Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

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Who needs best intentions?

December 30, 2012

Feels like only 9 months ago I last wrote something here.

Suddenly I’m inspired to write another description of some food.
Luckily it’s good food.
The food of Simon Rogan, of l’enclume, in Cartmel, Cumbria.
It’s very good food, the portion of it that I ate, which was a 7-course xmas menu, with matched wines; so good that I bothered to take notes, and so good I wouldn’t dare take photos of it through the meal. I’m not actually a food-blogger, after all.

 
welcome to Cartmel!

First up was a delicate mouthful of cockle, with horseradish and radish on a seaweed cracker. Yum. Balanced, and tangy.
Paired with a Nyetimber English Fizzy, which was happily very drinkable (England doesn’t have the best climate for grapes…)

Then a broth, from English mushrooms (chanterelles, not sure what else), with caramelised onion, a nicely truffly bit of curd, and chickweed sprout. Matched with Planeta Carricante, a fresh minerally white from the foothills of Mt Aetna, with I thought a hint of goatiness which went well with the rich fungal broth.

After the soup course we were presented with (was going to say given, which doesn’t seem quite right, under the circs. It wasn’t a freebie, by a long shot) a wintry dish of pig brawn, with smoked yolk, pickled carrots, mustard and bitter cress. Very delicious, and served with a Victorian Marsanne, which I don’t remember at all. Maybe I’ve blocked it. Not a grape I’ve been known to drink by choice, but I’m guessing it sat well enough with the richness of the dish.

Next course was sea scallops, with tiny grilled beets, leaves of Brussel sprouts (to make it feel more xmassy for the Brits, I suppose, though they were delicious) with various small seaweeds and a smattering of horseradish (tying the winter veg and the seafood together nicely. A glass of Marlborough Grüner Veltliner (new to me) on the side with classic kiwi style.

To follow that, we had a glass of Kentish Chardonnay which I should have known not to touch. Lightly oaked, they say. I can’t see why anybody would drink the stuff with or without oak. I’d be happier just with the piece of oak. I tried, though, I really did, to make it work with the delicious turbot, perfect vegetable stems (yes vegetable stems; broccoli and cauli. It’s a thing, and they’re yummy) with roasted langoustine, and parsley.
Don’t try to convince me that a young Chardonnay is drinkable – I’ll just think you’re an idiot. It failed, however, to detract from the goodness of the rest of the course. Phew.

The next dish was a little confusing in terms of vegetable content – we were told that there were leeks and scurvy-grass, but I didn’t recognise either of those things on the plate (not that I knew at the time what scurvy-grass looked like) so I assumed that the grassy-looking thing was it; now I know what scurvy-grass looks like, I’m wondering if what I though was it was actually a baby leek. Was it a local common name for a different foraged plant? Perhaps I’ll never know. None of which detracted from the lovely duck’s breast with chanterelles and potato that made up the rest of the dish. Helped along by a tasty Chilean Pinot Noir. Perfect.

Dessert was a mildly architectural arrangement of sea buckthorn, with buttermilk and butternut (puréed) with what the waiter said was powdered liquorice (in which I could detect no flavour) and wonderful sweet cicely sprouts (a hit of liquorice strong enough to make up for the powder). Refreshing, just the not heavy thing I felt like after the preceding 6 courses. Maybe the butternut didn’t belong there, though – I felt it might have been shoe-horned in on a linguistic pretext. Back to Chile for the wine. An excellent sweet Semillon/Gewürtztraminer.

And then out for a walk in the cold. A fine xmas day.

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Without fanfare

March 13, 2012

It almost passed by without notice, but yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of our arrival in London. Half a decade, just like that. Well, almost just like that, as much as any five years can be said to be.

For my part, during that time I’ve worked on something like 14 feature films (most of which you’ll happily never see) in two countries and a stack of episodes of various TV shows, both high- and low-budget (yay, Doctor Who!) I’ve done a ton of drawing, leading to an exhibition last year, which was fun. Not lucrative, but fun. I might try that again one day.

