 'If This Is It' and it is a blinder of a song and it's easy to see why it was chosen as the first single. It starts off slowly and then builds into a crescendo of fantastic harmonies and vocals. I love the huskiness of Newton's voice on this track. The video is impressive as well and really compliments the song well. It features people frozen in time; very similar to when Hiro Nakamura from Heroes bends time and space.

                            As with his first album there are some outstanding tracks on this album, but there are also quite a few fillers. I personally don't like the 'Intros' and 'Interludes' that he insists on including. I also find that the 'She's Got The Time 2 interlude' (which is a basic re-jig of 'She's Got Time' from his first album) is a complete waste of space.

                            So I do find myself pressing the fast forward button quite a lot, but once I get to a track that I love, then I find myself pressing the rewind button to listen to it again! As well as 'If This Is It' my favourite tracks are 'Won't Let Go', 'Over and Out' (his next single) and 'So Much'. Throughout the whole album there is an air of melancholy in the lyrics, but the music itself on these tracks is actually quite upbeat and uplifting. He somehow starts a song in one direction, then manages to do a U-turn and change it completely. It's like he leads you into a solemn quiet house and then lets you out the back door to run around in the garden - clever stuff indeed.

                            The jaunty comical offerings that were on his first album are absent on this one. In some ways I think this is a good thing as it shows how his music is maturing. However, it was those humorous tracks that made his live shows so memorable as it made audience participation a key part of the show.

                            Even though this album is a mixed bag in terms of good and so-so songs, I'm still really looking forward to seeing him perform live again next week at Shepherd's Bush! I hope he'll play some of his old stuff as well as the new album, but at least he'll always have his rendition of Spongebob Squarepants to fall back on!

                            ***************************************************

                            Even though it's from his old album, you must check out him playing an acoustic version of Teardrops in a lift as an example of his guitar playing skills: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjT86g9gTKk

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                              11.10.2009 20:02
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                              Brought out the best in a nervous and unwilling family!

                              My fiancé's Mum and sister went to the Ideal Home show this year and they had a photograph taken by Sonam Portrait Studios. Whilst they were there, his Mum also bought a photography session at their studio for £10 and this included a free photograph. She wanted to get a nice family photograph taken and she was optimistic that this company could capture a fun and lively picture and not a boring and serious like the one they had taken many years ago by a now defunct company.

                              The studio is located here:
                              Studio 1B
                              39-40 West Point
                              Warple Way
                              London
                              W3 0RG

                              The road was easy to find using the Tom Tom and we managed to find parking spaces nearby for our 2 cars. The actual studio isn't that easy to find and I was glad that I'd looked up the address on Google Maps before we left the house and seen the Street View so I knew which building to look for. The studio is located in a big office type building. Sonam Studios wasn't on the list of entry door buzzers, so if you go there look out for Studio 1B and you'll get in.

                              The studio is located on the 1st floor, so we had to climb some stairs, but I did see that there was a lift, so people with accessibility issues are catered for.

                              My first impressions of the studio were very good, but compact. It is basically just one big white room at one end, with some different backgrounds located by the windows at the other. There is a small changing room so you can get changed into different outfits and a make-up dresser if you're going to have your hair and make-up done. We all declined the makeover, but I did see they had MAC make-up on the dresser so they do use good brands. There is also a toilet, which was really nice and clean and it also had a shower in there! The other main room of the studio is where you go and view your photos and I will discuss this more later on.

                              None of us were particularly overjoyed about doing the photoshoot and my fiancé's Mum and Dad were really nervous, as she suffers from panic attacks and he hates having his photo taken. So the nice lady that welcomed us to the studio made them both a cup of tea to calm them down. We'd arrived 45 minutes early for our session, but they didn't mind at all and welcomed us in.

                              Both her and the male photographer were very friendly and did everything they could to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. I have to say, they were both really down to earth and we all quickly relaxed and got into the fun of having our photos taken. To begin with, he was keen to know all of our names and our status in the family, so that he could get a good idea of what shots he could take. So there was my fiancé's Mum and Dad, my fiancé's sister and her husband and of course myself and my fiancé.

