Monday, 24 September 2012

The Ndali Vanilla Gift Swap

Today I am taking part in the Ndali Vanilla Gift Swop, an event organised by Vanessa Kimbell  at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. Vanessa is a BBC journalist who went to visit my cousin Lulu Sturdy in Uganda and devoted an entire BBC Radio four Food and Drink program to Ndali vanilla last month. It was a wonderful program, packed with information about the process of growing this very special vanilla and Lulu came across as extremely knowledgable and passionate about her vanilla. I was glued to the radio because of course I had been out to see Lu myself earlier this year and had a fantastic time.

The idea behind The Ndali Vanilla Gift Swop is to promote the new Ndali vanilla powder which has just been launched on the market. It is a totally new product and very versatile. A teaspoon of Ndali vanilla powder is the equivalent of an entire vanilla pod and you can use it in biscuits, cakes, puddings... anything which needs that rich, delicious flavour of vanilla.  Everyone taking part in the event brings along a gift which can be one of four different categories:

1 Biscuit
2 Cakes/cupcake

There will be prizes for each category but the main thing is that everyone gets to leave with a gift brought in by another person containing Ndali vanilla. It's a lovely, original idea and I'm looking forward to it. My offering is The Ultimate Vanilla Cake with lashings of rich cream and mixed summer berries on top. It is absolutely delicious and one of my favourite cakes so I'm feeling reasonably confident. I will keep everyone posted on the results..

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Ndali vanilla

If you've ever wondered what makes a sponge cake so delicious it's almost certainly down to the vanilla in the recipe which adds a richness and warmth to the flavour. My cousin Lulu Sturdy's vanilla, which she grows at Ndali in Uganda, has been described as the champagne of vanillas and once you taste it you will understand why. When you hold one of the moist, plump vanilla pods in your hand and breath in the heady aroma you will discover the sheer pleasure of finding a fantastic ingredient. It adds the most beautiful flavour to cakes, puddings and biscuits which will inevitably tempt you to want more...

Vanilla is an orchid vine, originally from Central America, and the only one of over 25,000 orchid species to produce an edible fruit. The vine needs to entwine a host tree and at Ndali they grow up mulberry, red hot poker trees and physic nut trees. The intricate vanilla flower has to be pollinated by hand using a pin or whittled stick to carefully lift out of the way the flap (rostellum) which separates the stigma and pollen-bearing anther; thumb and forefinger then gently squeeze these male and female parts together. The delicate work has to be done within eight hours of the flower opening, and has to dodge rain, ants and heavy hands to produce a successful conception.

Like a fine wine vanilla depends on perfect conditions. To flourish and produce truly aromatic beans vanilla needs a leafy tropical environment: plenty of dappled sunlight, buckets of rain, rich loamy soils. The vanilla bean is harvested 9-11 months after pollination: the longer the beans are left on the vine the better. 

As well as showing me her own farm, Lulu took me to visit a couple of the vanilla farms that are part of the huge Fairtrade co-operative she has set up with other farmers in Western Uganda. Her right hand man Sassu introduced me to the families who grow vanilla on these farms and I had a great time being entertained by the children and their billy goats and drinking tea. The difference Fairtrade makes to these farmers' lives is immeasurable. Ndali vanilla's success enables these people to have a quality of life that would be otherwise unobtainable; whether it's improved sanitation, better education for the children or starting up another small business of their own. All of this is achieved through Lulu's aim to build a network of farmers who meet the exacting standards of the Fairtrade certification. These farmers can expect to be paid double the amount of the average vanilla bean, so there is a direct correlation between the success of the Ndali vanilla brand and the lives of the people who live on these farms. You can view Ndali Fairtrade farmers on youtube

We next visited the Ndali vanilla processing plant near where Lulu lives. This is where the vanilla is cured; turning it from the yellowish-green pod to the aromatic fermented chocolate-coloured bean. It takes three to six months and involves blanching the beans in hot water and sweating them in woollen blankets in wooden boxes. Over the weeks they are repeatedly exposed to hot sunshine and returned to their boxes for sweating, encouraging the breakdown of gluco-vanillin into vanillin through fermentation. It's a very time-consuming process and is over-seen by Lulu at every stage. Each bean is  meticulously sorted, graded and kept tightly packed in wooden boxes and the vanilla will continue to mature and improve in flavour much like a fine wine. 

