Friday, July 31, 2009


It was a brave heart who first dared write the words "take a clean, sheep's stomach and .... "

That braveheart gave us the first record of the method of making Haggis, a traditional Scots dish, though apparently an import rather than a native, served with great solemnity and piped to the table at Burns Night dinners. I like it enough to have been delighted when offered "haggis phyllos" at a family reunion party just down the road Dunkeld Cathedral. The ingredients for haggis and method I leave to you to find here and if you need fortifying after that experience I leave you for the weekend with a Friday cocktail the likes of which I have had only once in my life and it was sublime. It knocked me out but it was a heavenly way to be poured into the dining room for dinner.  

The Talisker Manhattan

2 oz Talisker single malt whisky
1 oz sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes bitters

All the above are put into a glass with ice, stirred and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. Please do not go anywhere near this with a cherry!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Road to the Isles

Imagine my horror when, standing at the desk ready to be signed up as co-driver, I discovered my driver's license had expired. Co-driver I could not be, given the liability, and disappointingly it meant I could not drive on the left as I'd been dying to do. My partner had to do all the driving which he did, expertly, with me not so expertly reading the maps. Usually I drive and he reads the maps - something we've worked out over the years and it has prevented many a tantrum on both our sides. 

So he drove all the way from my home town up the west coast of England and Scotland to the Isle of Skye. Sounds simple, but there is no direct route and at various points one is going south to go north and east to go west, or at least that's how it feels. It was with great relief that we arrived at the place we'd reserved for a few nights - Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye - the driver and navigator exhausted and not a little scared from the one-track roads, narrowest of narrow two-track roads, the very fast local drivers, and the trucks and wagons that shared the same routes and all of whom seem to be coming towards us.

Kinloch Lodge is a former hunting lodge (photo, top), now hotel, belonging to the Macdonalds of Macdonald and is a superb place to use as a base on Skye. We were met by a family member who showed us around the drawing rooms, the dining room, the shop and who carried our cases to our rooms in the second building across the garden. When we returned to the big house, having dressed for dinner, we sat in the drawing room where in short order a waiter brought a cocktail list in case we wanted a pre-prandial drink. We did. 

The cocktail I ordered will appear tomorrow as the Friday cocktail. 

The perfect place in which to have a drink, afternoon tea, a quiet read, even a nap if you don't mind snoring in front of strangers. 

Below views from the windows to Loch na Dal.

Hotel dining rooms are some of my favorite places for there one meets the best of characters - not in the sense that they may be saintly, but that they appeal to one's prejudices and sense of caricature, fun, ridiculousness, call it what you will: everyone on their best behavior, dressed to the nines, being very correct with the silverware and being overly-familiar with the waitstaff. 

The walls of the dining room and the sitting rooms were hung with family portraits and very impressive it all was, especially in the dining room. I'd like to tell you I saw the dining room by candlelight but as there was daylight until after ten each night I never actually saw it when the green of the walls, the pink of the carpet and red paisley curtains would work together into a warm welcoming cocoon. As it was, the room was very attractive, especially of a morning, but whoever had chosen the plain pink of the carpet had never heard of stains from dropped food. 

And stains there were but that whole English, though in this case Scottish, country house look can take a bit of wear and tear, dog tracks and faded chipped grandeur. It is as you know a very accommodating style for decorating a house, and instantly inviting. I'm in no way criticizing as I felt at home immediately. 

The food at Kinloch Lodge was superb. Claire Macdonald is a famous cook, writer of many cookery books, in Great Britain. That she is well-known over here I cannot say, but I do know that I like what she and her chef produce for the breakfast, tea and dinner tables. I mentioned in an earlier post how I'd twice breakfasted at Kinloch on locally produced Finnan Haddock topped with perfectly poached eggs. It needed nothing more than a perfect slice of toast or two to go with it. Tea for me was fruit cake, cucumber sandwiches and green tea in a proper teapot. Dinner was five course meal with each dish composed of locally produced ingredients. 

There are too many wonders around and on the Isle of Skye to relate here but the next two photos are of the famed Eilean Donan Castle, one from the loch and the second taken by a photographer apparently standing on a patch of seaweed.

Below is the gatehouse to Dunvegan castle with another view below it.

A birthday treat for my partner, a surprise, was organized by his brother, wife and nephew. With many dire warnings beforehand from the nephew as to what it might be, skydiving, deep-loch diving, sheep wrestling, he was mightily relieved to find it was a trip to Scone Palace (pronounced scoon). 

