Wednesday, 28 May 2008
While the rest of the country gets soaked we roll out of Glasgow with our arms scorching - down to Troon and its clear, languid light. Andy and Susie and their two wee ger'ls, Katie and Emma come running out to meet us and I furnish the kids with some ice creams then we pile inside. A big BBQ is under way and lots of their friends there, girls beautifully turned out in heels, CD shades, French manicures, blonde tresses. The guys are all in the local rugby team. All the guys are hooked up with all the girls - it's like an Ayreshire soap opera with extra bawdiness.
Everyone gets stuck into the booze - it's Bank Holiday Sunday and most of them are feeling pretty ordinary after staying up all night, raging: cider, wine, shots, hot choc with Morgan's Spiced and strawberries at 7am...but they're still standing and looking sprightly. I decide it's time to open Dave's Elderberry Wine ('alcohol content: lots'). Great big glasses are filled in a gung-ho fashion, which soon turns to quiet horror as the full reality of this dark liquid hits...back to the shiraz we go!
Andy tends the barbie outside, the kids run around in the big girls' heels, more booze flows. Conversation gets quite lewd - something about a dog and a couple of the girls and...lipstick(?!), and about Andy's controversial speech at his wedding, and Maryhill and what a rough place it is and how if you're from Troon you always have to rough up your accent when you go to Glasgow or you'll get jumped. And then we're introduced to the 'Wedge-otard'. One of the rugby players likes dressing up in this hot pink, high-cut leotard and launching himself on the local boozer in it, super-hero style and we get to see him in action.
The BBQ is really hearty - burgers, steak, sausages, lamb, kebabs, baps, salad and everyone swarms the table as soon as it's out. Eventually, after hours more of laughing and joking everyone leaves and me and Alanna fall into our makeshift beds with glee.
The next day Andy's up and at 'em with the most enormous cooked breakfast ever. "You ger'ls need to get a good Scottish breakfast insahd ye" he declares and then rolls out a platter that requires two people to carry it.
I load up my plate with sausage, black pudding, square sausage, tattie scones, haggis, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs, toast...but draw the line at the Aberdeen Angus steak.
Fully fortified we waddle off to the beach to do a bit of fly-pitching.
Monday, 26 May 2008
My friend Alanna is my sidekick for the weekend. She was going to spend her first night with an old nursing mate in Glasgow's East End, but on Sunday morning at 7am I get a voice message from her - "Pez, when can you come and get me?...I've got to get out of here - it's a techno hell-hole and it won't stop". I wasn't even awake, let alone up so she stole away from the gurners and hopped in a cab over to Queenzieburn. Ross showed us around the farm and we got a real eye full of his prize bulls' great swinging nads. (Heavy). Then said our good-byes and got on our way - off to Maryhill, the home of the real ice cream wars.
No voyage in a choc-mobile that sells ice cream would be complete without a visit to Maryhill - it's standard. Everyone warns me about tyre slashing and windscreen smashing but I'm adamant. And besides, I have Alanna with me which means that it doesn't matter how dodgy an area we're in together, we will always gravitate towards the sleaziest, most down at heel old man's boozer that we can get our chops around and the rest of the world can disappear.
The Maryhill Tavern appeared like a great throbbing, pulsating beacon. I screeched to a halt and we accosted the first guy that came out of it, Wally. "Get the fook oota tha car and get insaad the fookin pub ya fookin speckies", he yelled. We decided he was probably saying this in good humour and went on in, flanking this great, gruff big teddy bear of a man.
"Oh mah god, Wally's not brought a burd in here fa years - let aloon twoo" cried a bleach blonde grandma at the bar.
We went and settled down with Wally and his pals and the whole pub started hurling questions over at us. As soon as they twigged we were English there was pandamonium - especially from Wally who'd thought we were from Ullapool or Harris.
"If ah'd knoon you were fookin English ah'd a told ya to fook off doon the rood" he shouted before making off to the bar and getting us a drink.
A guy called Jimmy heckled us from the other side of the pub, telling us to "get oot, you're no' welcome in here". I marched over to him, said "here Jimmy, I've got something to show you - come outside with me" and led him by the hand out to meet my Jimmy. He was absolutely delighted. The rest of the afternoon saw us taking endless trips out to the van with all the Jimmys that came in and dancing with old men to the karaoke croonings. It was absolute gold dust.
