31 May 2010

A visit to Kagyu Samye Ling

Since I don’t drive here and am restricted to the use of public transport, if it wasn’t for the “sure, whatever you want honey,” attitude of my wonderful man-with-a-red-car boyfriend, I wouldn’t get to see half of the things I do around Scotland.

Here is how our trip planning usually goes:

Step 1. In my readings about Scotland I come across a place that interests me.
Step 2. I read more and get terribly excited.
Step 3. I babble incoherently at my beloved, pointing at books and showing him web sites.
Step 4. He says “okay honey,” and we make arrangements for the trip.
Step 5. I display my gratitude with great sensual exuberance, and he is most pleased.

But when I said “Let’s go to Dumfriesshire to see the largest Buddhist temple in Western Europe!” I expected at least a bit of resistance. As usual however he was keen to see something new.

So off we went, once again finding ourselves on single-track country roads, dodging sheep and making way for periodic oncoming traffic.
On and on we drove, through the beautiful green countryside that surrounds the River Esk. We rounded a corner and suddenly through the trees we could see a giant gold and white structure, the main stupa of the Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre.

Founded in 1967, Kagyu Samye Ling was the first Buddhist Centre to be established in the West. Today the centre runs a host of courses and retreats, as well as the Holy Isle Project.
We were free to wander around, but I think we must have been the only day visitors as everyone else seemed to be staying or working there.

There was construction work taking place all over the monastery, with vast building works going on next to the temple itself, part of a project to build what they describe on their web site as “the largest, most comprehensive Tibetan Buddhist-style temple in the West.” From what I have read they have been working at this for some time, moving forward as finances are available. When it is finished it is expected to look like this:
The courtyard was blocked off because of the construction work and I wasn’t able to get a proper view of the outside of the temple, however we were allowed to go inside (once we had taken our shoes off, of course).

What a remarkable place to see - in Scotland of all places. The interior of the temple gleamed with yellow and gold, with bright paintings and accents of red around the room.

The room was empty when we stepped in, so I didn’t have to feel I was disturbing someone’s meditation.
Afterwards we walked around the Stupa Garden and around the Stupa itself, through a corridor that has mechanically rotating prayer wheels on one side, and on the other a long wall with small in-built spaces for urns and photographs of those who have passed away. Inside the Stupa is another meditation space, laid out in a similar manner to the larger temple, but with more subtle d├ęcor.

We saw many bright statues, including one part stern, part comical-looking fellow who sat perched above a small pool.

Aside from periodic bursts from an electric saw nearby, the garden was quiet - one of those places that draws out a feeling of mindfulness. However, remembering our visit now, I have just realized that we did not walk around the Stupa in a clockwise direction, as is considered “respectful and beneficial” in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Signal a very unenlightened “Doh!”
Other than the splendour of the temple itself, I loved the butterlamp house most of all. There were workmen in there, too, but I was still able to imagine what it would look like when all these candles are lit, the transforming glow shining brightly into a dark Scottish night.
One of the best things about doing week-long (or longer) Buddhist meditation retreat is the routine of waking, meditating, silence, meditating, working, meditating…. And out here in beautiful Dumfriesshire, you have the added pleasure of the bleats of sheep calling out between the hum of the meditation bowl.

Having spent a week at Dhanakosa, I had an idea of what to expect at Kagyu Samye Ling, but I really did throw my beloved into the deep end this time. However just like he always does, he took things as they came and chalked it all up to another wild adventure with his somewhat erratic Canadian woman.

Kagyu Samye Ling is about a two-hour drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and more information about their retreats and courses can be found on the monastery’s Web site.

30 May 2010

Scottish Tea Winners!!!

Thank you all so much. The hat of treats is nearly full to the brim with little bits of folded paper bearing the names of tea lovers. I've never had so many names in the hat before - thank you thank you!

The winners!

First of all, the winner of The Scottish Collection box from the Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company (and one bag of English Breakfast Tea for comparison!) is Julia Christie.