You can buy Ndali vanilla from Waitrose and any quality supermarket and delicatessen in the UK. It comes in the shape of pods, intense extract or a wonderful new powder which is just about to be launched on the market. The glossy, plump vanilla pods that I smelt and touched at the processing plant at Ndali do not lose any of their intensity once they arrive on the shelves of the supermarkets over here and are bursting with flavour. It has been a really amazing journey for me to have tracked the journey of this beautiful and exotic spice back from my kitchen in London to the lush, verdant land below the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Trip to Ndali, Uganda

The first thing I noticed as my plane touched down at Entebbe airport at midnight was the hot, sticky heat. As soon as I was released from the safe, warm embrace of my British Airways flight I had to trust that all my arrangements would come good and that I would be collected by a driver and deposited at my hotel in Kampala, safe and sound. Travelling alone is simultaneously wonderful and nerve wracking as you have to trust everyone you come in contact with but at the same time have a well tuned antennae for any potential trouble. Luckily, my transfer went without a problem and I felt excited as we hurtled along the dark roads towards Kampala, windows open and breathing in the hot, African air. It was the start of my long-awaited trip to Ndali, Western Uganda, to visit my cousins Lulu Sturdy and Aubrey Price, who are the third generation to live on the family Estate. Lulu runs a thriving vanilla farm and Aubrey is installed in the beautiful lodge which he runs with his wife Clare.

I was quite relieved to arrive at my hotel Le Petit Village in Kampala and to slide into my nice comfortable bed under the mosquito net and get some sleep. I still haven't mastered the art of travelling light and I find that where ever I go in the world there's always far too much stuff I have to take with me. The problem is that I need all those little things which are essential to me if I want to feel reasonably self sufficient on a trip. I don't actually take loads of dresses, shoes and lotions and potions with me but I feel better if I can keep myself well dressed, relatively well groomed and clean. When I travel alone I always ask myself whether I feel ready for this journey. Can I cope with being alone in a strange country and how will I deal with the odd moments of insecurity? I always hope that it will be a rewarding and possibly life-changing experience so I set out with a mind-set that is positive but ready for the unexpected. I think that my yoga practise has really helped me to have a more flexible approach to life and I have developed a certain resilience and acceptance that although not everything will be rosy and to my liking I will try and retain a positive outlook. On this trip to Uganda I wanted to try and immerse myself in a life which has an entirely different rhythm from mine back in London and see whatever subtle shifts of perspective might happen. Having said all that, the one thing I have learned from past travelling is that my internal chatter travels with me and never goes away. The best I can hope for is that for the internal monologue to become less intense and for my mind to relax and become open to new ideas and experiences. That's why I like to travel.

It was the start of the rainy season in Uganda and on my first morning it was a little grey and overcast. Uganda is an equatorial country and the UV rays are among the highest in the world so I grabbed my sunglasses and hat and with the pervading heat I dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Aubrey strolled into the garden of my hotel and greeted me like a long lost friend. He introduced me to his wife Clare and we joined a bunch of their friends for lunch before setting off on the five hour drive to Ndali Lodge, near Fort Portal. We drove through numerous small towns and along bumpy roads and fast roads until we arrived at Ndali in total darkness. There's no electricity in this part of Africa at night time and it really is pitch black. There was no moon either but the sky was lit up by masses of stars and we each took turns to look at Saturn through Aubrey's powerful telescope at the lodge. Amazing! I slept like a baby through the night and woke up in the blissful surroundings of my own cottage. The lodge itself is set in a large garden and is positioned on the rim of an extinct volcano now forming Lake Nyinambuga,the most beautiful lake imaginable. I ate my breakfast on the veranda knowing that I had arrived somewhere really special. The bananas were tiny and delicious and mixed with pineapple and melon they actually made my taste buds tingle. The coffee was strong and very tasty. I was in heaven...

