Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What I Did on My Summer Vacation II

We woke up in Penzance Thursday morning, ready to spend the day driving back to London, where we had reservations in Bloomsbury for the remainder of the vacation. First, of course, we had the traditional B&B breakfast, which consists of a continental breakfast followed by a full English breakfast, except that a full English breakfast includes baked beans, and, well, if you've had baked beans for breakfast even once, then you understand how they lost the empire. (I must confess that, despite having lived in Boston for eleven years, I have never developed much of a taste for baked beans, unless I get to make them myself, in which case I put in enough unusual ingredients -- principally a good deal of sausage -- so that they bear only a passing resemblance to standard baked beans. The ones on the English breakfast table are straight out of a tin.) The large breakfast meant, naturally, that I was stuffed when we set out for London, which made it a good deal easier to sleep through most of V.'s driving, thus maintaining what's left of what passes for my sanity.

Our first major stop of the day was Exeter, where V. wanted to see the cathedral, and I wanted to hunt down some more band-aids. My feet were feeling a good deal better, but I was taking no chances. (Hint for Americans abroad: the Brits call band-aids "plasters.") The cathedral in Exeter is, indeed, very impressive. You can't take pictures inside unless you pay a pound for a photo license, so I didn't bother. It looks a lot like the inside of any very impressive European cathedral, except that it has somewhat less stained glass, so it's a bit brighter. V. speculated that the relative (and, indeed, it was only relative) paucity of stained glass might be due to other stained glass having been destroyed during the war, when Exeter was very heavily bombed. Not much aside from the cathedral was spared, and some small parts of the cathedral were destroyed, so it seems reasonable to believe that a good deal of stained glass was blown out and then replaced with something less busy. Apparently (i.e., I heard it from V. who would know and who is not good enough at lying to have just made it up for my benefit), Exeter was bombed by the Germans in retaliation for allied bombing of some German city, perhaps (but more likely not; V. knew the actual city and told me, but I forgot within three minutes) Dresden, which was bombed in retaliation for something else. I really had no idea that WWII had had so much of a tit-for-tat nature. I had just figured that one side bombed the other out of generalized hostility or to eliminate a position of strategic importance to the bombee, but no. I'm still not sure the whole idea of targeted revenge bombings makes sense to me. Is it supposed to stop the other side from bombing you? I mean, you're at war, right? Is there some sort of gentleman's agreement to not hit the other guy more than 10% harder than he hit you? I mentioned some of these thoughts to V. while we were on the grounds outside the cathedral, but he just rolled his eyes at my ignorance of history, and then he said something very like "those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them," an aphorism that always drives me nuts. I mean, sure, there's an element of truth to it. From some of the history I heard while I was in England (and before), I have learned that it is decidedly unwise to either bomb Dresden or marry a British monarch, but -- without the benefits of history -- which of those actions was I really likely to take? Both perhaps, in which case, I suppose that I should be very grateful for having dodged those bullets. Thank you, history!

Back to the cathedral, I was somewhat fascinated by the choir seats and the large pipe organ, but once I'd figured out where the very old, very narrow spiral staircase (it looked like something you'd expect to find in the library in The Name of the Rose) that took the organist up to the console was, I had seen enough, especially since there was then a vicar who came in to lead a prayer, and the prayer was all about self-denial and ignoring your baser urges and similar sorts of what not. At least she didn't hit me up for money.

There was a good deal of traffic on the way back to Heathrow, where we had to drop the rental car. A shuttle took us back to the terminal, where we caught the tube, which, a while later, dropped us at the Russell Square stop. It had been bombed in the main bombings in July, but you would not have known it from looking at it. A number of people have asked me, since I've returned, whether London was different because of the bombings, and it's a difficult question to answer since I had never visited it before the bombings, but to me, the most noticeable difference was that whenever you were on the tube, you'd hear an announcement to the effect that you needed to make sure to keep your belongings with you at all times because if they found your stuff unattended, they would take it away and destroy it. There were also a few police officers at some of the underground entrances, but that was about it. The city did not seem unduly preoccupied with security, and I certainly never had any reason to worry.

We stayed at the Bonnington, a large and wholly unremarkable hotel a block or so south of Russell Square. By the time we were checked in and had dropped off our bags, it was fairly late, so we had dinner (an Italian restaurant down the block; V. was feeling a bit tired of English food) and retired for the evening.

Friday was mainly a museum day for us, and that was a good thing in that it rained most of the day. It also rained on Monday morning, when we were headed to the airport, but other than that, we had splendid weather throughout our stay in England, though the weather in London was never anything like as glorious as the weather in Cornwall. In fact, if there was any problem with London, it's that it wasn't Cornwall, which is so beautiful that it's tough to beat. Of course, city pleasures are different from countryside pleasures, and London does not lack for things to do.

The visit to London lacked the obvious organization and linear nature of our Cornwall walking tour, so let me just run down a few of the highlights for you.

As You Like It. Note to Americans traveling to England. When you show your ticket to the usher, and he tells you that you're in "the stalls," there is no need to fear being made to stand on hay in close quarters with farm animals; it just means that you have an orchestra-level seat. I didn't go to Stratford-on-Avon, and I only walked quickly past the Globe theatre while I was in England, but I did see an exceedingly charming production of one of my favorite comedies. Honestly, Shakespeare in England, what's not to like? (Ok, so V. didn't like it. He says that he doesn't like Shakespeare because he can't understand all the dialog. This is a person who willingly submits himself to Wagner on a regular basis. If watching the Gods all perish in fire is your idea of a good time [sorry if I just spoiled Gotterdamerung for anyone, but you're probably better off], you might want to skip As You Like It.) I wish I could have seen it twice.

The reading room at the British MuseumBritish Museum, Tate Modern, Tate English. The Elgin Marbles are pretty much everything they're cracked up to be. Trying to see the Rosetta Stone is a lot like trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Be prepared to elbow your way through hordes of tourists who came to have their picture taken in front of something famous. Honestly, these people would save themselves a lot of money if they'd just pull a picture off the Internet and learn to use Photoshop. The Assyrian and Egyptian sculptures are also hella cool. The Tates are a bit of a hike from the Underground, but well worth the trip, though after about 2.5 hours in each, I was suffering from a bit of art glut. The Millennium Bridge is just outside the Tate Modern. It's an especially nice footbridge over the Thames, built for the millennium. No one said specifically, but the construction materials indicate that it was probably the most recent millennium, rather than the one back in 1000 (or 1001, if you prefer; I'm not stepping into that argument). If you walk across it, you'll find yourself at St. Paul's.

Portobello Market, Saturday morning.Portobello Market. The top item on my list for London was a walk through this lengthy street market. The guidebooks will tell you to get there around 8 on Saturday morning, when it opens, but at 10, people are still setting up in the flea market portion at the end of the market. I was tempted by some botanical engravings of fruit in the antique section of the market, but 30 pounds seemed a bit much to pay for one page, and 6 pounds seemed a bit much to pay for a reproduction. The love of carbohydrates is universal.I did, however, score a pretty good almond croissant down in the food section. The food generally was overpriced (Feta cheese, for example, went for fourteen pounds for a kilo, which is about $11.50 a pound. For feta. Olives were similarly expensive.), but there were vendors with good prices on breads and fish. I did not buy any fish, but I did at least get to see what a plaice looks like in its unprocessed form. At least you can get some fresh herbs.I also didn't see any portobellos, but there was at least one vendor selling some mushrooms that I did not, however, recognize. All mushrooms are, of course, mood enhancers, but I couldn't help wondering whether these were particularly so. Towards the very beginning of the market is a building upon which hangs a sign informing passersby that fly pitching is strictly forbidden. I have no idea what exactly fly pitching entails, but, as I was not arrested, I presume that I did not engage in it.It really sounds like something you'd do to catch fish, doesn't it?

(Speaking of not being arrested, should I be insulted that security personnel never seem to give me any scrutiny whatsoever? V. got pulled aside for special hand searching and x-raying [he claims that the guard didn't even want his phone number, but I wonder] twice, and when I grumbled about no one ever wanting to pat me down, he said that if it were to happen to me, the guard would likely be a woman. He's right, of course: it would be a former East German soprano who's still pissed off that she never got to sing Brunhilde because that SOB artistic director to whom I bear a strong resemblance thought that she was too masculine. Yikes.)

Indian food. V. wanted to go down to Soho on Saturday night to check out the gay bar district, and I reluctantly agreed, on the condition that I got to pick out the restaurant. When we got there, it was during the evening theatrical performances, so the restaurants were pretty empty, and the proprietor of one of the Indian restaurants came out to the street to pitch his fixed price menu. Mmmm. I had somehow never before realized how good the spicy pickled lime can be (in small quantities), and that was just the beginning. I had a very good chicken sag for the entree. I found the rest of Soho something of a disappointment. There were a number of people out working the street offering to show us the way to one or more of the gay clubs. In my experience, it's really not that difficult to look at a club and figure out whether it's a gay club (they tend to be the ones full of gay men), so I thanked them but told them no.