The weather has been one of the weirdest things to try to get used to. Five years on and it still doesn’t feel right on my skin. The differences between the seasons were a fun novelty to begin with, but after most of five sets of them what I really want is for them to settle down and be reasonable more of the year; none of this bipolar ‘ now everything’s sprouting, now everything has to die’ rubbish. I understand it, but the animal living at the bottom of my brain still doesn’t.

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Off the Road Again

March 1, 2012

After the wild successes and gruelling trials of being on the road for 5 weeks, we’re back in the Zen-like state that is Islington, all go and stop at the same time, all hustle and bustle and nothing ever happens. Makes a change from whizzing around seeing loved ones and throwing away years of accumulated material memories (or selling them, which is strongly related in my book, given that both practices involve divestment of cumbersome goods as the ultimate goal. Also, in both cases you get to keep the actual memories, assuming you have a talent for doing that, absent the physical reminders.)

Also there was weather. From the dependable dustiness of the Pune winter to the torrential flooding squalls of north-eastern New South Wales we had us some weather. It looks like la Niña has come to visit Australia once again, with the reservoirs up and down the coast backpedalling from the dry-to-the-point-of-laconic stance we saw them in when we left the country five years ago. Five years ago the grass was crackling underfoot, and brown; the hoses had been banished and cars sat dusty on every corner and kerb. This time it was hard to find a dry spot to park yourself, but at least the plants were breathing easy.

The Road

I was going to turn this into a brutal blow-by-blow of the trip, but I think a couple of observations on memory and water will do for now. I will say, though, that I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to catch up with all the people, new, old, and older, that had the time to spare and chose to spend with us during the very little time we could spare them. You know who you are.

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weeks late

September 4, 2009

So, now that I’ve got a representative portion of my photos onto Flickr, and now that it’s several weeks irrelevant, I can update you all on the final days of our time in Scot-Land (to quote a movie I’m working on.)

