Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Girl drinks whisky: visiting Oban

Oban whisky, Scotland

Oban , Scotland
Oban Scotland
I got the early train from Glasgow to Oban: the West Highland line is one of the world's most beautiful train rides. The weather changed every five minutes, from sunny to snowing, from rain to blue skies. You gallop past valleys, rivers, lakes, streams, lochs, snow-tipped mountains, ancient mounds, heathery hills and deer- an untouched prehistoric landscape. The other passengers, a comfort of ladies in cardigans and scarves, in lilac and raspberry, order tea and shortbread from the all important trolley. 

What to do, see and eat in Oban

Oban itself is solid looking, carved out of a granite hillside under putty clouds and charcoal scrubbed sky. There is a stream over which small hump-backed bridges traverse. Basic facts about Oban that you should know:

  • It has one of the best fish n chip shops in Britain called, imaginatively, 'Oban Fish and Chip Shop', bigged up by Rick Stein.
  • The  'Spoons overlooking the front has real log fires, but also visit other characterful pubs such as the Oban Inn. People are very friendly. 
  • It has a ferry port and ferries, manned by burly seamen with sexy accents, dawdling off to a selection of misty islands. These ferries are called 'Calmac'. The islanders completely depend on Caledonian Macbrayn ferries and have a love/hate relationship with them. If you are lucky you see whales. The food is very good on the boats: they make an effort to have healthy and vegetarian options but they also have proper rib-sticking food like custard and chips. Calmac even has a whisky tour by ferry.
  • I enjoyed a blustery sea walk leading to a Dunstaffnage castle, which imprisoned Flora Macdonald but was shut by the time I got there, just before 4pm. You pass large seafront hotels with grand breakfast rooms and sea-facing rooms. People walk their tartan-coated dogs. There is a mini lighthouse and a war memorial - the section listing names beginning with the letter 'm' is the longest.
  • The sunset in winter starts early: hazy and orange, settling into little pools in the distance, the water surface like snake skin.
  • Visit the tartan shops; excellent places to get a kilt measured up, find out your tartan or your clan. You inherit your clan from your mother's side.
  • In the summer you can go on trips to see seals. 
  • It has an excellent seafood stall 'Oban Seafood Hut' (see this review by Jay Rayner) on the front, which is only open in summer.
  • Upstairs is the equally delicious but slightly more expensive, Ee-Usk restaurant, also mentioned by Mr Rayner.
  • Tour the Oban whisky distillery

In short, Oban has everything anybody could possibly want in a town.
Oban whisky distillery, Scotland

Visiting the Oban distillery

I visited the Oban whisky distillery and the first thing I learnt was that I wasn't allowed to take pictures or my phone. Any electronic goods could cause a spark and blow up the distillery. You need a special license to take photographs. The picture above of the copper stills had to be taken from the doorway.  
There are two broad categories of whisky: single and blends. Just as French wines do not have the grape on the front of the bottle, for the skill is in the blending of different grapes, most whisky is a blend. Although single grain whiskies, particularly single malts, are fashionable, one could also say that the skill of whisky is in the blending. 
Whisky, from the Gaelic uisge or water, is a man's drink. Very few women order it. The women's equivalent is Baileys made with Irish whiskey. (Scottish whisky is without an 'e'). Here is a story from the man that invented Baileys, David Gluckman. I love Baileys. In fact my whole family lived on it this Christmas, having got a duty-free deal at the airport. We didn't get on very well this holiday, probably the only thing holding us together as a family was a daily coffee with Baileys replacing the milk. Divine! Don't mock it till you've tried it. 

The process

Whisky can only be called Scotch if it has been aged for at least three years. It's usually made from barley, a grain that grows well in cold damp climates. Scotch has only three ingredients: grain, water and yeast. Soft Scottish water is what makes it unique. Additional flavour is added by smoke from peat and storage in bourbon or sherry barrels. When tasting whisky, first you 'nose' it. Although the ingredients are simple, flavours include orange, honey, butterscotch, salt, vanilla.

