Archive | April, 2012

Temptation of the veg

27 Apr

I’ve written before about the new-to-this-expat excitement of a local veg box scheme.  (See tag: veg*)  I love the concept of local organic foods, grown within a small radius of my home, supporting local growers and small business — with the convenience of having someone else pick interesting vegetables and drop them off on my doorstep every week.   We did all right with our original box scheme company, but now I’m playing the field.  Right now we’re trying out Ocado.  Ocado is an online-only grocery store which also provides organic veg boxes, with either one-offs or weekly delivery.  So along with my delivered veg, I can get milk, or wine, or toilet paper — very convenient.  Oh, and even some pretty flowers:

I used to have groceries delivered back in the States, but gave that up when the delivery fees skyrocketed.  ($13 to drop milk at my house?  Sorry, Safeway.)  Here grocery delivery seems much more the norm.  Most places deliver for a nominal fee or for free.  I was happy with our occasional Waitrose delivery, but found the need to schedule deliveries a week or more in advance a bit cumbersome.  Ocado is hitting all my happy buttons, with next-day and even same-day delivery, and I can put together a shopping list and even order everything via an app on my phone.  Easy!

Of course, the proof is in the box:

All interesting (fennel, this week!  and look at that celeriac!), all fresh, some local — yet some items from as far away as Spain, and the veg looks suspiciously sanitized.  I miss opening a veg box and having the earthy, intense aroma of Cotswold soil surround me.  But I welcome being able to eat everything in the box, instead of picking off bugs and cutting off brown bits.  Is the Ocado veg box my winner?  I still need to check out some other places — Riverford and Able&Cole are next on the list — the veg box saga continues.

*Yeah, that’s right.  I’m using “tags” and “categories” now.  Because I am Mrs Fancy Pants of the Fancy Pants League of Fancy.  Enjoy!

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Pumpkin Bread

25 Apr

I’m huddling in my sun room watching rain pour over the roof.  The fire is going.  The cats are curled nose to nose on the footstool.  The children shivered in their jackets on the way to school this morning and asked me if there was a hurricane warning today.  The other mums at school all rolled their eyes and reminded me this was typical English weather.  I’m once again missing home, and dreaming of sunny days on the Bay or ‘down the shore’.  Insert deep sigh here.

Best thing for this weather is to bake something warm, so here’s a quick and easy pumpkin bread recipe.  This version keeps well and while it’s good warm from the oven it’s even better the next day.

First combine your dry ingredients:
3 1/2 c flour
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger to taste (half to a whole teaspoon each is good)

In a separate bowl, combine your wet ingredients:
15 oz pumpkin puree
2/3 cup water
1 cup oil
4 eggs
1 1/2 cup sugar  (most recipes call for more sugar than this: I like to use less.  If you want sweeter bread, add another cup of sugar)

Combine the two: make a well in your dry ingredients, pour in the wet, and then stir together.

I like to laugh gleefully at this point.  Like a mad scientist or an evil genius.  No reason, it’s just fun.  MWA-HA-HA-HAAAAAAAAAA! Mix, pumpkin, MIX!!!

Laugh at the mess you made, because it is delicious.  BWA-HA-HAAA!

You could make two full-sized loaves with this recipe, but I made one full-size and two smaller.  I separated the batter into three sections, leaving the largest loaf alone for a simple pumpkin bread.  To the second I added 3/4 cups of dried fruits.  To the third I added the dried fruits, and 1/2 cup of pecans.  Fill your loaf pans about 2/3rd full and bake at 350F for 50-60 minutes, then put on a rack to cool.

And then …

In a true spirit of British-American co-operation, I’m having mine with some clotted cream.

(Take that, horrible weather.  Pumpkin will defeat you.)