Sunday: Leisurely breakfast at a window seat with harbour view, not a standard fry-up this time, but a kipper fried in butter with toast for me (very salty indeed!) and smoked halibut on a muffin with a poached egg and cream sauce for Linda.
Next stop, the hunt for fresh lodgings, so we headed to the tourist information centre, where once again they, despite being run off their collective feet by swarms of similarly disorganized tourists, showed us the Scottish hospitality that we’ve seen so much of, and found us a B&B south of Uig at a place called Cnoc Preasach. Don’t ask me to pronounce it (though we did learn that Gaelic is pronounced “gallic” in these parts.)
That sorted, it was off to Talisker, the distillery of which is beside a tiny village called Carbost (not to be confused with Skeabost, Orbost, or the other Carbost, for the second whiskey tour (and the purchase of otherwise impossible to get fine beverages,) and the discovery of Isle of Skye Oysters – just up the hill from the distillery, we found a man selling his local rock oysters, farmed right there in Loch Harport, and sold out of his shed, shucked by the man himself, for 50p an oyster. If we’d had the oysters in Applecross, he told us, they’re his work. Best of luck to him (shame we didn’t have the oysters in Applecross.) Delicious!
We followed that up with a visit to Mrs Nicolson, our hostess and breakfast provider, to drop off luggage and do some much overdue washing (well, she did the washing for us.) Then a drive around looking for places which exist on maps but are only marked in the real world by, I don’t know, a tuft of grass identifiable only to locals. Saw lots of signposts indicating things that appeared not to exists on maps. Our search for the ancient MacKinnon crofting grounds was thwarted.
Dinner proved difficult, as the only two places to eat in Uig were packed, and looked like places where backwoods greasy spoons from the mid-seventies went to die, along with the families that were in them at the time of their reported demise. Too scary to eat in by a long shot, so drove back to Portree, and roamed the streets with packs of similarly hungry tourists in search of the facilities we associate with civilization, all of us only now remembering the Skye is small and remote. Strangely, there are quite a few places to eat and drink in Portree on a Sunday night, but they all seem to be massively in too much demand, or to have priced themselves out of the market and are therefore empty. And then it rains some more, and there are packs of hungry, bedraggled, desperate-looking tourists roaming the streets. We stopped at a terrible-looking place called Well Plaid, which was neither full nor expensive, but so ugly that even the desperate punters weren’t coming in. We had local mussels, dependably good; Cullen skink, which is much better than it sounds – it’s a thick smoked haddock and potato soup – and langoustines on a bed of undistinguished wild rice. Once again, we were impressed by the quality of the food in an establishment which looked like it should have offered up the creme de la blurgh. And then back to Mrs Nicolson’s house for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we had the choice of looking at Skye’s hills and not climbing them some more, or moving on and seeing a little of the Great Glen. What’s another 200km driving, we’re Antipodean? We’ll check out the great long line of lochs south of Nessie territory. Sounds like fun. And so it was, once we got off the main road (I hate those things!) The scenic trail around the Lochs is precisely that, and deserves to be driven touristically slowly. We had been heading for Glen Coe, famously scenic, surrounded by peaks that Himalayan climbers train on, and were almost foiled by a complete lack of B&Bs with vacancy signs posted, until we found a large pub/hotel whose name I could not spell, nor pronounce (nor remember, though I could look it up, but I’m strangely disinclined.) Room at the inn, for two nights, even, though not in the same room. We’ve not spent two consecutive nights in the same room the whole time in Scotland. Our own fault, but we’ve gotten to see quite a lot of the place!
The guy at the desk warns us off every slope in the neighbourhood, clearly discerning at a glance our unintrepid natures, and recommends a sightseeing walk around a small local lochan
gradients maxed out at about 1:30, safe for grandmothers with hip replacements overdue, and he seemed disappointed when we reported back that we’d walked every trail in the area in an hour, with rest stops, and photography stops, and sound recording stops included. He then gave us some vaguely accurate directions to a slightly more interesting walk, but it would have involved being rained copiously on, so we bailed. Especially once we determined that we had almost no idea what he was talking about once we’d scoped the landscape he’d allegedly described.
Never mind, the whiskey menu at the hotel was truly exceptional , and the food wasn’t half bad (though the haggis was so heavily spiced as to be more of a meaty cinnamon roll…)
Then we drove back to Edinburgh, to rid ourselves of the rental. On the way we stopped for lunch at Crieff. Good food, but watching the pedestrian traffic was a painful exercise, given that nearly all of it was on the way to starting friction fires with pure thigh on thigh action, and waddling to keep the friction up.
The return to Edinburgh was complicated by the cloud cover. I completely lost my sense of direction, and we got the car back with minutes to spare, with the help of a friendly service station attendant (thank you, who ever you are!) with accurate comprehensible directions.
Nice hotel, central-ish Edinburgh, cheap on Wotif, (or similar), then the next morning we met the wonderful bootpainter. Look at her photos. A truly wonderful sense of colour and form. And humour. Met Mr bootpainter, too, and then had to run and catch a train back to London. Here endeth the story…
The pictures tell much of the rest.

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Tour o’ Scotland part the second

August 6, 2009

Friday: over the highlands after a black pudding fry-up breakfast, past Inverell to the west coast, over vast tracts of rainy mountains devoid of humanity bar the road and the odd abandoned decrepit crofter’s cottage, lunch in Poolewe (mussels and scampi – and chips) and a B&B in Mellon Charles, Aultbea. Dinner was prawn cocktail and fish pie with new spuds, at the Aultbea Hotel. Again, much better than we could have expected from anywhere similar we’ve been to in England. Watched the sun go down as we ate, the long summer evening drawing out to 21.30-ish, and almost an hour later still not dark. Fog on our breath as we headed for the car, though. Summer.
We were pleased to make the acquaintance of Sidney (the seagull,) who had a bad leg and was helped by the owners of the B&B when they first arrived – 14 years later he’s still in regular attendance at the kitchen window (he likes cat-food, they say,) having brought generations of his offspring by, and his leg is long since well-recovered. Since the dog died, he’s now the family pet, albeit a wild and standoffish one (sadly didn’t get a photo.)

