Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

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The end of Le Tour and Aamanns 1921 restaurant in Copenhagen

August 1, 2018

No blog last week as we were on our travels in Denmark and Sweden. After 3 weeks of often gruelling cycling across the whole of France, Le Tour De France ended in Paris, with the Welshman Geraint Thomas emerging as the victor. As an amateur cyclist, with a medium-range road bike, I am at first in awe of these cyclists, then perhaps slightly less in awe of them as they are a) young men and b) professional cyclists. It is on the mountain stages however, that my admiration rises, given the speed at which they cycle up the sometimes vertiginous slopes. The modern-day cyclists of course, have superb equipment in terms of bikes, helmets and racing gear. The event itself is also much bigger than it used to be. On holiday in France a few years ago, I picked up this postcard  (below) of Le Tour. Looking at the cars, my guess is that it may be from the 1960s. There are a number of interesting aspects to this photo. Firstly, none of the riders are wearing helmets and secondly, there are no crowds lining the route. What has not changed is the mountain roads ahead up which the riders have to climb, but the riders in this picture would have had heavier, less streamlined  bikes, with fewer gears. Today’s Tour participants might go faster, have more back up in the form of masseurs, physios etc but are they stronger and relatively fitter?

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Le Tour de France from the 1960s? (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Le Tour is inspiring for cyclists, so when I tackle a biggish hill tomorrow, maybe I should imagine that I am “G” (Geraint Thomas) heading towards a stage win at the top of the hill and retaining the yellow jersey. One thing that “G” and I do have in common is a yellow jersey, although his is better known than my Bicycle Wagga Wagga top below.

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Bicycle Wagga Wagga cycling top

On the early highlights of our trip to Denmark was the Aamanns  1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen. The interior of the restaurant – see photo on website – is very well designed with lighting partly provided by two wooden circles above you. The chairs are Scandinavian in design and are extremely comfortable. This is very much a Danish restaurant, specialising in smørrebrød and other dishes which have unusual combinations of ingredients and look absolutely wonderful. For dinner, we chose selections from the menu and my first selection (Shown below) was “Pan fried plaice with hand-peeled shrimps, pickled tomatoes and mayonnaise”. Now this looked an interesting dish on the menu, but it was when it was put on to the table in front of me (by one of the very helpful and informative staff) that the visual impact of the dish was felt. The topping included flower petals and the slice of hot lemon on the side added to both the flavour and the presentation. It was mouth-wateringly delicious.

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Plaice and prawn smorrebrod from Aamanns restaurant in Copenhagen

I then had the “Ravioli with Krystal Karl cheese, mushrooms, hazelnuts and summer truffles”. Each dish was carefully introduced and for this dish, one of the sous chefs came out and grated the truffle over my dish, explaining how the dish was made. A shared dish was “Braendende kaerlighed” in Danish and consisted of potato compote, gooseberries, sorrel, onion and bacon. Again the presentation was excellent (as shown below) with the extra touch of the colourful flower heads enhancing its beauty. It almost seemed a shame to eat it, but we did and the depth of flavour was superb.

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Potato compote dish from Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

At the end of the meal, we were treated to a sample of the restaurant’s homemade schnapps. The bottles line the shelves and on the counter (photo below) you can see the jars of maturing liqueurs. I often find schnapps rather harsh, but this was smooth and fruity. The charming young sous chef Laura Melodie Trillot came out to explain how they made their food and exchanged ideas amongst the staff. You can see some of Laura’s intriguing and colourful photos of the restaurant dishes here. This restaurant is not cheap but the value and quality is of the highest standard. If you are in Copenhagen/Kobenhavn – and can afford it – then definitely put this restaurant to the top of  your list.