Earlier this year the now famous Icelandic ash cloud was the cause of Julia's family holiday to Ireland being cancelled. They are now re-planning their trip for the autumn, and have decided to include a week in Scotland as well. Hopefully this tea will inspire them as they read through their guidebooks.
Next, there are the sets of five Scottish Breakfast Tea packets. I've squeezed out one more name so four people can see what they think of my favourite tea.

Congratulations to Kit in South Africa, Laurita in Newfoundland Canada, Proud grandmother Linda Skupien from Ocean Springs Mississippi, and our bonus winner, Brian Miller.

Could all the winners please email me their addresses and I shall organize the mailing of treats forthwith!

Many thanks for this overwhelming interest in tea in Scotland. If you have not had a chance to peruse the joyous offerings of The Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company you can do so here.

29 May 2010

My big afternoon at The Taste of Edinburgh Festival

It was one of those things I had been meaning to do for years, always somehow letting it slip past and then regretting it. I knew if I didn’t go this year that it would continue to loom in my mind like a giant culinary “what if,” so I took the bus to Inverleith Park, bought a ticket, and I went.

Despite the lightness of the paper that would grant me entry to Edinburgh’s most popular annual food event, I couldn’t help feeling slightly weighed down by the cost (£16 at the door, and that was before buying £10 worth of “crowns” to spend at the restaurants).

While the bulk of the companies represented were Scottish, I was still surprised by the number of non-Scottish companies on site. For me this was an opportunity to seek out Scottish food producers with whom I was unfamiliar, so I left my radar firmly on Scotland while I wandered.

There were samples aplenty everywhere I went, and there were many foods that I loved and people who intrigued me, whether because of the quality and uniqueness of their products or the infectious nature of their dedication and enthusiasm.

I met lovely Anne from Hebridean Liqueurs, who let me sample their Spiced Rum Liqueur and their Hebridean Whisky Liqueur. I am not usually one for alcohol, but I loved that rum, which rounded inside my mouth like a ball floating on a warm sea.

I know instinctively when a food or drink is very good because a pleasurable energy will sweep through my body, followed by my mind’s immediate desire to devise stories to wrap around the feeling. This rum has just such an affect on me.

Several of the other surprises of the day were also alcoholic in nature, starting with the simply stunning flavours of Thistly Cross Cider.

Hannah had me try the whisky variety, which I found both subtle and comforting, but the Strawberry Cider made me want to sit down in a lush garden and pen long letters to far-away friends. I never thought cider could be beautiful. It is gorgeous.
Next up, fancy some Raspberry Vodka? How about some Dansom Gin? I tried neither of these but did fall madly in love with Scots’ Cheer Ltd’s other offering: their new Rhubarb Rum, which is just as warm and homely as it sounds. This is the kind of thing I would save for a cold winter’s day, to swirl together the seasons in delicious combat inside my mouth.

I discovered the delights of alcoholic Ginger Beer thanks to Heather Ale Ltd, run by the Williams Brothers Brewing Company. The Ginger Beer is a new product for the company, which is more widely known for its historic ales like Heather Ale, Elderberry Black Ale and Kelp Ale. I shall be making it my mission in the future to try them all.

Some of the other highlights of my day included meeting the fine folk at Findlay’s of Portobello and trying their new Asian Haggis, a recipe they were asked to devise for a wedding and which they have continued to make along with their traditional and spicy varieties. Like Findlay’s other haggis, the Asian variety is delicious, and packs a little extra India-inspired punch, with notes of cumin, coriander and garam masala.

I regret not trying any seafood. I missed my chances owing to either not wanting to queue or to pay for the pleasure. I did enjoy watching the purveyor at Ballimore Oysters work deftly with his knife, scooping out sample after sample for a steady stream of curious tasters.
Wandering into the Taste of Stockbridge booth I suddenly felt more at ease that I had in many of the other areas of the event.