Any trip round Britain was always going to have to include a return to the fountain from which Jimmy first sprung - Inverness. Yes, I remember that day when we flew in to the wild west-like airport and there was Eddie all ready to take me to my future....The truth is that I'd bought the van on eBay, unseen. Crazy as this may sound it was Eddie's soothing, almost dulcet voice with the lilting Wester Ross accent that reassured me that it was all ok.
"Petra my dear, it will be wonderful to see you again and see how the old girl's getting on" he said down the phone when I told him of my plans. And as I roll into Inverness I am located by the family's blue Subaru and led through town and out into the backwoods to their house. We go into their immaculate home, full of stuffed animals and great comfy Lazy-Boys, and into the kitchen where the table is all set and ready for action.
WHO CAME: Eddie, his wife Val, their two kids, Martin and Victoria and a couple of friends.
THE SET-UP: There is high excitement at my visit. Some friends have been invited for supper and everyone wants to know everything about it all. I field hundreds of questions - about how much baking I have to do, where do I bake, where I go, how busy I am, what's been my favourite place, why I'm doing it, what I'm doing next, how long I'll be doing it, what's Willie like, what's his chocolate like.....I'm used to all these questions but sometimes it can feel like I'm caught in the same frame, wilting.
I avert the questions and instead ask about them - about Eddie's ice cream wars where he was nudged off his round by some surly pretender, about their friends' one visit to London years ago and the kids' Highland dancing successes. We talk about Eddie's dalliance with a royal back in the day and then how he and Val got together when she spotted him working as a bouncer at the club. The kids are fascinated by me because they saw me on the telly and Martin decides the best route for Willie to take his chocolate down - "Of course - Lidl! It's obvious!".
WHAT WE ATE: Dinner is huge - a great meaty feast of roast lamb and beef, neeps, cauliflower, roast spuds, carrots and Yorkshire pud all cooked by Eddie. Val doesn't cook; she prefers making cakes. Eddie and I drink Shiraz and everyone else sips Schloer. And then when it's pudding time there is mania.
THE PUD: I make brownie fudge sundaes because of the kids. The brownies are gently warmed in the oven so that the centre goes soft and rich whilst the top develops that wonderful crispiness. Choc fudge sauce is warmed in a pan by Victoria and vanilla ice cream retrieved from the van. Everyone enjoys it - especially Eddie who tells me it's one of the best sweets he's ever had.
They really take me into the family for the night. We go and feed bread to the 'coos' and milk to the lambs. We watch the kids perform their dance routine and Victoria play the accordian. Then we go upstairs to their super-comfy sitting room with the incredible view of the bay and watch home videos. It's all cosy and reassuring.
MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: Val and Eddie insist on giving me their great big comfy bed for the night. I only accept because I think they'd be much happier that way. I am touched by their kindness.
I had been promised all sorts of delights up in Aviemore. The Micklethwaites decamped from east London last summer when their grandmother died, leaving them as the only family members who wanted to hang on to the house. And hanging on they are, with all the rambling inventiveness that is reflected everywhere in the house. I am greeted like a long lost friend and can't believe my luck when I'm given the most desirable room in the whole place, Lairded over by an enormous Princess and the Pea style bed.
The grand tour of Inshriach is fabulous and poignant all at once. There is the air about it of a Nancy Mitford novel...mixed with Enid Blyton and a bit of Noel Streatfield. All the rooms have names and relate to the time when it was a fully functioning upstairs/downstairs kinda place. There's a nursery - complete with old Beano annuals and metal nursery beds, then we have the housekeeper's room, the French maid's room, loads of other bedrooms, bathrooms and, my personal favourite, the 'poor room'. Here we find a bare bulbed, crumpled bed, curtainless hovel which, if made a feature of, could be a deciding factor for parties looking to rent the house. Imagine this, a whacky old pile up in the Highlands, surrounded by great rollicking grouse moors, the River Spey and endless Douglas Firs, and replete with themed bedrooms just crying out 'role play'!
The dining room is being brought out of storage and a big feast is under way. There are loads of great strapping lads everywhere with names like Hamish and Angus and lots of activity - people returning from fishing trips, gin and tonics being made, kitchen table laptopping, pheasants being prepared. I position myself amongst it with a large G&T and get to work on the nights treat - hot chocolate fudge pudding. The crowd looks pleased. I size the Aga up and worry how it might cope with the responsibility of cooking it in time.
