Heat, Chemistry & CO2

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Does it make a difference that it’s a dry heat? Yeah, but not much.

“You’ll have missed the best of summer by the time you go home,” a Highlands shopkeeper said mournfully, as we ducked into her shop to get out of the rain. Och, not a chance, missus.

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Welcome to August in California in a drought year, where there’s plenty of summer to go around, in these parts (and it’s usually 10-12 degrees warmer in Vacaville, where D. works and where this picture was taken). We’ve now been thoroughly acclimated back to summer in Cali, and have been home for two tiny heat… spikes – can’t exactly call them waves when they only last two days – where the temps hover hear 100°F. Today is the second time we’ve had to turn on the air conditioning and have contemplated setting up our camping cots in the basement office to catch some cool while we sleep. It’s rare that the bay breeze doesn’t catch us — but when that preternatural stillness hits, we know it’s going to be a rotten, hot day. Fortunately, we really don’t get those too often, as close to the water as we are, but we do have a few hard-and-fast hot weather rules:

#1 – make small, quick salad-based meals and stock up on juice bars; no one really feels like eating,

#2 – Turn on the AC before it gets hot (T. has the most trouble with this) and,

#3 – Don’t even so much as boil water indoors (except in the electric kettle) when the temps hit 93°.

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Outdoor gear comes in handy at home this time of year. From the camping cots to the camp stove, in really hot weather, we use it all. A two-ring gas burner with a propane tank attached is great for grilling and baking — we blackened tomatoes – from our own garden! – and peppers to make a piquant and spicy pico de gallo, which is really tasty. We also made cast iron skillet cornbread with our lidded Lodge iron skillet. The lid helped it bake evenly and stay moist, as did the frozen corn we added. Using less than three tablespoons of almond flour in this corntastic dish created an amazing flavor – we’ll definitely do this quick-and-dirty dinner again. (Throw hot dogs and chunks of cheese, onions and a bit of fresh or frozen corn into your batter, and it’s a meal-in-a-pan. It’s a cross between corn dogs and casserole. Just add sliced tomatoes and cukes.)

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The one fly in the ointment is the curious trio of raccoon who have dug up the strawberry bed entirely (!!) and are quite interested in the camp stove and all of our outdoor doings – but fortunately opposable thumbs in this case don’t mean that they can cook.

Because cooking and eating aren’t that interesting just now, we’ve gone into new experiments. We had the MOST amazing ginger beer in Scotland, put out by a company called Luscombe in Devon, England. It’s made in a village called Buckfastleigh.

Aside: Yes, let’s do take a moment and consider that name. Buckfastleigh. Ah, yes – this particular village in Devon also is home to BUCKFAST ABBEY, notorious makers of the hideously destructive delinquent Glaswegian crazy-fuel, BUCKFAST TONIC WINE, aka “Wreck the Hoose Juice.” Aye right, keep it classy, Glasgow. (Actually, that’s one of those names that was always in the paper – we never heard Actual People call it that.

Yeah, so it’s THAT Buckfastleigh. Just blows the mind that two such notable drinks come from the same region…)

ANYWAY.

Notable to foodies seeking an aggressively comparable non-alcoholic drink in pubs, Luscombe’s Hot Ginger Beer burns all the way down, yet soothes the stomach. Not too sweet, with a crisp bite of lemon to sharpen the gingery glow, it is a perfectly lovely thing to drink to warm you up – or cool you down. They make a Cool Ginger Beer as well, but we hadn’t the patience for that nonsense. Ginger is supposed to bite. Sadly, not at all willing to pay $65 to ship a twelve-bottle case to our house (!), we decided to put our intellect into finding out what’s in the stuff, and recreating it ourselves. Because, why not? Ginger beer is straight forward. It’s only ginger root, sugar, and water, right?

Actual ingredients include spring water, organic raw cane sugar, organic root ginger 3%, organic Sicilian lemon juice 3%, brewers yeast and CO2. Those are the simple ingredients, and we’re pretty sure the CO2 also occurs naturally when the juice is bottled, as it is a byproduct of fermentation anyway. Ginger beer is a relatively old recipe from the times when water wasn’t always the best option to drink, and people drank small beer or ales. Ginger beer is actually very slightly alcoholic — you can’t really make it without naturally occurring alcohols cropping up. That’s an immutable fact of making a fermented beverage – and yes, the good ginger beer and root beer, too, is fermented and filled with those good-for-you lacto-bacteria, just like kimchee or soy sauce. The trick is to allow for naturally occurring alcohols, but not intoxicating alcohols, so it has to be watched and smelled and stirred daily.

