Category Archives: Cooking

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Went to a Garden Party

Lynn was finding it challenging to communicate with the caterer for the summer party.

“I’d like a paella, like you made at the farmers’ market, and some tapas,” she told him when he came round to discuss the order.

“Si, si, si,” he had responded as he took notes, “And a cured ham.  I just brought one back from eh-spahnya.  Enough to feed 60 people.”

Lynn hadn’t requested a cured ham and really didn’t want a cured ham—especially since it would add £200 to the bill.

“I’ve invited 80 people, but half of them won’t show up, and there are so many vegetarians, and vegans, and you—who don’t eat pork,” she related to me later.

“Did you actually tell him no?” I asked.

“Yes. I think so.  He’s a nice fellow. I think it’s just a language barrier.  I’ll try telling him again, in writing.”

The week flew by, me busy writing about torture, with the attic makeover project, and in helping prepare for the party where possible.  I had found four boxes of children’s party toys, prizes, and art supplies in the attic so brought those down and had them ready to go.  I would be the child whisperer, keeping any little monsters in attendance occupied and out of trouble.

On Saturday, the giant Tesco order arrived.  I loved Tesco when I lived in Oxford. I have hated grocery shopping since I left home at 16, when I had no money or car.  With Tesco, I ordered online, a truck arrived, and two men carried it all in.

The dining room tables were pushed together to make a 15-foot long surface, covered with packages of puff pastry shells, smoked salmon, olives, cream cheese, mozzarella, Gouda, and Stilton; salmon paté, flat breads and party rye and mini rice cakes; tomatoes and fresh basil and dill; strawberries and raspberries and whipping cream; homemade candies from the farmers’ market, and so on.  Kegs of ale had appeared, along with ciders and wines and nonalcoholic bevvies.

“Be ready to form an assembly line in the morning, girls,” Lynn told Gwen and me after dinner.  The men would be busy raking the drive, watching the caterer put up the marquee, and testing the ale.

Promptly after breakfast, Gwen and I carried in food from the dining room, loaded some CDs, and began assembling finger foods.  Salmon paté on flatbread, topped with a cherry tomato and sprig of dill.  Mozarella on a rice cake, topped with a slice of tomato and olive tapenade and basil leaves.  It was fun, it was creative.

This was not the caterer’s food.  This was the “base” on top of which he would contribute tapas and paella and possibly a cured ham.

Suddenly a song I hadn’t heard in decades came on—Looking for the Right One, by Art Garfunkel, and I started to cry.  It’s such a melancholy song, about never finding love. Just when I think I don’t care anymore, wham!—all it takes is one old song.  No one was watching, so I wiped my face and left the room until the song ended.

Marco arrived, and he did indeed bring a cured ham.

“And I will make Spanish omelets,” he informed Lynn as his wife, who worked steadily all day, carried in and unloaded crates of eggs and sacks of potatoes and onions.

“But I didn’t order Spanish omelets!” Lynn replied helplessly.

No matter.  He proceeded to take over the kitchen work surfaces on which Lynn was working.

Did I mention he brought his three children? One immediately tangoed with a dog, who bit his hand and drew blood.  I whisked the child away into my bathroom to wash his hand and keep him sweet so no law suit would ensue.  He was a lovely child and I needn’t have worried.  He ran out into the garden to play with the other children.

The paella was a hit.

I don’t know how many guests came—maybe 50—but they made a dent in the food and everyone went home with a care package of ham.

Fiddling Around

Sabrina and Simon probably aren’t the first total strangers Lynn and Richard have hosted.

I’ve met an array of guests at Dunrovin. Some were neighbors, some were overnight guests. Some memorable ones were Bekti, a delightful young student from Indonesia and her quieter co-traveler Ahmed, and Sippi, a British-Iranian woman who lives near Huntly but who spends most of her time in Afghanistan working on gender issues for NGOs.  One of my visits also coincided with a visit by Lynn’s niece Lauren, who is a math tutor and plays the sax in a Pink Floyd tribute band.