We eat dinner by soft candle light. We're a depleted group because most of them are glued to the Champion's League. The pheasant is served with broccoli and a kind of frozen med veg medley - Walter swears by it - along with healthy dollops of redcurrant jelly. We knock back bargain red wine bought from Tesco in Aviemore and talk about fly fishing, festivals and what the rental guests will require from the house that's not already there (duvets and a dishwasher, we decide).
The pud takes forever - long enough for us all to watch Man U grab it from Chelsea - but when the moment comes there is a roar of joy. This is a real, proper, straight up and down pudding and is entirely befitting of this kind of log fired, sheets and blanket kind of scenario. I lug the beast over to the hot plate and set about plunging a silver serving spoon through its top and into the molten underbelly. We cover our helpings with double cream and all have seconds. It is like getting into a warm bed on a cold night and there are eyes closed with pleasure as I scan the table.
I can't resist spending two nights when they insist. "You can't just be here for a night!" cried Walter "We've got to go fishing and swimming in the river and eat more cake and play squash". Cripes. And not only that but the house makes me want to curl up on a chair somewhere - in the Orangerie or the Cluedo-esque library - and devour novels and fill journals. It feels far far away from time or place; that very special Scottish sort of feeling of really and truly getting away from it all.
So the next day or so is spent doing all of this, as well as lots of congregating round the kitchen table and discussing minutae and rifling through granny's old utensils. We make pancakes from the eggs laid in the garden and talk about their friend who's training to be a spy. A course in international espionage - imagine! The house will be ready for rental soon and I'm already thinking of which 16 special people I'd like to take up there with me for a week - and who might be best suited to the 'poor room'...
Friday, 23 May 2008
I burn rubber up to Scotland - got to shift Jimmy a couple of hundred miles to Aviemore. I get to Edinburgh pretty speedily (quite chuffed actually) and decide to reward myself with a trip to my favourite chocolate shop, Plaisir du Chocolat. I find the place surprisingly easy, locate a good parking spot, nudge my way in and am all ready to go and devour the choc shop when a rap on the window startles me. There stands a suave looking guy in a crisp white shirt and shades. "You hurt my car. Twicely." Hey? "Twicely you hurt my car!". Oh lord. I dismount the van and head round to the back to see what all the fuss is about. There's a massive scratch on his bumper. I'm mortified. "Oh no! I'm so sorry - what d'you want to do?". And to my amazement he tells me not to worry about it. I'm so relieved. I bound into the back of the van and gather a load of Millionaire's shortbread and press it into his hands before he can change his mind. His friend asks what I'm doing anyway and I tell the tale of the trip - about looking for strangers for supper and whatnot. "Do you like spicy food? North Indian?" Yes, yes, yes! "Well you must come and have dinner with us". Fabulous. They live in Reading but I'll be down there before long . We swop e-mails, have hearty embraces and leave with big beaming smiles on our faces.
I find the shop and pick up some of their brilliant chocolates - ganaches infused with all manner of exotic and far flung secrets - as well as some choc-chip shortbread and a giant kind of Bounty bar-style patty cake. There's a strange taste in my mouth and the treats make it retreat and make a good accompaniment to the dramatic journey up to Aviemore.
Up towards the roof of England I go. I discover the most expensive diesel yet, £1.27 per litre, at Alnwick and tell the petrol station about this. "Oh well, you'd better go to Seahouses afore ye get to Scotland - it's only £1.15 and in the Highlands you'll be spending up ta £1.40". Gees. And these make up part of my daily concerns. Not much though, and when in such a relentlessly beautiful place as the Northumbrian coast the chief focus is on getting to the beach.
I continue on from Seahouses to Bamborough Castle, pay and display in the carpark and clamber the hill to gawp with wonder at this great handsome edifice. Down the sand dunes with their rustling grasses and out onto a great shimmering expanse of coast. The waves roll in one by one with a hypnotic roar, flinging salt out into the clear afternoon air. I want to sit and stare at the sea all night...but the chicken run is calling.
THE SET-UP: Christine and Katherine have kindly invited me to their family egg farm for dinner. I love eggs. Ever since I learned that they are the greatest natural hair stimulant around I've been wolfing them down most heartily. The ultimate? Soft poached eggs atop very crispy brown toast and a thick layer of salted butter in between.