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Maturing schnapps at Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

Making soup and the Crystal Palace in Madrid

November 3, 2017

Back to normal after a very successful trip to Pisa and Florence, of which more later. There’s an old Scottish saying relating to being on holiday and returning to the usual routine – “It’s back tae auld claes and parritich” i.e. back to old clothes and porridge. It’s not cold enough yet for me to have porridge in the morning but a new pot of soup is welcome all the year round. Today, I was making courgette, and basil soup. It’s fairly straightforward with the following ingredients: 1 medium leek, 4 good sized courgettes, one large potato and dried basil. Now I know that a good many people who read this blog will call courgettes zucchinis. This source claims that there are differences between the two e.g. that courgettes are smaller than zucchinis, but I think that the only real difference is in where the terms are used – courgette in France, the UK and (so the website claims) South Africa and New Zealand; zucchini in Australia and North America. I’m not sure about New Zealand, so a comment on that would be good. To start, sweat your chopped leek in a little oil, to which you have already added the dried basil – amount according to taste. In your solid soup pan, it should look like this i.e. a thing of beauty that might be submitted for the Turner Prize as a work of contemporary art, signifying the integration of human thoughts and deeds across the newly green world. On the other hand, it’s still a thing of beauty but a photo of leeks.

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Leeks sweated in oil and basil. (Click to enlarge all photos)

I never use a processor to chop my vegetables. There is something calming about washing your leek, cutting it into 3 and then slicing it up, although this obviously has overtones of violence. Add the chopped courgette and, magically, you have another potential submission to the prize, representing …mmm you tell me. It now looks and smells very good.

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Chopped courgettes and leeks in basil and oil.

To this, you add the peeled and chopped potato and one litre of the stock of your choice – I used chicken stock cubes. Simmer for about 20 min and take off the heat. I then mashed it down with a potato masher and then liquidised it with my hand-held blender, one of the best kitchen implements in which I have ever invested.

Here is one serving of the soup, with the chopped end of a 70% wholemeal loaf from Dunbar Community Bakery.  This raises another philosophical issue – what do you call the last slice in a loaf of bread? My wife would say heel, while in my family when I was growing up, it was always called the outsider. A relative called it the Tommy – rhyming slang for Tommy Steele perhaps? What did your family call the last slice? Another Turner Prize entrant – the four islands in the speckled green sea: the post-nuclear world. Discuss.

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Courgette and basil soup with fresh bread croutons

For the final posting on Madrid, I swithered between the magnificence of Madrid’s cathedral – especially the internal colours – and the Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park, featured here recently . Having been out cycling this morning in the cool, fresh air and enjoying the autumnal spectacle of the countryside at the moment, I chose the latter. While walking through the large park, it’s easy to miss the sign to the Crystal Palace  or Palacio de Cristal, to give it its proper name. Once you see not only the palace itself but the setting, you cannot be unimpressed. The first photo shows what you see approaching the palace – a light filled building on 3 levels, with beautiful arches over the windows and ornate decoration around the bottom, a close-up of which is shown in the 2nd photo – here is a swan – like, mythical bird, with no feet and a tail of flowers.

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Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Decoration on tiles at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Once you pass the entrance to the palace, which has been closed for a long time for internal redecoration, you can walk around the large pond, with its fountain. You pass the tall, thick-trunked trees whose leaves differed in colour,  from light green to dark green to reddish-brown. You can then see across the pond to the palace. It’s a very peaceful place, made even more pleasant by the late September sunshine and 25 degrees. The final 2 photos show the palace from the side of the pond and from the opposite side of the pond to the palace. This is a slice of remote countryside which has been picked up and placed near the centre of one of Europe’s busiest cities. The Madrilenos are lucky to have it.

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The pond, the trees and the fountain at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Looking across the pond to the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Trip to Durham: the Cathedral and the Cellar Door restaurant.