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We began by processing fresh ginger root. In this weather, any fresh fruit or veg goes round pretty easily, so we found that chopping it up – skin and all – and freezing it assured that we’d have it as needed, and it thaws quickly and easily with no change in body.

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Next, we worked on creating a “ginger bug,” which is a starter brew for fizzy fermented soda. It’s simply ginger, sugar, and water and three days in a crock to grow the necessary bacteria. Ginger beer from American brands like “Q,” readability available British brands like “Fever Tree” and gingery sodas from the Virgin Islands are based on a brew like this. Some people worry about adding sugar to this — they don’t want sugary sodas like they get at the store – but the sugar is for the yeast and bacteria, not you! It will be mostly eaten by those little critters, leaving you with just enough, if you do it right. (Of course, we didn’t entirely follow any *cough* recipe – we’re still fiddling, but this is a guideline.)

Rootbeer 1.1

Originally, root beer was made out of …um, roots and molasses. We compromised on a variety of recipes and chose one we liked. In these containers are sarsaparilla root, ginger root, licorice root, a cinnamon stick, and juniper berries; wild cherry bark, hops flowers, a 1/2 c. of “ginger bug;” wintergreen leaf, birch bark, and dandelion root. This is the basics from an 1840 recipe for root beer. Hops are bitter, and they’re what’s in beer to make it bitter, so T. was fairly skeptical about their inclusion… and since we had no brewer’s yeast, we used fresh yeast from the bakery. This… may have been a mistake. Next time we plan to include sassafras root (we accidentally ordered sassafras leaves, which are great for including in gumbo, but not so much in here) and molasses, and a kefir starter, which hopefully doesn’t smell quite so …raw.

The fermented soda experiment is ongoing, but a few things have been learned. First, OPEN ALL BOTTLES GENTLY and IN THE SINK. We had a root beer tsunami the other day, and it wasn’t pretty. The amount of CO2 collecting under the the lid of a bottle can have fatal force – open away from you, just like you would shaken soda, or champagne. Second, lemon juice is brewed soda’s friend – it adds a lot to the blurry medicinal flavors of roots in the root beer, and helps to sort of …cut the raw, yeasty smell. Thirdly, there is a hair-thin line between healthy fermentation and hooch — on hot days, things may go TERRIBLY wrong, very quickly (this hasn’t happened to us yet, but we’ve been warned all over the place about exploding bottles and out-of-control fermentation. We are not making booze! Promise, Mom.) Finally, we’ve learned that though we are willing and eager, making homemade root beer is going to be harder than we thought – the flavor we’re chasing is elusive, and the smell is off-putting to everyone, even veteran booze-drinkers (D took some to work for his coworkers to taste. Once they got past the smell, they all said it was good; T and Niecelet Flea said a definite thumbs down). We’ve concluded that Americans don’t really drink “root beer” so much as they drink sarsaparilla – the flavor of ours was nothing like root beer, except the one time we got root beer from a health-food store and were horrified. We’ll be aiming more for sarsaparilla next time.

The ginger beer is definitely easier for first-timers. We rather like the ginger beer – though T says it’s nowhere near as strong and lemon-y as it should be, and since she drank various brands everywhere everyone else had a diet Coke, she ought to know. T suggests dried ginger root will be added in copious amounts next time, along with fresh, to the ginger bug, and and lots more lemon juice in continuing incarnations. Stay tuned!

Hope you’re finding ways to keep busy and creative in the hot weather – or the wet weather – or wherever you find yourself. Savor every day of summertime – too hot, or not. Life doesn’t resume when it cools down or heats up, or is some ephemeral right temperature – it’s right now, so enjoy.

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All That We Forgot

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Back home, and resettling into the routine swing of things, we find we’ve kind of lost track of most of August, and are feeling shocked that the Wees and the Littles are going to be back in school in just a few weeks (the Wees in a new school, no less), and that the tomatoes (still largely green – what’s up with that?) are heavy in the wild tangle known as our garden, and even the eggplant has two fat golf ball sized fruit, and getting bigger every day. We’d forgotten how dry the air here is, how frequent the fires — and spent the first week back sneezing and using the humidifier. After the luxury of damp Scottish air and delicious Scottish water, getting back to pitcher filters and that sort of thing is a drag — but, it is what it is. We’re home, and missing friends, but glad to be here.

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It was a little funny to remember how much we’d forgotten having been away from Scotland for another year. Both of us laughed at hearing the lyrical descriptive swing of the “Glesga patter” fairly leap from our mouths again — not to mention the unique pronunciations of the brogue. We say to-may-toe, they say toe-mah-toe, and when in Rome, or rather Glasgow, that’s one of the words we normally leave alone, but T. actually heard herself slip into the British pronunciation, much to her amusement.