Then there is Christina, Lynn and Richard’s foster daughter who came to them as a Congalese asylum seeker.  She has now finished a degree, had two children with her Belgian partner who she met in Aberdeen, and moved to somewhere in Europe. Her kids are growing up speaking French, Dutch, and English.  I can’t tell you how charming it is when a two-year-old Congolese-Dutch boy calls dogs “daw-gehs” with a Scottish burr.

I don’t know what Lynn had been planning for dinner, but she magically turned the haddock into delicious fish pies and fish stew.  I wondered if we would have a haddock omelet for breakfast.

After dinner, Richard made a bonfire on the patio and we sat outside under the stars and drank wine and whisky.

Neither Lynn nor I drink whisky, so I think Richard was happy to have two whisky aficionados in Sabrina and Simon.  Between whisky sampling, Sabrina would leap up onto the lawn and play with Pippin the spaniel, declaring, “I love him!  I want to take him home!”  I huddled an inch from the fire, dressed in long socks, pants, and several layers of sweaters and jackets, but she didn’t seem phased by the cool night air.

Richard had thrown open the French doors that led from his den onto the patio, from which wafted old timey jazz.  He and Sabrina  exchanged their impressive knowledge of obscure musicians.  At least they were obscure to me.

I particularly liked the British group The Temperance Seven and the South African singer Al Bowlly, whom I believe would be called “jazz crooners.”  Such simple, nostalgic music.  I made a resolution to buy a record player and buy their music, and I eventually did.  In addition to classical, it’s now my go-to tension tamer music when I’ve had enough of the news of the day and want to pretend I live in a simpler time that probably never existed.

The next day, Richard took Sabrina and Simon on a driving tour while Lynn and I worked and prepped for the tutors’ dinner.  Well, Lynn did most of the work; I set the table.  As I’ve written previously, Lynn and Richard are supporters of the Huntly Summer School, during which professional musicians tutor local children and adults in music. Lynn and Richard used to host the school at Dunrovin until it became such a success it had to be moved to the Huntly community center.

This is the Tin Hut.

The Tin Hut Sessions, a number of which I’ve been lucky enough to attend, have always impressed me with the caliber of musicians the volunteer committee manages to attract.

This evening was no different.  I worried that Sabrina and Simon, being urban sophisticates (as much as we have such people in Minnesota), would think it was hokey.  Those thoughts evaporated when the concert began.  The voice of the featured artist, Shona Donaldson, reminded me of Sinead O’Conner.  There was a Scottish musician who played ancient lutes or lyres, or at least that is what I gathered because I couldn’t understand a word he said.

After the concert he let some local kids pluck around.

At dinner later, I sat next to the Scottish guy and after 15 minutes of him enthusiastically speaking to me, I was still in the dark about who he was and his music. I smiled and nodded until, just in time, Lynn brought out the singing bowl she’d bought Bhutan, which everyone passed around to experiment with, including putting it on our heads and listening to the magic muted vibes it produced there.  It was like being in a counter-ironic JP Sears video.

I’ll Have the Haddock

Things were gearing up at Dunrovin.

House guests would be arriving, the tutors’ dinner at Dunrovin after a community concert would take place on Saturday, and the Dunrovin summer party would be the following weekend.

Richard and I made a run into town.  We stopped to pick up the wine at Tesco (a grocery chain).  I wanted to methodically inspect every aisle to find interesting food items, like tinned (canned) haggis (kind of like sausage, made of sheep organ meats), for souvenirs.  But Richard, being a man, frog marched me through the store and we were done in 10 minutes.

He had some business in Huntly center so it was my chance to check out the three charity shops. What I needed was a wool sweater, long underwear, and thick socks.  I bought a pair of heavy platform sandals.  I would have to jettison something else from my luggage to keep it under weight.  I would probably be able to wear the sandals exactly one day in Minnesota before the weather turned cold.  But they were made of buttery soft leather.  Surely these sandals and I would be together, somewhere warm, eventually.

“Let me buy you lunch,” I suggested to Richard.  “Somewhere nice, to thank you for putting up with me.”  Richard accepted gladly, and we went to the Bank Restaurant, which had a purple and grey theme, which somehow worked.

