29 Dec 2009

The tipple in Scotch Trifle

As desserts go, trifle might just be the ultimate expression of lazy decadence. Indolent self indulgence. Slothful debauchery. You get the idea.

Like all trifles, Scotch Trifle (also known as “Tipsy Laird” in my Maw Broon Cookbook) is a matter of gathering several ready-made ingredients and stacking them inside a bowl so that the finished product resembles a queue that got bored and melted.

From our trusty local supermarket we amassed the following:

A packet of little sponge cakes
Some almond biscuits which I then smashed to bits
A tub of custard (we chose a fancy vanilla custard because we’re custard snobs)
Some raspberry jam (seedless for that smooth, dreamy texture)
A punnet of raspberries
Some flaked almonds
Double cream for whipping
A bloody big bottle of Drambuie

Flavoured with heather honey and herbs, it is the addition of this fragrant "secret recipe" whisky liqueur that separates a Scotch trifle from its southern counterparts.

We began by smearing our sponge cakes with jam and placing them at the bottom of the bowl. I am not including measurements because I believe trifle construction should always possess a personal flair. You may be someone who prefers two layers of sponge cake. Who am I to judge?

Atop the sponge cake we sprinkled the broken almond biscuits (I had stuffed mine in a bag and did them in with a rolling pin. You can’t buy that kind of therapy).

Next, douse the crumbled mess with your Drambuie. Ma Broon says “ye can lick the spoon.” Follow this with your raspberries and dump over your custard. If you have any patience, put this in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours. However if you are like me and can‘t be bothered to wait, immediately spoon over the double cream that you already have diligently whipped. Top with flaked almonds.

When you serve the trifle, it will not look pretty. But that is okay because this is meant to be a collision of textures, a sensual pile-up in the mouth. My suggestion: Make yourself a strong cup of tea and just go with it.

22 Dec 2009

A Capital Christmas

Edinburgh is so beautiful right now, just days before Christmas. We rarely get snow in December so the result is a fresh bout of festive feelings, at least for me.

But I don’t think it’s just me. I sense a renewed enthusiasm from people as they clutch their mulled wine at the holiday markets or stop in Princes Street to take photos of Edinburgh Castle, which is so regal with its dusting of white.

Suddenly everything is new again.

These photos aren’t the best, but it made me happy to take them on my walk to and from work. I adore the lights that are wound around the trees in Princes Street Gardens. They are white lights but they cast a purple glow. With the lights wrapped so far up the branches, I think of skeletons frozen in the middle of a dance.

Already I mourn the loss of winter. I am not ready for the days to begin to get longer. I know, I know - ask me about this statement in March, when I am begging for the sun to shine and the buds to burst.

Weather dependent, JP and I will be making a trip to the borders and perhaps undertaking a few other adventures around Scotland. But in case I don’t get much writing in over the holidays, I want to thank you for tagging along with this sensual Scottish experiment and wish you all a beautiful festive season and cracking Hogmanay.

21 Dec 2009

My favourite room

Perhaps I am a careless blogger. Perhaps I should be more vigilant in digging out facts, timelines and stories in order to recreate the lives of the old buildings that I visit.

But there are times when I just can’t. When no matter how hard I try, no facts will stick in my head long enough to be constructed into any kind of explanation. The truth is, sometimes I just don’t care.

It’s like that with this building:

Located in the middle of Callendar Park in Falkirk, Callendar House is a gorgeous Georgian home with roots going back 600 years. It is full of compelling, remarkable stories of change, politics, upheaval and more change.

I have been to Callendar House twice and hope to return many, many times. But I don’t go to read the multitude of signboards or learn about royalty or the industrial revolution. No, I go so that I can walk through one door and one door only. The door to the most wonderful kitchen I have ever seen.

It may not be everyone’s kind of kitchen, but for me it is like walking into a dream. I love that in order to get to the kitchen you have to round a corner and walk beneath a collection of stuffed rabbits and pheasants that are hanging from the ceiling. The door to the kitchen is always closed, so by opening it you reveal the entire glory of the room in one dramatic swoop.

Everything about the Callendar House kitchen is bold, solid, no-nonsense. There are long wooden counters and a massive centre table, a huge cooker on which are set thick-bottomed pots that are so heavy you need both hands to hoist them up. There is the ornate container that looks like an urn, but which is actually for hot water. There are the bulky, wall-mounted cases that hold thick, hand-made candles. And there is the enormous coal-burning fireplace, which is so wide and deep you could easily roast a whole pig on a spit.

The best photo I have is during my last visit. Meet Jenny:

There is always someone on hand in the kitchen to show people around and demonstrate traditional cooking techniques and recipes. When I was there the house was celebrating a Victorian Christmas and Jenny was offering samples of various desserts like mince pies and shortbread.

I think that in a past life I must have been a cook in a kitchen like this. A place where my natural physical strength and my capacity for pleasure would have been well employed.