Aye, Scotland. It’s catching, mate.

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We haven’t lost much of our “ear” – people ask us all the time if we go back to Glasgow, and are unable to understand people, but no – that hasn’t happened yet. Even away from Glasgow, we understood cab drivers and the odd guy in the pub, but there are always people one doesn’t understand — and that’s fine. We’re pretty sure that a few people in Maine or Louisiana would be also equally incomprehensible. (Or someone from the five boroughs – T’s agent is from Brooklyn, and sometimes…) We fondly seized on being called “love,” in a casual way, and took in stride the affection chivying, “oh, go on, go on,” to encourage us to eat another chocolate, or do something we wanted to, but were holding out against for manners’ sake. We smiled to hear the casual insertion of the word “ginger” in conversation, and the speaker not mean a spice. Or, speaking of gingers, our friend L mentioned the word “oxters,” in passing, and it took us a minute to remember that she means “underarms.”

2015 Benicia 7 (T’s favorite of these body-parts words is bahookie – and yes, everyone has one; it sounds exactly like what it is.) We heard the word “clipe” (or clype – spelling is purely at-will in Ulster-Scots dialect) and remembered it as a particularly clipped-sounding word for “tattletale.” We rediscovered – and still did not partake of – the food “cranachan” and still are more than a bit dubious about a dessert in which whiskey soaked oats, raspberries, cream and honey play a part. We delighted in the boon of a Scottish summer — berreis, berries, berries — and extended California’s berry season by two months instead of the paltry one we usually have, with tons of raspberries, strawberries, and brambles/blackberries. We even found some cherries, just as we were leaving, that were amazingly sweet. We had mince — and mushy peas — which were frighteningly good – and even neeps and tatties – though the neeps were an accident; T. goes out of her way to avoid the “neeps” or turnips/swedes in any dish, at all costs. But, even so, it was so good to reacquaint ourselves.

Back home, we’ve remembered what we love about August – bare feet on hardwood floors (only slightly dusty), misty mornings when the fog rolls in, the Perseids, on a clear night away from town, the presence of raccoon — three now, dear God help us — under the kitchen deck, and resuming our attempt at amateur Audubon-ing- around the feeder, two crows have become regulars, as well as a very confused mourning dove (who may soon be eaten by the Cooper’s hawk), three pushy Jays, and a stripey-headed thing we cannot for the life of us identify — but it flits, and is tiny and almost as fast as the hummers. (We should probably just break down and get a bird book, as the Cornell Ornithology website can only do so much.) We are also in melon season — the the most amazing, fragrant charentais can be had from Riverdog’s stand at the farmer’s market — and we caught the last of the cherry glut, and are moving on to the last of the peaches and plums. We feel rich in produce, in scents, in the feel of the sun on our backs.

We’re drunk on the light and the soft air and the long days — but everyone keeps telling us we’re going to have a heckuva winter here in Cali. A large part of us – that part which spent a month of summer ducking into doorways for shelter from plowtery weather – are thinking, “bring it on!” We now have rubber welly boots, mackintoshes, and more umbrellas than you can shake a stick at, and when it’s blowin’ a hoolie, we’ll be ready. Once again, Scotland to the rescue.

Until then… enjoy the summer, and photos of a green and pleasant land.

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Signs of the Times

Oban to Glasgow 3Oban to Glasgow 4

Continuing to be separated by a common language… One of the things we like to photograph when abroad are road signs, street signs, and signs in general (the sumo-baby signs indicating places to change the diapers of gigantic babies are a particular favorite). Digital warnings like ‘Soft Tyres Waste Fuel’ (Better get that pressure checked, pal) and ‘Tiredness Kills’ are amusing all on their own, but today’s sign pictures are of printed signs – fortunately encountered when we were NOT driving. Possible Queuing Traffic Ahead? OK, sure, you can figure that one out, but it’s certainly not the most straightforward way to explain things, at least not to our minds. Lots of road work on the roads between Oban and Glasgow, and lots of places where they’ve put in temporary signal lights, which causes traffic to back up until the light changes. Thus, possible queuing, as it happens. Meanwhile, ‘Oncoming Vehicles in Middle of Road’ is a sign we saw frequently, driving around the Oban area. If there’s a narrow bridge, or underpass, and the traffic is constricted down to one lane, then you’ll see these… and oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road, which, back in the hinterlands of the highlands, happens frequently anyway, especially with the dreaded White Van Man. (Apparently, people driving white vans don’t own them, are working for someone else, and drive hell-bent for leather. Or, so we are told.)

