Thursday, April 28, 2011

Travels and Tastes - Scotland

I sometimes leave a piece of my heart in places I visit, places that touch me on a some kind of a deeper level, whether reminding me of something long forgotten or summoning me to come back to discover something not yet found.  I left a wee bit of my heart in Scotland.  I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the countryside, the rolling hills and planes of Low-lands, the gorgeous mountainside and lochs of the High-lands, the rolling rivers and streams, the fertile, rich farm land…  Granted, the weather helped, we managed to hit a whole week worth of un-Scottish like weather.  The warm spring sun glistening of the green fields, filled with either grazing grass or bright yellow of canola flowers.  The wild flowers everywhere, the flowering fruit trees and the beautiful English gardens beyond the hedge of every cottage, seems unreal, almost fairy tale like.  The ruins of castles set upon the most picturesque of lakes, made me think of fairy maidens and their white-horsed knights.  Having grown up on legends of the medieval kind, I had imagined Scotland in a certain way; it was exactly how I pictured it and even better, because it was real. 

All the sheep deserve a special note.  During early spring it is lambing season, and Scotland’s sheep population explodes to twelve million.  Mind you, there are only about three million Scotts.  The sheep are everywhere, each meadow, field or a green patch of grass is a grazing ground for them.  They are like little white clouds set alone the landscape.  The little lambs, barely standing, are trailing alone after their mothers.  Do I need to mention that Scottish lamb is most prized and tastes nothing of the lamb that I have tasted before?  Free to graze on the fields, basking in the sunshine from morning to dusk, sheaparded only by border collies, these are indeed the tastiest lambs in the world.

Sheep are not the only ones enjoying the good life in Scotland; cows are free to roam the fields as well.  The long haired High-land breeds as well as plain cattle play out the Happy Cow commercial right in front of your eyes, naturally, the steaks and burgers taste a lot better than the ones you would encounter at your local market. 
The Scottish food staples consist of fresh seafood coming each morning directly from the lochs (Gaelic for lake) and the North Sea, lamb prepared each and every way imaginable, steak, beef cheeks and haggis.  The prized salmon is all you would expect it to be and so are the scallops and the haddock.  I sampled some of the fresh river trout and it was buttery and slightly pink in the flesh.  Lamb is delicious and tender and cooked rear in most places. 

Having earned a scary reputation with Americans, haggis is nothing to fear of; it is perfectly delicious if you don’t think too much of what is in it. Someone having strong aversions to internal organs should probably stay away from it, but if you are open minded enough, there is nothing more satisfying on a chilly day. 
The food is somewhat heavy, meant to ward of the bone chill and dampness of typical Scottish weather.   Of course it needs to be washed down with whisky, Scotch to be exact.  For a tourist, such as me a proper Scotch tasting lesson is a must.  I now know that four different Scotch producing regions manage very distinct tasting whiskies, from smoky varieties of the west to citrusy and fruity varieties of the north and south.  We attended a whisky tasting sessions which can only be compared to the intricacies of tasting wine.  After seeing a 3,500 bottle single largest collection of whisky in Edinburgh and having a private tasting at tiny shop in a one-horse village by the loch, I might just become a convert. 
Some of the most memorable dishes included a wild rabbit terrine and venison cooked to perfection.  Fish and chips takes on a different meaning as the fresh caught haddock is beer battered and fried almost whole, tasting still of the sea.  It is not the greasy concussion one might imagine, but a light (as gazillion calories can be), satisfying snack.
Oysters were a treat, served over salt, not on ice, with just a wee bit of red wine vinegar and none of that hot-sauced-horse-radish nonsense we get on this side of the pond.
Fudge is also a big favorite, done to perfection in an array of flavors.
The local cheeses, mostly sheep ones are in abundance.  Cheddars are most prized and soft cheeses with recipes going back centuries. 
It is always nice to have a proper afternoon tea especially if it in a garden of Duke of Argyl castle.  A tea tradition is kept with little sandwiches and biscuits and small belied tea kettles. 
I did pop my head into a local Edinburgh supermarket and was presently surprised with the milks advertised by origin (Scottish vs. British) and not  whether they are organic or not ( all are.. it’s the law).  It was amusing to find eggs stored un-refrigerated in the great European tradition.  No meat or fish was to be found in the general market; of course you must visit the butcher and your fish monger stores for those.
Something tells me that I will be traveling back to Scotland in the future, to the cloudy sheep and grazing fields and most breathtaking views of centuries old land.  In the meantime, as a struggle to join my day to day life, I will continue to say “wee” for little, and “oi” for yes, a wee bit longer….