We go over to check out the egg H.Q - Sunny Hill Farm. I've never been in a real chicken hotbed before and can't believe the frenzied atmosphere when we open the door. They go nuts, clucking away in their own special dialect. I wonder who's top bird and who the soldiers are - and which factions are in charge of checking out the visitors. Outside the reaction is the same - they're so curious! And the llamas in the next field look on in that bemused way, and the cows come storming over for a peek and the goats go nuts as we approach - it's all very high energy.
WHAT WE ATE: Dinner is ready when we get back. Katherine had turned up earlier with bags of ingredients - drafted in by Christine for the occasion on account of her being the best cook. She has made a Jamie Oliver recipe, "Fresh tagliatelle with sprouting broccoli and oozing cheese sauce". This is my first plate of pasta since departing London and I'm delighted. I could eat pasta every day quite happily and go by what Sofia Loren says: "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti".
It's a girls supper. Christine is house sitting at the main farmhouse whilst their folks live it up on the Med. Katherine has ditched her family for the night and Emma has come down from Berwick. The place is pristine - all domesticated and well organised. White wine is opened and we tuck in to the pasta. It's comforting, tasty and quite filling and I don't need any more as the night's pud could be quite hefty.
DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Christine's round the world egg-seeking scholarship - she went on a whistle-stop tour of major egg-producing places. I had no idea that white hens produced white eggs and brown, brown. I thought the Americans just bleached 'em up. But US eggs are washed which makes them more susceptible to bacteria, which is why they're so mad about keeping them in the fridge. And, this may sound a bit dumb also, but I didn't know that eggs were porous. Anyway, we don't just talk about eggs - most fascinating are Emma's stories about her time in Washington D.C where she'd just been nannying for the kids of a homicide detective. He used to take her down to Go-Gos to work on crowd control where she'd get an eye-full of the 'life is cheap' scene.
THE PUD: I jump up after the pasta and get to work on putting together a chocolate omelette - something I've never made before but which I'm keen to try with all these lovely eggs around. I make a chocolate kind of custard, cook it, flip it, then cover in Venezuelan hot choc sauce and a dusting of icing sugar. It's very eggy - I really like it. I think everyone else does too because we all have seconds. Next time I'm going to souffle the sucker though.
MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: It transpires that the house is normally a B&B and I'm put in the room with the stunning views of Holy Island. Sleep is a long comfortable breeze.
Thursday, 22 May 2008
I stumbled upon a forager at the Eat! Festival in Newcastle at the weekend. There he was, surrounded by tranches of brawn and jars of chutneys. I went in for the kill and pitched the supper party concept to him. "Are you squeamish?" he asked. "Hell no" I retorted defiantly, wandering what kind of squelchiness I might be witness to.
I drive up from Sunderland, through the 5pm traffic round Newcastle, along to Hexham and up to Hadrian's Wall. James is there all ready with his gun loaded and his camos on. He lives in a bungalow set amidst pure Northumbrian wilderness. A copse of trees save it from total starkness in the winter and it is to these that he looks for rooks to shoot and sell. He hands me a plastic tray for our foraged findings and advances into the garden with his hunter's stance on.
Every few steps we squat down and munch on some new leaf or shrub. We pick lemony Beech leaves, Hairy Bitter cress, Red Dead nettle and English Carraway. Our big fingers fumble awkwardly with the minute daisy leaves and the peach scented Gorse flowers hide nasty spikes. At the nettles I'm shown how to de-sting them before eating them and how best to pick them. You've basically got to show them who's boss. I launch my pincered fingers purposefully at them and kind of do it right but my fingers are soon pulsating with rage.
Then we move on to the field where James goes very still, his dog poised next to him, two sharp cracks and soon enough Rippit is pattering past us trying to snaffle the bunnies for himself.. They really are small when all stripped down and chopped up. Little morsels laying out on the tray adorned with salt and pepper. James sautees them with onions and wholegrain mustard, tosses around the nettles, mixes it all into a wild leaf salad and crowns it with some very good crispy bacon.
It's delicious. Very lemony and full of great, peppery goodness. We sit down in front of the telly and drink Norfolk stout and watch Fergie slumming it in Hull. I've barely seen any TV on my trip and am surprised by how gripped I am. This is only really background though and we talk about all kinds of fascinating food facts, like how there's only one Michelin starred restaurant in the whole of the North East and how James thinks finding his first cep was better than losing his virginity.
