Monday 19 October 2015

Home Halo - A New Guardian Angel of the Internet for Parents

A new internet security product launched onto the market last week, and is set to solve the headaches of parents everywhere.

In research carried out by Home Halo ,90% of British parents admitted that their children had used a phone or tablet before the age of 8 years old, and although that may not be surprising, it is a sad fact that over half of British parents (51%) have admitted that their young children are more likely to reach for a tablet or smartphone than a book when at home. 

Their research also showed how children's usage of devices causes many family quarrels, with a quarter of all British parents have admitted that their children’s technology and internet usage leads to family arguments on at least a weekly basis; with a further 8.5 million saying that tech disputes are a daily occurrence.

In addition to this, around half the parents surveyed admitted that they were worried about safety and a quarter of the respondents admitted to not being aware of the type of content their children were accessing online.

Since my own personal 'watergate' when my daughter accidentally spilt her drink over my laptop causing £600-worth of damage, I've banned her from using my computer.  However, common sense tells me that this is not sustainable, and actually more and more she's needing to go online to do research for school and complete homework.  I'm pretty sure we'll end up buying her a tablet of her own this Christmas.

Of course, having her own device comes with worries.  She'll sneak it up to her room and then I'll have no idea if she's really asleep, or basking in the glow from the screen under her covers.  Left to her own devices, she'd happily spend every waking moment surfing YouTube looking at videos of One Direction, funny cats, toy unboxings and make-up tutorials. Or googling images of cute puppies. Now we all know it's a tricky business searching online (as I memorably found out once when looking for a picture of a Rabbit!).  One double-meaning word in the search bar could very easily lead to things I don't want innocent little eyes seeing.

These were exactly the kind of concerns the makers of Home Halo had within their own families, which lead them to develop this product, and being parents themselves means they understand the challenges within families.

It's simple to set-up (I'm completely useless at technology but managed it in 10 minutes, which included several ferreting about in the tangle of leads under the desk to locate my router), and the unobtrusive box sits happily next to your wireless router.

The system costs only £35 (although there's currently an introductory offer on giving £10 off) and £3 per month subscription fee thereafter.  The subscription is on a rolling basis and can be cancelled at any time with no tie-in.  To run alongside, there's a free password-protected app allowing you complete control of the system from your mobile phone, meaning even if you're not home, you can still manage your family's internet usage and security.

Because each family is different, and each child is different, the system is completely flexible allowing you to set your own 'rules' for different members of the family.  You may want to lock down your teenager's access to the internet after 10pm on school nights because they should be sleeping.  You may want to occasionally extend your 8 year old child's access because they have a homework assignment to complete.  You might even want to set it to block access at mealtimes. Or switch your husband's off at 9pm so you can sit down and watch the telly together!

There are 6 different bands allowing you to set each family member's access accordingly - young child up to 6 years; child up to 11; adolescent (12-14); adolescent (15-16); adult and unlimited access.

Home Halo access a vast database of websites - over 500 million - which have been categorised based on their content, so when you tell the HomeHalo what you don't want accessed, you can be sure that it will be blocked. This will also protect you from scams & viruses from malicious websites. Categorisation is carried out by a software system and then all websites that are not considered innocuous are subsequently checked by humans to make sure that the categorisation is accurate or corrected. 

Within those bands, you can de-select some categories depending on whether you wish your user to have access.  These include things like 'relationships', online shopping, gay, lesbian and bisexual, sex education and dating.  As I said previously, every child is different, they have different maturity levels and different needs to it's great to be able to tailor individually.  If they try to access a site which is blocked, the site is whitelisted and you are sent a message instantly to choose whether you wish to allow it to be viewed or not. You can also view the browser history your child has been viewing which I can imagine would be great if you have worries about your teenager and allows you to open up conversations about the content and issues they've been searching for.

Each device in the household is allocated to a family member, with their individual rules.  This can quickly and easily be changed, so for example if Ruby wants to use her dad's iPad, I can re-allocate the settings from my phone so her access is restricted to suitable sites. It's worth noting of course that this oly applies to devices using your home wi-fi so the security and time settings won't apply if they are using a smartphone on 3G or 4G for example.

So far I'm finding it really easy to use and it has already put my mind at rest about my daughter's online safety.  As she gets used to the time perimeters I've set I'm hoping we won't have as many meltdown moments when I tell her it's time to switch off.

