Saturday, 30 June 2012

A Week in Uganda Visiting Ndali Vanilla

It was so good to see happy children who's parents get a fair & decent price for their vanilla crop!

I have to be honest I was nervous about going to Uganda.  The night before I left I was quiet.  My husband held my hands and quietly asked if I was ok?  "No..  I'm not" I said.  I was feeling the full wobble of travelling alone " I'm just a British middle-class housewife who writes and talks about food,"  I said "What was I thinking?  An adventure for me is going to London for a day ..  and the closest I've ever been to Africa is buying a pineapple in Waitrose!" It amused my husband to see me out of my comfort zone. 

I needn't have been nervous, I was made so welcome and Uganda is just beautiful.  Seeing the vanilla process from the vine all the way through the processing to being packages was just a revelation of love, care and pure artisanal food craftsmanship from start to finish.  The Ndali Vanilla is exquisite.   

I have brought home a stack of Vanilla to share, but I have also come home a different person.  I feel changed in my very core. I've been back home three days and I’m struggling with the inevitable comparisons I am drawing between the world I left just a couple of days ago and life here.  

You see whilst I was in Uganda I found out just how a decent rate of pay from Fairtrade vanilla grower and producer Ndali Vanilla really affects the families and communities whilst recording interviews with the Vanilla producers and farmers for a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 Food Program.  

Now I am home I have certainly found it hard to be sympathetic listening to grumbling from people about how hard they have it. How terrible the local schools are, or how bad the service is from the NHS and about only being able to afford one holiday this year or not being able to buy the latest gadget.  These things are not poverty. Actually, it took all my will power not to point out the reality of the world to a woman on the market who was complaining about her lot yesterday.  Of course getting frustrated with people is not positive  .. but don’t get me started …  because we all (I include myself in this) expect that we get a fair days pay for a fair days work. Keeping people in poverty for the sake of a relatively small amount of money seems utterly selfish to me and I believed that we all have the opportunity to make a difference when we see Fairtrade products on the shelves.  I've decided that this feeling… this absolute seismic shift in the way I understand what fair trade price means on real terms has to be put to use.

I know that on all too many occasions we are guilty of looking at the fair trade logo and just seeing a marketing logo.  I’ve had people cynically informing me with conviction in the weeks leading up to my trip that it’s all a sales gimmick!  

Lulu Sturdy, MD of Ndali Vanilla buying at Fair trade prices 
Yes this logo that means the product costs a wee bit more and I am somewhat ashamed and embarrassed to say that there have been occasions that I have saves a few pence and bought a non-fairtrade product.  So I am taking a deep breath and saying now .. never again.  This is not a hippy happy clappy feel good logo.  This is literally a life for the farmers and their families behind the product. To see first hand the impact that a decent wage has on real families and real people is sobering.  It’s a far cry from cupcakes I can tell you. Where life is hard, not to pay a fair price is wicked. You see, a decent price literally means the world to the people I met last week.

The work Lulu and the Ndali team are doing is just incredible, and to listen first hand the stories of the farmers and vanilla producers whose lives have improved was extraordinary.  Lulu is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met. She will blush when I tell you that she is beautiful, and brave and that she lives in harmony with the land she has inherited and the people who live their whilst growing the headiest deep sweet intense sleek black vanilla imaginable.

Ndali organic vanilla being packed at the processing plant 

I can’t write too much more about my trip right now as I am waiting on news about an article I may.. or may not be commissioned to write  -  perhaps I will have the opportunity to tell Lulu's story to many and put these feelings and experiences to use.

For now what I will say is that my trip has been a life changing experience, and if you will bear with me I will share much more in a week or so.

In the mean time I have a stash of vanilla to share with my blogging community..  so if you have a  food blog and  would like some samples of the utterly delicious Ndali Vanilla please comment below and tweet this article and I will pick randomly 15 bloggers by the 13th July 2012 to send out packs of my stash to!

PS  I will be organising a Vanilla baking swap in London in September ... if you'd like more details then please add your blog below and I'll get in touch about this gift swap event.

Monday, 18 June 2012

I'm off to Uganda in the Morning

I am nineteen and on holiday I mean to jump a off a pier into deep clear blue crystal water.  I watch others.  It looks so easy from a distance.  I walk to edge and look down.  The rush is all over me, tingling like an electrical current.  From my head to my toes the surge of excitement and fright thrills me.  I felt alive.  I take a deep breath and jump.

Ndali Vanilla
It was a typical domestic scene, about five weeks ago when my husband got home from work I asked if he had had a nice day.   He had.   I waited until the children were all in bed and I was sure that he was relaxed and had eaten something before I said anything.   As casually as I could manage I mentioned that I had been invited to fly out to Uganda to meet Lulu Sturdy and I would be able to see how Vanilla is harvested.