It was suggested that we walk a little before the visit to the Palace as the tickets were timed and anyway a walk would do us good! I'm back, I thought. That phrase "do you good" took me right back to my childhood. 

Keeping an eye on skies like this during our walk in the grounds before visiting the Palace, we rounded a stand of trees to find the actual surprise - a picnic under a very large tree (planted in the 1830s) being laid out by brother, sister-in-law, nephew and nieces. All the right stuff, sandwiches, cakes, pop and wine in a wicker picnic basket with silver and china.  As you see, the walk did us good! 

Brits love picnics as much as they do mazes and the one at Scone Palace is a very good one. I got bored and had to be led out by my six year old goddaughter. 

The evening before the family reunion in Longforgan we stayed with a family member just outside Pitlochry in an old croft. A delightfully quaint place if inconveniently located halfway up an effing mountain (I quote). 

The view from the garden gives you some idea of the elevation. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I solved a minor mystery whilst visiting my home town - that of the identity of Charles Townley in the Zoffany painting above. Recently I read that the figure in the dark coat seated at the table in the middle of the picture was Charles Townley but I'd always thought he was the one on the right seated side-on to the painter. That figure is in fact Charles Townley and at his feet is his dog Kam. The presence of the dog points to that man being Townley for I cannot imagine anyone else in the picture taking a dog on a formal visit - the kind of visit that is taking place. 

As I say, minor mystery, and easily solved by flying across the Atlantic, taking a 3-hour train journey and then a half-hour's car ride to his former house. 

Now, you might ask, why is this of significance? Well, really it isn't but it bugged me. The fact that the collection depicted in the painting eventually formed the basis of the British Museum's collection is neither here nor there. Was it worth the flight, the train and the car journeys? Yup! Isn't any expense worth it when one is proven right? 

The following eight photos are of Townley's ancestral home, now a museum. I wish I could say it was a fascinating place to visit but it holds more nostalgic than intrinsic value, for when the house was donated to the town at the beginning of the 20th century it had been stripped by the family of anything that might be of value to a visitor today and the town council has struggled ever since with an empty shell and little to fill it with. 

One of the features of the Hall and one common to most of the building that went on in this locality is that the building material is stone - Millstone Grit if my memory serves me well - the same stone, as the name suggests to make millstones for milling flour and whetstones for knives. 

I took the photograph below as I was sitting on a window ledge with my sister in the room above because it reminded me of sidewalks when I was a child, before they were all pulled up and replaced with tarmacadam in the name of modernization. 

I stared and stared at this floor as she and I discussed the prospects for my beloved brother-in-law who is on chemo-therapy. This was the actual reason for crossing the Atlantic: him, my sister and the family reunion in Scotland. 

Below, the old brewhouse. 

Nothing to do with Townley but a building made of stone in the vernacular style of the region. The photo gives a pretty good idea of what the moorland around my home town is like. 

The last picture is one of those "how did I not know this" moments. The straight run of canal you see below is apparently one of the Seven Wonders of the British Waterways System. 

Known locally as the Straight Mile, the Embankment, built between 1796 and 1801, carries the Leeds and Liverpool Canal 60 feet above the town. The importance of this straight run, a mile long, was that though costly to build the embankment it meant the canal could traverse the valley without the need for two systems of locks. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spotted dick and big wigs

London was hell - not that we didn't have a good time catching up, breakfasting, lunching and taking in an exhibition with old friends, we had a brilliant time with them - but it rained that first day just as we were walking under Admiralty Arch and it continued the rest of the day. 

We'd taken the bus to Trafalgar Square, viewed the newly renovated St. Martins in the Fields, looked at whatever was being set up the Fourth Plinth on the Square and walked across to Admiralty Arch to get to Horse Guards Parade so we could wend our way slowly by Westminster Cathedral, Palace of Westminster to Tate Britain. I don't mind rain, he hates it, but when it is combined with what seems like the whole of the Continent on vacation in London and on the Tube all at once, the rain just made what had been a bright day maddening. 

The photos below are out of order but the Chihuly sculpture marks the spot where we met. Not that I would want you to think we are so egotistical as to think that perhaps they might have .... but right there under that bunch of curls is where the V&A gift/book shop once stood and we happened to be at the museum at the same time. Chihuly had not even been heard of in Europe those days, so the sculpture is merely a coincidence, but a happy one despite my not having any affection for anything that sculptor makes.

