The Chocolate Rooms in Tarleton, Lancashire, otherwise known as Wonka Towers, are the nerve centre of Choc Amor, Lancashire chocolatiers of artisan Belgian chocolate.
It is here that a mouth-watering range of award-winning chocolate is handmade, served and sold.
I’d been hearing so much about this chocolate café that I made a special visit in order to see (read taste) for myself.
There’s a delicious lunch menu offering sandwiches, salads, flatbreads and platters (and my salmon, beetroot and feta salad was fresh, crisp and flavourful) but let’s be honest, it’s the sweet stuff that you go here for!
Freshly made cakes tempt you from the counter and a variety of brownies, scones and ice cream will leave you spoilt for choice. If you’re willing to share, everyone in your party should order something different so you can try more than one option.
I can tell you that the pecan pie was to die for – a gooey, nutty slice of deliciousness – and the chocolate cake was rich, creamy and melt in the mouth.
There’s a great range of hot drinks to choose from, including four different versions of hot chocolate made using Belgian chocolate, plus milkshakes and soft drinks. I opted for chocolate tea, which was lovely and felt indulgent (it’s caffeine free too).
Ingredients are sourced in Lancashire where possible and at under £30 for quality, homemade food for two (drinks, lunch and cake), the café is very good value for money.
But the experience doesn’t have to stop once you’ve finished eating; you can buy from the Choc Amor range too. The flavours of chocolate on offer are positively exotic – Chilli and Lime, Orange Jalfrezi, Raspberry and Balsamic Vinegar and Tonka Bean, Smoked Sea Salt and Cocoa Nib to name just a few.
The company’s founder, Paul Williams aka Chef de Wonka, is the creative chocolatier behind these flavours which have resulted in a number of Great Taste Awards since he started out in 2012, and this year saw him competing in the World Finals of the International Chocolate Awards.
You can also buy at Choc Amor’s Little Chocolate Shop at Botany Bay, at a number of farmer’s markets and food festivals and online at chocamor.co.uk
Choc Amor is clearly a labour of love and deserving of support from Lancashire chocolate lovers.
Follow Paul on Twitter for insights into the world of chocolate making at Wonka Towers!
One of my all time favourite childhood memories is picnicking in the Trough of Bowland with my grandparents. Every summer they packed the car up with my sisters and I, the dogs, copious amounts of delicious homemade food and wellies for paddling.
AONBs are areas in the countryside that have been designated for conservation due to their natural beauty, in a similar way to national parks. If you haven’t yet experienced the Forest of Bowland, you are missing out on one of the country’s most breathtaking natural environments.
While most people know of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, the Forest of Bowland is their lesser known but equally impressive neighbour.
The landscape is wild and untouched; a vast expanse of fells, valleys and moors that will stir and exhilarate you. At the same time, tall trees shelter and flowing water soothes. It’s the stuff of epic legends and enchanted tales.
The Trough pass is a ‘scenic route’ if ever there was one, traversing through the magnificent Bowland fells and rising almost 300m above sea level at its highest point. The Trough is only a small part of the Forest of Bowland, which is dotted with picturesque villages as it reaches just into Yorkshire to the northeast and to Pendle Hill at the southeast corner.
There are 312 square miles to explore in total and you’ll need more than a day to do that!
I’m so grateful to my grandparents for introducing me to this special place that has become a favoured destination for walking, eating out, pottering and, of course, picnicking. My family continues the tradition every summer (with my grandparents accompanying us in spirit) and it’s always a riot.
You can drive along the Trough road and pick one of umpteen perfect spots to park up and lay your picnic. Sheep roam free, dragonflies skim the water that runs downstream to the River Wyre and dappled sunlight warms through the leaves of the trees (if you’re lucky!).
All the things we did decades ago are still a source of laughter and enjoyment – lazing in the sun sandwich in one hand, sausage roll in the other, paddling, playing with a bat and ball, letting the dogs run and roam – and I have just as much fun as I did when I was 10!
When summer is drawing to an end and you can feel the first hints of autumn in the air, blackberry picking is the perfect way to enjoy the last warm days of the year.
From the end of August and through September, blackberries can be found growing in hedgerows up and down the country. My favourite spot is along the old railway line from Knott End to Preesall, which used to serve the Pilling Pig locomotive transporting passengers from Knott End to Pilling and onwards to Garstang in the early 1900s.