St. George’s Day

23 Apr

I don’t have a bead on St. George’s Day.  There’s no special pancake breakfast, no setting crap on fire, no shopping sales, no special stoneware from Emma Bridgewater.  (Wait, I lie, there is a special mug.)  Yet my kids got to pay a pound each today to wear red and white clothes to school, and the red and white flags of St. George — and of England — were carried joyfully all over the playground.   Apparently I should have worn a red rose in my button hole today.  I hope going to the gym and having my face turn bright red while doing sit ups will count instead.

Wikipedia has a lot to say about St. George, and my go-to cultural source, that cool school in Kent, has a page on his legend as well.

Of course, I find the dragon the sympathetic character in the story. I like modern retellings which have the dragon and George end up as friends, and the princess runs off and saves herself. Happy St. George’s Day, everyone, and many happily ever afters to you.

Day out in Skye: Shipwrecked

22 Apr

Not really shipwrecked.  Sorry, because that would have been a really cool story.  I’m thinking of those ‘shipwrecked’ casserole recipes, you know the ones?  Where you look in dismay at all the random cans in your cupboards and vegetables in your baskets and leftover meats in your fridge and think: “Right, this can be a meal.”  Like you’ve been castaway in your kitchen and just have to eat whatever is at hand.  Please don’t tell me I’m the only one.  I used to make a shipwreck dish a couple of times each winter back home, when we were snowed in and running low on groceries and the power went out and I could plug the crock pot in to the generator.  No?  Just me?  Fine, be that way.

Anyway, as I try to finish up my week of posting about Skye, I’m getting that shipwrecked feeling.  I have too many elements that don’t necessarily make sense together … but I’ve got to wrap this up somehow … so you’re getting a casserole post made up of all the bits left sitting around.  Just pretend it is snowing outside and we’re cozy next to the fire eating out of bowls we washed in the snow.  I’ll make some hot chocolate for later.

A quick tour through the Clan Donald centre on the Isle of Skye.  If you take the ferry over from Mallaig, you’ll land in walking distance of the centre, which is well worth a visit — and worth stopping right then, rather than driving all the way back down again later. (what we did.  blurg.).  The gardens are extensive — above is a sweet otter in the water garden — Armadale Castle is preserved as a picturesque ruin, with commanding views over the water

And the Museum of the Isles is a great introduction to local and clan history, with a slightly annoying but understandable dosing of Clan Donald pride and sense of superiority.

I took a photo inside before realizing photography is not allowed.  You’re welcome.  There’s also a pretty good restaurant at the centre, with the usual fish and chip selection but also local dishes like a venison casserole and a huge selection of whisky.

Speaking of whisky, I couldn’t come to Skye without visiting the Talisker Distillery in Carbost. Despite how early in the season we visited, the distillery was packed and in a shocking lack of foresight I had *not* pre-booked tours — so we didn’t get to go behind the scenes.  Children over 8 are allowed on the tour, youngers can view the exhibits on display or walk around outside.  I was slightly surprised to see so many bus loads of clearly drunken tourists.  Not my favorite scene, to be honest.  If we have the chance to go back, I’d book an early morning tour a few days ahead.

About half way up the coast of the Waternish peninsula is Stein, home to several boutique artisans and the oldest operating inn on Skye — the eponymic Stein Inn, where we had good food in a great atmosphere.  I recommend checking the specials on the board by the bar.  If the weather is nice, there are picnic tables outside with a view that cannot be beat of the harbor and loch.

You can walk down to the water — which is so clear, it seems like blue liquid air.

On the other side of Dunvegan loch, if you’re driving to the Glendal Toy Museum, you might miss this marker commemorating the land leaguers and the ‘three martyrs’ from Glendale who helped bring about land reforms and the end to the inhumane “clearances” on the island.  “Clearances” makes it sound like cleaning out old deadwood or brush, right?  No, these were people being ‘cleared’ from the land by clan chiefs turned into rapacious large landholders who were more interested in raising sheep than respecting traditional social bonds or basic tenets of morality or human kindness.  Read a book about it.  It’s a horrifying history.