September 30, 2017

I forgot to say at the end of the last post that we were off to Madrid for a week, so no more posts for a fortnight. At the beginning of September, we went to Durham for a couple of days. We had been before but only for the day. The cathedral city of Durham (good photos and short video) is in the north east of England, so for us it was only a 2 hr drive. We stayed in a hotel next to the River Wear, a short walk from the city centre. Durham has a famous castle, with a fascinating history but we did not have time to visit as we went to the coast as well. We did go to Durham Cathedral (good photos) and it certainly is an impressive sight, both from the exterior and interior. The first photo below shows part of the outside walls of the cathedral and there is a fascinating array of structures here – the round towers, arched windows and varied stonework. As I  have said here before, it must have been strange for the local inhabitants to see the construction of something so huge on their doorstep, as they worked in the fields. Also, the workmanship is astounding, given that the cathedral would have been build using, by modern standards, fairly basic tools. Imagine being a stonemason working at the top of one of the towers, standing on wooden scaffolding, with no thought given to health and safety.

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Part of the exterior from outside the cathedral (Click to enlarge all photos)

The interior of the cathedral has cloisters (good photos) and the next 2 photos show part of the cloisters and more of the cathedral’s exteriors. Cloisters were important to the monks who lived in the cathedral and as you walk along the cloisters, you can see how such an environment would provide a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.

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Looking up from the cloisters in Durham Cathedral

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Looking across the green from one part of the cloisters to another in Durham Cathedral

We visited the Open Treasures exhibition (good video) which provided a fascinating insight to the lives of the monks, as well as showing some intricately carved stonework from the cathedral and elsewhere, and examples of manuscripts and jewellery. You can’t take photos inside the exhibition or inside the cathedral but you can see some excellent photographs here.

As you leave and pass through the magnificent external doors of the cathedral, you can see the dramatic Sanctuary Knocker (photo below) which could be used in the past by those seeking protection in the cathedral from the law. It looks more frightening than welcoming and maybe it was meant to. My thoughts on seeing it were of masks worn by South American tribes or carvings on totem poles. Whether you are religious or humanist, the cathedral is an inspiring building and well worth a visit.

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The Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our visit was to the exquisite Cellar Door restaurant and it turned out to be a real treat. It is an exquisitely furnished dining room, as the photo below shows. The service was helpful, attentive and unfussy and customers were made very welcome.

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The Cellar Door, Durham dining room

The restaurant offers a varied and interesting menu. For starters, I had the “Courgette flower, yellison goat’s cheese, Yemeni wild flower honey and hazelnuts” and my wife had “Mushrooms on toast – cep parfait, shemeji, girolles, mushroom ketchup and sourdough”. Both looked and tasted exceptional and my wife’s comment was that this was the best mushroom starter that she’d ever had. The courgette flower was delicately cooked in a light batter, with the goat’s cheese inside. For main, I had “Sea trout, avocado, heritage tomato, crab and potato crisps” and this was a generous serving of fish, cooked to perfection, complimented nicely by the light crab meat. My wife had “Scottish halibut, beans, grapes, elderflower and verjus”, and again the fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. I contacted the restaurant and they gave me permission to download the photos of the restaurant above, one of their desserts and the halibut. For dine dining of this quality, we both thought that the meal was excellent value and would recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting Durham.

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Mouth watering dessert from The Cellar Door, Durham

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Crispy halibut from the Cellar Door, Durham

The Millihelen and seafood dinner on Lifeboat Day

August 18, 2017

The new Choice book from the Poetry Book Society is On Balance by Sinead Morrissey and the book opens with an outstanding poem. You can read the poem here and listen to the poet reading it here (video). I first read the poem without having seen the Notes at the back of the volume. We are told by the poet that a Millihelen is ” the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship” – a brilliant concept. The poem is about the launch of The Titanic (YouTube with photos of actual launch) in Belfast in 1911. The poem begins:

“It never looks warm or properly daytime
in black-and-white photographs the sheer cliff-
face of the ship still enveloped in its scaffolding
backside against the launching cradle
ladies lining the quay in their layered drapery
touching their gloves to their lips”
There is no punctuation in the poem but you soon get into its rhythm and appreciate the images and the poet’s view of what certain images  portray e.g. in the black and white photos, it’s not “properly daytime”. There is superb movement to the poem which mimics the launch of the ship:

 

“….. it starts
grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts
moving starts slippery-sliding down
slow as a snail at first in its viscous passage
taking on slither and speed gathering in
the Atlas-capable weight of its own momentum”
The deluge of images continues as the ship is an “iron palace”, the snail has a “viscous passage” and the ship is “Atlas-capable”. You need to read this poem a number of times to appreciate the density of the images and to imagine the ship sliding into the water through the eyes of the poet, who notes that, once in the water,
“the ships sits back in the sea
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly”
So this magnificent piece of engineering becomes “ordinary”-like once it regains its balance in water. What an amazing start to a book of poems. I’m still reading it and will return to it.
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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge)

I’ve been saving this one up since last month. Our older son came down to Dunbar for his birthday. We were hoping to go the wonderful Creel Restaurant but couldn’t get in, so we decided on a seafood dinner as it was a sunny day and we could eat outside. Earlier in the day, the annual Lifeboat Fete took place at a packed harbour. As we sat having our dinner, we could see the lifeboat out at sea, along with a coastguard helicopter. Unknown to us, a diver had gone missing in a wreck off the coast. As far as our meal was concerned, we had (photo below) smoked salmon, dressed crab and smoked mackerel pâté ,with lemon segments and salad for starters.

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Seafood starters

 We also had some fresh langoustines. I always think that shellfish like this are very fiddly and a lot of work for what you end up with, but these  were very tasty, as well as being colourful. These oddly shaped creatures with their rows of pink false teeth under the claws and their gnarled, ridge-backed, curled up bodies are a strange mixture of angles and curves.

 

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Fresh langoustines

For main course, our son cooked a whole sea bream in the oven and we had whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from our local trout farm shop with peaches and salad.
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Whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from Belhaven Smokehouse

All this accompanied by a delicious Provençal rosé, so a touch of luxury on a warm and sunny evening. When your luck’s in, it’s in.
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Dinner for three on a summer’s evening

Brodies Restaurant and Devil’s Porridge Museum

July 27, 2017

We stayed overnight in the border town of Moffat (good photos) after our visit to Dumfries (see below). It’s a very pleasant town with many tourists visiting, often on bus tours. There are good walks around Moffat and, as this guide shows, the walk can be easy or difficult, depending on your mood and/or fitness. We stayed at the excellent Hartfell Guest House  and this proved to be extremely good value for money. We had a large room with superb views, the staff were friendly and helpful and the breakfast offered a range of options in a lovely bay-windowed, high ceilinged room. There is a restaurant attached to the guest house – the Limetree – and this had been highly recommended to us. It was closed on the night we were there.

This turned out to be an opportunity to try another highly-rated restaurant in Moffat and we found that it deserves its reputation. Brodies Restaurant was a real treat and lived up to its award winning status. We booked for dinner. When you arrive in Brodies, you are shown into a large lounge bar – called the gin lounge, with comfortable armchairs. They have an impressive list of gins on offer. They have a menu from which there is plenty to choose and vegetarians are well catered for. We opted to share the “Smoked Mackerel – saffron parisienne potatoes, lemon sorrel, confit of lemon, horseradish shoots, crème fraiche”, which was light and very tasty. For the main course, my wife had “Medallions of Chicken – wild garlic & spinach mousse, wild garlic mushroom en croute, charred carrot”, which was elegantly presented and delicious. My choice was “Local Hill Bred Hogget – tasting plate of Annanwater hogget, wilted greens”. As the photo below, kindly sent to me by Russell from Brodies, the presentation was also impressive. “Hogget” was a new word to me, although I guessed that it was sheep related e.g. little hog? Hogget is a lamb that is more than one years old and according to this article, is very good for you. The helpful waiter told me that it was the tender neck of the hogget, plus a small hogget pie. It was certainly tender and the pie had a light pastry which was filled with meat. The accompanying gravy boat provided the perfect finishing touch to this superb dish.