Hyde Park. Sunday was an especially nice day, and since I felt like I hadn't really gotten an overview of London, we decided to take a bus tour on the top of one of the double-decker buses. The guide was a very entertaining young woman, just out of college, and I got to see all the sights that one is supposed to see in London (and that can be seen from a bus, of course) and heard any number of stories (many of which I suspect were apocryphal) about historical and contemporary residents of London. Also, I saw the front of Sean Connery's house. When the tour was done, what I most wanted to do was to walk through Hyde Park (I called it "Central Park," just to annoy V.; I never said I was a good person). We started off at Speakers Corner, which I found disappointing. There were a number of people who were speaking in quite agitated tones, but none of them were speaking in a language that I know, and I am pretty sure that all of the speech was political. There should have been somewhat shouting out a rant about the terrible, terrible mistake that is mushy peas. Still, Hyde Park is a beautiful place to walk through on a sunny August day, and one sees any number of handsome young men who have left their shirts behind. Boats on the Serpentine.We walked down to the Serpentine, where we got ice cream, and then walked some more. At this point, we had been walking, off and on, all day, so I found a park bench and sat and watched the many people pedaling boats on the lake. V. quickly tired of doing nothing, so I told him to walk around for a bit while I relaxed. Half an hour later, he came back, and took me to see the memorial for Diana. I was never especially caught up in the Diana fuss, either as a supporter or a detractor, but I will say that the sort of extended fountain that they installed in her memory is extremely pleasant, as is walking around it and seeing all the children with their feet in the water.

A night view from the south bank of the Thames.South bank of the Thames. On our last night in London (Sunday), we took the Underground down to the north bank, walked across, and then walked along the river from Westminster Bridge to the Millennium Bridge. No place like it on a summer night: street musicians, cafes, and terrific views of the city. It was a great way to end a great vacation. Anyone who hasn't been to England should go there, and perhaps sooner than later. If there was anything that made me uneasy about my trip there, it was how little I felt like I was in a foreign country. Yes, there are linguistic and other differences, but the differences between the DC area and London are perhaps not greater than the differences between, say, Dallas and Boston. Or if they are, I got the feeling that they might not be for that much longer. Already in London, you cannot escape either McDonald's or Starbucks. Globalization is probably not something that can be stopped, and a lot of people don't want to stop it, but it will be strange if one of its by-products is that no matter where you go, here you are.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


I struggled, dear readers, with the title to this entry, trying to come up with something clever along the lines of "continental condiments," which, sadly, would not have been accurate since England is, of course, not part of the continent, or remembering how I would sit in a Little Chef (sort of, but not quite, an English version of an IHOP: they are fairly common along the A highways that we drove on, and since we needed to make a few stops on the way to and from Cornwall, we saw the insides of a couple of them) and look at the bowl of odd condiments and think to myself, "Well my legitimate, I must have your condiments," which I knew, even before I looked it up, was not quite the phrasing that good old Edmund had used, though I think I did share his general feeling of avarice, even if I didn't actually walk off with any of the little packets or, indeed, attempt to have my brother disinherited, but of course, my parents' net worth is certainly not in Gloucester's league, and if my mother just leaves me her cast iron skillets, I'll consider myself very fortunate indeed, not least because it would likely mean that she hadn't used any of them to assault my father, but let's just leave that topic alone.

Anyway someone cleverer (or more desperate for a thesis topic) than I could probably link the current state of British condimentary to its rise and fall, but as I've indicated previously, imperial history strikes me as among the most tedious of topics, so I will settle for a few long-winded comments on what I saw there.

The above picture is the condiment area at the cafe at Land's End. It has the most complete selection of compliments that I saw in the British isles, though, of course, I did not make a thorough visit or survey, and if there is an eatery somewhere in Surrey that has even more, it has my most humble apologies. As far as my memory and observation can determine, the baskets, from left to right, in the picture above contain salt, pepper, mayonnaise, malt vinegar, ketchup, brown sauce, salad cream, tartare sauce, English mustard, and French mustard (the basket on the table below was empty: I don't even want to guess). Those, of course, are the English names, though I am not entirely sure about how they spell ketchup. If I had been more resourceful and slightly less self-conscious, I'd also have gotten a picture of the bottle of Heinz ketchup/catsup from the pub where we ate on our last night in London, where the ingredient list began with tomatoes and claimed that there were, in fact, 126 grams of tomato in every 100 grams of ketchup. At first, I thought that this was impossible, because of the conservation of mass concept, but then I recalled from limited knowledge of physics (the educational overlords at MIT insisted that I take two semesters, and I passed both of them, but I remember nothing; some day they are going to get fed up with me and revoke my degree) that mass increases as a body approaches the speed of light. It therefore stands to reason that English ketchup is made by the means of some sort of tomato accelerator. Perhaps someone who is familiar with the relevant equations can tell me exactly how quickly a 126 gram tomato must have been moving to end up as 100 grams of ketchup. For the purposes of this problem, you may assume that this quantity of ketchup has 20 grams of other ingredients, but I have no idea how quickly they might have been moving. Just do your best. I give partial credit, so make sure to show your work. I will say that it seems a fussy way to make ketchup, and the result tastes exactly like American ketchup (which, according to the label, is made with tomato concentrate) to me.

I did not look thoroughly, but I did not see any French's mustard in England. If I had, though, it would be English mustard. French mustard is Dijon mustard. Most of the other condiments are self-explanatory, with the exception of salad cream and brown sauce. I was afraid to ever open a packet of salad cream, but my examination of the ingredients list leads me to believe that it is something like Miracle Whip.

Before I delve into the mysteries of brown sauce, let me talk about sugar for a moment. I do this mostly as an excuse to put up one of my very favorite pictures from my vacation. I took it in a small cafe in Mousehole where I had a Diet Coke while waiting for the bus to Penzance. I wish that I had been there at a time where I felt like taking tea just to watch the sugar gravel dissolve, but oh well. On just about any English table (intended for food service, that is), you will find both white and brown sugar. At one bed and breakfast, there were two little sugar bowls with the granulated varieties of each, but it is more usual to find them in packets. Sometimes the packets are rectangular, as one most often finds here, but about as often, they are long, thin cylinders.

Right. Back to brown sauce. I wondered for most of my trip what this stuff could be. Those of you familiar with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking will know brown sauce as a rather time-intensive reduction of beef stock or broth that has been flavored with a mirepoix and that, in the quickest version, takes about two hours to make. It is beyond fabulous, but it is not exactly the sort of thing that one would expect to find in packets. V. opined that brown sauce was probably some sort of beef gravy (and I suppose that you could, at some level, call Ms. Child's brown sauce a form of beef gravy, but then I would have to chastise you severely and perhaps call you names), but. Well, you can imagine what I might think about cold beef gravy in a packet and how if I were forced to describe those thoughts, I might quickly become unpleasant.

I tried not to think about brown sauce, a task made somewhat easier by not seeing it again for a while. Aside from the cafe at Land's End, I never saw all of those condiments together in one place, though most tables where I ate had some subset of those all jumbled together in a small basket or cup on the table. Tartare sauce, unsurprisingly, was always present in fish & chips establishments, as was ketchup. Salad cream was rare, and I did not see it at all in London.

Early in the afternoon on our last day in London, we stopped in a pub for a pint, and, as we were hungry, we decided to split a sandwich. It was grated cheddar cheese and sliced tomato on a baguette, and it was pretty good. (The English have a variety of grated cheddar sandwiches. V. had earlier ordered a cheddar and cole slaw sandwich that he especially liked.) After we placed our order at the bar, the waitress brought over, first, the condiment caddy. I believe the caddy was mainly a way to deliver the flatware, but there was, nonetheless, a selection of condiments, including the mysterious brown sauce.

But now in a bottle! And in its bottled form, it was fairly obvious that we were dealing with something more in the Ketchup and A1 family than any sort of gravy or real brown sauce. An inspection of the ingredients of this particular bottle of brown sauce (other brown sauces, including Heinz, have similar ingredients, but in a different order) revealed that it had largely the same ingredients of ketchup, but that malt vinegar and sugar were high up on the list, and tomatoes were relatively lower, leading me to believe that they make brown sauce when the tomato accelerators are undergoing maintenance. Anyway, the sandwich came with chips, so I tried the brown sauce, and it tasted a lot like ketchup mixed with malt vinegar and some sugar. It was pretty good on the chips.