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These two (hidden dip and blind summit) were sort of perplexing to us. The blind summit sort of makes sense – there’s a hill ahead of you and you don’t know what’s on the other side of it (which … duh?). Hidden dip, though? Is that telling us that there’s going to be another vehicle in the dip, or what, exactly? In neither case where we saw these signs was there anything terribly unusual about the conditions. We’re also wondering if Captain Obvious might make up a sign telling the drivers that they can’t see what’s around bends in the road, too. Come to think of it, though, haven’t there been “Blind Corner” signs? Hmm….

And last but not least: the Yes on Independence sign. Lots of strong sentiment about independence, still, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. If anything, it’s gotten stronger since the vote.

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Our Scottish Adventure is ending – we arrive back in California on Thursday afternoon. We’re looking forward to 1) washing all of our clothes, and 2) wearing some other clothes for maybe the next several months. Yes, you can get by on a week’s worth of clothing if you’ve got access to a washer in the flat … but you’ll come to hate those same clothes after wearing and rewearing them for a month!

-D & T

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At Home In Your Church

Thing 1’s parents live in a converted church, and his father A., an industrial designer and artist, was most happy to give us all the details on the building, the grounds, the loch and the history thereof. The building itself was built in 1844, and was a major renovation of an existing church. With a bit of ingenuity, Thing 1’s dad A came up with a plan to convert the disused church into a home.

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To the left are the models A. built, to show how he wanted the house. The builders constructed his house from these models, basically just putting their signature on the drawings A. had also made up and calling it well enough planned to build from. After all, this wasn’t construction, really – the church outside wasn’t really changed, with the exception of adding windows and doors – it was, though, a major undertaking, constructing a living space inside the shell of stone.

To their pride, A&F’s belfry is home to one of the largest colonies in the UK of long-eared bats. They have both long-eared and common Pipistrelle bats (one roosts in the belfry, the other in the attic), as well as swallows (who happily share space with the bats in the belfry).

We were truly impressed with the house, and want one of our own! Now, we just need to find a stone church constructed 150 years ago….

-D & T

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Antlers and Dolphins and Puffins, Oh My!

Last week was quite a busy week! We spent the week “glamping” in a lovely caravan-camper in the village of Appin while jetting about with Thing 1 and J. The upper highlands are one place where one REALLY needs a car, as the villages are tiny and separated by miles of windy road, so we were especially chuffed to have a friend on hand, who was happy to drive us to all of his favorite places, and to some he’d never visited before. We headed – in one remarkably long day – out to visit Iona Abbey and Staffa Island. In order to do this, we first had to take the ferry from Oban to the town of Craigmure on the island of Mull, which takes about 45 minutes. We then took a bus via single-track roads (yes – one lane, with places to pull out and let opposing traffic pass – it’s not a joyful thing at all) all the way across the island, which takes about an hour. We then took another ferry over to the island of Iona. You can check out all of the pictures here.

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From Iona, we then took a wee tour boat out to Staffa island – to see puffins! Along the way, we got to visit with a friendly pod of dolphins, who were quite happy to play along in the boat wake. We were quite sorry to see them fall behind, as our boat accelerated, but they were joyful to see in person, in the wild, playing in the water.

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Staffa Island is interesting, from a geologic perspective, with columnar basalt formations, caverns, etc. It is also quite steep, full of peat bogs which want to suck off your shoes, big rocks in the middle of the trail, and steep cliffs. For us, though (well – for D), Staffa was mostly a convenient place to visit with the puffins. These little birds – and they are quite surprisingly smaller than you’d think – have pretty much no fear of people. They’ll happily waddle around a few feet away, looking quizzically at you if you’re where they want to be. It’s a bit of a slog through marshy ground to get there (UNDERSTATEMENT! – t), but well worth the hike. Check out all of the Staffa pictures here.

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When we say it was a busy week, we mean it. We are well exhausted, from long drives and lots of walking/hikes, but we had such a good time, and T. looks back at high hills and cliffs with a sense of satisfaction from having climbed them (though her thigh muscles are still faintly protesting). We walked out to visit Glenfinnnan (of Harry Potter train-bridge fame), pottered about a bit in Glencoe, and took a gondola ride up to the top of Aonach Mor. Not to mention getting to visit with Thing 1’s parents and oler sister, eating loads of good vegetarian food, playing rowdy games of Cranium and Articulate (we will be purchasing that one – it’s awesome fun), and visiting the “Hollow Mountain,” aka Cruachan Power Station – the first “reversible” hydro-power station in the world (when the need electricity, they let the water run out of their reservoir; when they can buy electricity during off-peak usage times, they reverse the turbines and pump the water back into the reservoir). A good time was had, but we’re most grateful to be back in the land of fewer “midgies,” as they call the voracious mosquito, and more internet connectivity!