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Hogget dish at Brodies of Moffat (Click to enlarge)

 

We also shared a pudding aka a dessert. From an intriguingly mouth-watering choice, we opted for “Rhubarb & Custard Tart – almond frangipane, crème fraiche”. It was not only good to look at – see photo below – but was a great combination of the above flavours, plus firm but very tasty strawberries on top. The service was attentive and unrushed and there was a good atmosphere in the restaurant i.e. you could tell that this was a roomful of people appreciating and enjoying high quality food. If you are ever in this part of the world, try this restaurant.

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Rhubarb and custard tart in Brodies of Moffat

Our visit to  Dumfries (good photos) to see my sister and brother in law was supposed to take us back to the bonnie town of Kirkcudbright (pr Kir – coo – brae) (good photos). We arrived in sunshine on the Friday but Saturday was dreich, so we were taken to see the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. This was a fascinating visit to a museum dedicated mainly to the massive factory – the buildings covered 9 miles from start to finish and had 125 miles of railway within the site. The factory was built during the First World War due to a shortage of munitions and employed 30,000 people, mainly women. Its function was to make cordite for bullets and shells. The finished cordite was sent to munitions factories in strands of various thicknesses. The name of the factory is attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle who, when visiting the factory, noted that the paste produced by combining gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine was “the devil’s porridge” as it was so potentially lethal.

The story becomes more remarkable when you see the photos of the women working in the factory and the almost complete absence of health and safety. The photo below shows the women mixing the gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine by hand. There are no masks or protective clothing here, so it was very dangerous work. The museum tends to underplay this aspect of the story, concentrating on the heroic war work done by the women, who were employed in the absence of men, most of whom had been called up.

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Women workers at the Devil’s Porridge factory in WW1

In the next photo, there is some protection for the young woman but, considering that she was working with nitro-glycerine, there is not much. While the guide at the museum told us that the women could make much money from working with these chemicals, as higher wages came with higher risks, there did not seem to be any indication of the long term implications for the women’s health. This aspect is covered more realistically in an excellent article by Bob Holman.

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Young woman working in cordite factory in WW1

The story of the factory also alluded to the nationalisation of the pubs in the area and as far as Carlisle, due to the employment (and drinking habits) of 10,000 men from Ireland who built the factory complex in a remarkably short time. The 2 townships of Gretna ( a separate town from Gretna Green, famous as a marriage centre) and Eastriggs were built to house some of the workers, and some of the original buildings are still visible today. This is a little known museum but well worth a visit.

Aberdeen trip and James Sheard’s Blackthorn

June 29, 2017

We went  to Aberdeen recently to see our nephew before his graduation from Aberdeen University. We stayed at the excellent Chesters Hotel where we had a superb (but pricey) meal in the evening at their 1X restaurant. My starter was ravioli of crab and scallop, with celeriac puree, shellfish bisque and langoustine beignet. It was the beignet that I didn’t know about but it turned out to be a small prawn done in a very light batter. It was very well presented – alas no photo – with both the ravioli and the bisque being light and tasty. It looked like the one pictured here. Earlier in the day, we went to the extensive Hazlehead Park and were particularly impressed firstly with the range of rhododendrons on show.  There were several different colours with a pink one shown below. My new mobile phone has a better camera than my last one, which came to a watery end when I was out cycling and got soaked. The phone was uncovered and basically drowned. The man at the phone repair shop took one look at it and told me to buy a new one. Although the camera is better, it is not good at close-up shots but not bad from a short distance as the photos below will show. As you guessed, it’s not an expensive phone.

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Rhododendrons in Hazlehead Park (Click to enlarge)

We then went into the huge rose garden and although not many of the roses were in bloom, there were some stunning examples, such as these shown below. There is a lack of clarity here (mobile phone) but the colours and the delicate folds of the rose are remarkable.