The English condiments you really want, of course, are the ones on the breakfast table. I am still just a trifle (and, no, I didn't get any trifle while I was there; we didn't have much pudding generally) put out that when I went for my final visit to Sainsbury's, they did not have any Robertson's Silver Shred lemon marmalade. That is some seriously good stuff, as is the black currant jam, which I did score a jar of. The orange marmalade is good, too. At our first B&B, in St. Ives, the proprietor gave us homemade orange marmalade, which was intense and bitter, the way orange marmalade is meant to be. Some day I will have to make some.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I Did on My Summer Vacation I

To the best of my recollection, I was never tasked with writing the infamous essay referred to in the title of this post. I understand from too many cultural references to count that it is a pillar of the American educational system, so it is likely that if I don't write it right now, the roof of my learning will collapse at any moment (the hyperextended metaphor, on the other hand, is evidently a pillar that I did not miss out on) though the rather large dome at St. Paul's Cathedral has no pillars at all and is supported, so they tell me, by nothing more than the external walls and a chain running along the inside of it, so perhaps writing now what I was never asked to write in third grade is not strictly necessary to prevent me from forgetting my multiplication tables. Still, it is better to be safe than sorry. (In case you're interested, you can actually climb the inside of the dome at St. Paul's and get to the very top and see all of London. I know this because V. actually climbed the more than 500 steps to the top. It is just this sort of predictable insanity that encouraged me to send V. off to see St. Paul's [which, he tells me, was designed by Christopher Wren, who also designed one or more other London churches] while I went to the launderette to do laundry. Sadly, I was not treated to the sight of Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke having a snog, but at least I ended up with clean clothes and didn't have to stand around and ogle yet another cathedral while waiting for V. to make the ascent and descent. Also, not having actually been there enabled me to pretend not to believe that he had climbed to the top, and this pretense caused him no end of aggravation ["No, really, I climbed it!" "Uh huh." "No, really!"] because he is just so easy, but that is, after all, one of the reasons that I love him. I hasten to add that I have nothing against cathedrals, but having already walked through the beautiful examples at Salisbury and Exeter, I decided that I could be sufficiently impressed by the exterior of St. Paul's, which we walked or rode by on several occasions. Also, doing laundry in a foreign country is much more fun than doing it at home, though I don't make any pretense of having a rational basis for that claim.)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of time zones, we left Washington at just after 7 pm Saturday evening and arrived at Heathrow just after 7 am Sunday morning, having had about two hours of sleep each. By the time we had cleared customs, gotten our bags, taken the shuttle to the car rental office, and procured the rental car, it was about 9:30, and we set off.

One hears so many tall tales and rumors about other cultures that one doesn't always know what to believe. I have learned to be very skeptical when people tell me, for example, that the French are rude. I have been to France twice, and no one has ever been rude to me there. And, you know, when I was a child, my parents insisted that the people in Australia walk upside down, but I've seen footage, and it wasn't true. Naturally, then, I was fairly skeptical when people told me that the English drive on the left side of the road. Why, after all, would anyone want to do such a thing? And V. had insisted to me that despite never having driven in Britain, he was sure he'd have no trouble, and surely not even he possesses the necessary combination of insanity and stubbornness that would be required to attempt to drive on the opposite side of the road without any practice.

But it's true! When we got the car, I went to open the front passenger-side door and there was a steering wheel where I wanted to be sitting. V. seemed to take this in stride and assured me that there was no point in demanding a proper car from the rental agency, and I was entirely too tired to put up a fight, so I sat in the driver's seat, and V. took the passenger seat and commenced driving.

I have always maintained that almost any system of belief will work if everyone actually believes and follows it. The Crusades, for example, would have been completely unnecessary if the Pope and his Turkish counterpart had decided to flip a coin (my research, which I admit might not survive a rigorous peer review process, indicates that while both paper and scissors had been invented long before 1096, they had not been combined with rock [which we make so bold as to presume was then widely available, even in Europe] to create the other major modern means of dispute resolution) and have everyone accept the outcome. Alternatively, they could have simply decided to be Muslim in even years and Catholic in odd years, which would at least have given people a lot to talk about.

My point is that when everyone accepts something, it works pretty well, even if that something eventually turns out not to make sense to an impartial observer. The Ptolemaic view of the universe, for example, is out of favor with our scientific community, but if everyone accepted it, it would still work well enough for day-to-day living, and the same holds true for such belief systems as intelligent design and driving on the left-hand side of the road.

V., however, appears to have had some trouble setting his agnosticism aside. I should really not whinge here about the complete and abject terror I felt while being a passenger in a car that he was attempting to drive properly under a new set of assumptions, but I feel that I stored up enough virtue by not complaining (except, you know, when he actually hit the curb or another car, and then I mostly just whimpered) while he was driving that I might be forgiven a medium-sized rant after the fact. There was, after all, no point in complaining to him when I was completely unwilling to drive and we had no other option, having already paid for the car, but I did let him know, once the car had been safely returned to the rental agency, that I would not, could not again sit in a car that he was driving on the left side of the road.

In 'artford, 'erryford, and 'ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen.The Brits (who, I reiterate, are entirely charming people) also have some interesting ideas regarding highway signage. The picture here shows my favorite example. As far as I can determine, it means "Cockneys ahead," but why I need to be warned about the imminent dropping of aitches when I'm on the A303 is an utter mystery to me.

Anyway, with me at the map and V. at the wheel, we managed to make it to Stonehenge intact. The Brits have conveniently located Stonehenge right smack next to the road on the best route between London and Cornwall, and I very much appreciate their forethought in this regard. After Stonehenge (there really isn't all that much that I can say about Stonehenge; it's pretty cool, but who doesn't know that already?), we drove the few miles to Salisbury, where I had my first Sainsbury's experience. (I will talk more about that in another post.) We also wandered through the town to the cathedral, which, while hardly on a par with Sainsbury's, was also worth the trip.

It's almost exactly 200 miles from Salisbury to St. Ives. I dozed through much of the trip (mainly as a defense mechanism to keep from having to witness the horror of V.'s driving; did I mention that they drive on the left side of the road over there?), but I still managed to enjoy the scenery. And you have to give the English credit for scenery, though they might prefer to get credit for "views." (They would also, and sensibly, prefer to see the period on the outside of that last set of quotation marks, but what can one do?) The countryside for most of the drive from London to St. Ives was rolling farmland, complete with small and large bales of hay, lots of sheep, and rectangular, tree-bordered fields. It is just the thing to salve the traveler who has had little sleep and whose partner occasionally runs the car off the road.

It was about 6:30 when we made it to St. Ives, and by 7:15, we'd located the bed and breakfast and checked in. It is best that I don't describe the intervening forty-five minutes. Some memories are simply too painful. Suffice to say that, miraculously, no pedestrians were injured, and we eventually found the place that we'd never been more than a quarter mile from.

I am sure that Cornwall has its bad moments. The winters, I daresay, are harsh, and when it rains, it is probably dreary, and hiking must then be nearly impossible. But the entire time we were there, there was no rain and few clouds, and the temperature never broke 75. (Fahrenheit, that is; a tip for traveler's to the UK: you can multiply by 1.8 by first multiplying by two and then subtracting out ten percent of the result. You will need this skill to convert prices, as the pound is now worth about $1.80. Multiplying by 1.8 is also the first step in the conversion of Celsius to Fahrenheit. Don't forget it!) We had the most gorgeous weather imaginable for what is easily one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen.

I have no faith in the ability of my photographs to do anything like justice to any place, let alone Cornwall, but here are a couple of views of St. Ives, where we stayed for the first night, and where we returned, briefly, on the fourth night to fetch the car from the car park. St. Ives used to be a fishing village, but with looks like this, it's little wonder that its primary industry is now tourism.

We were, after all, on a walking tour, so on Monday morning, we left our very charming B&B, the Chy Roma ("Chy" being Cornish for "house." Cornish is, for all real purposes, a dead language. The last native speaker of Cornwall was Dolly Pentreath, who died near the end of the eighteenth century [you would, of course, be excused for thinking that I am making this up, but I am not making this up; I read it in a guide book, and the host at our second B&B came right out with the exact same information, as if everyone knows it]. They do, however, teach Cornish in some Cornwall schools these days, so that while there is almost no one who can, say, hold a conversation in Cornish, it is at least alive in an academic sense. It is a Celtic language, which, I believe, explains the great superfluity of the letter w throughout Cornwall.) and headed down through the town to the Cornwall Coast Path.

I must here admit that the hiking portion of the vacation did not go exactly as planned. I had purchased new boots for the hiking so that I would have the recommended waterproof hiking boots, and I had ordered them online, at a very good price, and I had, initially, thought that they were the right size. I got them a few months ago so that I could properly break them in, but I didn't really take them for many very long walks because I had a tendency to end up with rather large blisters on my heels when I spent more than an hour or so moving about in them. But I thought it was merely a matter of getting used to them, so I packed large band-aids and gauze pads and thick socks and figured that I'd just suck it up. Given that I still had some blistering left over from wearing them all day the weekend before, I might have been expected to realize that there could be problems. As it happens, the boots required no more breaking in: they were simply a half size too small.

Now imagine, if you will, the combination of boots that are too small and tackling what is probably the very most difficult portion of the Cornish Coastal Path on the very first day of hiking. Once again, I had been warned that the hike might be difficult, but I assumed that words such as "rugged" and "strenuous" were relative terms and that, despite being entirely out of shape, I could easily get by on willpower and knee braces alone. (The knee braces really did work very well; long after my thighs and calves had given up, my knees were still going strong. As were my ankles; the boots do have very good support.) Alas, when the Cornish call that section of the path a "path," they are being either incredibly generous or incredibly optimistic. It is so rocky that there are many places where gaining a sure foothold is impossible, and there are very steep ascents and, more frighteningly, very steep descents.