A while back I mentioned that we would visit the Whistler Restaurant at the Tate Gallery and so we did - for lunch with all our friends. I cannot tell you that the food is anything to write home about but there is one dish I will explain in a little while. We had lunch there so I could take photos of the Rex Whistler murals for the blog. Photos were not allowed so what you see are illicit images taken by iPhone when the waitstaff had turned the other way. 

It was all a little underwhelming, but I was pleased that finally I had seen the murals in their unfinished, tired state, and it was fun playing the game with the good-natured waiters who clearly knew what I was doing but didn't really try to stop me from photographing.

Spotted Dick is an old English pudding (dessert) that was on the menu and I just had to try it, purely out of nostalgia. The out-of-focus shot below is how it came to table - out of a mold, baked, and in a puddle of custard. I grumbled about it being inauthentic but I finished every bit despite it not resembling the Spotted Dick my grandmother made. 

My grandmother's was made by adding currants to pastry, rolling it up in a pudding cloth so it resembled a long, straight sausage, and then it was steamed for an hour or two. Hers came to table on a platter, palely glistening and studded with spots. Those were the days! Men were men and custard was not creme anglaise!

At the V&A was an exhibition: Baroque, Style in the Age of Magnificence, 1620 -1800. Very good, well curated and reeking not a little of incense. Its easy to forget that this style was nothing more than propaganda for the power of the Church and the autocratic monarchs of Europe in those years. This exhibition, now closed unfortunately, made all the right connections whilst exhibiting all the beauty, tenderness, power and majesty of the imagery used in that propaganda. 

Virgin and Child.

"This sculpture was probably commissioned by a Spanish patron and would have been used for private devotion, perhaps by a recent convert among the native population. Whilst the figure is in a European style, the hidden feet suggest Chinese manufacture. The Chinese saw feet as erotic and therefore inappropriate for a religious sculpture."

The Virgin of Sorrows

"Busts of the sorrowful Virgin were often placed in side chapels of churches as a focus of private devotion, perhaps alongside a similar bust of Christ displaying his wounds. Here, the resigned anguish of the Virgin's expression and the carving of her veil and ringlets (made from twisted wood shavings) are particularly skillful and affecting." 

Charles II

"This portrait bust of Charles II represents the monarch in an heroic pose. The proud turn of the head and the vigorous drapery are inspired by a famous bust of Louis XIV by Gianlorenzo Bernini. A symbol of magnificence and power, Bernini's bust was immediately imitated by other European rulers." 

Now you know why we use the term "bigwigs" to refer to anyone in authority. 

Sunday breakfast was here.

Quotes and last three images here

Monday, July 27, 2009

It seems so long ago ...

... we were on vacation, especially now as I huddle on the sofa, head pounding, coughing, spluttering and wheezing from an airplane cold. It ain't pretty.

For years we have flown the Atlantic route and I have never slept a wink on a night flight,  so this time we decided to take Virgin Atlantic, fly through the day and have little problem with jet-lag at the end of the journey. And great fun it was - we upgraded to Premium Economy very cheaply when checking in, were very comfortable and raring to go once off the plane in London. We flew up to New York one day and took the flight to London the day following spending the evening in between at a hotel at the airport. We arrived fresh enough to have dinner with an old dear friend before we collapsed in her guest bedroom and slept the sleep of the just - well, we slept. 

A visit to the Metropolitan Museum is always part of a trip to New York and this time it was to view the Francis Bacon exhibit. Fascinating to see such an overview of a great painter's career and whereas not everything appealed the later self-portrait above is one of my most cherished images - I sort of knew how he felt the minute I set eyes on it. Afterwards we did a quick trot through The Model as Muse exhibit which seemed uninterestedly put together and bland as all get out. 

Museum feet, and the fact that we got out of bed at five that morning, led us very quickly to a taxi and to the King Cole bar at the St. Regis for refreshment - in my case the best Manhattan I'd had until the one I drank a few days later on the Isle of Skye, and in his case, a Tom Collins. 

The King Cole bar, named after the Maxfield Parrish painting, is the place where according to the New York Times the Bloody Mary was first introduced in the 1920s but for me that cocktail is basically too much greenery plonked in a puddle of red goo so I decided on something more fortifying and went straight for the only drink to drink in Manhattan, the Manhattan. What am I, a tourist?  