                              We started off in our casual outfits and we had a variety of different shots taken as a whole group and in couples. Then we got changed into some smarter clothes and had more shots done. You can wear whatever you like and even take props in with you if you like.

                              The photographer was very creative and we did lots of different poses, from lying on the floor, to running and walking towards the camera. My favourite group shot was when he told us to line up against the wall and then we all had to fight to get into the camera shot as he quickly moved around. This was a really fun shot and he'd captured us all laughing our heads off.

                              He took some fantastic individual portrait shots and I personally felt that he made me feel totally at ease whilst posing. For example, he got me to stand in front of the mirror at the make-up dresser and pretend I was applying lipstick with a brush. It sounded like quite a fake and stupid pose, but the picture actually looked really good and natural.

                              I think the photographer did a really good job of relaxing us and capturing our personalities,. You don't have to worry about strangers watching, as you and your group have the studio all to yourself, so it's much easier to just be yourself.

                              My fiancé and I are fairly keen photographers, so we were looking at all the equipment and lighting that was being used. The photographer was using Nikon SLR cameras and the shots were wirelessly being transferred to a laptop so that his assistant could instantly start editing and organising them. There were fixed flash lights on the ceiling and other portable lights that could be pushed around the room. The photographer really did know his stuff and he got the lighting spot on, producing flattering contrast in the pictures and the colours came out brilliantly.

                              Some of my favourite shots of my fiancé are when he's standing next to the metal shutters that they pulled down in front of the windows in the studio. The lighting was dark and moody, which suited my fiancé's pensive look perfectly! We thought that they'd had the shutters installed purposely for using as a background, but the photographer told us that they were for security purposes, even though the studio is located on the 1st floor and no one is likely to get in through the window up there! This is just another example of their creativity in using their surroundings.

                              After our 1.5 hours session time was up, we went into the viewing room where there was a comfortable leather sofa and a large flat screen monitor for us to view our pictures as a slideshow. The photographer had taken around 460 photos and I'd say over half of them were keepers, which I think is a pretty good ratio. So we were worried that we wouldn't be able to decide there and then which ones to get printed. The lady told us not to worry as they had a variety of packages to choose from.

                              We chose the Bronze Package which was the cheapest at £395. Included in this price is a CD of all the photos in High and Low Res formats, 10 laser printed photos in an album and 2 poster sized prints. They also retouch 10 of the photos, but we didn't want this so we got some extra prints instead. The price for all this was actually really good value, as we've been to other companies that charge extortionate amounts for prints and they don't even let you take all your photos away on a CD!

                              The most expensive Gold Package was £695 and you basically just get more prints. This price is still cheaper than most other companies, but we knew it wasn't worth it because we could print out the photos ourselves.

                              We were given plenty of time to go home and choose the photos we wanted them to print and we just needed to email our list to the studio and then pick them up when they were ready.

                              I have to say that there was absolutely no hard sell and they were happy to leave us alone whilst we discussed what we wanted to buy. The makeover and photoshoot I had with another company years ago tried to bully me into buying their overpriced photos and I'm so glad that Sonam Studios weren't like this.

                              It was explained that the photos we would have printed would not be on photographic paper and when we saw our prints it was evident that the printing quality wasn't fantastic as you could see all the pixels when you looked really closely. But once they're up on the wall they will look good. They had also airbrushed a couple of pictures when we had requested them not to, but my fiancé's Mum was quite pleased they had made her look better! Overall, she was really pleased with her photos and that was the whole point of having the session done, so it was a good experience.

                              One complaint we did have was we were told that our CD would have the RAW image files (they contain all of the information captured by the camera) on it as well as the high and low res images. But the RAW files weren't on the disc and we think the lady that sold us the package is probably not that au fait with photography terminology and she probably thought that the high res images were the RAW files.