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Hazlehead Park rose

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Hazlehead Park rose

In the first section of the rose garden, there is a large memorial to those who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha Disaster in the North Sea in 1988. The memorial lists those who died and the sculpture shows three oil rig workers. The figures look as if they may be calling for help and many visitors may recall the horror of the photos of the oil rig on fire. The contrast with the beauty and calm of the rose garden and the disaster is  poignant.

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Piper Alpha Disaster memorial in Hazlehead Park

James Sheard’s collection The Abandoned Settlements is a Poetry Book Society Choice and therefore highly rated. I thought that the early poems, which harked back to different places and different people were very well constructed and poignant. The title poem ends “For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists” and this turns out to be the theme of the book, a series of reflections and memories of love and lovers, of beginnings and endings. I enjoyed November which begins “Let me tell you how, in this long dark/ I list the ways in which the leaf of you/ furled and unfurled around me”.  However, as the book progressed, I as the reader could only take so many doleful reflections on love gone bad, no matter how elegant the poems were and how well constructed they were. Others obviously disagree and he has been widely praised. One poem that I did connect with and which was to me the most lyrical poem in the book is entitled Blackthorn: “For two weeks I drove/ through tunnels/ of March blackthorn/ … and liquid growing white/ then full then falling/ in the wind rising/ each overnight and becoming bridal/ blizzarding across/ the quiet early morning/ whipped up by my wheels …”. Last year in this blog, I mistakenly identified blackthorn as hawthorn, with these photos below. You can see the link with “becoming bridal”.

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Blackthorn near Stenton village

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Close up of blackthorn blossom

 

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

Bartlett Rainbow (thumb)

Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Tigh Na Leigh and their orchids

April 18, 2017

We went for an overnight stay last week to the village of Alyth (good photos) in Perthshire. As we drove towards Alyth, we passed many fields of raspberry canes and others with polytunnels for strawberries. We were now in the area of the Berry Fields O’Blair –  a famous Scots song about the people who used take a holiday in July and spend it picking berries. Another song is When the Yellow’s on the Broom (contains old photos) which is about the travelling people in Scotland who spent the winter in scaldy (i.e. non-travellers) houses, often in very poor conditions, but went berry picking in the summer. The song describes the travelling people as the gan(g)aboot folk, who tak tae the road when the broom flowers. We were booked in to the Tigh Na Leigh (pr Tie Na Lee) Guest House. You have to take the Guest House part with a pinch of salt. This is no ordinary guest house, it’s more of a boutique hotel, with luxurious accommodation. The website has several photos of the interior of the house and there were some exquisite touches such as the egg tree shown below in one of the very comfortable guest lounges.

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Egg tree at Tigh Na Leigh (Click to enlarge)

Also in this lounge, is a log fire built into the wall, with a glass front. Many years ago, we used to live in a house with 2 wood stoves, and there is no better heat than that which comes from burning logs. Also, there is the fascination with the action taking place in the fire itself. The logs attract the flames and are consumed by them, after changing shapes and colours many times. It’s hard to look away from the wildly exotic aerobics of the flames. Sitting by the fire with a glass of wine before dinner was a real treat.

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Log fire at Tigh Na Leigh

The owners, Bettina and Chris, made us very welcome and if you like aeroplane business class service, then Tigh Na Leigh is the place for you, as that’s what you get. We opted to eat in and were sent a menu the day before. For starters, I had a delicious twice-baked smoked haddock (smokie) soufflé, pictured below. This was delicious, with a creamy cheese sauce to enhance the light and delicate soufflé. Our main courses of duck comfit and salmon fillet were also very tasty and the food and wine is very reasonably priced

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Double baked “smokie” soufflé at Tigh Na Leigh

The large dining room, which also has a lounge area, looks out on an extensive garden with a large pond (photo below) and while we had dinner, there were a succession of birds appearing on the lawn or the pond. Behind the pond is large stone fronted mound which was built by the present owners but looks as if it’s been there for centuries, and it has a very natural looking waterfall emerging from it. You also have breakfast in this room and there were numerous bowls of fruit – raspberries, strawberries and blueberries – and fruit compote, as well as yoghurt and a range of cereals. This is in addition to the varied breakfast menu, which includes some of Chris’s excellent omelettes. When you stay here, you start the day very well. Bettina did tell us of one very unwelcome (and non-paying!) guest – an otter which ate all the fish in the pond and threatens to return if the pond is re-stocked. We cannot recommend this superlative accommodation too highly, so if you are travelling in Perthshire, don’t miss it.