I also love that you can switch off access to social media - I might try that out on myself and see how much more work I get done without the distraction of Facebook!

I am a member of the Netmums Blogging Network, a unique community of parent bloggers from around the UK who have been handpicked by the Netmums team to review products and brands on their behalf. I may have been paid expenses, and have been supplied with a product sample for this review, but retain all editorial control. All my Netmums Reviews will display the Netmums logo within the post.   

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Thursday 15 October 2015

Preserved Fresh Figs in Sherry

Fresh Figs Preserved in Sherry

Now who doesn't love a nice mason jar?  One glance on Pinterest will bring up thousands of ways to style them, craft with them and use them to give gifts in. 99% of those mason jars you see on Pinterest will undoubtably be the iconic Ball brand, but whilst they are prevalent in the US, they're not so easy to track down here in the UK. Until now.

Lakeland are now selling Ball mason jars exclusively in the UK, so make sure you pop along or order online so you can join the in-crowd.

Much as I love using them for all kinds of decor and crafts, they are of course designed as preserving jars.  I went along to a demonstration by Ball to see just how easy they are to use to preserve food for up to one year.

If like me, you like to make the most of seasonal produce and have a glut of certain foods from the farmer's market, veg box delivery, your garden or allotment, then preserving in Ball jars is perfect.  My freezer is already groaning under the weight of foraged plums and blackberries so I was definitely needing a new way to store and extend the life of fresh produce.

So far I've made soups (with the glut of tomatoes from the garden) and jam (from my hedgerow raids) but I'm now thinking ahead to Christmas food and gifts.

You can get a starter kit from Lakeland for £19.99 which contains all the equipment you need to get started, and four 240ml jars with seal lids. The process is simple, sterilise your jars and lids in a pan of boiling water.  The jars sit in a plastic basket which prevents them from touching the base of the pan and cracking in the heat, and also acts as a tool to easily lift them. Fill with your homemade product, place the lid on, screw the cap over and return to the water to process them.

Ball Preserving Jar Starter Kit

My recipe below uses fresh figs which are in season right now.  You can pick them up cheaply in supermarkets, mine cost 69p for four.  Figs in sherry are perfect as a decadent dessert with good vanilla ice cream, or strain them off and serve with your cheese board.  They also make an indulgent addition to a goats cheese salad, or a lovely gift for a foodie friend.  Make them now and they'll be perfect for Christmas.

Fresh Figs Preserved in Sherry

Ingredients (makes 2 x 490ml jars):

Approx 12 fresh figs
300g sugar
250ml good quality, aged sherry (my favourite is a Taste the Difference 12 Year Old Sweet Pedro Ximenez from Sainsburys)
150ml water


Place your jars in a large jam pan to sterilise.

Remove the stem from the figs and cut in half lengthways.

In another pan, heat the water and the sugar until dissolved.  Once the syrup starts to bubble, pour in the sherry and add the fig halves.

Gently poach for around 5 minutes.  You'll need to reduce this time if your fruit is particularly ripe, you want the figs to hold their shape.

Poached Figs

Remove from the heat.

Lift your jars and drain off any water.

Gently place the figs inside using a spoon.  Fill almost to the top then pour in the sherry syrup to fill the jars to the recommended height.  You want to cover the fruit in syrup.

Gently screw on the lids and return to the boiling water to process for a further 15 minutes. Ensure the water fully covers the jars.

Carefully lift out your jars and allow to cool fully.

Fresh Figs Preserved in Sherry

Disclosure: I attended a workshop with Ball Preserving Jars and they gifted me a starter set.  

Wednesday 14 October 2015

A Farm Stay in Devon with

I've just returned from a hugely fun weekend with and a whole bunch of bloggers at Lympscott Farm. We stayed in the barn (calling it a barn doesn't really do justice to the beautifully appointed, and delightfully furnished building) on the organic dairy farm in North Devon, close to the Cornish border.

This is a working farm and there's a real aroma of the countryside here, but it's a pleasure to watch the herd of black and white cattle amble home to the sheds for milking, and see the inquisitive horses saying good morning from their stable doors.