Saturday: Another Scottish fry-up, all the usuals, again with black pudding, alongside two slightly hung-over Scots lads from Inverell who were in town for the local annual raft race (they came 4/6.) The very loud and jolly landlady, Pauline, served tea and teased them while they winced, while her husband Phil did a fine job in the kitchen (they make their own bread, their own jam, their own marmalade – which was nice.
Off, then, to the Inverewe Gardens which were impressive, if rhododendron heavy. After two hours of plant-gazing we set off via the scenic route to Skye, around the rugged and sheep-filled coastline past Sheldaig, through Applecross where we had another surprisingly good Scottish pub lunch. Halibut with a local prawn (which looked like scampi to me) sauce, and local wild salmon, new potatoes and asparagus. Then over the Bealach Na Ba mountain pass (impassable in winter), which we’re told is the highest road in the UK, and spectacular and hair-raising, especially with its one-lane road. The one lane road thing (very common in these parts) works well – every so often there’s a ‘passing place,’ a little bulge on the side of the road, and almost all the drivers are very aware and careful and courteous in the face of the difficulty that the system imposes, especially with the number of tourists and campervans and left-hand drive vehicles.
So, some time later, we found the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh and drove over the sea to Skye. Not quite in the manner of Bonnie Prince Charlie (we weren’t disguised in drag as servant girls, for a start.) Found a wi-fi hotspot, checked the email to confirm our accommodation, only to find the offer of same, happily confirmed from our end, had been retracted. So, we drove to north to Portree and saw a sign to the Cuillin Hills Hotel which seemed like a good, though potentially expensive, option for a place to sleep, and it was (good, that is. More expensive than we would have liked, but arriving so late in the day we got a good deal on the room.) No view from the room to speak of, but a lovely view over Loch Portree was to be had from the front of the hotel, on the lawn, restorative dram in hand (21 year-old Ben Riach.) Then Linda met the midgies, which we’d been warned of that morning, and we had to move indoors. And so to dinner, where we had oatmeal-crusted herring, and lobster with pea risotto. Very fine, and everyone was lovely and helpful and accommodating (especially the receptionist, who had given us a surprisingly good price, and warned us to take the word of travel agents as we would politicians’.)

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Tour o’ Scotland part the first

August 3, 2009

Tuesday, up at the proverbial crack of dawn for the 7AM train out of KX. Next stop, bonnie Edinburgh!

Nightmare finding the bus to the (very substandard) B&B, it turns out that Princes St (and most of the rest of Edinburgh) is being dug up for a tramway. Just the one. None of this mucking about with multiple routes – just simple, good old-fashioned A to B transportation. Perhaps needless to say, many Edinburghians are less than thrilled.

Leaving the accommodation (‘petite’ they told us, before sending us and our baggage down the hallway with a magnifying glass,) we head to Leith; some buses and some walking in drizzle, to see the sights, and eat some fine Scots fare – oysters, mussels and smoked haddock with fishcake at the Ship on Shore (which proclaimed sustainable seafood on the menu but sold dredged scallops. Not impressed with that little bit of greenwashing.) Not much really in the way of sights – tourists by the horde up the Royal Mile to the castle – but we start a walk in Holyrood Park, as it started to rain again. So, caught a bus back to the B&B (we had day passes, v. good value at £3) to dry out and check emails and suchlike things. Managed to get hold of a Flickr friend, and we arranged, despite a reprise of the Princes St shambles, to meet for a quick drink and chat and some (not so great) Chinese. So now I’ve met someone, in person, though the interwebs. Even my mother beat me to that.