-D & T

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We attend a hootenanny…

Not really. Actually, we went to see Calamity Jane at the Perth Concert Hall for its last night.

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We love the Perth theater, not least because we sang a perfect concert there, ages ago – the Rossini in 2011 was FLAWLESS, and it’s just not often that you can say that about a concert – but it’s a bright and well attended space, and there is a lot of variety there. We thought we’d enjoy a bit of town polish whilst on vacation, so we got ourselves to the theater… and noticed a big, big group of screeching, giggling women taking selfies on the stairs to the balcony. Of course they were seated right next to us. OF COURSE THEY WERE. They were having a hen party, complete with pink, sparkly, plastic, cowboy hats. They were very …enthusiastic, as was most of the rest of the audience, really: clapping, “yee-haw-ing”, whistling, stomping their feet. It was like …theater as we’ve never experienced it. Ever. It was an event. Having never seen the performance before – D. had never even really gotten the gist of the plot – we were a bit … left out. What with the lack of sparkly cowboy hats and all.

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Despite our bemusement, it was quite a well done performance – even the accents could have been from… well, Australia-by-way-of-Canada, if not the U.S.. The players had an amazing amount of musical talent – there was a cellist, a bass, two flautists, three violinists – fiddlers – and a couple of really wonderful trumpeters, a sax player, and some great pianists – as well as the ubiquitous guitarists, harmonica and banjo players – all moving and dancing and managing to never miss an entrance or a pitch. And then there was the stompy, enthusiastic hootenany-ceilidh dancing, aka square dancing… which reminded us an awful lot of the square-dancing at our friend Axel’s wedding, actually… while we may never (please, T. says) go see a Western musical again, it was a lot of fun to do something so drastically different, on holiday.

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The Further Adventures

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The weather continues to cycle wildly, like a fractious, teething infant. Squalls and torrential cloudbursts followed by misty blue skies and bursts of sunshine. Though we lost our travel partners for the day – Dundee was hit with FAR more of the storm cell – we thought that we were okay to take off yesterday and go out to the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay, because the Beeb reported that the worst of the torrents was long gone, and all was well.

Well, obviously, next time we’ll check a different weather report for a second opinion.

All was fine – getting out to the A9 was fine – and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves for managing a dual carriageway when only days before, managing surface streets in a car that felt backwards and weird was A Bit Much. We listened to the SatNav, which is what people call the GPS here, and found our exit, turned off the freeway, and…

…into about two feet of standing water. Well, one can’t stop on a freeway, so we kept going, even as T. quietly screamed in the passenger seat. Fortunately, we went directly uphill… into gravel. The road was in the process of washing out, so there was gravel and big rocks all over. With his passenger still quietly screaming, D. carried on, with the idea that the uphill of the road meant that we would clear all problems eventually. All it meant to T. was that we’d eventually have to go …downhill.

And did we mention that this was such a narrow road that it seemed to be a single track? And that people were coming down from it at great rate, but no one was going up?

(And speaking of “at a great rate,” good grief do Perthshire drivers just whiz along. Apparently a little hydroplaning on a stormy day never hurt anyone.)

Scottish roads are good for having lay-bys, or turnouts, as we call them in the States, but we whipped past the first couple without noticing them, because they were tiny. Small streams and rivers flowed merrily over the road as we finally found a driveway and began the laborious process of the twenty-point turn. We were rattled and dismayed (again, what is this WE?), but once we returned to the main road, we decided to press on to Pitlochry, which is basically a tiny town with a distillery and a fish ladder and so many shops that it feels like a brightly colorful outdoor mall with pots of flowers strewn about. Pitlochry is an exercise in not buying things, as there are so many little bits of tat here and there that you could buy something from every store. We resisted — because we were there on a mission. Or, rather D. was.

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In 2008, D. bought a wallet from a shop. He needed a Scottish wallet, because they have change purses and pound coins just don’t fit properly into an American wallet – nor do Scottish bills, because they are wider. The new wallet was something like his second or third in Scotland – he’d been unhappy with all the others – but this one was handmade, and he was thrilled with it. Fast forward to our return to the States, when he decided not to swap wallets back to his old American one… fast forward to today, when it is literally falling apart. “I’m going to find that shop,” he said, and set off in the rain, through the streets of Pitlochry. “I think it was… right in the middle of town, by that one hardware store.” And with that vague idea, followed by a dubious spouse, the adventure continued.