Lympscott Barn is a huge abode, and can cater for 14 guests.  There's also Beehive Cottage next door which sleeps 6 and can be booked independently or together if you have a very large group - perfect for big family gatherings, Christmas celebrations, holidays with friends, birthday celebrations and hen parties.

Arriving at the barn, there's ample parking for lots of vehicles. You're struck by the huge full length windows at the front, but given its clever positioning on the farm and the garden walling, there's also a sense of privacy.

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion

Inside, you're welcomed into a huge entrance hall with a stunning feature staircase (practice your Hollywood glamour moves gliding down here).  There's a stylish central lighting pendant of stags antlers and a huge clock mounted on the landing.  Little details like the bookcase of object d'art make it feel homely and personal.

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion

Stag antler chandelier

Lympscott Barn Devon interior

The huge ceilings and whitewashed walls give an amazing sense of space, and even with 14 people sharing, it didn't feel claustrophobic at all.

Downstairs, the enormous open-plan kitchen/dining/living room again reinforces the sense of space.  The kitchen is very well equipped with a double oven and stove, spacious fridge freezer, dishwasher and large central island making it perfect to prepare a feast for all the guests.  In the adjoining utility room you'll find a washing machine, drier, airing cupboard and because it has it's own outside entrance it makes a great boot room when returning from those country walks. There's also a downstairs toilet.

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Kitchen

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Dining Room

The living room area has a large wall-mounted TV/DVD player, a central woodburner which makes a cosy feature to the room, and ample comfortable sofas for you all to relax in the evening.

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Living Room

One of the twin en suite bedrooms is located downstairs off the hall and has French doors out onto the patio.  The rest of the rooms are upstairs, and are a combination of twin, double and a quad room so perfect if you have several families staying and lots of kids.  Some have their own en-suite, others share the large bathroom in the middle of the landing with it's huge free-standing bath and large shower.

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Bedroom

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Twin Bedroom

Everywhere is clean and fresh with modern decor but retaining its country charm.  The floors are a mix of wood or natural slate making it easy to maintain if you're staying for an extended period.

Outside, you'll find a large BBQ for guest use, patio furniture at the front and rear of the property, and my favourite luxury - a hot tub.  We made full use of this, and whilst I'm sure it's not built to hold so many, we did manage to get 10 of us in at once - well lubricated with alcohol!

Devon Hot Tub Cottage Self Catering Barn Conversion Hot Tub

The farm properties are in a great location for exploring North Devon and over into Cornwall.  Around 20 minutes drive to the popular beaches of Bude and Summerleaze (check out the open air sea pool for a swim at Summerleaze) and the pretty colourful beach huts. The Tamar Lakes are visible from the cottage and around 10 minutes walk away.  The girls from had organised a treasure hunt for us around the lake complete with rhyming clues and it was a pleasant 3 mile walk around the lake with lots of bird life to spot.

Horses on beach

Summerleaze Bude Beach Huts for Hire

Summerleaze Bude Beach

Summerleaze Bude Outdoor Swimming Pool

Foodies will love it here.  I can recommend checking out the award-winning John's Deli who you can find at both Appledore and Instow.  They provided us with a delicious hamper of breakfast eggs, sausages and bacon, and picnic basket of all manner of delights - particular local favourites of mine were the sublime smoked salmon pate, the mature cheddar cheese and the sones with local jam and clotted cream - well worth packing a few ice packs so you can bring some treats home with you.

Whilst Devon is of course beautiful all year round, and you can get your surf on in the Summer, it's winter when I can really imagine this place coming into its own.  I can see huge family festive gatherings here, the collaborative cooking of the Christmas dinner, everyone arriving with mountains of food and gifts, opening the presents in front of the fire, maybe a cheeky glass of bubbly in the hot tub before lunch, a long country walk to work off the mince pies before all snuggling down on the L-shaped sofas in front of the Christmas Day film. Total bliss!

A massive thank you to for inviting me along, to John's Deli for the food hampers and delicious breakfast goodies and to all the bloggers for their awesome company, especially Vanessa for driving all the way their and back and sharing her car with me, and Alice for sharing her bed with me!