We were sad to find the Borrerraig Piping Centre closed during our visit.  Sadly, the owner/operators recently experienced a death in the family, and it wasn’t known when the Centre would re-open.  We got a sense of the precarious preservation of some of these cultural sites — visit them quick, before the more elderly preservationists pass away with no-one to take up their work.

Finally, one of my absolute favorite things about our stay on Skye was simply taking our time.  Staying in one place gave us a chance to experience sunrise

and sunset

and sunrise

and sunset

And even — more than once — a rainbow

I’m convinced now that putting time in the itinerary to simply rest and staying in holiday cottages is the way to travel with kids.

Well, hope you enjoyed your shipwrecked last post about Skye.  Time to say goodbye to our cozy cottage and look forward to whatever comes next.

Day out in Skye: Bridge, Blood, and Broch

20 Apr

Romance, history, drama, myth, legend, betrayal … Skye has it all.  In my heart’s map of Skye, three places shine out with bright bloody ribbons of fantasy and mystery.

First, a fairy tale.  According to family legend, there is a flag entrusted to the Clan MacLeod by the fairies.  How the flag was given to the family varies in the telling — in some stories, a fairy hears the heir crying in his nursery, and brings him the flag to wrap him in warmth and sings him a song, which for hundreds of years after was sung to all the sons of the family to sooth them to sleep.  It is the Taladh na mna Sithe, The Fairy’s Lullaby:

Behold my child, limbed like the kid or fawn, smiting the horses, seizing the accoutrements of the shod horses, the spirited steeds. My little child.

Oh that I could see thy cattle fold, high up on the mountain side; a green, shaggy jacket about thy two white shoulders, with a linen shirt. My little child.

Oh that I could behold thy team of horses; men following them; serving women returning home and the Catanaich sowing the corn.

Oh tender hero whom my womb did bring forth, who did swallow from my breast, who on my knee wast reared.

My child it is, my armful of yew, merry and plump, my bulrush, my flesh and eggs, that will soon be speaking. Last year thou wast beneath my girdle, plant of fertility! and this year fair and playful on my shoulder, thou wilt be going round the homestead.

Oh let me not hear of thy being wounded. Grey do thou become duly. May thy nose grow sharp ere the close of thy day.

Oh! not of Clan Kenneth art thou! Oh! not of Clan Conn. Descendant of a race more esteemed; that of the Clan Leod of swords and armour, whose fathers’ native land was Lochlann.

The flag is one of the heirlooms of the clan, and is on display in the castle — but no photos allowed!  The photo on wikipedia does it no justice whatsoever — it’s a pale gold with dots of red embroidery, and gives an impression of delicacy and age.

In another version of the gifting, a clan chief (possibly the fourth chief, Iain Ciar, although I kind of hope not as he sounds like a terrible person) fell in love with a fairy princess and went away with her into fairy land.  After twenty years, he remembered his mortal obligations and had to leave his fairy wife behind to return to his clan.  They said goodbye on the Fairy Bridge a few miles away from Dunvegan, where she gave him the flag which has the power to preserve the clan in moments of despair three times.   We visited the bridge one late afternoon as the sky was misting:

We parked above and walked down to the river bank.  The musical trickling of the water and the sighing of the wind through the grasses were the only sounds.

View through the bridge.  I can believe this is a fairy portal, can’t you?

From on top of the bridge, the view seen by the ancient chief, as his fairy wife faded back to her dreamland.

The Fairy Bridge is at the base of the Waternish peninsula.  Following the road to the tip of the peninsula, you come to a striking cemetery at the end of the world, and the ruins of the Trumpan church.

In 1578, in retaliation for an equally brutal massacre perpetrated by the MacLeods several years earlier, a large group of MacDonalds snuck to the peninsula by boat, barricaded the worshippers in this church — most of whom were MacLeods — and burned them alive.

Here is the stooping door to enter the church.  It is the only way in or out, and was blocked and barricaded shut, surrounded by MacDonalds screaming for revenge and murder.  Inside, the congregation was trapped, mothers, fathers, children and all.