Everything started out pretty well, though, as the part of the path right after St. Ives is relatively easy. It's even paved for a few hundred yards. But pretty quickly, it gives way to mile after mile (after mile) of cliffs alternating with valleys. The upside is that the views are really unsurpassed. The downside is that what starts out as a hike moving at about 2.5 to 3 miles per hour very quickly turns into a hike of two to three hours per mile. At some point after the hiking had become very difficult, I had gone a bit ahead of V., and I somehow got off the main path and onto a side path that went steeply down to a small cliff twenty feet or so above the sea. Having to retrace my steps and make the steep climb back to the main path took most of the fight that was left in me. After about seven hours, we had gone about seven miles, and when I saw the path leading to Zennor (the very first town after St. Ives), I had never been so happy to see civilization in my life. After a brief stop in the pub there, we caught a bus to Pendeen Watch and checked into the B&B for the second evening.

I knew, before I took my boots off, that my feet had serious problems, and I was right. There were immense, bleeding blisters on the back of each heel, and there was a considerable amount of pain. But I had brought lots of band-aids and Bactine and Alleve, and I knew that I'd be fine if I just didn't try to walk too far the next couple of days. And, really, the views had been so very breathtaking (literally: I would stop and catch my breath, and then I'd look out at the sea, and gasp; I don't know how I'd have survived that hike if I hadn't been able to stop and look at the cliffs and the heather and the blue, blue water; I would sit and rest and be perfectly happy until I had to move again) that I felt that I'd experienced more natural beauty than anyone has a right to expect in a whole month of vacation.
Besides, the bus service in Cornwall is pretty good, and the bus that went around where we were going had an open-air upper level, and the weather was perfect, and there were plenty of pubs along the way. When you're riding along through countryside that looks like this (or, you know, discovering the delights of English cider), how can you have a bad time?

V., of course, was all ready to walk and walk and walk some more. So when we took the bus from Pendeen Watch to St. Just (charming little town, but inland just a bit), he decided to walk on to Land's End, and I decided to try to write some postcards, have a pint, and locate a fish and chips shop. I was successful on all counts, and by the time I caught the bus to Land's End, I was stuffed to the gills with plaice and chips (more about fish and chips in another post; for now, let me just assure you that the shops in St. Just are level; the picture isn't because I took it from the bus; also, I should apologize for not getting a photo of the chalkboard menu from this restaurant: it had the most extensive selection of any fish and chips establishment I saw on my trip).

Land's End itself is very pretty, though the views of the water are no better than any of the views from my first day of hiking, and it suffers from a somewhat lame attempt at turning itself into some sort of amusement park. If you look inland instead of at the sea or the amusements, though, you get a pretty good idea of what inspired Victorian novelists to set their heroes and heroines roaming across the moors.

V. rejoined me at Land's End, and after taking some refreshment, we took the bus on to Porthcurno, a very small town on the southern coast. I did not have my camera with me when we went to the pub in Porthcurno for dinner, so when V. insisted, after dinner, on dragging me down to see the beach, and I saw a beach with beautiful sand set between two steep cliffs, I could not get a picture of it. I considered coming back the next morning, but when I first saw the beach at Porthcurno, the sun had not yet set, but the nearly full moon had risen, and I knew that a picture taken the next morning wouldn't suffice. Besides, it would have meant walking back up a steep hill, and I was trying to pace myself. All of the B&Bs that we stayed at in Cornwall were charming, but the one at Porthcurno was the prettiest. I don't imagine that many Americans consider Britain the ideal location for a beach holiday, but in the unlikely event that I could ever convince V. to go somewhere just to relax and do nothing for a week, Porthcurno would be a good choice.

Anyway, if you got bored there, you could always take a bus, which is what we did (take a bus, that is, not get bored). I wanted a short hike on the third day, and our host suggest taking the bus to Sheffield, hiking down through Paul and into Mousehole. Since it was all downhill, he figured that we'd have no problem. Mousehole itself is something like St. Ives in miniature. It's very pretty, and I understand that at Christmas, it puts on quite a light show, but it struck me as yet another fishing village that had remade itself for tourism, not that there's anything wrong with that.

After Mousehole, V. decided to hike the few miles into Penzance, and I took the bus, getting off in the middle of Penzance, in a street with a decidedly politically incorrect name, where I bought a small book of Cornish recipes and a pasty that advertised itself as being beef and stilton, but which was mainly potato. Still, you know, flaky pastry: how far wrong can you go?

After spending some time in the pub in Penzance (where I, alas, saw no pirates), we set off on another bus (the all day unlimited pass is a good deal) to Marazion, the town which is best known for St. Michael's Mount, an island that can be reached by a causeway at low tide. The tide was in, so we took a boat. St. Michael's Mount looks a whole lot like Mont St. Michel in France, and you can have yourself some great fun if you find a French tourist visiting, assume an English accent, and claim, loudly, that the French version is a copy of the English original. (In fact, the French were first on this one, and an abbot from Mont St. Michel actually came over to England to oversee the building of St. Michael's Mount. I am told, however, that he soon returned to France in a huff when he could not get the English monks to stop overcooking the beef.) While I sat down near sea level and tried my best to spark an international incident, V. climbed to the top of the mount (significantly fewer steps than climbing St. Paul's Cathedral, but still more than I was willing to undertake) and visited the building. It was originally an abbey, but then when Henry VIII brought in the Church of England, the property was given to some noble or other who used it as a residence and then sold it to someone else until it was eventually bought back by the National Trust. (I may have some details wrong here. I must confess that imperial history bores me utterly. I can't be bothered to learn or remember the names of all the decapitated English queens, though if one of the museums had the sense to put on an exhibit about their last meals, I'd certainly queue up.) Now they call it the castle or something like that.

After taking the boat back to Marazion, there was some confusion about which bus we needed to take to St. Ives, but we eventually determined that we had some time to kill, and as it was about 3:30 in the afternoon, we decided to get a Cornish cream tea, so we retired to a very nice outdoor patio where a very nice Englishwoman served us a very nice tea. I later learned that a Cornish cream tea is not significantly different from a Devon cream tea, but at this point I was still wrapped in a cocoon of blissful ignorance. And the scones were pretty good.

After tea, we waited a bit, then caught the bus to St. Ives, fetched the car, and drove back to Penzance where we checked in at the B&B, where the proprietor was so garrulous and friendly that I thought he might be flirting with either V. or me, but later evidence indicated that he was probably just an irredeemable breeder being very friendly to people whom he knows will be asked by a tour company to evaluate him. In any event, he gave us some good recommendations for dinner, and after going down and having a pint in a pub just across the street from the sea wall, we had dinner at a Penzance fish & chips shop and then wandered through the west end of town and back to the inn where we slept well after a very long day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

There and Back Again


A Tale of Two Airlines

You are all aware, I presume, of the overused Internet device (originally and still an overused print media device) where the writer compares two competitors by giving each a grade on various criteria and then picking a winner. While I have certainly embraced many a cliche in my day, I would be remiss not to mention right up front that when one is deciding between two airlines, the airline that stepped up to the plate and got you to your holiday on last-minute notice is going to have a prohibitive advantage over the airline that canceled your flight at the last minute, causing you to have to scramble to find another way to your destination. I am also, on the whole, a fan of organized labor, so the fact that British Airways (hereinafter BA or BritAir) had problems because it was trying to save money on labor costs by outsourcing an important function to a Dallas company that at least appears not to care much about good labor relations costs them even more points.

Still, while acknowledging that Virgin Atlantic (hereinafter VA or Virgin) cannot help but come out on top in this contest, I want to report back on various aspects of the two flights.

Ground personnel. I found the British unfailingly polite throughout my trip, and the check-in people at both Dulles and Heathrow were no exception. I give a narrow edge to Virgin because the attendant went out of her way to reassign V. to an aisle seat and apologized for not being able to seat us next to each other. Also, she was still cheerful and helpful near the end of what had doubtless been a long shift. The BritAir staff were equally cheerful, but we found it less than helpful when several of them went on break at 9 am.

Food. A kinder person than I would cut BritAir some additional slack because they were operating under unusual conditions. But they were conditions at least partially of BA's own making, so tough. I acknowledge, of course, that my experience with them might not be typical.

That said, BA did okay in the food area. The first person to greet us on our arrival at Heathrow for our return flight Monday morning proudly informed us that there would be hot meals on our flight. This was somewhat welcome news. I had not expected there to be much, if anything, available, and I had made a trip to Sainsbury's the previous afternoon to lay in provisions for V. and I, but as visiting supermarkets is one of my favorite holiday diversions (that's the American usage of "diversion"; there were no traffic interruptions between the hotel and the supermarket), I am almost inclined to give BA bonus points for encouraging me to make an extra trip.