Pretension evaporated and there was an informality about this little nook that made me feel relieved. I tried some lovely olive tapenade on some highly flavourful, slow baked bread. I vowed to explore the idea of doing a foodie tour of Stockbridge someday soon.

I did shell out for two food samples from restaurants. I visited Amber, but I was so hungry when I tucked into my "Saddle of roe deer and redcurrant Wellington served on a potato scone with treacle and Speyside malt sauce," that I forgot to take a photo. Believe me that I could have happily drunk the sauce with a ladle.

My other taste adventure was at The Rutland Hotel tent, where I enjoyed “Slowly cooked shoulder of Orkney Gold lamb with cumin, feta and lemon, Carrolls Heritage salad blue potatoes, with cucumber and mint yoghurt dressing.” Because of the way everything else on the plate worked to showcase the perfect tenderness of the lamb, it gets the gold star as the best thing I ate all day. Yum. Behold:
This brings me to my favourite moments of the day. The first was watching a demonstration by my favourite Scottish cookery writer, Sue Lawrence.

I sat in the front row as she gave us tips on cooking the perfect steak. Here she is showing us the “finger test” method of determining how much time to give a steak in order to cook it to just the level you want it. It's all about the springiness. The more it springs, the more well done it is.

To go with two separate steak dishes she also prepared a simple but fragrant (scent plumes of parsley, basil and mint swept past me on several occasions) salsa verde.
Arriving early for today’s afternoon session meant I was in time to sign up for one of the free (FREE!) cooking classes being led by an enthusiastic team from Nick Nairn’s Cook School. We were handed aprons and paired up at our tables where our prepared ingredients were laid out for us.

The goal was to make grilled asparagus with a poached egg and parmesan cheese. After a nervous start we quickly got into the swing of things, and following the lead of our fantastic instructor Tristan, the results were rather delicious, if I do say so myself.
Overall it was a good day, but in truth I mostly felt out of my depth, like I just didn’t fit in. I think I would have needed a substantially deeper wallet in order to extract a sense of bounty out of the experience, and even if a cavernous wallet was a reality, I still have my doubts.

Money overshadowed everything for me, and I tried not to think about how many goodies £26 would have gotten me at the farmers’ market, or if I had just visited one of the farm shops highlighted in my beloved copy of the magazine, The Larder.

I’ve done it now, so I can check it off my list. Will I go again? No, I don’t think so. Next year I will seek out smaller, more informal food events, forgoing the chance to see foodie royalty for the more enjoyable (for me, anyway) opportunity to speak to the remarkable, creative people working behind the scenes with some of Scotland’s most exciting food and drink.

28 May 2010

Crail: A different pace of life

Oh, it has been a long week, hasn’t it?

What we need now is Fife, and more specifically the area known as East Neuk. Whittling it down even further, we need to go to Crail. For now we need to resist the impulse to head to beautiful but busy St. Andrews, which is just 10 miles away. Crail is where we need to be. Crail will fix everything.

We can park near the high street and pick up some ice cream before following the line of gleaming white cottages towards the harbour.

Crail harbour is one of those precious tucked-away places that introverts like me adore because it makes us feel blanketed and sheltered. The stone-walled nook of a marina keeps the boats shielded from the rocking of the waves, and tourists can walk along the higher outer wall that drops down to the sea. On a warm day the clear water gleams like an emerald all the way to the shore of the small sandy beach.
When we’ve had enough of watching the water stir the sunlight, we can move along to another beach where the waves talk over smooth stones while limp seaweed clings dramatically like a Turner Prize hopeful.
Scrambling over boulders as fast as their short legs will carry them is a pair of Scottish terriers, their long noses sniffing wildly at the breeze that skims off the sea. They aren’t thinking about what happened before right now and or what might happen later. They understand the big picture. They are on Crail time.
If only the wee seafood shack was open and selling fresh crab, then the afternoon would be complete. As it is, let’s just stay here awhile and comb the shoreline for perfect stones, until the waves hiss at our shoes and make us jump and laugh.