The Knott End to Pilling stretch of the line closed in 1950 and a section from Hackensall Woods in Knott End to Park Lane in Preesall is now a footpath. It’s about a mile long and you’ll experience both the shelter of woodland and the full force of the elements as you cross wide open countryside.
From the top of the steps at the Preesall end (which is well hidden at the roadside), you can see much of the footpath laid out before you (pictured). There are a number of points to veer off the line and change course, including a six mile route that picks up the Wyre Way.
Blackberries line much of the footpath and I have wonderful memories of picking them with my grandparents as a child. I still follow my grandad’s advice: select berries at the same height as you (higher are for birds, lower may have been watered by dogs), wear something long sleeved and leave some for everybody else!
Taking advantage of nature’s offering and the chance to eat ripe, seasonal fruit for free is a must! The dog comes too, meaning we both get our daily quota of exercise and fresh air (and she’s partial to a blackberry or two).
So what to do with your haul? My nana made big pans of blackberry jam but for me, nothing signals autumn like crumble. My favourite recipe is Deliciously Ella’s Apple and Blackberry Crumble(pictured), which uses only a handful of ingredients to make a wholesome and nutritious version.
The smell as it bakes and the delicious mouthfuls that follow are the fruits of your labours to be enjoyed. And with this virtuous recipe, you can enjoy cold crumble for breakfast the next morning!
From hedgerow to bowl in hours – soul food indeed.
When the weather is on form, there’s really nothing better than spending a summer’s day outdoors at one of the north of England’s agricultural shows.
It’s the all-the-time-in-the-world pace that I love. And the haze of mellow revelry in the warm air.
At over 150 years old, Great Eccleston Show is still going strong. It’s one of the most popular events in Lancashire and this year is no exception.
The animals all looking their best (cattle, goats, sheep, shire horses, pigs, ponies, poultry, ferrets, rabbits, budgerigars…) – prize winners’ rosettes proudly displayed – are delightful to see.
There are marquees showcasing and selling local food, crafts, horticulture and art; modern and classic agricultural vehicles and equipment; entertainment in the form of fairground, stunt riders and cooking demonstrations (TV chef Phil Vickery this year); sheep shearing, herding and beekeeping demonstrations; and the main event, the tractor pulling, is the most random but thrilling sport to watch!
You’ll find all the essentials on site – beer tent, food trucks and plenty of ice cream vans. Take a blanket and some sun cream and kick back. I saw more than one person napping on the grass in the sunshine!
Tickets are £12 for adults on the gate and £2 for kids but parking is free. You can take your dogs and they will be welcomed.
The showground is on Garstang Road (A586) in Great Eccleston, near Preston.
Alice’s is a quirky and colourful little tea room on St. Alban’s Road, just off the high street in St Anne’s town centre.
Themed around Lewis Carroll’s classic story Alice In Wonderland, you’ll find yourself surrounded by familiar characters, including my favourite the grinning Cheshire cat, and cute details like playing cards for menus and ‘Eat me’ labels on your food. Oh, and everything is upside down!
At a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, only afternoon tea will do in my opinion. A large pot of loose leaf tea served with china cups and saucers came alongside a selection of ham, cheese and tuna sandwiches with crisps and salad; scones with jam, cream and fresh strawberries; and mini butterfly cakes, millionaire’s shortbread, brownies, rocky road and chocolate crispies.
Alice’s is a real treat for kids – they’ll love the brilliant surroundings, colouring books and crayons, fantastic ice cream counter and magnificent milkshakes in flavours like Oreo and Maltesers.
Meanwhile, grown ups will be equally enthralled by the spectacular multi-coloured and multi-layered cakes on display around the tea room. See them for yourself on Alice’s Facebook page
Also on offer on the menu are breakfasts, sandwiches, paninis, salads and jacket potatoes and a good range of teas. The waitresses are friendly and attentive, and it’s evident that a lot of affection goes into running this tea room.
At £13.95 for afternoon tea for two that left us full to bursting, Alice’s is an inexpensive way to escape boredom and enter a mini fantasy world for an hour or two!
Fresh air, mysterious creatures and a magical story are all waiting to be discovered on the Mythic Coastline, from Cleveleys to Fleetwood.
I’ll start at the beginning… The Sea Swallow is a children’s book written by Gareth Thompson that brings to life the folklore and myth that surrounds this stretch of coastline.