I ordered Cullen Skink, a thick stew made of foods that are extremely common nearby: haddock, potatoes, and onions.  And butter and cream.  It was divinely rich and I was full after a small bowl, which told me it probably contained 1,500 calories.  While I ate and murmured “Mmmm,” Richard talked about local development efforts.

“It’s good to see this restaurant full,” he said.  “There are forever people from London or farther afield buying the old Victorian hotel with intentions of restoring it to glory. Last time it sold for around £250,000.”  I stopped eating long enough to say wow!

“But you’d never be able to charge enough to see a return, so it sits empty.”

Lynn was home from Oxford, and we awaited the arrival of our first set of house guests.  I say “we” and “our.”  When you are a long-term guest you walk a fine line between pitching in to help and behaving as if the place is yours.

A few months earlier, I had been out for happy hour with coworkers and when Sabrina mentioned she was planning a trip to Scotland, the two pints I had ingested said, “You should come to my friends’ house where I’ll be staying!”

She took me at my word and followed up with me the next day, which meant I had to pitch the idea to Lynn.

“I have this coworker named Sabrina … I don’t know her well but she’s young, has striking red hair, looks like a model … she DJs at night on community radio … her boyfriend’s named Simon; I’ve never met him; all I know is he works for the travel section of the Star Trib newspaper and . … they’re planning a trip to Scotland and I was wondering if you might be open to them spending a few nights at Dunrovin?”

In other words, how would you like to host two total strangers?

She said yes.

This would be Sabrina’s first international trip.  I was excited to see Scotland through the lens of a new traveler, and looking forward to getting to know her better.  We exchanged a few emails in advance of her arrival and I gave her lots of unsolicited advice (my specialty), including admonishments to dress warmly.

Before we heard the sound of tires on the gravel drive, the dogs barked wildly to alert us someone was arriving.  Sabrina stepped out, wearing the shortest plaid skirt I have ever seen.  She looked fabulous but chilly.  One of the spaniels lunged at her and smeared mud all over her stockings.  Simon stepped forward and handed Lynn a plastic bag.

“It’s five pounds of smoked haddock,” he explained.  “We picked it up on the way here from Edinburgh.”

Bogairdy House

That evening we went for dinner to a friend’s house.  I had met Andy; in fact he and his ex wife and their three sons had visited Minnesota years earlier—to shop at the Mall of America.  They stayed at a hotel near the mall and had done nothing but shop.

It had been a bad trip, with several of them getting sick. Once they were all well, I picked up Andy and his wife and one son in my Mini and drove them around the Twin Cities.

“Oh my!” exclaimed the wife as we drove along Summit Avenue. Her Scottish accent made it difficult for me to understand her. “I had no idea there were houses like this here!”  Andy is English so at one point I tactfully rephrased a question and asked it of him to get a clear answer.

These are typical houses in Bloomington, the burb where the Mall of America is located:

These are typical house on Summit Avenue, which runs six miles from the Mississippi River to downtown St. Paul.

I’m just sayin’.  There’s more to America than the Mall of America.  Mall of Gomorrah, as my mother calls it.  At the Cathedral, I swung around and drove back along Grand Avenue, which is lined with non-chain stores an restaurants.  I took them to the Walker Art Center sculpture garden and drove around the chain of lakes—Harriet, Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles—in Minneapolis.

Andy had been through seven-years of divorce hell and had come out the other side.  He was now with June, a lovely Scottish lady, and she had just moved in with him.  The house was called Bogairdy, and it’s a traditional but completely updated farm house.  Bogairdy was 15 minutes from Dunrovin.  The driveway seemed like it was half a mile long, and it was extremely narrow, rutted, and dark—I half expected a lion to run across our path, it felt so remote and of another place.

“We’re still trying to decide where to put all of our things,” Andy seemed to apologize.  The place was spotless and neat as a pin.  Whatever that means.

“It can’t be easy, combining two households when you’re in your 50s,” I replied.