For its hot meal, BA offered two choices: chicken casserole and spinach risotto (meatless). I figure that if someone can't be bothered to offer a more appetizing name than "casserole," I can't be bothered to order the dish. Risotto is not, of course, known for its ability to be either kept hot or reheated without losing its essential risottoesqueness, and BA's version was no exception, but it was still tasty, with plenty of cheese and more vegetables (mostly spinach [duh] and red and yellow peppers) than I had expected. The risotto was accompanied by a small salad of tiny mozzarella balls, tomato wedges and some sort of green resembling escarole all in an acceptable vinaigrette; a dinner roll that was extremely lucky to have gotten the gig; a carton of water; a single Twix; and a small wedge of chocolate mousse cake with some raspberry coulis. The raspberry coulis smelled good but lacked conviction. The chocolate mousse looked but did not taste intensely chocolate, and the layer of cake or crust (I'm not sure which it was meant to be) that it sat upon was somewhat mushy and almost entirely flavorless.

Starting backwards, VA's dessert was a wedge of key lime pie that was better than a pre-packaged piece of pie has any reason to expect to be. VA had three options with its hot meal, including a vegetarian option that I cannot remember. The other options were beef stew and salmon. I selected the salmon, expecting that it would be somewhat overcooked, which it was, but it was okay. It was served on a bed of unremarkable rice pilaf, accompanied by some unremarkable green beans. The dinner roll was whole wheat and was decent.

BA had a limited beverage service on board. One of the attendants told us that Monday was the first day they had either ice or hot meals available, but that there was no liquor and a narrower array of beverage choices generally. No snacks.

VA had a full beverage service, which they were very quick to bring around. They also had snacks, but as they were of the too salty sort, I decided to pass them up. No matter how much water I drink (and it's always more than a liter) on an intercontinental flight, I tend to arrive dehydrated, so I avoid anything that will make the situation worse. The VA flight was overnight, and the attendants made sure that we all knew that if we needed water or juice in the middle of the night, it was always available in the galley.

The second meal (aka the cold meal) on the BA flight was tea and was slightly better, and decidedly more filling, than the cold breakfast served on the VA flight. As the English are deservedly famous for their breakfasts, the BA cold meal was a disappointment.

Overall, I'd call the food service on the two airlines a draw. Both were better than what one typically finds on an American carrier. Neither was anything like as good as what I got on Air France.

Eye Candy. There's simply no contest in this category. I believe that on both flights there were four flight attendants. (Not counting the many female flight attendants because, after all, who really remembers or cares what they look like? This isn't 1950.) V., who is generally kinder than I, described the BritAir attendants as "butler types." I would have said that they looked more like civil servants who had been assigned to BritAir when some department in the Home Office had layoffs. While I normally decry the objectification of men (note to the oblivious: the last statement was a big, fat lie), I cannot help mentioning that the BritAir attendants were uniformly in the 45-55 age range, gray-haired, and somewhat paunchy. (This is totally the sort of guy I'd date -- even though V. does not fall into this type as he is rather disgustingly fit -- but since I'm not on the dating market, it is not the sort of man that I especially want to ogle objectify appreciate visually.)

By contrast, none of the Virgin attendants had even heard of 30, and they were, without exception, cute, though it is fair to say that some were exceptionally cute. They were also fit enough that when they wanted some extra supplies from the galley, rather than asking another attendant to fetch the supplies for them, they could actually squeeze between the meal cart and the seats, all the while smiling at the other attendant and calling out "Cheers, darling" as they passed. The Virgin uniforms were clearly superior and fit snugly, making the young men look even more appealing.

In-flight entertainment. Because we're not including the attendants as part of the entertainment, BritAir scores a modest win in this category. I found it easier to adjust the screen on the back of the BA seats so that I could actually enjoy the video, and the controls were easier to use. BA also did a better job of timing its meal service (the flight was also longer) so that passengers could either sleep for longer without being disturbed or watch three movies instead of two. There was nothing that I wanted much to see on the Virgin menu, though to be fair, I did not look all that hard since it was the middle of the night and I had brought along a copy of Light in August. Both airlines had Monster-in-Law and, I believe, Million Dollar Baby and a number of other choices which did nothing for me. BritAir, however, also had The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which I had not seen in a very long time, and which I confess made me content to ignore Faulkner for a while. I have a particular weakness for Hugo Weaving, but let's not go there.

As I mentioned at the top of this entry, the fact that BritAir canceled its flight makes the decision of which airline to take the next time the choice is between BA and VA a no-brainer. Even if you take the elephant out of the room, however, I'd be inclined to give the edge to Virgin.

Home Again

I will, over the next week or so, have a great deal to say about my trip to Cornwall and London (and a spot or two in between), but at the moment, I am feeling a bit disoriented from the long flight home, the change in time zones, and the amount of work on my desk. I also haven't had a chance to transfer the pictures from my camera to my computer.

I will note, however, that I had a thoroughly glorious vacation and that I accomplished all but one of the (admittedly modest) goals that I had set for myself. I had intended to make a trip to Harrod's to see the reportedly mind boggling array of foods on display in the food section of the store, but it did not occur to me until late Sunday morning, when the tour guide on the bus pointed out the best stop for Harrod's, that I had entirely forgotten that I wanted to see it. V.'s guide book said that Harrod's is closed on Sundays, and our flight back was early Monday morning, so I never made it. I had, however, arrived in London on Thursday evening and had not given Harrod's a thought until midday Sunday, so I concluded that seeing it had not been very important to me after all. V. and I spent a few hours Sunday afternoon wandering through Hyde Park, and I reckon I had a better time there than I would have had in Harrod's.

And I doubtless would have had my eyes permanently widened by looking at the prices there. Throughout England, one often looks at the prices and thinks that they seem more or less reasonable. And then one remembers that the prices are in pounds rather than in dollars, and one thinks again. Still, the trip was well worth the expense, and not everything is pricier there than here. I am not a great one for collecting souvenirs, but one of the few things that I made room for in my suitcase was a twelve-ounce jar of Sainsbury's black currant jam. It cost about 50p.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Virgin Atlantic to the Rescue

So as not to leave anyone in undue suspense, I will report that we did indeed make it to England, though 24 hours later than originally planned. I am currently in London, at a small Internet store, immediately next to the launderette where my clothes are blissfully sloshing away. Much more when I return, naturally.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Or Perhaps I'll Just Stay Home and Alphabetize My Sock Drawer

I had thought, a few days back, about trying to leave for vacation with a cliffhanger ending to increase reader interest and the general drama quotient. I was, after, a Dallas viewer back in the day. But then I forgot. Fortunately (uh huh), V. has just phoned me to say that he just got an e-mail from British Airways saying that they're canceling their flights today because of a labor action by a catering (oh, the irony) union at Heathrow. They are trying to resolve matters, but they suggest that passengers check back with them tomorrow before coming to the airport for their Friday flights.

Will anapestic's first ever trip to England be thwarted by food service workers? Who will survive? Who will perish?

Stay tuned.


I am, dear readers, aware of the heavy obligation that I bear with respect to both all of you and that a prolonged absence on my part is almost certain to cause a level of despondency that has not been seen since, oh, any election in the last five years. Nonetheless, away I must, for my very first ever trip to England. (I would say "woo hoo" here, but I am afraid that I would be understood to be ironic, and I really am very excited indeed.)

The ball and chain and I will be flying out Friday night and arriving at Heathrow Saturday morning. We have engaged a car. (I mean to say that we've rented a car, but I'm trying to get my mind into the mother tongue, which is no small feat when you've never been there. Let's hope I don't embarrass myself. I'd worry about embarrassing the whole country, but I'm sure that the English have seen Americans far more clueless than yours truly.) V. assures me that he will have no problem driving on the other side of the road. Our first day will involve a relatively modest drive since we reckon we'll be tired. We've booked a room in Salisbury (about ninety miles from Heathrow) for Saturday night. We should be able to see both Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday. From Salisbury, it's another 200 miles, almost exactly, to St. Ives, where we will stay Sunday night. Monday morning begins our walking tour. The first day is, apparently, the most strenuous, and involves fifteen miles of up and down walking from St. Ives to Pendeen Watch along the Cornish Coastal Trail, which is probably properly called something else. Tuesday should see us walking from Pendeen Watch around Land's End to Porthcurno. Wednesday takes us from Porthcurno to Penzance.

We plan to spend Thursday driving from Penzance or St. Ives (the walking tour people shuttle our bags from inn to inn, but I am not sure about where the car ends up) back to London. We are staying in Bloomsbury, a stone's throw away from Russell Square, which was, until a month ago, a functioning Tube station. Still, there are other stations nearby, and we are very close indeed to the British Museum. We are in London from Thursday night until Monday morning, and then we fly home.

I have not done my usual level of travel research. Last year, for example, we went to Paris for five days, and I had a relatively long list of places to go and places to eat. But I had been to Paris once before, albeit in 1979, so I at least had a framework. Aside from the Elgin marbles and Harrod's (yes, yes, yes, I know: overrated and overpriced, but I'm going anyway), I don't have much on my London list. God save the Internet, though. I have, at least, located what promises to be a first-rate fish and chips restaurant and takeaway within walking distance of our hotel. I have similar net-based leads on a good Indian restaurant (I have a good friend who had gone back to London for a while, and we were going to see him when we were there, but he escaped to Bombay just in time for the monsoons, and he is currently ensconced in an ashram, "getting spiritualized," but he sent me still more
Indian restaurant suggestions), and I'm sure that I'll find more places before I go.