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And, because Scotland rarely changes what works, and Pitlochry is nearly the same as it was years ago, the shop is still there. The proprietress is still there. And, the style of wallet? Astoundingly, still there. D. opted for a wallet that is a little longer than his original, so that it accommodates both kinds of bills, and while it doesn’t have a separate zippered compartment for his Icelandic money (which he carries everywhere, as one does), it literally fits the bill.

It’s been an unusual week, having a car in Scotland, and next week we’re back to the kindness of friends fetching us from train stations and towing us around, and a great deal more walking to and from as well as around and through. While this will likely mean fewer breathless moments with roundabouts (!!!!), it will definitely mean lower blood pressure all around!

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And, hello Perth

Should you visit this fair (well, sometimes; mostly it’s drippy just now) country, you should know that every trip to Scotland must involve a trip to Stirling Castle. This is just the way of things, because it’s a fabulous castle (Historic Scotland maintains their offices there, saying it’s the best example of a Scottish castle).

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You’d think we’d be over visiting Stirling, since when we lived in Hayford Mills we were literally ten minutes away from the castle, but no. This time, we visited because they’ve been renovating the residential section of the castle the last 10 times we visited (OK, maybe it wasn’t 10 times – but the whole 5 years we lived in this country, it was closed). Anyway, they’d been renovating, and had had weavers in making tapestries using traditional methods (by hand, for years and years).

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The tapestries are now installed in the residential section, which is completely redone to historically accurate specifications – including the somewhat garish colorings of the plaster walls and the ceiling. (We read awhile back in the Smithsonian Magazine about all the Italian statuary and castles which were probably bright and full color — when all that plain white marble is restored, it’s amazingly bright and whimsical looking). Together with the ceilings, the tapestries are quite magnificent, seen as a whole, rather than just randomly hung upon the walls in other sections of the castle. They represent thousands of hours of labor, with multiple people sitting down and weaving in pieces by hand, one thread at a time. They really stand out now, and add quite a lot to the castle as a whole.


We ended our time in Glasgow with the best of all things, and the worst of all things — Sunday, we had brunch with some of our dearest Scottish friends, and met some new and brilliant friends at a supper given for us — those were wonderful. The less-than-amusing Glasgow incident – typical for us, it seems – meant another noisy neighbor, and another all-night party Saturday night we couldn’t interrupt for love nor money. Though he apologized – upon being forced to – we’re happily done with the city, and now on to gorgeous, green Perth.

We’ll always remember this time in Perth – for a number of reasons, but because here we braved driving for the first time in the UK (What is this we, T???) — fine, D chanced driving, whilst T. gripped the dash board and prayed — ! It’s a challenge, because the car seems ridiculously wide and having the wheel on the side closest to the lane where other drivers are seems… odd. D. tends to drive wide of the center line, but with a little more practice, he should be fine. Even so, we’re staying off of major roads, and only got the car so that we could get to some of the more far-flung locations out in the country. (Because such great swaths of land are privately held in this country, the trains just don’t go East to West, because it’s private land and ostensibly the Lairds said no when the railroad came knocking.) At least it’s an automatic, so D. isn’t shifting with his left hand on top of everything else!

We are now staying at a newly renovated guest house as its second guests. We are quite happy for the modern conveniences, though there’s no gorgeous Georgian ceiling and crown moldings… it doesn’t leak, and it has all modern conveniences and it still smells faintly of fresh paint, it’s so new. It’s central to another group of friends, and some lovely historical places further in the country, and we’re looking forward to wringing all we can out of this pleasant location.

This week, we should make our way to the Crannog Centre, the gorgeous little town of Pitlochry, Dunblane, and to Scone Palace (rhymes with “spoon” – not the biscuity thing you eat with jam and cream). We’ll visit with L and the Weasels, and generally be tourists.

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And now, it’s time to settle in with a pillow or two and a book. Half of our holiday has gone, and we must make the most of this leisure time.

-D & T

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Many Happy Returns

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Wood, wood, wood. Everywhere.

No – in fact we weren’t celebrating the 239th birthday of independence in the U.S. – although that’s nothing to sniff over. We were referring to the happy return to the city where toilets flush like Niagra, cab drivers tell you their life stories and ask probing personal questions, and where a few of our really dear friends still live – we’ve returned to Glasgow.

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Home of antiquities in architecture, and glass door knobs

You may ask, as we often ask ourselves, why we’re back here. We asked ourselves laughingly, as we arrived in a hissing downpour, during the after work commute traffic on Thursday, drove through slightly dodgy neighborhoods enroute to our flat, and listened to our cab driver whinge to us about his mother in law. (Okay, kidding about that last. But it has happened before.)

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The view from the front room.