When we arrived the bar was well-lit but right after sitting and in the middle of reading the list, the place was plunged into that gloom many bars and restaurants consider mood lighting - a sort of dimness that makes it impossible to read a menu without a flashlight - very irritating. No transition, just flick a switch and there you are, in the kind of darkness where the whites of your companions eyes are also dimmed, and which is lit only by the flickering light of the iPhones and Blackberries at every table. Seemingly none of us can exist any more without checking email, answering the phone, or texting whilst we are in company. What happened to manners?

Fortified but slightly tipsy from the cocktail - I was ready to sleep - we went to the theater. I knew something had been planned but was unable to find out what and to my great pleasure it was Blithe Spirit - a good production with Angela Lansbury who was described by a critic as hamming it up so much she was just this side of a pork pie. And HAM she did, with delight and verve. The audience drank it in. Rupert Everett was not acting that night but I didn't really notice. 

Tomorrow, London, Lancashire and the road to the Isles. 

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dundee cake, coral, and flowers ...

... for a birthday boy, my kilt-wearing, fruit cake-loving, ballet-dancing, singing-in-the-shower, glass-half-full-and-filling-fast, Celtish Peacock. 

I know this going to sound sooooooo trite - but where do the years go? 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blue remembered Skye

Rush, rush, rush, a state of mind I've slipped back into all too easily, was not a quality of the few days we spent on the Isle of Skye. Skye for me is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, on a par with the desert in Arizona. Not to compare you might think but if you have been to both places you might know how impressive and memorable the elemental can be and why when on Skye I kept remembering Arizona.

We stayed a few days at Kinloch Lodge, an old hunting lodge, now converted by the aristocratic family that owns it into a hotel and restaurant. I'll write more of this later in a compendium post about the vacation. Right now there is not time, unfortunately. 

Whilst at Kinloch I discovered, totally against character, single malt Scotch. In the past I have used whisky only as an ingredient of and to flambe the Christmas Pudding but now life has changed - I love what is this Friday's cocktail or, rather, today's life enhancing drink and one of the ancient foods still made in the ancient way - foods that define both experience and place.

Talisker Single Malt Whiskey.

I know that one is supposed only to drink single malt with a touch of water but true to my preference I drank this subtlest of peaty, smokey, golden liquids over ice whilst sitting in an armchair in one of Kinloch's drawing rooms with my Celt next to me in front of a wonderful view (above) awaiting the call to dinner. 

Utter peace. 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Breakfast at Liberty's

A brief post today - I'm back from vacation and straight into the stress-inducing mode of "gotta get going, gotta get this done."  However, I will take time for breakfast at Liberty's of London. 

One of the pleasantest aspects of a vacation is the food and to experience true delicacies one has to eat where the locals eat from locally produced ingredients.  Sounds self-evident I know, but so many people still have the idea that British food is terrible and quite where they have been eating I cannot say, for my experience is totally the opposite (as my soon-to-be-dealt-with new waistline attests).  Any tourist can eat very badly if he refuses to stand outside of personal prejudices.  Witness the food courts in the malls, the airports and cities of this country - places where tourists generally speaking visit and suffer as a consequence.  As anyone of any intelligence and taste knows American food is not about the offerings of Generica and neither is the food of other countries. 

On the menu at Liberty's of London was the ideal thing for me - I'm not a sweet stuff first thing in the morning kind of a bloke - a dish I'd had twice for breakfast on the Isle of Skye - smoked haddock with poached eggs.  Breakfast at Liberty's was the last of the vacation and was salutatory in showing how when one leaves a locality the flavour and quality are not quite the same.  That is not to say that this breakfast was not delicious, it was, especially when accompanied by the glass of champagne offered as an apology by the cook for having been stayed (unavoidably) on the phone whilst we waited ten minutes after ordering. 

I grew up eating smoked haddock, kippers, potted shrimps, those specialities of northern England and Scotland, but only until I got closer to the origins did I realize how wonderful they were and still are.  Not for these craftsmen and craftswomen the injection of smoke flavoring, this was real smoke in all its deliciousness, and the continuation of this ancient tradition of food preservation is one of the glories of that part of the world. 

Anyone recognize the wallcovering in Liberty's Cafe? 

Edward James' Monkton House.