The area is home to the Lune Deep, an underwater Grand Canyon created 20,000 years ago during the last Ice Age and home to a rich and colourful variety of wildlife, with captivating names like Dead Man’s Fingers and Mermaid’s Glove. But what else lives there?
Well you’ll have to read the book but you can see the setting for the story and some of the characters in real life by following the artwork trail along the seafront.
The trail starts at the junction of Kingsway and the promenade at Cleveleys (near the Anchorsholme border), with Shipwrecks, a memorial to all the ships wrecked off the Fylde coast between 1643 and 2008.
Next, and not difficult to find, is the imposing Sea Swallows monument standing tall at the top of Victoria Road West, etched with words from the book to fire up your imagination:
Down in Lune Deep Far below the sea Something sparkles Like sunken treasure. A strange boy is watching But steals away in a flash As the Sea-Ogre stirs And our story begins…
Continue your quest northwards and The Paddle, a huge wooden carving, can be found washed ashore a little further along. Who could such a ginormous thing possibly belong to? Read the inscription to find out…
You’ll need to keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you as you try to spot the stone Sea Ogre. Although he weighs 12 tonnes and his eyes burn bright red, he hides on the beach among the rocks and isn’t so easy to see. Hopefully you’ll catch a glimpse – if you have the courage to get up close.
The final character to be found on the beach is the Sea Shell, which holds ‘every sound and every spellbound secret of the sea!’ and rises out of the sea as the tide goes back out. It’s big enough for dogs and kids to play in too!
This brings you to Café Cove on the promenade but the trail doesn’t end there. Carry on along the seafront to Rossall Point and step inside the observation tower, which is built to look like it’s leaning in to the wind. Apart from fantastic views across Morecambe Bay available from the viewing decks, there’s also Sea Swallow inspired artwork and lots to learn about the environment.
The Mythic Coastline has been created by Wyre Council as part of a project to improve Wyre’s seafront and reveals an enchanting tale about this area of the coast, even to those who know it well.
Spend an exhilarating (and free!) afternoon following the trail – you won’t be disappointed.
Today has been a perfect sunny spring day for the Crafty Vintage Fair at Brockholes Nature Reserve near Preston.
Crafty Vintage brings together purveyors of vintage, retro and handmade clothes, décor, gifts, art, food, entertainment and much more, all with character you just won’t find on the high street.
Brockholes near Preston is a floating village set in 250 acres of wildlife habitat that is home to everything from birds and insects to otters and fish.
You might not think the two likely partners but Brockholes provides a beautiful open air venue for a fabulous event with a wonderfully uplifting vibe – it’s in the sights, sounds and smells and guarantees a good day out.
There’s a lot going on but it’s well organised and the atmosphere is laid-back. The stalls are vibrant and the creative bods selling their wares are a friendly and welcoming bunch.
A cup of tea (although if it had been a couple of hours later in the day it might have been a cocktail) in the sunshine while looking out across the water and listening to the mellow tones of a live vintage-style singer was a perfect moment.
Refreshments on offer included an absolutely huge pan of sumptuous-looking paella bubbling away alongside spicy Mexican street food, wood fired pizza and some of the biggest and most spectacular cakes I’ve seen in my life!
One stall I have to mention is Millie and Ruby’s Dog Bakery, a Lancashire firm that makes dog treats such as chicken and cheddar chick biscuits, peanut butter and banana bones and apple and cinnamon paw lollipups. They don’t add anything artificial nor do they use preservatives and many of their ingredients are organic and locally sourced. A great idea for dog lovers and of course our beloved pooches.
Brockholes also has its own restaurant, art and craft gallery and souvenir shop plus an adventure play area for kids, three different walking trails and wildlife hide.
Entry to the fair is £2 (kids go free) and it’s on again tomorrow (Sunday 19 April), 10am until 5pm.
I will warn you though that parking at Brockholes isn’t cheap – £3 for the first hour, then 50p for every 20 minutes thereafter, to a maximum of £6. Income from car parking goes towards conservation though, so it is money well spent. If you make use of the walking trails and play area as well as the fair, you could spend the whole day there. And it couldn’t be easier to find either – just off junction 31 of the M6. The Guild Wheel runs through the site, so you could cycle there too!