We finally decided it’s more about us than about Glasgow; more about who we are when we’re here than the place itself. It’s kind of representative of our shared college experiences – only we were much older in this charmed time and place than we were as undergraduates, thus less apt to take for granted finding our tribe. We enjoyed the academic atmosphere, the variety of lectures open to the public, and that no one – on the West End of the city, anyway – thinks anything of people who read in public and ignore everyone around them. There are places to be a hermit, and places to emerge from “hermitude” and eat supper while watching ping pong tournaments. It felt oddly like non-adult life, and it’s fun to return to that, albeit briefly.

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And Glasgow welcomed us back with style! Well, in Glasgow-style, anyway. We were sitting in the front room, having a quiet read/doze in the overcast afternoon, with the sky pewter gray and the breeze whipping through the trees outside… and then we hear the sound of dripping. From inside.

…Oh, no. OH NO!

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Oh, yes. Water ran down this chain and splattered.

The exchange of disbelieving looks! The scrambling for mop buckets! The dash to hail the neighbor upstairs! It was all so familiar! We truly felt we were back, at that moment. And then we spent the next hour in intermittent snickers. Good old Georgian-era houses and ridiculous plumbing. (Apparently the neighbor upstairs was using the kitchen tap… somehow, the pipes objected. He now promises not to use the tap until Monday when someone can come in and look at the thing… We don’t dare turn on the overhead light in the front room, we’re sure we’ll short out the whole house. Good times, people. Good times.

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The bedroom light fixture.

Happy Fourth. May your fireworks be safe, and here’s hoping that the boiler doesn’t blow up.

Posted in Glasgow, Life, Traveling | 2 Comments

Taste & See: Miyoko’s Creamery

Did you get the memo?

The words “artisan” and “vegan” go together. Well, they’re being seen together a lot more lately, anyway. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before vegans figured out the cheese thing, since it’s the excuse most of us use to stay not-vegan. We love our cheese. For those who desire to switch to a solely plant-based diet, the siren-call of cheese can be really, seriously, awfully HARD to resist, so vegans have for a long time been motivated. Of course, there have been, and there remain, myriad vile concoctions as a result of that motivation, horrific things which masquerade as cheese. Probably everyone has their story of struggling through plastic-y sandwich additions, crunchily textured things made out of rice milk (WHY?) and bright orange “chezie” sauce on pasta (sometimes this can be really good – T’s baby sister makes an amazing mac-and-cheez. But, not everyone has the knack.), but this isn’t a story about someone’s putting out a substandard product. This is a story of a product cheeses which was welcomed by vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike. It was kind of shocking.

Miyoko Schinner is a longtime Bay Area vegan who wrote several cookbooks, including one in 2012, detailing her at-home success in making cultured vegan nut products. But, though many people bought the book, they were too timid to try cooking with unusual ingredients such as carrageenan powder, xanthan gum, tapioca flour, and agar powder. Not only that, but people had to come to grips with stuff like rejuvelac (what?) and the idea that culturing anything – dairy or non-dairy – is a process that is open to the vagaries of chance, as well as time-consuming. Laziness won out again, and after a lot of whining from friends and family, Miyoko opened Miyoko’s Creamery… which now ships to all fifty states, has a contract with the Whole Foods Markets and is still expanding as we speak.

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We sat down for our family “Wine & Cheese” Tasting last week with a chilled bottle of Draper Valley Riesling grape juice – from an absolutely fabulous company which produces only unsulphured bottled grape juices, which means everyone can partake – and four of Miyoko’s Creamery cheeses (and, we’re just going to say “cheeses,” because “cultured nut products” makes us want to belt someone, and we refuse to type that umpteen million times). The cheeses are plastic-wrapped and then boxed for freshness, and before tasting, T. set them out for about forty-five minutes, to make sure we lost none of the flavors due to cold. (We don’t advise more than ten minutes in the summertime, however! The Double Cream got very soft.) There are ten “root” varieties of cheese, and then there are seasonal variations. We chose the Aged English Farmhouse cheese, the High Sierra Rustic Alpine, the Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf, and the Classic Double-Cream Chive. In the interest of taking good first impressions and comparing and contrasting, we ate the cheese on thin crispy, crackers containing no spices, passing the plate along the table and comparing flavor and texture, smell and noting anything else which caught our attention.

We began with the High Sierra Rustic Alpine cheese, which had a thick, creamy texture that was almost not spreadable – a paté consistency. It could be described as “semi-hard.” In color, it is a light tan all the way through. Its ingredients list Organic Cashews, Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Oil, Organic Chickpea Miso (Organic Chickpeas, Organic Rice Koji, Sea Salt, Water, Koji Spores), Sea Salt, Nutritional Yeast, and Cultures. We notice that nowhere on the list is listed liquid smoke, but… there’s… something slightly – very slightly – smoky about this cheese. This comes, perhaps, from the combination of nutritional yeast and miso? Anyway, the smooth and mild spread left a nicely savory finish on the tongue, and was …tasty. It wasn’t T’s favorite, but T’s mother thought it was wonderful and went back to it again and again. (Of course, this became her pattern with ALL of the cheeses throughout the night. But, more on that later.)