If we can, let’s resolve to come back for a longer stay, like during the festival or just to spend three days binging on seafood up and down the East Neuk coast. I would like that. I want to learn to live on Crail time.
Contest news:

For those living in the UK, consider going in for the following contests:

-Win a holiday break for four to the Isle of Arran, courtesy of Mackies of Scotland
-Win a five star break in the Hebrides with Hebridean Luxury Holidays
-Win a 2-night retreat at Meldrum Country Hotel & Golf Course in Aberdeenshire, and get a VIP tour of Johnstons Cashmere flagship mill in beautiful Elgin.
-Pop onto Mackies of Scotland's Web site and try your luck at winning a year's supply of their fabulous ice cream and crisps.

For Scotland-lovers living in the USA and Canada, there is a new contest to win a trip to the home of whisky, including 2 tickets to WhiskyLive 2010 in Glasgow. Return flights with Iceland Air. Hurry for this one! Deadline is May 31.(Check terms and conditions for any state or province exclusions).

Deadline to enter my own wee Scottish tea giveaway is end of day tomorrow and I shall draw the names on Sunday.

25 May 2010

A seal-less visit to Tentsmuir Point

Do you ever have adventures that at the time seem like a terrible punishment but somehow, days or weeks later, your mind romanticizes your memories and causes you to smile and sigh while looking through your photographs?

I know with certainty that my beloved will mock me, but suddenly I’m feeling all dreamy about Tentsmuir Nature Reserve. Of course, he is right to mock me. After all, all the material we had read before visiting Tentsmuir Point had waxed lyrical about the Tay estuary’s “year-round” seal population.

We walked and walked, taking the forest path and entertaining ourselves with banter of outlandish fictions about evil happenings in the woods, before launching into a contest to see who could find the biggest pine cone (I won).

Finally we turned and saw the sign that signalled we would soon be emerging onto the beach. The information board advised us to be aware of the possibility of Highland Cows grazing near the dunes (we didn’t see any).

Also, to illustrate a message about how dog poo poses disease risks for local wildlife, the sign boasts a charming cartoon of a squirrel being sick into a paper bag.
We crested a small dune and stepped onto the beach. And what a beach it was. It was vast and almost vacant, the beige sand stretching out to a blue-grey skyline of high cloud. The view was like a film that had been leached of colour, an eerie apocalyptic scene that made me think of The Waste Land:

The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
Of course, this place is not lifeless. The Tay is a valuable habitat for waterfowl, including the UK’s largest winter gathering of eider ducks. But this was not winter, and we were not here to see ducks. We wanted to see seals.

On and on we walked, our shoes sinking into the soft sand while the grass danced on the dunes beside us. We thought that after the next curve…the next one…that perhaps we would see the tell-tale black tube of a seal on the beach. But there was nothing.

Eventually we gave up, turned inland again and past the long rows of 1941 anti-tank blocks, which stand like massive forgotten dominos along what used to be the high tide line (the sands here are always moving, carved out by the sea on the south side and dumped on the ever growing north beaches).
Perhaps it is because my work is becoming busier as we head towards the festival season. Everyday when I walk to the office I can feel Edinburgh shifting gears, preparing. Whatever the reason, now when I look at these photos I find myself longing for the wild unbroken vista of beach, sea and sky. The landscape stretches in a way that I cannot.

In conclusion, I shall let Tentsmuir Point be a lesson in expectation. If you rely too heavily on one idea, you risk not being able to fully appreciate the beautiful alternatives that await you should that initial desire not unfold.
Thanks for visiting this wee patch of Scotland-loving Internet. This blog is an expression of my relentless curiosity and love for this country, and I am so grateful for all the kindness and enthusiasm my readers have shown to me.

Another thank you to those who have been joining in my tea giveaway. I love reading all your comments and stories about the part tea plays in your lives. The door for entries will remain open until Saturday and I’ll draw names on Sunday. Please visit the May 23 Scottish Breakfast Tea post to enter.

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