He is an excellent host and insists on making the night's pud. "You can't let someone else cook if you're a chef - it's not allowed" he instructs and bounds back to the stainless steel kitchen to create the yellowest, fluffiest, most perfect drop scones ever. I make a chocolate sauce with Venezuelan Black and we pour it over the pancakes and sprinkle them with toasted almonds. Proper comfort food and almost all procured from a few metres away.
After a night cap of sloe gin (it's becoming a bit of a theme) we almost fall out over who's going to sleep where. I'm fine on the sofa I tell him. "Oh no, my mum brought me up properly - you must have my bed". So I grab my sleeping bag and head on through, falling asleep watched over by three Pointers hanging on the wall.
There's something about a football stadium that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Places that you've heard about a thousand different times - where a weekly rush of hearts and souls gets poured out to do battle. I've always loved the sound of the Stadium of Light - and it's always seemed so very far from me and Portman Road. My brother calls it the Stadium of Shite and the one person I found under its majestic canopy to talk to was a Toon fan and couldn't wait to get away from there. It was a really stunning day though and this old ship building town couldn't have looked better...
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
I finally got to meet the adorable Dave Hall of Book The Cook on Sunday. My friend Will put us in touch as soon as I told him I was going on tour - " You have to go and see Dave, he's an absolute legend" he insisted, "and he knows his food". Great. Greedy chops here needed no more encouragement and after our first phone conversation I knew we'd have no trouble finding things to talk about.
I crossed the Tyne and drove down the A184 past all the pub landmarks I'd been given (much better than sat nav) and into East Boldon. There was Dave, stood in the middle of the street with his arms waving. We embraced like old friends; two kindred foodie spirits all geed up for a good old knees up.
THE SET UP: Dave, his wife Helen and their daughter Cerys moved back to their roots from Leeds last year. They were ready for a change and to start concentrating on the things that they really wanted to do. For Helen, Soccer Tots and for Dave, a move into food and spreading its good message to kids across the land. This was all spurred on by his doing so well on Masterchef 2007.
Masterchef - MMmmmmm. The whole house was filled with the smell of roast chicken. In the kitchen Dave had several things on the go at once - all really fresh looking dishes to go with the great weather that was shining through the window. "I'm in the mood for a few drinks tonight" he said. Me too. It felt like a celebration and we all happily chatted as we sipped nice chilled rose. An ice cream for Cerys out in the van and a chat with the neighbours about my travels and then off to bed for her and din-dins for us.
WHO CAME: Dave, Helen and me.
WHAT WE ATE: Roast beetroot, chard and caper salad, blackened roast chicken, aubergine, coriander, spring onion and lemon salad, lemon and thyme roast potatoes, chickpeas with crispy bacon, yoghurt and olive oil dressing and freshly made flatbread. The food took up the entire table and the smells had my nostrils twitching with delight. This is the best kind of food I could ever hope for - big, bold summery flavours full of succulence and tang. And I could use both hands to eat it!
DINNER TABLE TOPICS: The move from Leeds back to Tyneside and how far the North East still has to go in terms of variety of ingredients, Dave's time in the navy and how this is what turned him on to the real pleasures of food, behind the scenes Masterchef gossip, ghosts, music - leading to a right good guitar session and sing-along to some classic Stone Roses.
THE PUD: I made a version of the River Cafe's Chocolate Nemesis. I wanted to make something very pure and to use some Venezuelan Black as I knew they were dying to try it. I turned the cooled cake onto a plate, dusted it with golden icing sugar and served it with creme fraiche. It was just what we needed - a deep, dark slice of compressed chocolate nirvana. No gimmicks or flourishes, just the rush of pleasure brought on by a good dose of 100% cacao.
MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: I leapt into bed, tired and replete and assisted by a most refreshing night cap of sloe gin, tonic and lime - an absolute knock-out.
It was great to get a slice of Newcastle life on Friday and Saturday. The weather was horrif though and I had to galvanise the hot choc machine...but the Geordies cheered the day up! I made some really great links with people and gained supper invitations to a free range chicken farm and with a forager. Brilliant. I picked up some serious Jersey ice cream from Susan at Archer's Farm in Darlington and sold moist, fudgey brownies made with Willie's chocolate - and got cleaned out of my Venezuelan Black supplies...better get on the blower to the man.