Following suggestions from people of obvious intelligence, I've been browsing around the Sainsbury's site, and they seem to have many locations, so I think I'll be stopping by at least one on the trip out to Cornwall. I will need sustenance for all that walking, after all. (Forty miles in three days, much of it strenuous. What was I thinking? At least I'll work up an appetite.)

London generally, and Bloomsbury in particular, seems to suffer from a dearth of cheap eats. When I was in Paris, it was no problem at all to find an 18 Euro prix fixe menu at a bistro that served food that was wonderful. (I did not have a bad meal my whole time there, and even the food on Air France was pretty good.) 18 Euros has gone from being about $14 to about $24 (perhaps more) in recent years, but one cannot blame the French for that, and in any case, the price included tax and tip. And the meal always took three hours, so it seemed like a bargain. I am not, generally speaking, a cheap person, but most of the restaurants I find over there seem to have an average price in the thirty to thirty-five pound range, which seems like a fair chunk of change to me. But I believe that all of our hotel prices include free breakfasts, and I am fairly good at eating out of markets and supermarkets (I am a person of relatively limited travel experience thus far, but my favorite supermarkets to date were in Germany; I could have spent hours in them, as evidenced by the fact that I did spend hours in them), and this is, after all, a vacation, so I will do my best to find good food and pay for it in good cheer.

And, presuming there are no camera malfunctions, I'll be back in less than two weeks, with details and pictures.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Easy as Couscous

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who write "couscous," those who write "couscous," those who can't count, and those who don't know when to let a bad joke die. I don't know which spelling is right, and I suspect that this is one of those annoying occasions when there's no wrong answer (we here at anapestic get downright grumpy when everybody's right). Google reports that "couscous" appears about four times as often as "cous cous," but I draw no conclusion from that datum.

For the time being, I'll stick with "couscous" while regretting that I have no way to segue gracefully into the following sentence. I have decided that it is time to stop hating Nigella Lawson because she's beautiful. I've largely reached this conclusion because she showed me the easiest way imaginable to make couscous, so there is some sort of train of thought that didn't entirely jump the tracks (minor injuries only, and the property damage is all covered by insurance).

I prefer whole wheat couscous, but you can certainly use the other (part wheat?) couscous if you prefer. The method is the same. Also, if you don't approve of bouillon cubes, just use some salt and perhaps some other spices. Couscous is meant to be something of a blank canvas upon which to present your meal, but it is nice if you can take a forkful of it without any sauce and still enjoy it.

2 cups couscous
2 cups water
2 cubes chicken bouillon
1 can chick peas, drained

Put the couscous in a large bowl of the sort that does not break when boiling water is poured into it.

Put the water in a saucepan and add the bouillon cubes. Cover and bring to the boil.

Dump the chickpeas on top of the couscous then pour on the boiling liquid. Stir once, then cover with plastic wrap and let sit for ten minutes. Fluff with a fork. (If you want to live dangerously, add a tablespoon of sesame oil at this point. I haven't tested it that way, but how bad could it be?) Serve.

It occurs to me that I'm possibly the only person in the world who was unaware that couscous could be so easily prepared. Consequently, I feel a bit guilty about making an entire post out of nothing more than boiling some water and dumping it over some couscous. It seems wrong to take longer to describe a process than it would take to make the recipe. As a result, I will toss in, free of charge, my recipe for caramelized walnuts. I added some of these to the beet and fennel salad that I made for Saturday's dinner, and I have been eating the rest out of hand. They have a tendency to stick to the teeth a bit, but they're tasty.

2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups walnut halves

Melt the butter over medium heat; if you're using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt. Stir in the sugar and the balsamic vinegar. Cover and cook until it starts to bubble up (this only takes a couple of minutes). Put in the walnuts, and stir to coat the walnuts with the caramel. If, as I did, you use your Calphalon two-quart chef's skillet, you can just flip them around without having to use a stirring implement. Flipping food in this way always makes me feel wonderfully accomplished. (I have not yet progressed so far as flipping the nuts in the pan while alternately sipping wine and talking in a Julia Child voice, but a boy can dream.) Cook them for a couple of minutes, until they are very well coated, and then turn them out onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (I would suggest that a Silpat would work just as well, but that would only remind me that I don't own a Silpat, and then I might start to pout, and that is never attractive.) Put the sheet into a 350 degree oven for about ten minutes, or until they are well caramelized. They go into the oven already the color of burnt caramel, so you can't rely on color to tell when they're done, but I think it would take a long time to burn them.

Caramelized walnuts make a terrific addition to almost any salad. They are especially good with a salad of baby spinach, sliced pears, and manchego, but use your imagination. I would suggest chopping a few up and mixing them with some nice gorgonzola and spreading the mixture on some delicious ripe pears, but that would only get me going about the pear trees in the backyard. V. has managed to convince me that you can't just let the pears ripen on the tree, and I don't really have any idea when to put them in a paper bag to get ripe. I will, of necessity, have to wait until I'm back from England, and there will probably still be bushels then, but who knows? And then I'll have to decide what to do with them. I will likely preserve them an a manner similar to the way Toast does her peaches and cherries, but there are still a lot of details to work out. I would perhaps use a red wine syrup (extra acid can only help, I reckon, though I'd mainly be going for the flavor), similar to what I used for my poached pears, then boil the syrup down some and add some additional rum to the jars before sealing them. Exact proportions remain unknown at this point, but since I should probably not count my pears before they're ripe, I will live with the uncertainty for now.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Who's on First?

Sometimes I think that I spend entirely too much time thinking about appetizers. (Other times I obsess about repeating the same word or part of a word within a single sentence, which, it must be noted, is often a thornier issue for me than it would be for a less generous [generous is the new verbose] writer since my sentences do tend to stretch out a mite wee smidge of an iota.) When it comes right down to it (and I almost wrote "when the whisk meets the egg white" as a riff on "when the rubber meets the road" there, but I decided that even I am not that far gone [yet]), it's not clear that my guests are really happier with a well-constructed, labor intensive starter than they would have been with a big bowl of onion dip. But then I come to my senses, of course. Some of my guests really will appreciate (or at least pretend to appreciate in a manner convincing enough that I'm fooled) the difference, and in any case, I will have had a lot of fun making something good.

Even if no one eats it. Or if people eat bits of it and enjoy it but then, for some mysterious reason, stop. I can make what I consider a relatively modest spread of snacks, and it seems that almost none of it gets eaten, no matter how good it is. I could always make less, surely, but the recipes often come scaled to a larger size, and a vegetable (low-fat, even) paté that just fit nicely in a 9x5 loaf pan doesn't really seem like all that much for seven people until the party's over and 85 percent of it is still sitting there on the table.

And it's perfectly good vegetable paté (one might, indeed, rightfully say that it is far tastier than a vegetable paté has any right to expect to be), so I should probably just make myself some vegetable paté sandwiches and think, "More for me." And I reckon I would, except that V. and I are leaving on Friday evening for a just-over-one-week vacation to England, and I suspect that upon hauling my ass home from Dulles late on a Monday evening, knowing that I have to go to work the next morning, the last thing I'll want to have to deal with is two pounds of mold. The tapenade, by contrast, will probably keep for a very long time indeed, and I only made a relatively small amount of the tomato bruschetta topping to start with, and I can probably pile that on top of some of the leftover couscous for dinner tonight. (By the way, if you go to Trader Joe's, and you buy the deceptively small package of whole wheat couscous and you see on the label that it contains eight servings, remind yourself that it's a big, fat lie. I had seven guests, so I made the entire package, and less than half of it got eaten, even though everyone took what looked like a healthy portion. Maybe it's eight servings for a Moroccan. Maybe the chick peas that I added multiplied while I wasn't watching them. I don't know.)

I did everything possible to promote appetizer consumption. (If you ever find yourself bored in a hotel room, get out the phone book and call a stranger at random and start by saying, "Good afternoon sir [or madam]. I'm calling from the Society for the Promotion of Appetizer Consumption. We here at SPAC believe that appetizers set the tone for the entire meal, and that a good appetizer can make the difference between civilized dining and unpalatable anarchy. Right now we're sponsoring some very important pro-appetizer legislation, and we'd like your help with ..." and see how far you get before sir or madam hangs up on you. Don't try this at home, though. Caller ID, you know.) I warned my guests not to eat for twenty-four hours before arriving. (I reckon they think I'm joking because they never seem to follow that advice.) I made a main course that had to go from the refrigerator to the oven and cook for at least forty-five minutes after I preheated the oven so that there would be lots of time to stand around and natter and nosh. I plied my guests with cheap (but good) sangria to loosen their inhibitions. I suppose what I really should have done was to have another seven people over and tell them they were only allowed to eat the hors d'oeuvres, but that seemed a bit drastic. (It seems a bit less drastic now that I've got all these leftovers, though.)

