27 Jun 2011

Little House on the Prairie (Part 1)

I might make a few envious amongst my readership as soon as I reveal to all of you guys that I am currently working for a garden preservation society! This new chapter in my curriculum is practically a match made in Heaven as it combines personal passions and hobbies: botany + ethnography + ecology + interest for the island of Corsica + the more pragmatic commercial flair.

Commercial flair is a driving force to any business and in this case it is not so much in relation to the business itself whose status as a society makes it reliant upon various state subsidies and the generosity of private benefactors, than tapping (further) into the revenue potentiality offered by the on-site organic delicatessen and healthcare/ beauty boutique.

With a new chairman at the helm, an established down-to-earth entrepreneur with solid business acumen, the garden society is set to sail towards a more promising future. I have been tasked with shop management, stocks, pricing, supplier relations, advertising and the sales experience whereby the customer receives a personalised '+1' service that goes beyond the sell/ purchase transaction. Without meaning to sound pretentious, I would be enclined to say that this is something I am good at and I am loving the challenge!

My secret? Just plain common sense really. I personally believe in, understand and praise the benefits for each and every single product for sale in the boutique. I have used most of them and my advice is no push-to-sell pitch. I am not commissioned by either the brands I sell or the society itself, and I certainly don't have the mindset of the ordinary sales person who clocks in and clocks out and painfully chews their bubble gum looking glum for the time in-between, while wishing their life away day after day... Hey, what a waste for both employer and employee: there is some urgent need for a career change!

Each customer deserves my full attention, because this is the way I would like to be treated and acknowledged as a customer. A customer has every right to enjoy and remember their retail experience, and it is the shop floor sales' objective to make that experience pleasant, memorable and meaningful, whether the customer buys a jar of cherry preserve, a case of premium wine, or a basketful of groceries and essential oils.

A smile works wonders too. Maybe some shop workers out there need reminding about the power of a smile, acknowledging the customer and showing that you care, that you're there. Besides I always have advice to hand, ideas and suggestions on how to use those compôtes, chutneys, dried herbs or myrtle essence, even anecdotes about plants, land, weather, Corsica, the economy, you name it...

All in all, you can imagine that I am not stuck for words: just take a look at La Baguette and you get a pretty good idea! (to be continued)

13 Jun 2011

Hotel Review - The Village Hotel Cheadle

I had planned a trip to Manchester at relatively short notice and was looking to stay in the South of the city for convenience (within easy reach of the airport, and because most of my engagements would take place in South Manchester) and personal choice (historically South Manchester had been my homebase for the best part of 16 years).

Last time I was in the UK (back end of August 2010), I had booked a room at the City Inn Hotel Manchester (now rebranded as Mint Hotel) bang in the centre of town, halfway between Piccadilly Gardens and Piccadilly Train Station. Although it was convenient in certain ways (mainly on the retail and catering front), it proved rather tricky in relation to my South Manchester-based appointments. So this time around I was determined to give the city centre a miss.

Mum's ready for action and The Village Hotel has it!

Last time I took my brother with me and now I was taking my mum. I was hiring a car, which would give us that much-needed freedom of movement, as you end up wasting a lot of time and money juggling taxis, trains, buses and the likes... We could therefore afford to be off the main parkways and out of town centres.

The temptation for anyone looking for a hassle-free booking would have been to resort to one of those budget hotels within the immediate airport area. The Travel Inn was priced at an attractive £29.00 a night, but in terms of attraction I was looking for something else. I wanted our hotel stay to have a bit more oomph and drama. Previously I had stayed at the Village Hotel Cheadle, even had dinner there a couple of times, I even had insider knowledge of the place (my partner had worked there), so this was going to be my natural choice. I wasn't taking a risk, neither was I prepared to take one.