I waited with baited breath expecting him to say no.  He didn’t. Instead he paused and then asked me lots of other questions, such as what work would I get from it, where would I stay and how long I would want to go for. Lulu Sturdy is the MD of of Ndali Vanilla, and for those of you who have bought my recipe book Prepped you will know that I have a whole chapter on vanilla in my recipe book.

It was in 2010 and I’d been buying Ndail Vanilla for quite some time from Waitrose and when I needed some to photograph and to develop the recipes I contacted Ndail and kindly Lulu sent me some beautiful pods to use. We’ve been chatting and keeping in touch ever since.  

So here I am typing up my blog post before I head out to Fort Portal in West Uganda to harvest Vanilla near the Congolese border.  I feel tingles across my arms as I type.

My children are still quite young and when my oldest daughter (age nine) googled Uganda last week and she got pretty upset. There is no hiding the fact that things have been difficult, and there is no escaping history.  There was no point in trying pretend the things she had read were not true. I sat down with her and explained that we can’t change the past but we can help make history and I have assured the kids and my husband that I will be fine.  We’ve concentrated on getting books and educational bits and pieces for me to take with me for the children there.

I hope my children will understand that we live in an imperfect world.  I need them to live life and accept that we are part of one world. I explained that we mustn’t spend our lives being afraid.  Life is an adventure, and I won’t pretend that I am not nervous. I am, but from all that I have read things have changed.  I understand that there is a long way to go.  I have never been to Africa and the last time I traveled alone was in 2000.  But I am oh so excited.  I can’t wait to see how fairtrade has made a real difference in peoples lives.  We are all able in our own way to make a difference in the world.  Even buying a fairtrade vanilla pod to make our cupcakes with makes a difference ... and I believe in making our own history. 

Of course I am taking my recording equipment with me and I shall be using it to get some recordings for the BBC  ..  there is more to come on this subject, but I’ll share more news when I get back.  In the mean time I must finish packing and double check I have all that I need.

Deep breath. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Timberstone Bed and Breakfast, Ludlow

Timberstone Bed and Breakfast, Ludlow

Holidays - these are the times we remember -  the love and the laughter.

Just a few weeks ago a friend came back from a trip fuming.   She’d been onto a website to check out the travel reviews and booked the accommodation for her break in confidence.  What she’d read online indicated that it was a lovely place to stay.

She paced the floor, coffee in hand and over several minutes ranted about how clearly the people that were commenting on the site had wildly different standards than hers.  The place was dirty, the people were rude and she’d been so unhappy she packed her bags and moved on to stay elsewhere.  I gingerly pointed out that this was her opportunity to tell the truth on the review site.  Her reply was short.  She said that commenting was all very well  .. but it was her break already been ruined.

So what to do when you want to go somewhere really lovely to take a break? Some of the review sites clearly have bogus people posting great reviews about hell holes.  How do you know that the place you are choosing is lovely? How do you guarantee charm, romance, and a break that we all remember for the right reasons?

As the conversation continued and I finally managed to get a word in edgeways I was surprised to find that my friend hadn’t heard of the Alastair Sawday books.  (I thought everyone knew about them.) My parents bought his first book about 20 years ago.  They’d sat in bed one Sunday morning, reading the Sunday Times  (.. as they have done for 40 years or more and read an article about Alastair Sawday and were hooked.)  They were absolutely thrilled when the book arrived and booked the bed and have since booked the breakfasts from the books every time they’ve been away.

Twenty years on and I asked mum why she still loves using the books “it’s like having a friend personally recommend you where to stay. “ she said.  Of course I skip straight onto the Internet to look for wherever I want to go and I know that if a venue has been picked by Alastair Sawday and invited to join the guide then it will be wonderful.  It’s so reassuring.

When I was invited to stay through Sawdays a few weeks ago at Timberstone cottage near Ludlow my husband had work commitments and couldn’t come.  All the same I was thrilled to be going to stay near Ludlow.  It’s famed for being a foodies paradise.

Crisp white cotton bedding and fluffy towels 

Timberstone was everything the Sawdays guide promised it to be. The welcome was warm, the dogs wagged their tails and Alex and Tracy were the perfect hosts.  It’s not easy to take a break with three young children, especially on my own but Tracy and Alex have two boys the same age as my children and within minutes the kids were working out the best way to climb a tree and I relaxed as Alex put my bags in my room.

Oh I can’t tell you how lovely it was to just relax.  There were fluffy white towels, really crisp white cotton bedding, and jugs of fresh flowers in all the room picked from the garden.  When I was offered a home cooked meal that evening and I can honestly say I was relived not to have to going out to find somewhere to eat. The food was comparable to any you would expect from a really good restaurant and Tracy explained that her love of food and working along side a top chef meant feeding guests was one of her favorite aspects of running a B & B.  The wine was superb. Again as we chatted it turned out that Alex and Tracy met whilst they were working for a wine merchant.  We spent the evening chatting and they gave me a great run down of the local food scene, which held me in good stead for the following day. I slept like a log in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in.