“June brought all her plants,” Andy gestured to the front garden, which looked like an outdoor conservatory. I loved it.

“We’re trying to sell the place, but it could be a while,” June said.  “It’s a special property.”  If you’re in the market for a 5,158 square foot (479 square meters) farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands, here you go.  It is beautiful.

We had olives and wine in front of the fire in the sitting room, then sat down to a feast.  There must have been five courses, including a woodcock pie.

“Woodcock isn’t for everyone,” Andy said apologetically just as I began to chew.  “It’s a bit gamey.”  UGH.  That was an understatement.  It tasted a like liver to me, and that’s not good.  I forced it down, smiled wanly, and quickly asked him to pass the wine.

I don’t recall what we discussed over dinner but it was lively.  None of us talked about work, as would be standard in the US.  And it’s not like we don’t have interesting jobs.  Andy is an explosives expert and works in the oil industry.  June does something in banking but what, exactly, never came up.

After we had done our best to demolish the cheese plate, which is the standard dinner-ender in the UK as opposed to dessert in the US, June and Andy cleared the dishes.

“Quick, come here!” we heard June calling in a hushed voice from the entryway.

Lynn and Richard and I hurried over and looked to where she was pointing.  There was a young red fox prancing around the potted plants.  The moon was shedding a shimmery light on the scene.  “He comes every night,” June said.  “We think he’s hunting moths drawn by the porch light.”  We stood entranced for 15 minutes, watching him.  Then the fox ran off, the spell was broken, and we said our good-byes and went home. It had been a very long but good day.

This Little Piggy went to Market

I settled into a routine as I had in the south.  Get up early, blog and work, join Lynn and Richard for breakfast, then work some more.   I lay on my bed under the covers to keep warm, at first wondering, “How will I ever work without a desk?” but quickly getting used to tapping away on my keyboard in a reclining state.

Whenever I glanced out the window, Dottie the cat would be in position, staring at me like she was trying to communicate some vitally important matter of possibly national interest.  I tried to get into the habit of  rousing myself once an hour and take a lap around the property.  Dottie would accompany me down the drive, but at a distance of about 10 feet, as if to say, “I’m not with you, I just happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you.”  Lord Parker would wait for me at the gate, then tail me as I walked the circular path around the garden.  When I got to the gate on the other side that led to the river, he would watch me beseechingly with his tawny, human-like eyes, maybe thinking, “maybe this time, maybe she’ll let me come too.”

There, I did it, I anthropomorphized.  I really don’t believe that animals have thoughts, but since we humans have more thoughts than we know what to do with, I guess it’s tempting to lay some of ours on other beings.

It was better than nothing that I walked around Dunrovin half a dozen times a day.  I would like to report that I also took long, vigorous walks every afternoon as I had in Eton and Windsor.  That was my goal.  But just the opposite took place, and I may well have to check into a fat farm to work off the pounds I gained in Scotland.

I blame it on the doubles.  Lynn has two small fridges in the kitchen and two freezers full of venison and other meats Richard has harvested, plus a pantry and a wine cellar. Then there was the double cream.  I continued my personal single, double, and clotted cream festival throughout the month, pouring it over or globbing it onto pastry shells, croissants, ice cream, strawberries, muesli, and anything else that didn’t move.

The three of us ate lunch and dinner together most days.  Lynn loves to cook, is a great cook, and doesn’t stint on rich ingredients or portions.  I feel so lazy saying this, but I only prepared about six meals the whole month.  When I offered, Lynn would usually say she already had the meal planned.  When I offered to make it, she would wave me off, saying it was no trouble.  We often had a salad and veggies, but they were in addition to a leg of lamb or shepherd’s pie.  I made lasagna and moussaka, then felt it was my duty to eat all the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste.

My first outing was to the Huntly Farmers’ Market, held once a month in the town square.

Bread, pastries, chutneys and jams and jellies, and beautiful berries.  All good vehicles for double cream.

Have you ever been to a farmer’s market where they sell fresh fish?  I bought some langoustines for our supper.

