26 Feb 2011

A touch of Italy in Perthshire

There are ways to will spring to arrive in Scotland. One way is to turn the consumption of ice cream into an event. Yesterday we did just that when we hopped in the car and drove more than an hour to Perthshire.

Down a beautiful country road between Perth and Dunkeld, a bright pink and white sign advertises a café and ice cream parlour built in a converted farm building.

The ice cream in Scotland is staggeringly good. Plentiful rain makes for rich grass for the cows and this translates into the high quality of the milk and subsequently, the ice cream.

The Stewart Tower Dairy is the kind of place that can make a day trip feel like a holiday. This is due to the obvious nature of their business; it is first and foremost a farm, with wide fields stretching out to the horizon, a tractor waiting in the yard and hay bales stacked in an outbuilding across the road.

A bit of family friendly charm comes in the addition of small pens containing a group of mischievous goats, who hop onto boulders and even a feeding trough between nibbles of hay.
Despite being just on the cusp of the lunch hour, miles from a main town on a weekday, there were already several cars in the parking lot when we arrived. Within 15 minutes of taking our seats in the café three more groups joined the growing throng of the hungry.

After years of dessert-eating practice, I have come to understand that I cannot dive straight into the sugar. The trick is to have a little something savoury before you begin your homage to glucose gluttony. Queue a lovely bowl of leek and sweet potato soup and some homemade herby scones.
Now that we can prove to our mothers that we’ve eaten our vegetables, let us move on to the main event.

Using milk from their herd of Holstein cows, the ice cream at Stewart Tower Dairy is inspired by Italian gelato, which is frozen quickly in a batch freezer and mixed while it freezes, giving it a smoother texture than ice cream that has been frozen assembly-line style.

When you enter the building you immediately find yourself looking through a wide window into a room where one of these machines is at work. (Don’t lick the glass - they don’t like that).
Their website lists more than 40 flavours of ice cream, 16 flavours of frozen yoghurt and 13 flavours of fruit ices. A small rotating selection of these is on display in the café.

Alas neither the chilli chocolate nor banoffee were available during our visit, so I went for a double scoop combo of rum raisin and creamy hazelnut. Of the two the creamy hazelnut was particularly glorious, not too sweet and also wonderfully smooth.
The menu also lists a selection of more dramatic ice cream desserts, and my beloved went for the Chunky Toffee Fudge: vanilla and toffee ice cream, clotted cream, fudge cubes, covered in toffee sauce and finished with fresh whipped cream and a toffee finger.

The toffee cubes and sauce made this much sweeter and I loved the addition of the clotted cream. However, one of the biggest pleasures of this ice cream is the texture, so in some ways all the little extras are in danger of hindering the experience. On the other hand, you can’t have an ice cream parlour without the option of those great 1950s sundae-style desserts.

Before you leave make time for a wee wander around their farm shop, which has everything from local eggs to made-in-Scotland jams and salad dressings. Next to the door is a freezer highlighting the Stewart Tower Dairy's other passion of ice cream cakes. If our car had a mini-freezer I would have had to take this one home:
I still regret not being able to sample every other flavour which taunted me with obvious deliciousness, particularly the strawberry cheesecake and the raspberry and white chocolate. I can’t imagine visiting Perthshire in the future without stopping here for ice cream. Somehow I will manage to work my way through the entire selection, even if it takes me years.

Our ice cream adventure has obviously tricked spring into showing its face, because today the sun shone strong between banks of high cloud and the breeze had lost its icy edge.

So I’m dying to know, if you had a larger selection to choose from, which one would you not be able to resist?

20 Feb 2011

Inside Edinburgh University's Anatomy Theatre

I am under strict instructions not to tell you about what went on during Saturday night’s Edinburgh Secret Society event.

But I can say how remarkable it was to sit in Edinburgh University’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre, with steep rows of red seats curved around where the old dissecting table once sat.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, cadavers were wheeled out before an audience of young medical students and taken apart in full gory detail. This is a building that is not often open to the public, a silent bowl of history that our secret group had the opportunity to fill for a few hours.

Upon departure from our “evening of death” (additional details are forbidden), I was wowed by the elephant skeletons in the lobby of the anatomy museum. The stone surroundings and the subtle lighting brought out the shadows in the room.
What a strange place and an exceptionally strange evening. I know I’m sworn to secrecy, but perhaps just one photo from this sold-out event? I’m sure this shot will cast aside the veil of mystery. Excellent.

12 Feb 2011

The Saturday pleasure report

I have been remiss in my blogging duties. Each day the amount of light stretches itself a little further and I hope this will bring me out of the shell that is still cupped around my creative self.

Today I did wander far enough to pick up one of the best desserts I have sampled in a very long time. I present the remarkable, smooth-as-a-dream creation that is the white chocolate and passion fruit mousse from Edinburgh’s Patisserie Jacob. Wishing cake lovers everywhere a delicious weekend.

2 Feb 2011

A Royal oops (instert scone photo here)

Has this ever happened to you? You visit a tourist attraction and the thing that remains burned into your memory is the very thing you neglected to photograph when you had the chance.

For example, imagine being chilled to the bone, your fingers raw and aching. Just as your mood is about to tip towards grumpy, you enter a blissfully warm room and sit down to the most splendid cup of tea with a fresh, perfectly fluffy scone with jam and clotted cream. It is the best scone/cream/jam/tea combination you have ever experienced. Ever. And the moment you finish your last sip you suddenly rouse from your blissful state to realize your camera is still in the bag.

This happened to me when I visited the Royal Yacht Britannia, which is permanently moored in Ocean Terminal in Leith in Edinburgh.

The yacht is an Edinburgh must-see for anyone with a fascination with the Royal Family. You get to wander the entire ship, from the deck to the crew’s quarters and the polished-to-a-shine engine room. It’s a strange combination of rooms that feel frozen in time and areas which are just holding still between corporate dinner parties.

I enjoyed the small flourishes best, such as the portholes, the gleaming drinks cabinet and the single button from Admiral Nelson’s coat in the Wardroom. Also, the recording I listened to as I walked from room to room informed me that one small area near the kitchen had once been the place there the “Royal children’s jellies were stored.”
The era of Britannia is long past, a jigsaw piece permanently separated from the rest of the puzzle which is the Royal Family.

There are paintings of the yacht at sea, surrounded by lively waves. Now it is frozen, a funny-shaped apartment just kissing the water. The captain’s quarters harks back to the 1950s. Charles and Diana honeymooned on board, their early life together now broken off and sewn hastily into history. For me this leant a slight eeriness to the experience.

As I mentioned, my favourite place is the café. Even though Britannia is permanently stuck to the wharf, the café can only be accessed once you have paid for your tour.

Perhaps it was that feeling of exclusivity, or perhaps it was the idea that I was eating something so quintessentially English while aboard a Royal vessel. Maybe I was just plain cold and so relieved to be warm again. But it really was the most splendid scone and cup of tea. I would happily skip the tour just so I could eat there again. I want another scone!
In some ways the memory serves me better than a photo could. It has allowed me to mythologise this small meal in a way I never would have otherwise.

Has anyone else had this experience? Forgotten to take a photo of what would become the most important element of the holiday?

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