Callendar House is run by Falkirk Council. They organize educational programs and the costumed staff teach about the past through the use of stories and demonstrations. Both times I have visited it has been free, which astounds me. I am always shocked when something that gives me so much joy turns out to cost me absolutely nothing.

People are often negative about local governments, but for Callendar House I have to give Falkirk Council full marks. Rather than leaving the house to become run down, they have brought it to life for people like me who nearly burst into tears at seeing such a magnificent kitchen.

It is my favourite kitchen in the whole world, even more beloved than the one at Stirling Castle. If anyone knows of other stunning kitchens in Scotland that I should see, please let me know.

One more thing! For those Scotland-loving sensualists who are also quilters, here is a quilted history of beautiful Callendar House.

18 Dec 2009

Tantallon Castle: Homage to stone, sea and sky

Say it out loud: Tantallon. Does it not sound like an invocation? Do the T’s and L's not scramble around the mouth like fingers over rocks, calling to life the formidable giant perched atop a ragged cliff, in defiance of any who would challenge it?

The first time I heard the name Tantallon, it was spoken with a Spanish accent. Friends of mine exclaimed it to be their favourite castle. They told me about the green grass surrounding the proud ruin and the way the world just seemed to fall away into the water.

I don’t know about you, but whenever someone speaks of a place with deep reverence or awe, my mind’s perceptions encourage a growing sense of mystery about it, which stays with me until I can see it all for myself.
Approaching the castle, you are dwarfed by the upright slab that is the four-metre thick sandstone curtain wall. I even love the term: curtain wall. It sounds like a theatrical intermission for violent combat. War and weather have long since reduced to stubs the three towers that were once used as residences, giving the ruin a squat appearance on the horizon, like a bulldog on guard duty.

The castle was built in the 1350s and throughout the bulk of its tumultuous history was owned by the Earls of Angus, also known as the Red Douglases. In 1651 Cromwell’s army attacked, destroying the castle and snipping the end off its 300 year timeline.

The day my beloved and I visited Tantallon, it was a Tuesday. A damp cold drove in from the Firth of Forth and what clouds there were hung like a haze on the horizon. With its cliffs devoid of the massive colony of North Atlantic Gannets that clamour about from late winter through to the autumn, Bass Rock looked lonely, forgotten.
Since it was off-season, mid-week and freezing cold, we were alone with a building that has existed for more than six centuries. We stood in the grass-covered inner close (which once would have been surrounded by high walls) and watched the birds soar over the water until, numb with cold, we were driven into the castle itself.
Like many ruins, the rooms require much from the imagination to try to recreate what would have been. Information boards include sketches of how things might have looked, but they just filled me with longing for the shell of the building to be filled, for it all to come back to life.
That said, some of my favourite sections of the castle included broken stone that stood out against the sky and water. I also loved looking down from the battlements to the inner courtyard and the castle‘s well, which is an astonishing 30 feet deep. Also, in the bowels of one of the towers is an area that was once used as a dungeon. With little natural light the damp, creepy room does include a latrine, if you count a hole cut into the stone that expels directly onto the water and rocks below. Can you say draft?
The best thing about Tantallon is the view, the flat farmland that collapses like an unexpected sigh into the churning estuary. Also taken from the battlements, the photo below is my favourite of the day because it is a combination of the stone, the land, the sky and the sea. I have left this one large so you can click for more detail if you like. I have been using it as my desktop background and find it to be a porthole to another world.
When we left the Tantallon we talked about how we didn’t know if we would return, but since looking at the photos I have decided I would like to go again. But I would prefer to visit in the late spring so we can stand with the castle looming down on us and look out from our clifftop perch to where the returning glut of seabird life whips and dives around us.
Do you have a favourite castle in Scotland? What is the best thing about it?

15 Dec 2009

Sensual Scotland parcel lands in Pennsylvania

I had a great time gathering up the wee treats to collect for my first "sensual Scotland in a box" giveaway. The winner, Nancy of Patchwork Penguin, has reported that the box has arrived safely and I can now reveal the contents of the mystery parcel:

Taste and smell: Mmm...shortbread. Mmmm...whisky cake from Jenners. Mmmm...Scottish tablet.

Sight and hearing: A CD-rom tour of Scotland, a home-made mixed CD of Scottish music, and a BBC audio book of James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack.

Rounding out the sensual experiences are a packet of wildflower seeds, a small book of Scottish country recipes and a Christmas card featuring a bagpiper.

In other good news, recently many of you let me know some of your most-loved sensual Scottish experiences. This week I was contacted by a teacher who asked to use the ideas in her class in order to get her students thinking about their own favourite sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Scotland. I'm sure the children will add to the ideas you have already put forward.

Next post will explore the cliff-perched ruins of Tantallon Castle.

13 Dec 2009

A sunshine view of Greenock

In Scotland, a day without rain or the threat of rain is valuable. It is an increment of time in which the light is not diffused, but skidding around objects and casting shadows like they were puppets. I have long since learned that a morning that involves the promise of a blue sky is one to be cherished.