The 117-bedroom Village Hotel is located in the leafy suburbs of Stockport, a Cheshire town touching the South East Manchester boundaries. The hotel is a good 15 minutes drive away from the airport (on a quiet day) and within easy reach of the motorway, a half-hour drive from Manchester city centre off peak hours. It enjoys a good reputation and attracts a wide array of demographics, from business people to families, wedding parties, week-enders or friends/ couples on a city break.

That statement dark entrance! (picture source)

The hotel is set in a landscaped environment of mature trees, with ample parking space, and refers to itself as a hub, for it is not only a hotel, but also a restaurant & grill (Verve), a pub (Victory), a Starbucks café, a conference destination, a function venue, and a very popular leisure club complete with swimming pool. There is a buzz about that whole place, no doubt about it! The Cheadle hotel is part of the 25-strong Village Hotel group. The group has been under the umbrella of the prominent De Vere portfolio (Malmaison Hotel, Hotel du Vin, Liberty (dept. store), Searcys etc.) for a couple of years and each of the 25 Village hotels are being repackaged up by the De Vere guys into 'an affordable, design-led hotel with an individual vibe of its own', aiming for trendy boutique hotel status at a reasonable price. 

I booked the hotel only a few days ahead of the trip, via Booking.com and got a 50% deal straightaway: £250.00 for a twin room for 4 nights (buffet breakfast included). Not bad when you consider that rooms are typically 3 to 4 times the value of a Travel Inn room!

Last time I had stayed at The Village Hotel was in a suite, and my current expectations were a tad warped by the experience. The twin room seemed cramped, certainly not as roomy as an average De Vere twin room. It was also quite dark (some hotel reviewers have gone as far as describing their room as dark and dingy), which wasn't helped by the dark accent wall.

Lightening up the sombre mood of the room!

One of the perks of hotel guests once they step inside their room is either to raid the mini-bar or the complimentary breakfast bar. In our case, there was no mini-bar. As for the breakfast bar, the choice of beverages was limited to coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and that strong builders brew (tea) that even the milk pod and sugar sachet wouldn't soften the strength of. No biscuits, tid-bits, fancy/ herbal teas that you would otherwise expect from a boutique hotel on a par with 'The Mal'. And I have to say I was a bit bothered by this.

Same in the bathroom department. Hotel guests love those sample-size shower gels, shampoos, creams and cutesy soaps. Here you had to content with the basic Cussons dispenser in the bath, and a (faulty) liquid soap dispenser by the sink. The toilet paper was cheap and nasty. These are little things but hotel guests pick on them. I saw no hairdryer in the room, although I am sure I could have requested one from the reception desk. The door knob looked like it had been replaced but you could see the markings and holes from the previous one from a different design. There was a fine sprinkling of dust over the desk lamp and the standalone lamp (easily noticeable as soon as those lamps were on). The window glass needed a clean and so did the flat roof that we overlooked.

Besides the hotel was noisy on two levels. It is on the flight path and those of you used to the peace and quiet of the countryside or the sleepy towns might pick on this straight away. However the flight noise is bearable and no aircraft activity could be heard roughly between 12:00am and 5:00am. The second type of noise came from the function rooms which happened to be underneath our room. Noise subsided after 12:00am (possibly around 1:00am to 2:00am, I couldn't say for definite). One night we had a 1980s disco to content with. Duran Duran and FGTH didn't exactly lull us to sleep, although for the music's sake I would have preferred something edgier from back in the day although then I might have joined the party!

Rise and shine!

I don't mean to sound like a grating episode of The Hotel Inspector. Maybe I should indicate in passing that I worked a short stint in the hotel industry, which has made me more naturally attuned to some of the details I have mentioned here. Having said that, you get the clear message that the company is on a cost-cutting mission and the first casualties are the little touches, which is most unfortunate when you aim to position your brand as a boutique hotel. (After writing this review I had a look at the Village Hotel website which funnily enough mentioned 'little touches' at the hotel... At least we are on the same wavelength, except poles apart!).