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The pond at Tigh Na Leigh

Tigh Na Leigh has flowers in every room and on the stair, there are two beautiful orchids which were instantly attracted to my camera. According to the RHS “Indoor orchids are mainly epiphytic (growing on trees) or lithophytic (growing on rocks)”. So, two new words for my vocabulary, although don’t test me anytime soon. The orchids I saw were beautifully balanced and delicately coloured. In the first photo below, the petals appear to be made of whipped egg whites and stroked with purple food dye, while the centre looks like a small stage with an ornate backdrop.

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Orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

In the 2nd photo, we move into the surreal. The more you look, the more different images you are likely to see. A tiger’s head? A Daliesque set of tonsils? The colours are numerous shades of purple and yellow. The 3rd photo is perhaps more dreamlike and the top half could be an imaginary creature in a SciFi film. What of the bottom half? Purple moons from a planet hundreds of light years away? As ever, you are bound to see something else or different.

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

 

Highlights of 2016

December 31, 2016

I was going to give myself a festive break from the blog but, every day in the paper there is some sort of review of 2016, so coming back from my walk today I thought I might do one as well. This is what went through my head: best photo, best meal cooked, best restaurant, best visit, best novel read, best book of poems read, best …. Not to mention major highlights such as the arrival of our new grandson Zachary Buddy in June and in the previous month, the glorious victory – the Hibees won the cup after 114 years! So I started to read the blog from the beginning of January and realised that it was going to take a long time to read all of the posts. So this is a flick through, fairly randomly and not covering all the categories mentioned above.

In January, we went down to London as I was going to the T S Eliot Prize poetry readings at The Royal Festival Hall. I’m going again in January, so more of that later. A highlight of the visit was a meal at The French Table in Surbiton. The meal was delicious and one of the dishes on offer was monkfish which was served with crispy samphire and truffle froth – photo below sent to me by staff at TFT.

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Monkfish served at The French Table (Click to enlarge)

Flowers feature often in the blog and I’m always trying to improve my close up photography in my garden and other gardens and wood lands. So here’s some examples (photos below) – snowdrops at Pitcox, tulips in my garden and the multi-coloured and delicate honeysuckle, also in my garden.

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Snowdrops at Pitcox

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Tulips in my garden

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Honeysuckle in my garden

Best picture I took this year? A hard one this as there’s such as variety of photos that I like – of favourite places like St Abbs Head or Dunbar harbour, but I’ve settled on one from my garden again, except the focus this time is not on the flower but on the bee. This is from a post entitled Summer flowers. Bees are not obedient. They move constantly and their wings beat even when they are attached to flowers. This one must have been enjoying the nectar so much that it momentarily stopped moving, allowing me to capture the bee’s complex physical structure, its vivid colours and its wing, which looks like a piece of ornate glassware you might find in an art gallery.

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Bumble bee on a hebe flower.

The best visit we did this year undoubtedly to the stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. From the moment you walk towards the outside of the building, you are in for a series of eyebrow raising moments and you lose count of the times you say “Wow!”. The external and internal structure of the museum represent a triumph of modern architecture, so impressive is the design and flow of the building. The two photos below can’t capture the wonder of this building but if it inspires you to visit, my efforts will have been worthwhile.

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Back of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

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Front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

So that’s (part of) the old rung out and next week/year, I’ll ring in the new – more travel, more novels, more poetry, more photos – and anything else that comes in to the mind of this (at times) Bear of Little Brain – even if my favourite word is crepuscular.