Of all the worshippers, only one escaped to raise the alarm and tell the tale, a young girl small enough to wriggle through this single window, while her family screamed and burned behind her.  Standing in the slanting sun, I felt my shadow was made of the ghosts of those families.

Small offerings are still left at Trumpan church.  This reminded me of the small bowl at Odda’s Chapel.  How strange we humans are.

After walking through ghosts, letting the wind wipe our eyes here at the end of the earth was a relief.  The bloody history of clan warfare in Scotland is less fairy tale, more nightmare.

The history of human habitation on Skye goes back thousands of years — and there have probably been fairy stories and warfare since the beginning.  Some of the earliest inhabitants built round stone structures called brochs, which can be found all over the island.  We visited one large broch, called Dun Beag, in fairly good repair — for being a couple thousand years old.  Just a fifteen minute drive down from Dunvegan, look carefully for the signs and pull off the road — then start walking uphill.

It’s a gentle enough hill, past sheep and ground that manages to be muddy and rocky at the same time.  Attackers would not have enjoyed this climb.  Once at the top, you see the broch, which would have housed a large family or otherwise allied group focused on mutual protection and prosperity.

The foundation walls are very thick, strong enough to support a tall multi-story structure.  (Perhaps four stories high!)

There were even interior stairs built into the broch.

And from the walls, a commanding view of the countryside.  The history, purpose, and even the people who built and lived in the brochs is still a matter for scholarly speculation — but they are a uniquely Scottish form of building, and suggest a unique and advanced social structure in place thousands of years ago.

Fairies, bloody revenge, mysteries of human history — and a sky stretching beyond the end of the earth.  Is it any wonder I left a piece of my heart wrapped in those bright ribbons on Skye?

Day out in Skye: Dunvegan Castle

18 Apr

Before children, my idea of a great way to travel was light — ideally, everything in one backpack — and often – moving from place to place in a peripatetic journey of discovery.  After children, my idea of a great way to travel includes things like lots of clean underwear, hot water, comfy beds, and only having to unpack once.  On the Isle of Skye, we set up our base for the week at one of the Dunvegan Castle holiday cottages.  Since Dunvegan Castle was one of my must-see places on Skye, this was perfect.  We visited several times over the week, as our cottage had access to the gardens and included passes to the Castle interior (during open hours).  If I sound just a wee bit satisfied, that’s because I was — I love it when a plan actually works.

Dunvegan Castle is the home of the MacLeods.  Yes, MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, the Highlander — although the movie isn’t mentioned or even hinted at in any of the materials on display about the family or the castle.   It’s the oldest continuously occupied Castle in Scotland.  While it’s no Blenheim Palace, it has a hominess and a certain community feeling to it — or maybe that’s the excellent PR work of the more recent Clan chiefs, most notably Flora MacLeod, who in essence resurrected the clan in the 20th century.  There’s a lovely painting of her in the castle, and we saw her grave marker in the old St. Mary’s Church near the Castle.  She looks like everyone’s favorite Nana.  But I digress …

The Castle building itself is a mix of several eras.  The oldest part of the castle is the curtain wall and well (above), dating from the 13th century.  Seen below, the large bit in the middle-left is the later 13th century castle, the tower to the right is the fairy tower built in the 15th century, and a soldier-of-fortune-turned-General built the tower to the left and added all the pepper-pots.  No photography is allowed in the castle, so check out the website for some views.  The kids were mightily impressed by the dungeon (just off the drawing room — convenient), and I liked the fairy tower and, of course, found the history of the fairy flag fascinating.  Crusader flag?  Norwegian mercenary-king standard?  Robe of an ancient monk?  Or a gift of the fairies?  Hmmmmm.

The gardens are not much to compare to many here in the garden of England … then again, it’s a miracle anything is growing besides heather and nettles, so when you think about it, they are amazing.