Friday 2 October 2015

Getting a restful nights sleep with Leesa Mattresses

It's fair to say that our old mattress was showing serious signs of needing replacing.  We'd had it around 8 years - the maximum you're recommended to use a mattress before you replace it.  As a coil spring mattress, I'd occasionally get the odd sharp poke in the ribs when I turned over in the night.  It was looking a bit saggy and sorry for itself.  I was constantly waking up with lower back pain and general stiffness in my joints but the most annoying thing was the rolling together.  Now, in the early flushes of a romantic liaison, sleeping face-to-face, limbs entwined is cute.  But trust me, after sharing a bed for 12 years with your snoring partner, you just want some personal space!

When Leesa asked if I'd like to review their mattress it was a great weight lifted.  The thought of shopping for new mattresses had always somewhat daunted me.  You're bombarded with different types, different firmness and you have to do that ridiculous thing in the showroom where you bounce awkwardly on the bed for 30 seconds to decide whether it's going to be comfortable for the next 8 years of your life.

But Leesa have revolutionised the way we shop for mattresses and they're aiming to revolutionise the way we sleep. They have come up with a one-fit mattress which they believe meets the needs of almost all sleepers.  So now you don't need to worry about what level of firmness you need, you just need to pick the size of bed you have!

Made to order in the UK, the Leesa mattress has three layers of high quality foam to deliver the perfect night's sleep - a cool, bouncy top made from 5cm layer of Avena foam (similar to Latex but suitable for latex-allergy sufferers), a 5cm contouring pressure relief layer and a 12 cm core support base layer.  The whole thing is covered in a soft, cool jersey feel fabric, with no seams or labels on the sleeping area to give a comfortable feel all over.

Image credit: Leesa

The purchase is simple too.  Their easy-to-use website makes buying your new mattress a dream. I'd completed my order in less than a couple of minutes, ordered it on a Thursday night and it was delivered to my door on Monday morning (stated delivery time is usually 3-5 working days from order to manufacture and pack your mattress, and then it is shipped directly to you).

I loved the fact that it arrived compressed, rolled and boxed, it made it so much easier to manoeuvre upstairs.  Granted, it was still very heavy and I struggled to manage it on my own, but it can be done by one person, where you'd struggle with a full size king size mattress getting upstairs normally.  It's a great benefit for anyone in a house with narrow stairs, low ceilings, a twisty staircase or living in an apartment - you'd have no problem getting this box in the lift.

My courier was clearly a little heavy-handed with the box, but the goods inside were still in perfect order thanks to the super-tough plastic wrapping.

Set up was very straightforward too.  I'd been told that the mattress expands before your eyes when you unwrap it and I thought it would be fun to shoot a little time-lapse video to show that.  But in truth, it pretty much expanded to size immediately I got the plastic wrapper off so I missed that.  You can see in the photos below, taken one hour apart that it has expanded a little, but as I said, most of the expanding happens the second you get the wrapping off. Apologies for the picture quality, it was a really sunny day, but I got no second-chances with these photos - once it was out of the box there was no way it was going back in!  You can see the photo on the left is how it looked immediately after coming out of the packaging, you can see the outer cover is a bit loose in places where the mattress is still compressed inside.  On the right, after an hour it's fully expanded.  You can gauge how much by looking at the radiator in the background.

Your mattress is full thickness and ready to sleep on pretty much straight away, although we did notice a strong chemical odour the first night.  That soon dissipated and after a few nights had gone altogether.

So how did it feel?  Well, initially I was worried as it was a lot softer than my old mattress.  I was still hung up on the old ways and thought I needed a firm mattress for support.  But I was incredibly surprised by just how comfortable it was.  The very first morning I woke up with no lower back pain at all - the first time I can remember in a very long time.

It took a few nights to get used to the fact that it was softer, but it's not so soft that you sink into it.  It feels supportive and incredibly comfortable and our sleep is just getting better and better.  I no longer suffer with stiff ankles and knees in the morning like I had been (I'd thought that was just down to my age!).  There's no roll-together which is a huge bonus.  Even when our daughter makes the odd stealthy night-time invasion, all three of us can sleep peacefully rather than in a tangled heap sunk in the middle.

I'm hugely impressed with it.  But even if I wasn't, Leesa offer a 100-night guarantee, allowing you to return the product for a full refund if you're not 100% happy with it.

Any returned mattresses are donated to local homeless shelters where possible (if not, they are recycled), and in fact for every ten mattresses they sell, they donate one new one to charity and they plant a tree for every mattress made too, so by purchasing from Leesa you can sleep soundly in more ways than one, knowing you're supporting a company with a clear social conscience. 