Anyway. What I mean to say is that my appetizers were all very good, though if you're going to make them, consider either scaling them back or perhaps making them for a non-dinner party with a lot of people rather than for a dinner party with fewer people.

The starter I started first, and which takes the most time, was a vegetable paté, originally from Bon Appetit. A word to the wise: whenever you get a recipe from epicurious.com, read the comments and make adjustments accordingly. In this case (though I only read some of the comments), I could tell that I'd need more garlic, and that I'd have to be careful to make sure that all of the layers were thick enough to maintain structural integrity. The real problem here is that the bean layer should end up on the bottom, but it would be difficult to spread on top of the other two, so it starts on the bottom but gets upended when you unmold it. For the bean layer, in addition to doubling the garlic and perhaps adding a bit more lemon juice and olive oil, make sure that you salt adequately, and add half a teaspoon of ground cumin, and you'll be much happier.

There is no getting around the fact that the red pepper layer has a tendency to be runny, no matter how thoroughly you drain your red peppers. I actually used a jar of red and yellow peppers, which tasted just great but which needed the addition of some bread crumbs and some cream cheese to be thick enough. When you've got it in the food processor, pinch off a teaspoon or so of cream cheese at a time, and process until it's thick enough. Keep in mind that it will get somewhat thicker upon refrigeration, but it won't get a whole lot thicker.

Inexplicably, the recipe has a pesto layer with neither salt nor parmesan cheese in the pesto. This is a clear error. I had some pecorino romano, so I added that. I also subbed in walnuts for the pine nuts because my pine nuts had inexplicably vanished into some sort of time-space distortion. Either that or V. threw them out, but even though he thinks that I occasionally go on too much of a pine nut spree, it is probably more likely that some sort of damage in the fabric of time and space is responsible for the missing pine nuts. They will likely show up next Tuesday.

The paté is certainly very festive, and it tastes great. And it's fairly brimming with health. I served this, and all of the starters, on some slices of baguette that I had prepared as I do when I'm making tapenade, which, of course, I also made on Saturday.

The tomato bruschetta is very easy to make. You'll want

3 ripe, medium-sized beefsteak type tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
2 Tablespoons basil, cut into chiffonade
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Remove the cores from the tomatoes, and drop them for fifteen seconds or so into a pot of boiling water. Fish them out, let them cool for a moment, then remove the skins. Cut them in quarters, squeeze out the juice and seeds, and cut into rough dice. Mix them with a half teaspoon or so of salt and let them drain in a colander. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

Put the tomatoes in a bowl, then add the garlic, cilantro, and basil. Mix well, while adding the olive oil. Refrigerate until you're ready to serve (but don't make it more than a few hours before you're going to serve it), then stir again and add salt and pepper to taste. You may want to add another clove of minced garlic. Really, this recipe wants more garlic than you probably want to give it.

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but you don't want to bother with the tomato bruschetta unless you can get some lovely, ripe tomatoes. Lovely, ripe tomatoes are, of course, easy to find at this time of the year, even if the deer and the bunnies have used a high-low strategy to decimate the tomato plants in your yard. The deer will still have their revenge, though, because when you're out stalking the not-so-elusive tomato, you will come across all sorts of other offerings that you just can't live without. I went shopping Friday night for Saturday's dinner, and all of my vegetable side dish plans went out the window when I came across some nice looking beats and some considerably nicer looking bulbs of fennel. I figured that I could roast the beets and slice and braise the fennel and marinate overnight and have a nice red salad.

Sadly, I did not execute the salad as well as I should have. Perhaps I should have sought a recipe, but, well, really. The beets were slightly underroasted, thanks mainly to an oven that is never as hot as it claims to be, and I believe that I rushed the braising of the fennel. Through the judicious application of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, and Maldon salt, I managed to make something that was pretty good, but it was clearly not everything that it might have been, and while my guests were none the wiser, I will not post a recipe unless and until I get it just right.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Last Shall Be First

Now that our long national culinary nightmare is over, and the grape leaves recipe (hooray!) is finally up over at the blog that shall remain nameless, I can safely report that last night's dinner party was a complete success. There were seven of us in all (if you are not gay or are not very familiar with the customs of the gays, you will not understand how much of a moving target the number of guests at a dinner party can be; it can be difficult to get a firm commitment as to whether someone's going to show up, but in general, you take each person who's said that he's coming, and you figure what the odds are that he will not cancel on the day of the party, and you add up all those probabilities and come up with an estimate; over time, of course, if people prove to be highly unreliable, you stop inviting them, so we were pretty confident that five of the six guests who had accepted an invitation would show up, and they did; in any case, of course, I made extra food, so an eighth person [or even a ninth, though that would have entailed a flatware incident and a more obvious stoneware incident] would not have been a problem), and when people left, a bit after midnight, they were all happy and well fed, and they had all had sufficient time to be able to drive safely.

As you might have guessed, I rather enjoy cooking for a crowd of people, so while I didn't want to be doing a lot of fussing in the kitchen while the guests were there, neither did I shrink from doing a fair amount of preparation before they arrived. As it happened, I ended up picking up three guests from the Metro station, about five miles from our home, and by the time I got home, the other guests had arrived, and V. had been too intimidated by the earlier flurry of activity in the kitchen to set out the hors d'oeuvres, so I walked in to find a small group of people wondering where the food was. I was, however, very well prepared, so I had the nibbles out and the sangria finished within three minutes, and it was smooth sailing from there on.

The first thing that I made (on Friday night) was the dessert. I think that there are few desserts as good for a summer dinner as poached pears. They are very tasty, very good cold, and, done right, very attractive. The recipe I used was one inspired by the Poires en Vin Rouge recipe from The Cuisine of the Sun, an excellent book on Provencal cooking. Although I had had the book in my hot little hands as recently as two weeks ago, I could not locate it this weekend, so I had to make the recipe more or less from memory. That was fine, especially because I had already decided to do it differently. The original recipe called for cutting the pears in half and then removing the cores and the peel. I very much wanted to serve whole pears, with the stems on. I also wanted more and somewhat different spices in my poaching liquid, and I wanted a lower proportion of sugar. (The recipe, however, while nearly free of fat, is still plenty sweet.)

Pears Poached in Red Wine

4 cups red wine1
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 orange
4 pods green cardomom
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick2
10 cloves3

10 pears4

1 cup seedless red raspberry preserves

1 cup low-fat ricotta5
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
2 Tablespoons dried currants

Thin biscotti6

In your stock pot, combine the red wine, the water, and the sugar. Put over a medium-high flame. Cover and stir once in a while.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove strips of zest from the orange and add them to the poaching liquid. Juice the orange and reserve the juice for later in the recipe. Lightly crush the cardomom pods and the star anise and add them to the poaching liquid. Add the cinnamon stick.

While the poaching liquid is getting hot, start on your pears. You don't want them to turn brown, so once you start on one pear, don't go to the next pear until the first one is complete and safely bathing in the poaching liquid. It will take the liquid a while to reach a low boil, so the pears will still cook evenly.

Get out your chef's knife and cut a thin slice off the bottom of the pear so that it will stand up without any assistance. Reach for your melon baller. Fail to find it. Remember that it probably got put in the basement along with all the other kitchen equipment that your partner thought was invading his kitchen. Go down to the basement, root around in boxes, find the melon baller, congratulate yourself, come back upstairs. Using the smaller end of the melon baller, scoop out a bit from the center bottom of the pear and continue scooping until you have removed the core. Using the great new vegetable peeler that your partner just bought -- apparently to make up for hiding the melon baller -- peel the pears from the bottom up, leaving a tiny amount of peel (let's call it a circle with a quarter inch radius) right around the stem. Slip the first pear into the poaching liquid, and move on to the second. Repeat the entire process three times, so that you have four pears in the liquid.

Notice that your melon baller, which, after all, is relatively ancient, is starting to break so that the wooden handle no longer keeps the scoop from rotating when you try to take out some of the pear flesh and core. Wonder how it is that you ended up with a man who doesn't have his own melon baller as a spare for you to fall back on. Pull yourself together and improvise using another sort of corer that is not really right for the job. Work all the way through to the tenth pear; pat yourself on the back for your ingenuity and persistence. If, at this point, the pears are not nearly submerged in the poaching liquid, add some more water to the poaching liquid.

Bring the poaching liquid to the boil, then reduce to the simmer, covering the pot. Simmer, turning the pears once or twice, for thirty to forty minutes, or until the tip of a sharp knife easily penetrates the flesh of the pear. The exact amount of time will depend on the ripeness and variety of the pear. They need to be tender, but they must not be mushy. Turn off the flame. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pears to a bowl to cool.

Strain the poaching liquid, then return it to the pot. Bring back to the boil, then whisk in the raspberry preserves. Reduce the liquid until there is about four cups of it. It should have the consistency of a thin syrup7. Taste it carefully (isn't it delicious?). If it seems too sweet, or not lively enough, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Let the syrup cool, then put it in a jar or jars and refrigerate. Cover the pears with plastic wrap (or put them in a ziplock bag), and refrigerate them.