Over the years Ndali has become an almost mythical place in my mind. Our family had always been aware of this remote and extraordinary place in Africa where my uncle, Major Trevor Price had bought land in the 1920's. Travelling down from Cairo in a Model T Ford his aim was to grow tea - at the time a scarcely developed crop in Uganda. He planted a string of tea shambas north and south of Fort Portal and in the early 1960s he bought Ndali in the Kingdom of Toro - but the soil proved too alkaline for tea and the estate was left to grow wild. That was all a long time ago and during the Idi Amin regime all Europeans and Asians were thrown out and their land confiscated. However, in 1991 the new government led by President Museveni invited all dispossessed foreign landowners to reclaim their land. That's when my cousin Mark Price decided to start building Ndali Lodge with the help of a small group of investors and friends from Yorkshire. Sadly Mark died in 1998 which prompted Aubrey and Lulu to step into the breach and take over the running of the lodge and explore what might possibly grow well on the land.

When we were children Lulu and I played together but we hadn't seen each other for about 15 years. We've always kept in touch, one way or another, and now I had the perfect excuse to visit her at Ndali. The rich and intense vanilla in my cakes and biscuits is from her farm and it is this exquisite ingredient which makes them taste so good. Lulu has built up an impressive business from scratch with Ndali vanilla and has led the way for other local farmers in Uganda to grow Fairtrade vanilla too. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream use Ndali vanilla in their ice cream and they recently commisionned some short films about how these farmers have invested their Fair Trade Vanilla proceeds into starting their own businesses

Tuesday, 23 August 2011


Today I woke up in the gloom of an overcast and wet London morning.  I am experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms from being back from holiday and I really dislike it! Not only do I have to adjust to life without a swimming pool and breakfast on the terrace every day but the weather here is just rubbish. It's cloudy most days and we consider ourselves fortunate if we get at least one day of sunshine a week. It's miserable.. I miss the light and warmth and the goodness that comes with living in a part of the world where waking up in the morning is pure joy. 

Whenever I come back from holiday I often find the period of acclimatisation can be really tricky. There is a lot to learn from being on holiday about simplifying one's life. It's not just that one is away from the usual daily chores but one can choose to do nice things every day and make a point of creating an enjoyable atmosphere. Back home I rapidly get caught up in a seemingly chaotic environment and I forget to take time to enjoy the little pleasures in life. For example, I love to take time over breakfast and not gulp down a cup of coffee in my haste to get to wherever it is I have to be first thing in the day. On holiday I really like to take my time and linger over breakfast enjoying the flavour of the food and chatting to my companions at the table. These are important aspects of life that seem to get forgotten in normal daily life. I've been talking to my mother, for example, about how to hang on to those delicious moments from holiday and I have encouraged her to spoil herself a little and buy those little delicacies which are so enjoyable and in that way she can still feel that life is enhanced by the little ritual of eating good food.

Going to the market to buy food in Provence is another pleasure and has provided a marked contrast with being back home in London. Usually I enjoy going to Portobello Road to buy my fruit and vegetables but on my return the market has been quite a tense place and Cheryl, who I usually buy from, was really quite rude and snappy with me. I suppose it must have something to do with the riots of two weeks ago which has created this atmosphere. I also noticed in the supermarket that very few of the cashiers want to have eye contact and there is a general air of apprehension and nervousness. I'm not really surprised after what happened and I know a number of people who were directly affected by the rioting.  Fortunately I was away during the riots but was able to find out from my neighbours and by reading the press what was happening not just in the whole of England but also in my own neighbourhood. It was very unnerving for those having to witness it and another reason for me not wanting to come home. 

Being close to nature is another good thing about being on holiday. Every day there is something beautiful to look at and that sense of wonder at the extraordinary beauty in nature, whether it is looking out to sea or enjoying the scent of a flower - all that is important to me. My watercolours give me the opportunity to really look at nature and I choose to paint things that I want to somehow retain in my mind for as long as possible. 

So if you are about to go on holiday forget the Blackberry, Facebook, the office etc.. and have a lovely time! 

Thursday, 18 August 2011


I've just come back to London after spending a few days in the South of France. It was a lovely break as I was able to combine a stay with friends in Provence with a quick trip to Corsica to see some friends there.  I can totally understand why artists love to be in the South of France. The light is so clear and bright and the colours are just breath taking. It's like being transported to another world where everything is warmer and brighter and you start to feel relaxed from the moment you arrive. Well, I suppose anywhere is better than England in the summer when it's raining and overcast.

I managed to squeeze my sketch book and watercolours into my tiny suitcase and got past the tyrannical staff at RyanAir without having to pay a penalty for being one or two kilos over. I wasn't quite so lucky on my return journey but I took great pleasure in denying them their fine of £40 by stuffing all my excess baggage into the pockets of my lovely capacious linen trousers. It's a shame that travelling is often so aggravating nowadays as the journey really ought to be part of the pleasure of going on holiday.