                              Nevertheless Sonam Studios had a great atmosphere and we were treated extremely well. I would recommend it to people of all ages. In fact, whilst we were there an elderly couple came to pick up some prints of their session and when we were leaving another session with a baby was in progress as we could hear it's rattle (as in the toy, I'm not suggesting it was some kind of hybrid snake-baby).

                              So for a family that wasn't overly enthusiastic about having our picture taken, we had a good laugh and got some excellent photos at a very reasonable price.

                              http://www.sonamstudios.com/

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                                29.09.2009 11:48
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                                A good book, but definitely not perfect.

                                2009 was the year I decided to get serious about growing my own vegetables. It all started with a few free packets of seeds and a couple of pots on the windowsill. But then it snowballed into buying a raised bed, growing herbs in containers and saving toilet rolls for next year's seed plantings.

                                I will happily admit that I am a novice gardener and that I have pretty much winged my way through the sowing, planting out and harvesting of my vegetables. I have used the Internet as a resource for when I have been completely clueless (which was most of the time) and unfortunately it wasn't able to provide the answers to my most pressing problems. So I decided it was time to invest in some books to guide me and prevent me from making the same mistakes next year.

                                I had read very favourable reviews about Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4 so I decided to buy it. Mark Diacono, who is the gardener at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage, has written a book that is informative but at the same time humorous and full of personality. Mark's passion for what he does shines through in his writing and I love the way he injects humour into his instructions. A prime example is how to harvest asparagus...

                                "Sit on your hands, go on holiday in May, do whatever you have to, but don't take spears in the first two years".

                                It is called a Handbook and the size of it is certainly handy, measuring just 8 x 5.5 inches and 1 inch thick. This makes it very portable, in case you need to carry it down to your allotment or around the garden centre as you peruse all the wonderful things that are on offer. The hardback cover gives it a ruggedness that gardeners will appreciate.

                                The first section of the book is titled Growing Your Own Food and is basically an introduction on choosing what to grow. It is an inspiring section of the book, however Mark loses points when he encourages the reader to grow something you actively dislike. When space is at such a premium in the garden, I do not want to be growing courgettes where I could be growing squash instead!

                                The Essential Terms section is quite useful to demystify some of the gardening jargon, however Mark states this section is extremely limited as most of the terms are explained as they crop up in the book. For example, 'pinching out' is not in this section, but it is explained under Tomatoes.

                                Which leads me onto the main section of the book, which is the Vegetable A-Z. The most commonly grown vegetables are here, as well as some more unusual ones that I've never heard of (Cardoons anyone?). It is easy to find what you're looking for by simply flicking through the A-Z or alternatively you can refer to the Index, which will also tell you the other pages that the vegetable appears. There are a good number of recipes featured in this book, so the Index is a good way of finding out how to pull all the ingredients together into a tasty dish.

                                Each vegetable has information on when to plant and the necessary spacing, plus Mark takes into account whether you might want to grow things under cover in his sowing times. There are also tables at the beginning of the book for a quick-glance reference. For a beginner like me, this is invaluable information. However, now that I have grown things and experienced some problems, I need to know how to fix them. For example, my squash did terribly and from what I read on the Internet, it was due to a virus or mildew. But Mark makes no mention of these problems and just states that the only thing to worry about is slugs or snails. So if you're looking for a book that will help diagnose any problems, then this isn't it.

                                The humour makes it is an enjoyable book to read, but I feel that important details are sacrificed as only a couple of pages are dedicated to each plant. I would also have preferred a lot more diagrams and more practical photos, rather than the coffee table book photography that has been used. There are some great ideas in the book, such as building an X-frame for supporting peas, but a diagram or photo would have been so useful in knowing how to execute these ideas.

                                Overall, this book is a handy little guide to help you get started with choosing varieties, the sowing and planting, but it lacks detail in overcoming problems such as pests and diseases. I think it is also aimed at the gardener who has ample space, rather than those who are relying on containers to grow their produce, as there isn't a lot of detail on pot sizes.

                                I am happy to have this book in my collection as it is an entertaining read, but it is definitely not a definitive guide, as I have had to refer to other books for information.

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