Crafty Vintage runs regular events throughout the year. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for more details.
Tinderbox gift shop and cafe in Poulton has something to warm the body and soothe the soul this winter.
The specials board has been tantalising me as I pass by on lunchtime walks along Breck Road for months. Having finally paid a visit with my two sisters and baby niece, and being welcomed in out of the cold by a friendly hostess, I can’t believe I waited so long.
The front half of the building is a gift shop selling a beautiful range of jewellery, cards, candles, notebooks, handbags, woolly hats and, at the moment, gorgeous Christmas decorations and stationary. Lovely presents you’ll want for yourself and your loved ones.
With lanterns and art (which is for sale) adorning the walls and exposed lighting cables and bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the cafe at the back has the feel of a cool underground bunker, with an abundance of fairy and tealights giving light and warmth.
A straightforward menu offers all the staples; breakfasts, sandwiches, toasties and a pledge to make whatever you fancy, so long as they have the basic ingredients! Daily specials include homemade soup and a couple of less ordinary options – on the day of my visit, bacon and cheese burger served in a brioche bun and coronation prawn vol-au-vents.
There are children’s choices and a great selection of cakes too; chocolate, Victoria, tiffin, parkin and cherry bakewell to name just a few plus gluten-free varieties.
As a dedicated tea drinker, I was pleased to find a selection of Atkinsons black teas on offer including my favourite brew, Assam, along with lemon and vanilla plus green Chai tea and herbal varieties. There’s also a bring your own booze policy with a minimal corkage charge. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, ’bring a bottle if you feel the need’!
I thoroughly enjoyed the hearty homemade leek and potato soup with doorstep bread and (soft) butter plus a pot of tea, served in a pot with teacup and saucer. My sisters enjoyed their choices; soup, cheese and tomato toastie (again on doorstep bed and served with salad), hot chocolates and a giant scone with obligatory jam and cream. The bill came to just under £20 and we all left feeling full and happy.
You can see the chef at work preparing your food in an open kitchen in the corner and the cakes calling you from a counter beside. There are around half a dozen tables, chairs and benches plus a comfy chair for coffee, attentive waiters and I’m reliably informed, good changing facilities. My sister was able to breastfeed at ease too.
For a perfect escape from the elements this winter, hole up in Tinderbox with tea and cake. Check out the Tinderbox Facebook page
Stirk House Hotel, located just off the A59 near Gisburn in the Ribble Valley, is a 16th century manor house hotel nestled within 20 acres of grounds giving generous views of Pendle Hill, the Forest of Bowland and the Yorkshire Dales.
While it still has attractive period features and plenty of charm, the interior is modern and stylish. The venue caters for holidaymakers, weddings and conferences however the purpose of my visit was my favourite pastime, afternoon tea.
But before I get to that, my friends and I first worked up an appetite with a leisurely meander in the surrounding countryside on a circular walk from the hotel. The scenery around the hotel is stunning; we traversed open fields and woodland, walked alongside the River Ribble and picked up a little bit of the famous Ribble Way, a 70 mile footpath that follows the river from mouth to source. You can pick up walking routes from reception.
Afterwards, we were lucky enough to snatch a table on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the gardens. There’s also a conservatory if you would like the views without the elements. Stirk House takes its conservation responsibilities seriously; expect to see thousands of trees and wild flowers and, if you’re lucky, deer, kestrels, owls (the World Owl Trust has designated the grounds a Wildlife Conservation Area), rabbits and bees (thanks to a bee hotel designed to protect threatened species).
Afternoon tea started with hot buttered toast fingers plus homemade marmalade and honey, thick and sweet. Then followed finger sandwiches – smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber, honey roasted ham and free range egg mayonnaise – on a mixture of brown and white bread.
Cake came in the form of delicate mini éclairs, rich malt loaf, raspberry and mint fools and strawberry shortcakes, not forgetting of course, fruit scones with jam and clotted cream. It was all freshly baked and delicious, however the raspberry and mint fools deserve special mention for tasting so exquisite.
We took our time, enjoying a rare leisurely afternoon throughout which the staff were attentive, happily replenishing our tea pot numerous times and keen to make sure we didn’t leave anything uneaten!
The surroundings could not have been more idyllic; birds singing, rabbits hopping to and fro, bees humming in the nearby flower beds and the chef popping out to pick fresh lavender from the garden.
