Category Archives: Cooking

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.

Getting the Shaft in Shaftsbury

Shaftsbury, England.  I awoke before dawn to the sound of a car driving slowly into the gravel parking lot.  The driver got out and walked to the entrance, crunch, crunch, crunch.  I was just falling back to sleep when he or she must have gone back out to get luggage.  More crunch, crunch, crunch on top of rolling crunchiness.  Another car pulled in, more heavy rolling crunchiness.

Lynn exclaimed from the darkness on her side of the room, “Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a gravel driveway in a hotel?!”

“I know!  Well at least no invading armies are going to sneak up on us.”

“Right.” she replied drily.

There was no going back to sleep now so we went down to breakfast. I ordered kippers, which I’d had never had, and Lynn had a Full English minus the blood sausage.

Blood sausage is just what it sounds like, sausage made of blood.  I think it’s a food that’s traditional and no one really likes it but they keep it on the menu for tradition’s sake.  Most Brits I’ve mentioned it to made a horrid face.  Is it like lutefisk or gefilte fish?  No one likes either one, but people put it out once a year because it’s “tradition.”  Blood sausage is on the menu everywhere, so I don’t know, maybe lots of people love it.  What do you think?

Me, I love fish, so I was happy with the kippers.

The Daily Mail had this cover in regard to the Grenfell Tower fire:

I think the Queen learned some lessons in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when she was accused of being cold.  Maybe she can give Theresa May some pointers about getting down with the people.

We walked into town to Shaftsbury Abbey, or what was left of it.

The abbey had been a regional center of power until Henry VIII had it destroyed along with all the other monasteries in the 16th Century. The piles of stones on either side are where the pillars of the nave were.

A small display inside the visitors’ centre featured a few shattered carvings, remnants of painted sculptures, and a diorama of what the abbey had looked like.  It must have been enormous and fantastically beautiful.  Henry VIII was known to appreciate beautiful things, so why destroy the abbey, down to the ground?  Why not just seize the gold candlesticks and leave the building with its gilded arches and ornate carvings?  It was a display of power, of course.  He had half a dozen of his own palaces, so a couple hundred monasteries out in the sticks were no loss.  He was a red-headed megalomaniac who loved his palaces and couldn’t stand for anyone else to … wait, why does that sound familiar?

Here are the names of some of the abbesses.

It was lunchtime  and we picked our way carefully down Gold Hill to find a pub someone had recommended.

I had one of the most memorable meals of the summer at this pub, a fish pie with turmeric.

I tried to replicate it once since I’ve been home but didn’t get it right.

Of course what goes down must come up—no, I didn’t vomit up the fish pie—we had to walk back up the hill.

We walked a few paces, stopped to take photos, then walked some more.

It’s not that we couldn’t have hiked straight up the hill without a break—really.  But it is true that a summer of fish pies and pints means I really need to get back to the gym.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week.

Next we visited the historical museum.  Shaftsbury was once a center for cottage industries, which just means people sat in their cottages and made things, like buttons. These are the forms and the finished buttons.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries thousands of women and children were employed making “Dorset Buttons.” The button-making machine caused these cottage industries to collapse after 1750, and the gentry “helped the unemployed workers to emigrate to Canada and Australia.” That’s one way to solve your unemployment problem.

FYI, I’m going to DC for work and won’t be blogging for a week or so.

Boeren Bonenstoofschotel on Schoenlappervinlinder

Greetings from Eton, England.  Tonight I will sleep in my 11th bed in a month.  I’ve spent the last 10 days in the southwest of England—in Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset—where the internet connections were not much better than in Ethiopia.  So I’m going back to write about some of the places I visited almost a month ago, and now that I’ve got a good connection I’ll write forward and eventually join up with the present, in Eton.

After three whirlwind days in Copenhagen and being forced to buy a second plane ticket thanks to Expedia, I arrived in the land of long words, the Netherlands.  I was so happy to see my old friend Ingrid waiting in the arrivals hall.

Ingrid and I met in 1986 at a Volunteers for Peace “work camp” in London.  I’ve written before about how she visited me in the US twice and I visited her in the Netherlands twice, including being a bridesmaid in her wedding.  The last time I saw Ingrid in person was after her son was born, about 11 years ago.  Of course we are friends on Facebook but it’s not the same.

By the time we got out of the airport parking ramp and onto the highway headed to Utrecht, where she lives, we were talking about whether god exists, the meaning of suffering, and how humanists can be as inhumane as anyone. Our conversations continued like this for the next six days.  Don’t get me wrong; we also talked about hairstyles, houses, families, health, and jobs, but I can talk to most people about those things.  It is so good to have a friend you can talk to about the big questions.

Plus, she fed me Boeren Bonenstoofschotel, a Dutch folk food, from what I understand.

The street Ingrid and her family live on is called Schoenlappervinlinder, which is named for a butterfly.  By the time you’ve pronounced the word, the butterfly would be long gone.

Here are some photos of a typical Dutch side-by-side house in what Ingrid referred to as a “suburb” of Utrecht, which felt pretty urban by American standards.

The house was similar to many American homes with the exception of exceptionally steep stairs leading from one floor to another.  They all shrugged when I exclaimed over how steep they were.  There was a bike shed in the back yard to accommodate the four family bikes that they use to go to work, school, and most everywhere else except to the grocery for a big shopping load.  The attic which served as my room had home-painted Mondrian thanks to Ingrid’s husband Chris, and more English language books on the bookshelves than most American homes.

Speaking of grocery shopping, I got to go with Chris and Ingrid to a Jumbo, which is a mid level grocery chain.  The Dutch love sweets.  Stroop koeken/waffle are typically Dutch cookie or waffle “sandwiches” filled with sugar syrup.  There is every other imaginable form of cookie, cake, and candy, plus lots of breakfast sweets stuff, like sprinkles for toast and an entire Nutella section.

Eggs and milk were not refrigerated.  I guess in the US we refrigerate both because it makes them seem fresher, but it’s not necessary.  If that’s true, what a waste of energy!  If it’s not true, then there should be lot of people retching their guts out every day in the Netherlands.

We have an image in the US of how everyone in Europe eats artisanal, organic, free range food.  There is plenty of it, but they also eat junk, just like us:

This item in the deli case, “FiletAmericain Naturel,” turned out to be Steak Tartare.  Ironically, I believe you can’t buy it in the US.

Then there were the cheeses.  The Dutch love cheese at least as much as sweets, and there must have been 500 different kinds on offer. I could have taken photos of cheese all day.

Finally, this was in the magazine section.  It’s a mag for gay men, and in an American grocery—if it was even allowed—it would have a colored plastic sleeve to hide the content, a la Penthouse and Playboy.