It was on such a clear and cold morning that I recently found myself in Greenock. Well, I didn’t exactly find myself there - I went there on purpose. But perhaps it was meant to be, as I have just discovered that Greenock is said to come from the Gaelic Grianaig, which means “a sunny place.”

My beloved has few glowing remarks to share about his hometown. True, this traditional ship building port can be seen as just another bead on the urban necklace that stretches from Glasgow westward along the River Clyde. And no doubt it would look a far grander place today if so much of it hadn’t been flattened in a two-night blitz during WWII. But on a clear day it is easy to discover the things that made this town so prosperous during its heyday in the shipping industry.

The waterfront that runs along next to the domineering 1818 Custom House is quiet and quaint and offers lovely views across the river as it swells into the Firth of Clyde. I was there on a weekend and wasn’t able to see the museum that is currently run in the Custom House. (I had better get there soon as it is scheduled to be closed in 2011).

Up the hill, Greenock’s war memorial is beautiful. Of course JP would tell you not to spend much time in the surrounding park in the evenings, but on a bright morning it shines with its intended purpose. Behind it Victoria Tower is easily viewed. In fact the 245-foot tower, part of the municipal building, can be seen from almost anywhere in town, a helpful landmark for visitors and folks on their way home after having one too many at the pub.

There is much to see in Greenock if you just look up. The carvings in the area around the municipal building are ornate and stunning. Gods and goddesses swathed in robes and garlands can be seen looming wisely or driving their chariots around the walls of practical industry. Even the Sheriff’s Courthouse looks like it has been transplanted by Disney. (You’ve been found guilty! Now the Sentencing Fairy will sprinkle you with the Dust of Repentance and lead you over the Bridge of TskTsk and out into the Lake of Reflection, where you will spend the next 20 days on the Isle of Gloom).

The name James Watt is everywhere around town, including a museum, a college and even a pub. An inventor and engineer, Watt’s improvements to the steam engine changed the world by giving the industrial revolution a swift kick up the backside. Say hello to Mr. Watt himself in front of the - what else- James Watt Building:

This is certainly a place to go if you like to go to church. The first church was established here in the late 1500s and today there are churches all over Greenock. There is even a church in the mall.

I suppose the best thing about Greenock is its central location, not only to Glasgow but to numerous other small towns and historical sights and of course ferry terminals. I am already counting down to spring so we can go to Wemyss Bay and take the ferry to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute (not that we couldn't go now, but I am waiting for this place to open).

Perhaps it is impractical to write about a place that is - unless you’re an engineering buff - several miles off the standard tourist trail. But when I ask myself “was it pleasing to my senses?” I have to answer “yes.” In which case, it is worth sharing.

8 Dec 2009

How to make an SGCT (seriously good cheese toastie)

What I love most about Scottish food is the staunch reliance on quality ingredients and the intense pride taken in the numerous food staples for which Scotland is known. Things like heather honey, seafood, haggis, oats, and various fruits and vegetables like raspberries, kale and leeks. Then there are dairy products like cream, ice cream and of course, cheese. You can get some truly remarkable cheeses in Scotland, and you are missing out if you don’t enjoy an after-dinner Scottish cheese board at least once.

Just off of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s Christmas markets are in full swing. Along with the ever popular German market, the Highland Village market is once again bursting with offers, including the return of the Aberdeen Angus burger.

However there is a market newcomer about which I am over the moon. Welcome to the world of the SGCT, also known as the “Seriously Good Cheese Toastie.” A cheese toastie may seem like a simple thing and in many ways it is, but it is the approach to the toastie making that makes this so…seriously good. And seriously Scottish.

The sign says it all. Simple, but goooood. Take high quality ingredients, combine them in a way that makes them compliment each other, and you’ve got something that is, for lack of a better term, pure dead brilliant.

To add to the flavour sensation of sourdough, cheddar and leeks, the toastie folks (say hello to SGCT co-founder Moray and toastie sidekick Debbie) have piping hot mulled Moniack Mead available as well. Mmmm…sips of honey and cinnamon and warmth and goodness in-between bites of toastie excellence…

I admit I am slightly addicted to the SGCT. As such, I have tasked myself with trying to recreate them at home. After all, the Christmas markets will end on Christmas Eve and I don’t want to be in danger of sudden and lasting withdrawal symptoms.

So I bought myself some good sough dough bread and some Mull of Kintyre cheddar. Then I threw my leek/onion/garlic combo in the food processor to chop it really fine. Combine and grill!



My first attempt was good but not as good as the original SGCT. I shall have to try again, and next time I may substitute green onion for the red onion, lower the overall amount of onion and increase the amount of leeks. I also need to get my hands on some Isle of Mull cheese as there is just something about that flavour that I prefer. Oh dear, I think I am turning into a cheese toastie snob.

Do you have a secret to making your own SGCT? Let me know. And if anyone is heading through Edinburgh and would rather not eat their holiday toastie all alone, I am a more than reliable toastie date.

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