Dogs are welcome at Stirk House, which operates a ‘four legged policy’, and we saw one lucky mutt being lavished with attention from a member of staff.
Afternoon tea, normally £15 per person, was on offer at just £12 when I visited which I consider to be excellent value for money.
Salt of the Earth is a vibrant eatery, brimming with character and flavour, and my all-time favourite destination for lunch.
Situated, most unexpectedly, at the end of a row of terraced houses in Carleton (near Poulton), the enticing frontage catches your eye and hints at the delights to be found inside.
Described as a delicatessen, Salt of the Earth offers a whole lot more – extensive breakfast, brunch and lunch menus; takeaway food that can be phoned ahead or delivered; private functions and outside catering; and on Fridays, evening tapas.
It’s an independent, family-run business and it shows; the owners remember all their customers and seem genuinely pleased to see you! Step inside and you’re greeted with a colourful and upbeat venue that is clearly a labour of love.
A collection of mismatched wooden tables and chairs are dotted haphazardly across two dining floors with breakfast bar seating available at the core of activity on the ground floor. Upstairs you’ll find the Dining Hall with whitewashed walls and painted floorboards and the Common Room, furnished with books, board games and armchairs just begging to be curled up in. Chandeliers, fairy lights, mirrors and wall art adorn each room and it all combines to create a charming and welcoming environment to indulge in some leisurely dining. There are also some tables outside for al fresco eating, when weather permits.
The menu is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied in the area, with dishes inspired by many different cultures, from the traditional English bacon sandwich to an exotic Spanish salad.
Everything is cooked to order, the bread freshly baked and ingredients locally sourced, and the menu changes to reflect seasonal food. Honest, quality food cooked with passion and flair is guaranteed.
You’ll find breakfast dishes (served until 11.30am) such as banana split porridge, hot and cold sandwiches, soup of the day, crepes, salads and platters, all with food combinations that will excite you and leave you in turmoil over what to choose!
Take the Middle Eastern platter for instance – lemon and mint infused halloumi, sweet potato falafel, chickpea hummus, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), guindilla peppers (Spanish chillies), Moroccan couscous and toasted breads. Or the Mexican crepe – refried beans, guacamole, feta cheese and salsa dressed with lime and coriander. The only way to solve such a dilemma is for everyone to order a different dish and share.
Then there are the specials, which are posted on Salt of the Earth’s Facebook page, and frequently cause me to salivate at my desk if I happen to catch the day’s offering while at work. At the time of writing, specials include a Beef and Blue Burger of hot beef, blue cheese, pancetta and crispy onions served on a toasted brioche bun with hand cut chips and a Belgian waffle with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce.
There’s a good range of hot and cold vegetarian options available and something for the traditional as well as the adventurous eater. Desserts are no less impressive; a variety of delicious home baked cakes served in huge wedges, cupcakes and slices. And the drinks menu is extensive, with a beverage for every day of the year – soft drinks such as shandy and ginger beer, fruit smoothies, milkshakes, speciality coffees, teas (served in a pot with china cup and saucer) and hot chocolate.
On my last visit, two of my party chose from the brunch menu (served until 2pm) – an omelette of chorizo, feta and manchego cheese, served with salad for me and an American breakfast of French toast, pancetta and maple syrup for my friend.
My sister opted for a hot sweet potato, falafel and halloumi sandwich, again served with salad, and we shared a portion of sweet potato fries with aioli (a tangy type of mayonnaise flavoured with garlic).
Our food, which was as pleasing to the eye as to the taste buds, was fresh, hot, bursting with flavour and filling, just as I’ve come to expect here. Who made the best selection? A difficult decision but we all agreed that the American breakfast was an inspired and indulgent choice for an early Saturday lunch.
The bill for three meals and four drinks came to £24 – excellent value for money for such wonderful food and friendly service.
Salt of the Earth can be found on Poulton Road opposite the Castle Gardens pub and opening times vary, so check first.
If you live locally and have never visited, I urge you to stop what you’re doing and make a booking immediately (you can book but don’t need to). And if you’re further afield, let me assure you, it is well worth making a special journey. Whether you’re catching up with friends, enjoying a family outing, treating yourself or even nursing a hangover, a visit to Salt of the Earth is an absolute joy in every respect.
A blog: uplifting things to do and places to go in Lancashire and beyond