The round garden was full of tulips, the walled garden picturesque and fun to run through, the water garden sports several waterfalls — a very satisfying place to walk around.  Or to run through screaming, pretending to be marauders and/or highland cattle.  Whatever makes you happy.

The capping activity at Dunvegan — once you get over dreaming about the fairy flag, tsking over the wretched wife tossed in the dungeon, or wondering at Rory Mor’s horn or the Dunvegan Cup — has to be the seal boat tours.  I went out with the kids on a blustery day right after a rain fall.  Apparently the Loch is warmer than the rain, so many of the seals had jumped into the water to warm up.  We saw them following our boat and peeking their heads up above the water to watch us — they looked like mermaids.

Some ladies were hanging out on the rocks.  There is a population of about 300 seals who return to Dunvegan to have their pups every year, and they are completely unafraid of the boats or of people.  Pretty amazing.

May or June is a better time to see the pups, but we enjoyed our nearly private tour of the Loch and all the lovely seal mamas who did let us see them.

There is a decent soup-and-sandwhich cafe with good coffee at the Castle, called MacLeod’s Tables.  The name refers to the two flat-topped mountains you can see from almost anywhere on this corner of the Isle of Skye — like here, an easy downhill walk down from the Castle, with the village of Dunvegan in the foreground:

The eighth clan chief dragged James V up the taller mountain and gave him dinner at the flat summit, surrounded by hundreds of clansmen lighting up the Highland sky with flaming torches.  When they put on a dinner party here, they don’t hold back.

The village has a small grocery, post office, tourist information centre, a few places to eat, an ATM, and villagers who are inspired to do interesting things — like erect this fifteen foot high standing stone on midsummer’s day in the year 2000 … by hand.  Did I mention it weighs 5 tons?  I think someone should make that story into a movie.

The stone — the Diurnish Stone — is there off to the right at the top of the hill.  We’re seeing it here from the churchyard of St. Mary, where ten generations of MacCrimmon pipers are buried:

and several generations of MacLeod clan chiefs, including Flora MacLeod and the current chief’s father:

If you have time to take a walk down from the Castle, the Dunvegan Two Churches walk takes you past stone and church  — or if you drive there’s a small place to park off-road and walk up to the churchyard.

You can “do” Dunvegan — Castle, Gardens, village, stone, churches and all — in a day, but why hurry?  Stay a bit longer, and you’ll have time to explore ever further a-field, and see unique places like the fairy bridge where the fourth chief’s fairy wife gave him the gift of a fairy flag … but that’s a tale (and photos) for another day.

Day out in Skye: Trotternish Peninsula

16 Apr

Today, come along with us as we follow Rick Steves’ (henceforth: RS) self-guided driving tour of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula from his “Snapshot Scotland” (Kindle edition).  RS gives this tour a minimum of about two hours, but with three kids and no particular hurry, we made this our day out.  And while RS starts the trip in Portree, we ended it there, with a late lunch.

Starting out from Dunvegan, we made our first target the small port of Uig (OO-eeg, or, as the kids pronounce it OOOOOOOOooooOOoooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeg).

RS describes Uig as “unremarkable” and that seems a bit uncharitable.  What it lacks in tourist attractions it makes up for by being in a gorgeous location in a gorgeous, isolated place.  And it is amazing that this is a big village, for the Isle of Skye — there’s even a cash machine! — and Uig is the island’s major ferry port for the Outer Hebrides.  More facts RS couldn’t be bothered to tell you: nearby is an ancient stone with Pictish markings, as well as a Viking fort and viking cemetery.  Which we did not visit, but still.   Oh, and its terrifying roads are well-paved:

Those are one-lane roads, which carry cars in two directions.  I passed a bus here.  It was exciting. Because I lived.