A few hours before you're going to serve the pears, mix the ricotta, the sugar, the extracts, and the currants in a small bowl. Add about two tablespoons of the reserved orange juice. You want the mixture to be thin enough to be spooned into the pears but not too runny. Refrigerate the ricotta mixture.

When the main course has been eaten and everyone is chatting amiably, and you've just started the coffee and/or tea, get out your stack of dessert bowls (which may be your soup bowls, if you didn't serve soup), your pears, your ricotta mixture, and your syrup. Grab a pear and hold it bottom up. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the cavity to fill it. Then turn the dessert bowl over on top of bottom of the pear, then turn the whole assembly back over so that you have a pear standing up in a dessert bowl. Do this until each of your dessert bowls has a pear standing up in it. Then pour two or three tablespoons of syrup into each bowl so that the pear is surrounded by a little moat of syrup. Place three thin biscotti, so that one end of each is in the syrup, in each bowl. Serve.

1You can use some pretty cheap wine for this. I know that generally you're not supposed to use wine that you'd hesitate to drink, but I used Franzia Chillable Red, a wine that you would not drink straight from the box because it's just too sweet. It is fine, however, for both poaching pears and for making sangria.

2If you watch Alton Brown's Good Eats, you may be aware that what we think of as a cinnamon stick is really something else entirely and that a real cinnamon stick is both nearly impossible to come by and huge. Just use what they call cinnamon sticks at the supermarket.

3I did not really count the cloves, but if you use ten, you won't go far wrong.

4I only poached nine pears, but do you really expect me to write a recipe for nine pears? You can poach up to twelve pears with this recipe, though you may need a larger pot and/or more water added to the poaching liquid. If you have to add more than two cups of water in all, add another cup of wine. You will still have to reduce the syrup down to the same amount later, but the amount of syrup I made was enough for eight pears, with half of it still left over for another use. It's really great syrup, though, so you will easily find a use for it.

5There is nothing sacred about the low-fat ricotta here; I just happened to have some because I'd used part of a package in one of the hors d'oeuvres. You could easily use mascarpone or some nice yogurt that you had drained; you could also use softened vanilla ice cream. The ricotta is a touch grainy, but you don't really notice that when you're eating the pears, though you do notice it when you're mixing it up and when you're stuffing the pears.

6I discussed my basic biscotti recipe here and the modifications I made for these particular biscotti here. You can do without the biscotti if you like, or substitute something else, but they do go very well with the poached pears, and people can also dip them in their coffee.

7You could take half of the syrup and reduce it further to a glaze, which you could spoon over the pears at the end of the preparation. But they really don't need it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Odds and Ends

I was all set to declare victory today. Or last night, even. If you look back over the relatively short time that I've been blogging, you will see that on two occasions, I have complained loudly about the lack of a long-promised stuffed grape leaves recipe from a website that shall remain nameless. But my efforts to obtain the recipe have not, in fact, been limited to my semi-public whinging here on my site. There have been top-secret negotiations at the highest levels. There have been envoys back and forth. There have been six-party talks that we thought were leading towards a successful resolution of this issue. In fact, as recently as two evenings ago, a source who has hitherto been extremely reliable and who may or may not be (we will reveal neither sources nor culinary operatives; we have standards here) a highly placed member of the Hungry Tiger administration tipped us off that a stuffed grape leaves post was imminent. Yet there is still none to be seen.

The anapestic diplomatic corps are, as you might expect, demoralized by this failure. We were able to accept philosophically our defeats on universal health care and the Kyoto Accord, but the inability to obtain a recipe is not something that we are accustomed to, and we don't like it very much. There are some, of course (what would the world be without naysayers), who would be so impertinent as to note that we don't actually have any grape leaves to stuff at the moment, and while there may be some factual basis to that claim, it is entirely beside the point. A principle is at stake here, and if we begin abandoning our principles (without first extracting the requisite bribe of a pound of m&ms [plain, not peanut], of course), then we are little better than Godless anarchists. (Again, the fact that we are, in essence, Godless anarchists is completely beside the point.)

But we haven't given up. We have a few diplomatic tools left at our disposal.

I have probably mentioned, at least once, that I used to sing quite a bit, and that I'm pretty good at it, or at least I am when I've been singing for a couple of weeks and my voice has had a chance to recover from months of neglect. I mainly sing in church. Because of my intense schedule during the tax filing season, I sing in the choir in the fall, through Christmas, and then hang up the vocal chords, until the next season. In order to bribe me to sing, the music director at church will normally ask me to provide the music on one Sunday when the choir isn't singing, and this lets me do three or four solo pieces.

Unitarian Universalist churches (at least the one I attend) are not big on dogma, and as a result, they tend to have fairly liberal policies on what you can sing. Because of what sounds good with my (very rich, very powerful: modesty only goes so far) bass baritone voice, I will often choose something classical (Handel is often a good choice for me), a hymn from my youth (I was raised Southern Baptist, but most of the UUs are kind enough to ignore the lyrics, and the rest were raised in similar traditions and enjoy the nostalgia), and a spiritual.

I have several books of spirituals. The best known composer/transcriber of spirituals is probably HT Burleigh, and I have his book of spirituals for low voice. Mr. Burleigh transcribed a large number of spirituals, but he only transposed some of them to a lower key, and, inexplicably, no one thought to transpose the rest before publishing the volume. There is a note, easily missed, about two-thirds of the way through the book (for low voice) that says that the remainder of the spirituals are in the original, higher key.

I mention this because once, six or seven years ago, I was taking a voice lesson from the same music director, and she thought that I had sufficiently mastered "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," and should therefore try another, and, apparently at random, she flipped to the back of the book and asked me to sing "You Hear the Lambs A-Cryin'." And I did my best, and it's a beautiful piece, but it was just too high, and since neither I nor she had seen the note about it not having been transposed, we were puzzled.

I have always wanted to sing the song, though evidently not enough to transpose it myself (I know how to transpose, but I don't really ever transpose music, so it would take me an inordinate amount of time). But perhaps the song will prove useful for other reasons. "You Hear the Lambs A-Cryin'."

(I apologize to the bulk of my readers for the preceding few paragraphs. They were, however, necessary for diplomatic purposes. We were, in fact, sending a message. You may rest assured that if it is seen by the right eyes, it will be interpreted correctly and may yet result in the achievement of our ultimate diplomatic goal.)

On a more immediately culinary note, I stopped by Trader Joe's last night to procure some supplies for the upcoming dinner party. I am fortunate enough to work just over half a mile from a Trader Joe's, and if the weather were not as utterly beastly as it has been in the DC area, I would just have walked over during lunch, but in any case, I did stop by on the way home. As I was picking up some dried fruit (apricots and sour cherries), I noticed some packages of Almondias, which I have heard, from sources hitherto considered highly reliable, are very good. But upon inspecting the packages, I could not convince myself that they were anything more than thinly sliced biscotti. As I had already determined to make some biscotti for Saturday's dinner, I passed them by.

I posted my biscotti recipe about a week ago, so I will explain what I made last night by saying that I followed that recipe, with the following additions and amplifications: I used pistachios (you can use any nut, really), I omitted the grated orange zest, and I added a packed cup of dried fruit. In my case, this was some dried apricots that I had julienned (you could dice them, but they already get sliced up when you slice the biscotti, so why bother?), some dried cherries, and some of my preserved orange peel that I first chopped up. For the detail-oriented reader, I will say half a cup of dried apricots and a quarter cup each of dried cherries and candied orange peel, but of course, I didn't measure the exact proportions: I just packed stuff into a one-cup measure until it was full. Add the fruit before the liquid ingredients.

Because I wanted these biscotti to be very thin, I got out my V-slicer. If you're going to slice them very thin, by whatever method, you need to make sure that you do the first baking until they are a light brown, and you need to let the logs cool at least 25 minutes before you try to slice them. If the logs are not sufficiently cooked, they will tear when you try to slice them, in which case you will end up with a bit of mess that is extraordinarily tasty. Even when the logs have been cooked just right, using the V-slicer on biscotti is not a process for the timid: you have to accept a certain number of imperfect pieces, which you may either eat at once or go ahead and toast. In any case, if you make one diagonal cut with a knife halfway through each log, you will then be able to run your pieces through the V-slicer (the thicker setting, which is about an eighth of an inch) and end up with a large number of thin biscotti. Put these on sheets and bake them until they are nice and crisp and brown. If, by some bizarre chance, you have trouble getting the first baking right and have to put the logs back in the oven a second, third, or even fourth time because you were doing this process for the first time and trying to work all the kinks out (not that it's ever happened to me, you understand), and it's after midnight by the time you finally get to the second baking, and you have to go to sleep (not realizing that in an hour your entire house is going to lose power and you're going to be up wondering what time it is anyway, and what the hell is up with that, PEPCO?), you can let them bake the second time for fifteen minutes and then turn off the oven, without opening the door, and leave them in until the next morning, and they will be very crisp indeed. But still very good. When they've fully cooled, put them in a tin or ziplock bag and keep them out of sight so that you don't eat them before the dinner party.