Weds: haggis with trad fry-up for breakfast, pick up car drive to Elgin via Perth, Pitlochrie, Blair Athol (where I had “Sporran o’ Plenty” for lunch – a steak stuffed with haggis – with chips) &c.

the Sporran of Plenty

Indian nosh in Elgin, much better than expected, for dinner. So much for my ambition of three meals of haggis in a day.

Thurs: around Elgin to beachy place with very blue water called Findhorn – crab and the biggest fish and chips (haddock) known to humanity. Chips, always chips. No Mars bars yet, deep fried or otherwise. We watched the rain roll in from the west as we ate, and headed back to the car just in time to get wet. Post lunch – Speyside whisky tour – visited the Cardhu distillery at Knockando and toured, discovered there are many cute names for bits of whisky making. Also discovered that peaty whiskey isn’t the be all and end all of whisky. ‘Plain’ whisky stills are beautiful and look like giant gramophone horns, in copper. Rained on again. Stopped also at Aberlour, and passed by many other famous names. Drank water directly from the River Spey – yum!

whisky-water

Dinner – Thai restaurant in Elgin – best fishcakes we’ve ever tasted, the rest average but by no means bad – waitress delightful, we slipped her a very large tip because her bosses looked evil. Didn’t leave a general meal tip, which could have been a terrible mistake.

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Brussels – not always boring!

March 25, 2009

easily excited

I’m working, at the moment, at the arse-end of Evere, on the north-eastern fringe of Brussels, just shy of NATO headquarters, and halfway between the city and the airport.
At least the locals, Flemish, Walloon, Moroccan, Turkish, whatever, seem friendly enough. I visited a small pub with a cow orker, and it’s the only place I’ve ever been where everyone in the place bought a round for everyone else. There were only about 6 of us, but still…

And then there was the ‘manifestation.’ No, Belgium is not noticeably haunted – it’s apparently the word they use when Something Important is happening at NATO, just around the corner from where I’ve been working.

I noticed a lot of police activity in the morning, convoys of (mostly empty) police buses, but that happens. I thought nothing of it, until I tried to go to work. I unlocked the gate to the driveway – the building I work in is set in a largeish yard with lawn (kept tidy by bunnies) and trees and a car-park – and locked it behind me. Suddenly a small car with four un-uniformed but very efficient looking men pulled into the drive. They got out, and the driver came forward. “How did you get in there?” he asked. “I have a key,” I replied. I could see lots of heavy-duty equipment bristling under his jacket. This is where I learnt about the ‘manifestation.’ “Manifestation?” I asked, wondering if Belgium really took its ghostbusting that seriously. He explained briefly that it was a term that was used in the context of NATO ‘security,’ then asked me to prove that I actually let myself in with the key I had brandished. So I opened the gate, not having seen any form of ID from these fairly threatening-looking dudes, and a little voice in the back of my head said “this a the part where they rush the gate, kick the crap out of you and cut off your thumb for the biometric front door lock.” Luckily that little voice had been watching too many Hollywood movies. The men thanked me and went about their other business.
But this is the kind of security that, a couple of hours later, had 5 mounted (heavily armed) police come into the company’s premises because my colleague, who is a lightly-built blonde Kiwi girl (that day wearing a miniskirt, presumably that’s interpreted as terrorist chic here), wanted to go home. 100 metres around the corner. They came onto the company’s privaat eigendom (what they call private property in Belgium) and bailed her up against a hedge, and told her that she needed to go back inside – forbidding her to leave work, or indeed be on the streets at all!
Our manager was not pleased when he heard about it, but that was an hour later and the ‘manifestation’ was more or less all over by then, save for the constant drone of helicopters…

Note to self: stay the hell away from centres of bureaucracy, military or otherwise, and other hotbeds of security theatre. They do nothing to reinforce ones faith in humanity.