Anyway France was wonderful. I am a total Francophile and I adore all the little details of my time there. Whether it's shopping at the market and choosing from the delicious array of fruit and vegetables or trying the wonderful cheeses and charcuterie with a glass of delicious rose wine. It's all beautiful to me. I'm very lucky to have some great french friends who are enormously generous and invite me to hang out with them at their homes. It's great fun to feel part of a large french family for a short while and join in the planning of meals and little excursions. Of course I know we are all on holiday so life is simple but it is perfect and I love it.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


It's Sunday and traditionally this is a day for reflection. Although I'm not planning to go to church today I occasionally enjoy listening to a sermon when it's given by a particularly enlightened and sometimes witty priest. I think I've written before about how I find it important to take time out to think about life and where I'm going. I suppose because I don't have children to worry about I have more time to do this but it's always been essential to me. I'm pretty sure that if I don't pause and reflect on what's happening internally and externally I end up lost in confusion and wondering where the hell I'm going with all my stuff. 

Listening is an incredibly important part of life. It's almost a skill that one needs to learn. When I was a child it felt good to be with an adult who listened to me and I felt understood me. It seems to me to be the essence of what makes up a good relationship. It matters in friendship as well of course. If I'm with a close friend the conversation is a delicate balance between listening to what he or she has to say and me talking about my things. I often catch myself impatiently talking before my friend has even finished what they need to say and I find it quite annoying in myself. 

How do we train ourselves to listen? Sit and be quiet. It's really quite simple but actually rather hard for most people to do. We're so used to being active and thinking of all the things that need to be done. But  you can do it. I think the technical term for it is meditation but I prefer to think of it as just a bit of quiet time. If you can do that then you are in a good position to be attentive to what's important around you and it makes it a lot easier to listen. If you're busy, busy, busy all the time you become a pain in the neck and sometime even a bit mad. I find it hard to be with really pushy people who only seem to listen to what's going on inside them and can't hear what anyone else has to say. I don't know what's causing it. Maybe they're totally self-absorbed and can't hear what anyone else is saying or perhaps it's because they're totally insensitive and couldn't give a damn. Who knows?

All I know is that I like to be around people who do take time to listen to each other. I'm trying to get better at it myself although I know that sometimes it's not always easy. When you're in emotional pain however I know it's one of the essential things that help you get better. My mum used to say that therapy was the great talking cure and I'm sure that's true but it's good to learn how to listen as well and not just be in the position where you are the one getting it all off your chest. I suppose it's a question of balance.

Anyway that's all I have to say for today. I can't write this without acknowledging that my blog is of course my way of getting my ideas out there. Hopefully I don't come across as too egocentric and I like to think of it as like sending postcards to friends around the world. The feedback is good too!

Friday, 22 July 2011

Melting macarons

I have been doing a fairly intensive amount of baking recently with varying degrees of success. It is a bit scary how easily things can go wrong with patisserie and it takes quite a lot of courage to carry on in the knowledge that at any second it's probably all going to go a bit out of control. I seem to veer from one near catastrophe to the next in the kitchen. This evening at my birthday party the delicate little macarons I worked so hard to make were sitting prettily on their glass plate - the next thing I knew they had turned into some sort of molten creation that we needed spoons to dig into. It still tasted scrummy it's just that it looked a bit weird and rather less elegant. Well as the French say Tant pis..

The other calamity was the pastry creme for my strawberry tart which turned into scrambled egg as I was adding the egg mixture to the simmering milk. I managed to salvage it by hastily transferring it all back into the KitchenAid mixer. Thank God for that piece of machinery. It's worth every penny of the investment as it sorts out most of my messes. In the end I was very happy with the result even if the tart went the same way as the macarons and turned into an aesthetic slop. Notice that I only place images of these delicacies on this page before they started to slide of the plate... the rest I leave to your imagination.

I don't really mind these mishaps as I quite enjoy the voyage of discovery and I learn something from each new disaster. I'm beginning to gain a whole new respect for the art of patisserie. It's a steep learning curve but one that I'm happy to pursue because it seems to give a lot of pleasure to everyone and that's a good thing in life.