I loved that all the food was locally sourced; the sausages at breakfast were outstanding, along with Tracy’s pretty pots of home made chutneys and locally made sourdough bread from Prices the bakers on the market square.

I loved the stay so much that I’ve booked to go again in July, only this time I will be sure to take my husband.  He’ll love it.

Ludlow. Fresh sourdough from Prices the Bakers on the market square, cheese from the Mousetrap and the local market was wonderful. 

 It is with delight that I can offer a one night stay as a prize at Timberstone for a couple.


Please see competition Rules before entering. This giveaway is open to all readers over 18 with a UK mainland address.  The winner will be chosen at random by  You need to leave your e-mail address in order to comment, I am the only person that can see it. Please do not include your email in the actual comment as well.

This competition on behalf of Alastair Sawdays and they will be responsible for organizing the prize with the winner. Their decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

There is one main way to enter and there are lots more chances to win .. . and you must leave a separate comment for each bonus entry otherwise they will not be counted. 

For a chance to win please comment and tell me who would you take with you if you won?

For a 2nd chance to win  please follow @sawdays on Twitter and comment below to tell me you have done so.

For a 3rd chance to win please like Sawdays on Facebook and comment to tell me you have done so

For a 4th chance to win please Follow @Timberstone1 on Twitter and please leave a comment to say you have done so.

For a 5th chance to win please tweet me @VanessaKimbell and tell me who you’d love to take with you if you won – please comment to say you have done so.

For more chances of winning Tweet this article and comment below to tell me you have done so. Each comment counts and an entrance and you can have a maximum of 1 entry per day to win this break  - but you MUST comment with your twitter ID telling me you have done so!

Automated Entries are not allowed.  There is no cash or product alternative.  The invitation must be used by

Closing date of this competition is 4pm 11th July 2012 The winner will be announced on Twitter on the  July 12thth   2012

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Lean How To Set Up & Run A Pop Up Bakery

 September 13th 2012

The course is based in Northampton and will be from 10am - 4pm.

I've been running a pop up bakery for quite a while now.  It's a brilliant way to make some money for the kids, or if you are being made redundant and want to turn it into a full time job.

Of course I have the advantage in that I worked in a Bakery in the South of France and I have a good commercial background.  There are lots of things to consider and yet it's also pretty straight forward too.  So I've put a course together to get you and your bakery off to a flying start.

We'll have a coffee and something to eat as you get here,  and I'll make a delicious lunch with vegetables from my garden.  I keep the numbers small.  We'll cover everything you need to be able to go home and set up your own confidently.

13th September 2012  - 10pm - 4pm

Friday, 8 June 2012

New Cookery School in Northampton

For those of you who follow me regularly you will know there is a quite patch just before I do something interesting.  It's the time that I take to get a plan together and I’ve been pretty low key for a few weeks. I've been wondering where to take myself for a while.  You know that sort of mulling where you weigh up all your options and ask yourself where you want to be in five years time?

 I’ve never been the kind of person to bumble along.  I have to know exactly where I am going and set out to get to where I am going.

I’ve been doing a lot of ghost writing for the past year and each week I do the BBC kitchen Garden show for my local radio station in Northampton. I really love the radio and I do love writing .. but  I’m not quite fulfilled. It's a hard thing to admit but it gets quite lonely writing.  I get my head down at the computer and then by the time I look up again it's time to pick the children up from school. As I rushed  to the school gates a few months ago I realise that I hadn't actually spoken to a soul all day .. and aside from my family no one all week !   .. . I was lonely and the only interaction I've been having is on twitter. I'm naturally outgoing and sociable and I think to go on indefinitely not seeing anyone would make me depressed in the end. 

The thing is this. I’ve always felt that I can make a difference in peoples lives and no ..  I’m not about to become a politician!  But I am going to start running classes and teach.

 I’ve had so much encouragement, to start teaching and I’ve been waiting until I could convert the ground floor of the coach house (it sounds allot grander then it is!!) but if I wait then it could be next year before I can get going … and you know what .. I’m just not that patient!!

So I’ve decided to make a start.   Drum roll. ....   So I am pleased to announce that there is a new cookery and gardening school in Northampton

I've designed the Kitchen Garden site to reflect this one, and have put the course dates up here. Please do browse through the courses so far.  I've so many more to add.  British flowers, jam making, and Chicken keeping to name just a few more I have planned. Unbelievably I've had some bookings already, with my first course booked up full.  It must be a sign that it's the right thing to do. 

In the mean time I have to get bookings on the courses .. so if you fancy a really lovely day laughing, eating and learning then please do book!