At least the food didn't let us down. You could taste that it had been freshly prepared. My mum and I dined at the Verve restaurant on the evening of our arrival, and enjoyed the Salmon Fishcakes which we had ordered as a main course. We were each presented with one haggis-sized fishcake, but once we got over the odd presentation, we loved the melting combination of salmon and potato purée, served with a light vinaigrette and Tartare sauce. For dessert, we had a heavenly (and filling!) Bread and Butter Pudding served with Chocolate Sauce and Orange Marmelade. I was a bit taken aback by the waiter bringing us a pitcher of tap water when I asked for water (I meant a bottle of still water, like Evian or equivalent)...

Breakfast was a moment we looked forward to: a buffet-style eat-as-much-as-you-like feast that encompasses all tastes, from the continental breakfast (fresh fruit, juices, yogurt, milk, cereals, muesli, Danish pastries, croissants, toasts etc.) to the typical Full English Breakfast, all presented within the Nantucket design style of the Verve restaurant. The temptation to linger over breakfast was strong as it was really cosy there!

A few supplies from Sainsbury's to get us going!

The staff were friendly, although the reception manager did look a bit harassed one time, and on our very early departure on Sunday it would have been nice for the night porter/ hotel manager or whoever that middle-aged guy was, to thank us for our stay and wish us a pleasant journey, rather than blurting out in a huff from a distance: 'Have you paid everything?'. Not exactly a parting good-bye, but then again this hotel sadly lacks in places what it should be all about: the little touches!

The Village Hotel Cheadle, Cheadle Road, Cheadle, Stockport, Cheshire SK8 1HW, U.K.
Tel: (+ 44) (0)844 980 8033

The + sides: conveniently situated, young and vibrant atmosphere, comfy bed, Verve restaurant fayre fresh and tasty
The - sides: room décor a bit cheerless; noisy room; not as spotless as should be; lack of little extras and lack of attention to detail; toilettries/ hot beverages in the room to the absolute minimum; a hairdressing/ beauty salon would have been handy for those guests short on time. That night porter guy/ concierge, not a happy bunny!

Read my review published on Booking.com.

10 Jun 2011

Hop & Shop in Candy Shades!

A couple of weeks ago I took my mum to Manchester (U.K.) on a four-day trip packed full with appointments and commitments, but we managed to squeeze a spot of shopping in between!

The mugs are from John Lewis
We visited two familiar retail haunts which also rate high as personal favourites: John Lewis (Cheadle) and Kendals (where my mum took advantage of the amazing sale to invest in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein nightwear for my dad). I took my mum to Lakeland (Handforth), the British kitchen domestics equivalent to Mathon (the Mathon catalogue is virtually my mum's bedside read!). She loved it there in Lakeland, and amongst other items, purchased individual 1950s style enamel oblong pie dishes, with the promise of culinary delights to come!

We whizzed down to Sainsburys to stock up on crumpets, custard creams, golden syrup, cake decorations, tea cakes, Battenberg cake, organic white tea and we even pushed the button further by purchasing... flour! This is in fact so that I can recreate the 'perfect' Victorian Sponge back in Corsica using the most appropriate ingredients! How British was that for a shopping list, by the way!

Every cloud (made of chocolate) has a silver lining!
Our tight timetable was such that there wasn't any time left for wandering or exploring further shopping venues (apart from the obligatory trips down to the local DIY store as this is developed further down this article). Meanwhile I had been looking forward to a cake shop & tea parlour in West Didsbury called And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon which I had found out about via Twitter, but had to cross it off our list as we were defeated by time... Instead we stumbled across a Costa Coffee down the Altrincham high street and that one had to do!

To be fair, it would have been nice to add an extra couple of days to our schedule and dedicate that extra time purely to shop and treats, but with a new job looming on the horizon of our planned return date, this would have been impossible for me to honour.