Surprise!  There was wild game.

Then there was the paella man, a Spanish guy named Marco.  I bought a bowl then walked around while Lynn sold raffle tickets and promoted an upcoming Harry Potter children’s party.

I talked to a retired physician who, with his wife and daughter, runs a small charity which benefits local initiatives in Nepal; they invited me to a fundraiser that would involve ceili dancing.

I sat on a bench to finish my paella and the granite was so cold I let out a yelp.  A woman standing nearby immediately offered me her portable seat cushion, then we began to chat and—too late—I noticed her kiosk full of Jehovah’s Witness literature.  But she and her fellow adherents were very nice and didn’t push it.

I decided to have a wander to work off the paella and wound up at Huntly Castle.

Just another day in Scotland.

Eton, Finally

Eton, England is a small city of about 4,700 inhabitants in the county of Berkshire, England. Or as they call it, “Berks.”  As I’ve said, it’s home to Eton College, which adds another 1,200 boys to the population.

Eton is confusing to Americans.  It’s called a college but it’s what we would call a high school.  It’s an all-boys boarding school, which is an alien concept to 99% of us just as it probably is to the 99% of English people who can’t or won’t send their 13-year-old away.  It’s a public school, which we would call a private school.  It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, yet it is only the 18th oldest school in Britain.  The oldest seems to be Warwick, founded in 914.

I want to paint a picture of Eton for you without being creepy and violating Sam’s privacy.  These are some views of the High Street from my bedroom:

Sam’s place is like the three-story building on the left.  It’s above a tailor’s shop.  Lest you think I just gave away the location of the house because there is only one tailor shop in your city of half a million people, there are seven tailor shops in Eton and neighboring Windsor to care for the uniforms the students and masters (teachers) must wear:

It would have been nice to see more of these formally-dressed men and boys flocking through the streets, but the reason Sam was going to the States for the month was the summer holidays.  A few days after I arrived, they all disappeared and were replaced by Spanish and Chinese tour groups.

The house was three stories.  Entering from the street, you came into a hallway that led to the back garden and stairs to the first and second floors (or second and third, if you’re American). There wasn’t really a back garden, just a passageway, but Sam’s wife had installed planters with geraniums to echo the window boxes which I watered every day.

There were 15 winding steps to the first storey.  Or story, as we would write it in the US.  Here there were two bedrooms, one of which was mine.  Mine!  A beautiful, spacious guest room in Eton for a month!

Fifteen more steps led to the top floor, with the master bedroom, bathroom, livingroom, and kitchen.  This was my favorite space.

I worked at the big farm table which looked out over the ball fields and the Eton science building, and I had easy access to keeping myself stoked with coffee and tea.  I felt like I was on the Great British Baking Show, except I had to write grant proposals instead of make French macaroons.

Rob’s wife has lovely taste.  She had rightly insisted on moving their refrigerator from London.  There was also a DeLonghi toaster.

I love the name SMEG.  In fact I couldn’t stop saying it in my head, so I would turn on the John Lewis radio to Radio 4, which is like NPR in the US only with more very long stories involving people whispering in meadows as they crept up on bees and recorded their buzzing.

The bathroom had several common British features that Americans find puzzling.  One: separate taps.

To wash your hands with warm water—not scalding hot or freezing cold—you have to put in the plug, mix water in the basin, then drain the sink and repeat this to rinse.

I would guess the house was Edwardian (1901-1910).  All the period features such as the fireplaces had been stripped out long ago.

Some of the windows were crooked—intentionally?

Nearby was the ubiquitous toilet brush which had to be employed on a regular basis because most British toilets … just don’t do the job the first time.

I’d encountered this shower set up before so I was prepared for it. A very high tub paired with a sheet of glass or Plexiglas that must weigh 100 pounds.  You instinctively want to grab it, but woe unto you if you do, because it swings back and forth.  Why?  I don’t know.  Then there is the shower plumbing, also a mystery.

To be fair, there are American things that make Brits wonder, such as cutting our food with the fork in our left hand, then switching to our right to actually eat.