After Uig, we wound through a less well-paved one-track road toward Kilmuir and the Skye Museum of Island Life.  Imagine living your whole life in a traditional croft like this:

Also?  The body of water you’re looking over in the distance is Loch Snizort.  So imagine living in a one or two roomed thatched croft and having to talk about Loch Snizort without laughing your whole life.  The kids are still talking about the house with two bedrooms — one for mom and dad, the other for the 12 siblings.  No photography inside the buildings, or I’d show you the disturbing mannequins of an old man and woman sitting by the peat fire.  At least, I hope they were mannequins, not actors, or mummies.

This was a very worthwhile museum, with lots of detail from local historians.  Random items like Flora MacDonald’s egg cup (not kidding) reside next to hundreds of old postcards, next to lovingly detailed descriptions of traditional island basket weaving, smithing, agriculture, fishing, and even partying — the famous Highland Ceilidh (kay-lee).  But forget your credit cards — cash only for the entry fee or anything in the museum store.  RS failed to mention this important point, but disaster was averted with a rummage through the glove compartment for change.

An easy walk up from the museum is Kilmuir Cemetery and the monument to Flora MacDonald:

After driving through a nearly abandoned island, it was a shock to jostle up against a heaving group of tourists to the cemetery who disgorged themselves from a large yellow “Haggis Adventures” bus, snapped photos, trampled grass, then ran off to the toilets.  We had fun playing treasure-hunter in the graveyard, finding the grave slab of “king” Aonghas na Geoithe – Angus of the Winds:

… and the resting place of Charles MacArthur, last hereditary piper to Clan MacDonald (from up the road at Duntlum Castle, now a ruin):

The marker was commissioned by the son, who died without paying the stonemason — who then quit work mid-writing.  And this cross, which I just liked:

There are other interesting stones in the graveyard, both famous or simply cool, as well as amazing views over (hur hur hur) Loch Snizort and the countryside.

From there, we hit the road again, past ruminating sheep:

And a stop to look at the Outer Hebrides:

There’s a rainbow shooting down from the clouds, can you see it?

We didn’t stop at Duntlum Castle, noted in the RS tour as an early MacDonald foothold on Skye.  I might have been able to fight my way to a clear spot to park along the side of the road (maybe) but when I realized the only access to the site was walking over cliffs, the picture of my children all jumping to their deaths — just for kicks — was too strong in my mind.  (You think I’m being silly, but the castle was supposedly abandoned when the clan chief’s baby fell out a castle window to his death.  My irrational phobias are based in history.)  We drove on.  But we goggled from the car — it is hugely dramatic.

We drove round the tip of the peninsula, past the Quiraing ridge, oooo-ing and aaaa-ing all the way, and stopped at Kilt rock to see the dramatic waterfall —

This shot shows a bit more of the waterfall than the one I shared yesterday — check out how clear the water is, below!  I know the rock shaped like a kilt is supposed to be the attraction, but I like the waterfall best.

The road turned into (even more of) a roller coaster after this, and with the kids getting hungry we just waved at the Old Man of Storr quickly and drove on — my son caught the best photos of the old man, who he was disappointed to find was not an Optimus Prime-sized man created of living rock.  The rest of the drive in to Portree was, frankly, a bit boring, although peeks of the Isle of Raasay made it more interesting.

Portree is the largest village on the island, with a pretty harbor:

lined with colorful buildings:

Lunch was at the uninspiring Royal Hotel’s Well Plaid restaurant, where — apparently — Bonnie Prince Charles and Flora MacDonald had their last meeting.  No wonder things turned out so badly for them both.  The tourist information centre was equally uninspired — possibly why they recommended the Royal as a good place for a family to eat.  Later we walked past some great-looking seafood places by the pier, and Cafe Arriba near the tourist shops —  RS doesn’t even list the Royal in his guide, which I should have taken as a hint.

After eating and a bit of a walk about, we headed back home to enjoy the gardens near our cottage. All told, we spent about five hours on our tour of the Trotternish peninsula, and could have spent several hours more.  The RS driving tour is pretty good for the highlights, but a little extra digging before you go will give you dozens of other sites to stop and enjoy along to way.