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Travels and Tastes - London

So here I am, back from an amazing trip to the United Kingdom.  United as it may be these days, England and Scotland truly feel very different, having such a long history of separation.  So I will present may travels and tastes in different installments as I am sure the Scotts will appreciate.

England.  London of course is not representative of the whole country’s feel, such as New York cannot give you a sense of United States.  Bit ohh, what a magnificent city, full of hustle and bustle of tourists and natives alike.  With a pub on every corner full of the workforce at the end of their day, spilling onto the sidewalks to take in their customary pint.  As an American you feel almost at home but still confronted with the sights and experiences that are truly European, feeling the city that has hundreds more years’ worth of history than your own.   Visiting the sights that bear the graves and marks of kings, queens and great historical figures gave me chills and perspective on the present.  Really, our modern world may look different but it is essentially fighting the same old battles.
Since this blog is still devoted to food and food experience, I will skip over some of the narrative and go straight to it.  London’s food is the food of the world, Indian, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Chinese, you name it… I couldn’t try to eat all of it in three days….  But I tried.  Little Moroccan place in the middle of Soho, was surprising, true to the tastes and unique. 
We ate a more traditional English place serving Scottish Lamb (which I will talk about later) and some of the best stake I ever tasted.
The truly unforgettable food experience came at the Borough Market, which I wanted to visit for months now.   Unfortunately I had crush my son’s hopes of getting to the Greenwich Observatory and Naval Museum to visit it, but you cannot be at two place in one.  And I am sure you will agree that this one was more important.
Borough Market is a collection of mobile, semi-mobile and permanent store fronts selling anything edible. Hundreds of them.   If I die and hope to go to haven, I would like to end up in the middle of this particular place.  Game meats of every kind imaginable, local cheeses of all sorts, produce from local farms, seafood which freshness and abundance you cannot dispute… and you get to taste and smell everything.  Not only do they advertise the origins, but they tell you how the animals where raised, what particular farm they came from.  the “organic” and “grass fed” is not even announced as it is the norm. Prepared foods include anything from the hoagies filled with game meat of any kind, to duck confit and huge curry pots being stirred right in front of your eyes.   All kinds of oysters, from tiny ones to the ones, the size of my head, shucked right in front of you.  Raw honey which tastes like my childhood.   Eggs, fresh, organic, from whichever creatures that gives them.   Milk that was milked this morning, from the farmer’s cow, and nothing has been done to… not pasteurized, not skimmed, pure real raw milk, can you imagine? 
Homemade fudge in flavors one only dreams of.
Turkish delights in such abundance and combination of flavors that my head was spinning  and I couldn’t choose the ones to try.

Yeh, these are the oysters… even my kids tried them, although I do have to agree that it an acquired taste.  They smelled of the ocean and where kept not on ice but on the bed of seaweed.

Gorgeous, huge wheels of melty cheese for the spuds and hoagies. 

The game

And the beer... goes well with the game.

Here is where they have been hiding the real lavender

Duck stew, to buy or to taste
And the wild mushrooms… at this point I almost fainted… from excitement.

The milk, the way the nature intended.
After having experienced what is the London’s Borough market, I was in agony.  I couldn’t take any of it home to cook, not even back to the hotel as there was no fridge and we were scheduled to depart for Scotland the next day.   I got a few spices just to feel like the day was not a pure waste, but the memory will stay with me forever.  I feel mixed emotions knowing that the place like this does not exist anywhere in the States and certainly nowhere in the driving distance from my house.  On one hand, I would love to have access to all this gorgeous food, on the other I am afraid I might go broke.
London did not disappoint the gourmet in me.   Next stop is rolling hills of Scotland, where the free grazing sheep live and where whisky is not just a tourist attraction, but a way of life.  So first class train ticket in hand I am off…

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Suitcase Blues.

I can’t cook right now.  Actually I cannot do much of anything these days because I am too excited about my upcoming trip.  So as I am forced to dwindle down the contents of my fridge, all I can really concentrate on is obsessively watching the U.K. weather and go over my plans to smuggle European bitter almonds back into U.S.
In three days time I will be in London, which in spite of being super modern still feels Victorian to me.  The natives may as well be wearing bowler hats and empire waist dresses.   I imagine carriages instead of cars and gentlemen carrying walking sticks and everyone wearing hats…  And who says you cannot eat well in Britain?  You just need to know where to look… so Borough market, here I come!
And then there will be Scotland, the land of the castles and clans.  I imagine it to be feel medivil, rough and a little intimidating.  I read enough conflicting opinions about Scottish food, but in my view if there is game, oysters and alcohol you cannot go wrong…
No recipes today, just a promise that in two weeks this blog will be back with Travels and Tastes of England and Scotland.