Being an online business, they have no expensive stores and showrooms to finance, keeping the costs down for the consumer.

So to summarise, apart from a great night's sleep, the main positives for me with a Leesa mattress are:

Simple to use website with payment by card or Paypal
Prompt, free delivery
Arrives compressed and boxed making it easy to carry
Sets up quickly
Comfortable, cool and supportive feel
Sound corporate social responsibility ethos
UK based manufacturing and sales
100 night risk-free trial

If it's time you changed your mattress, then do check out Leesa, they've offered my readers a £50 discount off any size.

Disclosure: I was provided with a king-size mattress to test out for the purposes of this review.  All thoughts and opinions are my own and are honest. Images are my own unless otherwise stated.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Round at Gino's Gaff - Bake With Me with Gino D'Acampo

It's fair to say, that some days are considerably better than others.

Take Tuesday.  An invitation to Gino D'Acampo's home to cook pizza and have lunch with my favourite chef off the telly-box.  And when he poured me a huge glass of prosecco and told me to make myself at home, frankly I don't think I could have been happier.

We were there to try out his new range of fresh pizza dough bases, the Bake With Me range which is launching exclusively at Asda next week.

I'm happy to report that unlike some celebrities who turn out to be massively disappointing in the flesh, the Italian Stallion is exactly like he is on the TV (I was hooked watching him on I'm a Celebrity and did a little whoop when he as crowned king of the jungle).  He's warm, welcoming, charming, funny, incredibly cheeky and smells utterly divine.  He's not dumb though.  That's definitely a bit of an act. Far from it, he's a man full of integrity and is very astute.

As a celebrity chef he admitted to being inundated with offers every week to endorse product ranges and develop pasta sauces and other foods.  But as someone who's earned his living through trying to encourage people to cook and experiment with food, he wasn't prepared to just stick his (albeit lovely) face on a jar.

An awful lot of consideration and thought has gone into developing the Bake With Me range with Highgrove Foods.  He's remained true to his roots, coming up with an authentic Italian product, which encourages family participation in the cooking process as well as the mealtime as a whole.  He loves the idea of busy parents being able to engage with their kids to come up with pizza creations, but without the hassle and mess of mixing the dough.

The bases come ready rolled on a greaseproof sheet, meaning you simply have to unwrap them, place the paper sheet on the baking tray, top with whatever your heart desires, and pop in the oven for around 15 minutes.  No mess, during prep and no washing up after.

You can purchase the Bake With Me products either as a kit with a jar of delicious tomato and herb sauce, or just as the dough base. The 400g family base unrolls to a large rectangle which will fit easily onto your oven tray. This would be perfect for feeding the three of us - we can divide it up and have different toppings to suit and served up with a hearty bowl of salad it makes the perfect weekday meal. There's also a thin and crispy base if you prefer your pizza that way.

Gino chose to top his simply with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil on the thin and crispy, and tomato, mozzarella and parma ham on the family pizza. Both tasted sublime.  Light and crispy, not too greasy or floury as mine sometimes turn out when I make from scratch.

The products have a fridge life of around 2 weeks, so they're ideal to pick up on the weekly shop and keep in the fridge for when you want a quick and tasty meal - you've always got something in the fridge to add to a pizza right?

Gino's top tips for the perfect pizza are:

  • Leave about a finger's width border for the crust
  • Brush the border lightly with olive oil to prevent burning
  • Add delicate ingredients such as fresh herbs and parma ham only in the last couple of minutes of cooking
  • Less is more on a pizza - choose only one or two good quality toppings for the perfect pizza

The dough is versatile too, so you can use it to make dough balls, garlic bread, or his kid's favourite - this totally delicious Nutella and banana creation.  Simply spread Nutella thickly onto the dough, then top with sliced banana.  Roll and cut into slices before baking in the oven.  It was sweet, gooey, tasted utterly divine and would make a fabulous weekend breakfast.

The Bake With Me range launches in Asda on 4th October and is priced at just £2 for the kit with sauce or £1.50 for the base - a total bargain for a little taste of Gino!

Special thanks to Tots100 for arranging the event, to Highgrove foods and to Gino for welcoming me into his home.