Coconut ice from John Lewis
We stayed at The Village Hotel Cheadle, which I will talk about in more detail in my next article. Cheadle is a Stockport suburb located in South Manchester, and the hotel was a handy base for our to-ing and fro-ing around the Cheshire fringes of Timperley-Altrincham-Handforth for most of my scheduled appointments. Last but not least, our Cheadle base was also within accessible radius of my little house which I am currently renting out via a property agent.

My mum and I had taken advantage of the fact that the tenancy had come to an end, in order to go down to the house for inspection, replace a couple of bathroom fixtures, and add a few touches to the property to make it even cosier. We also took up the task of tidying the garden: three bins worth of cuttings, dead leaves, overgrown branches and weeds! Although my elderly tenant looked after the house beautifully, the garden clearly wasn't her cup of tea, although I had offered her (via the agency) the services of a gardener to help her keep on top of it but she had declined...

Easy does it at John Lewis!
Anyway I'll let you swoon over a small selection of the sweet nothings in candy shades that my mum and I brought back from the UK (further evidenced by the excess luggage charge that we incurred from the EasyJet desk on the day of departure)... But in the end, it was all good and we loved every minute of it! Now I can't wait to return, if only for the shopping fix which I will never get out of my system, especially now as a 'recluse' islander in the Med, in a place that is a galaxy away from the fast-lane premium shopping experience that any major UK city hands you over on a plate!

On these pictures I am sure you'll agree that not only are the sugary colours covetable, but those amongst us with a soft spot for packaging design, typefaces and typesetting will be equally sensitive to the charms they exude. Looks so good, you don't want to spoil the fun by cracking open the boxes to raid their contents!

Ready for Fathers Day!
So French yet so British!
Our candy theme all the way down to menswear!

3 Jun 2011

May in Bloom

Welcome to La Baguette's latest feature: 'A Month in Bloom', which debuted in our February edition. At the end of each month, this blog will showcase a gallery of floral blossoms of the wild order encountered during that month on random walks around my current base in Northern Corsica.

Lady pleaser: Dogrose
Things have been hotting up here in May, and are set to get even hotter in June and beyond! The heat of May is a prelude to a hot Summer, forecast to be hotter than last year's! So far and unlike other areas of France (the Charentes for instance), Corsica has been spared by drought. Oddly enough, while Northern Europe enjoyed four weeks of fabulous Summertime weather back in April, Corsica suffered a damp and rainy early Spring.

The maquis has been turning more aromatic with each passing day, with a palette of inspirational greens evidencing new growth and tender leaves contrasting with the darker greens from the evergreens. For the vast majority of the maquis is evergreen by nature and therefore retains its vibrancy of green throughout the Winter months, a welcome difference from the non-mediterranean regions where trees are totally depleted of their leaves in the cold season.

Yours grass-fully: Briza maxima
May saw grasses come into their own (some of them thriving over 5ft7 tall), while the likes of Asphodels, Angelica and Sinapsis arvensis (mustard plant) matured and started to seed. In the wow department, Cistus held to their blooms throughout most of May. Meanwhile other little marvels of nature were equally worth it, namely Ornithogalum (commonly found by the roadside), the Vicia sepium (a fuchsia pink sweetpea lookalike found tangled in hedges along pastures). Other wildflowers include (but are not restricted to) Hypericum perforatum, Medicago sativa, and (more rarely-observed) Campanula.

Since mid-month the ubiquitous Scabiosa (Knautia) has been making an appearance in pastures: it is easily identifiable by its elongated thin stemmed structure finished off by a single inflorescence of a delicate pink in colour and frou-frou in style. Scabiosa will be observed for the next couple of months and is a precursor sign of Summer.

Pretty in pink: Vicia sepium
The more prosaic Bramble is in bloom too. Botany is here to remind us that all plants deserve a mention, from the cute wildflowers to the gardener's sworn enemies... Meanwhile stay tuned, we'll be back soon to report on June's botanical prowess!

Wild at heart: Allium
Dancing the twist: Lonicera
Insect-friendly: Smooth Golden Fleece (Urospermum dalechampii)
Looks like Heaven: Cistus