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Interestingly, the ingredient list for the second cheese we tried is identical to the first, and yet, could two cheeses be any more diverse? The Classic Double Cream Chive was very nearly T’s favorite, with its creamy, mild, buttery flavor and the lovely hint of chive. In color, it is a creamy white, with bits of green which are the chives. This was enthusiastically received, and T. imagined it on baked potatoes, immediately. And then on toast. And then on peppered water crackers… Despite the miso and nutritional yeast still present in this cheese, the overwhelming flavor is mildly herb-y and buttery — like a nice Gournay cheese like Boursin. T’s mother returned to this cheese as well, as it’s very creamy and moreish, as our Scots friends would say. Another plus? It a cheese that is definitely easy to get kids to eat. Our youngest taster, Elf, is eight, and informed us that it is indeed a very good cheese, and he’s quite the omnivore and picky as all heck. An excellent result!

Not surprisingly, because T. loved it so much, D. just… shrugged. “It’s fine, it’s tasty enough,” is no ringing endorsement, so we will just ignore him, and move on. AHEM.

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The next cheese T. wasn’t too sure about at all – because she’s not that fond of fruit in cheese, and not always at all fond of certain varietals of figs. Fortunately, she needn’t have worried; the ingredient list remained the same with this cheese, which meant the fig leaf – wine-cured – was only on the outside, and had nothing to do with the product INSIDE. The manufacturer has made a note that the shelf-life of this particular cheese is sixty days. As none of our other cheeses had this note, we figured it was there because of the leaves, which introduces another biological element into something cultured and aged.

While T. wasn’t sure she’d be wild about this cheese, this one D. managed to hoard and keep right in front of him on the table. Its sharpness and decidedly tangy, savory flavor may have been the reason for this. In color, this product is creamy white and the leaf only discolors the surface a very little bit. The manufacturer advises that this cheese grows more sharp as it ages. Of all the cheeses we tried T. liked this one least, and D. liked this one best. Elf was indifferent and T’s mother tried it once or twice, and remained enthused.

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(The photographer must apologize for not unwrapping a couple of the cheeses; social occasions with a lot of giggling and genial insults and cheese-snatching across the table are not the best times to remember to properly photograph the food on one’s plate. Look! You can just admire the wonderfully sweet tea roses or the quirky cross-stitch pattern on the plates! There. All better.)

The final cheese was a second choice; we’d intended to sample the Smoked English Sharp Farmhouse, but it is apparently wildly popular and goes quickly out of stock from week to week. We settled instead for the Aged English Sharp Farmhouse, and were nonetheless thrilled. It is a firm, light tan cheese with a tangy flavor reminiscent of cheddar, and would have paired nicely with a Draper Valley verjus, the tangy, tart vintner’s brew made of unripened grapes. We all immediately imagined this melted – and it does melt – into a pasta sauce. This was Elf’s hands-down …tied favorite. Flea’s hands-down main favorite, T’s mother’s favorite, just because they all were, D’s second favorite, and T’s favorite. While we tried to remind ourselves that we were just TASTING, this cheese barely made it to be wrapped up and sent out the door to T’s parent’s house. Given time, it would have been completely snarfed down. The ingredients for this farmhouse were the same as with all of the other cheeses, yet this astonishingly tasted nothing like them. At all.

…which is really not so surprising. ALL cheeses in the dairy section are, at their root, made of … milk, salt, and enzymes, added with time. What gives cheese its flavor differentiation? The culturing process. The time. Owing to that simplicity, you might having a niggling interest in buying that cookbook and seeing how hard it would be to produce your own cultured nut products (!) at home. Or, if you’re not as time-rich as that, you could pop over to the website and see what else you’ve missed. The Country Style Herbes de Provence? The Double Cream Sundried Tomato & Garlic? The French Winter Truffle, or the Mt. Vesuvius Black Ash?

We bought these cheeses to share a social experience with vegans who don’t often get to have wine & cheese parties (okay, not gonna lie; people who don’t drink also don’t have wine and cheese parties, but we’ll ignore that), and came away sort of gobsmacked and perfectly willing to buy and consume these products our own non-vegan selves. There are still plenty of vegan “pitfalls” out there in terms of faux cheese products — but this carefully handcrafted, artisan “cultured nut product?” Is not one of them.

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