The grain or malt is dried with heat, often using peat, which adds its own flavour and smoke. Peat is thousands of years of rotted vegetation. It was used for fuel.While Oban has only a hint of peat, Lagavullin and Laphroaig have a higher percentage - as much as 65 particles per millilitre while smoke is counted in parts per million.

The process is complicated, involving: soaking the grain, 'turning' it on the malting floor so that it can germinate, milling in steel rollers, grist, mash, hot water, tuns and fermentation. We walk through the different rooms, each with its own overwhelming odour, either of yeast or malt or alcohol. One room contains the heart of the operation, the copper stills, the worm and something called the 'spirit safe' which is padlocked. Security seems to be essential. Not a drop must escape. In fact the only free booze enjoyed by locals is the fumes pumped out from the warehouse, built into the cliff face. "The neighbours are very relaxed" says our guide.

Maturing the whisky

No distillery keeps all of their whisky in the same place, it's distributed around other distilleries in Scotland. This way they aren't keeping all their eggs in one basket. 
Whisky isn't aged in the bottle, but in the cask. Before the 1930s, whisky had a different taste as Ale, sherry or port wine barrels were used. During prohibition in the USA, white oak ex-bourbon casks were shipped to Scotland (American coopers still needed to earn a living). Today, a finishing cask using European red oak can be used, to give a richer, rounder, sweeter flavour.

The staves are flat-packed, shipped and put back together by coopers in Fife. The barrels are held together without ends and metal straps. There are no nails or glue. The casks are porous: 2% is lost over a year to evaporation, which is 28% over the 14 years Oban is matured. (This is why the spirit tax is paid at the end.) The casks breathe in and take on flavours such as oak and bourbon and honey.
Whisky must be stored in oak for at least 3 years and 1 day. At the same time it's important not to leave the whisky for too long in oak.

I was surprised to learn that cask strength whisky is distilled to 70 or 80% proof and is diluted with de-ionised water to 40%. Master distillers sample all day every day but don't get drunk.

Oban whisky distillery, Scotland

Buying whisky

At the end of the tour we tasted Oban whisky and a couple of others. I realised that I like whisky very much, particularly peaty, smoky whisky, in fact even though most girls don't drink it.
Since the visit I've read Rachel McCormack's entertaining book 'Chasing the Dram' which is her story of getting to know her own national drink. I'm currently reading Thad Vogler's 'By the smoke and the smell' which has chapters on Scotch whisky, while he travels with his stepfather. 

Things to look out for:

  • If there is a number of years listed on the bottle, this is the age of the youngest whisky if it's a blend.
  • Connoisseurs aren't big fans of something called 'chill filtering' which all the big brands do. It filters out any cloudiness but also makes whisky blander and more samey. 
  • This is an increasing problem as, like you find in Bordeaux, most of the brands of whisky have been bought out by large corporations.
  • Scotland has 150 whisky distilleries, only six of which are independent.
  • Oban claims to use it's own locally grown malt. But many whisky distillers use centrally fermented malt or grain provided by the large corporation. Again this diminishes character and regionality.

How to drink it?

There is a big debate as to whether to add water. Even a couple of drops of water can 'open' up and sweeten the whisky. You could use a pipette to administer the water for precision. 
It's fine to have it on the rocks, with ice.
Rachel McCormack says there isn't much tradition of using whisky in food. However it matches well with ginger and scallops and a drop of 14 year old whisky in your porridge does wonders. Whisky is quite good with curry - Johnny Walker is India's national drink. 

But I've got a whole new way of judging alcohol: not by the taste nor quality, not by how it's brewed or by how old it is - none of that usual stuff. I now judge alcohol by the way it makes you feel- the particular level and variety of drunkenness which it gets you to. 
Whisky gets you a nice kind of drunk. You feel mellow and chilled out. You don't get angry or randy or violent. You just feel relaxed and blissed out and not-give-a-shittish.
This is a parameter that is so often forgotten.

Oban  Scotland
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Thursday, 4 January 2018

Potato and cauliflower 'fondue' soup

Potato and cauliflower 'fondue' soup recipe

My New Years' resolutions:
1. Make soup
2. Eat soup
I don't eat enough soup. It always seems a pfaff. But it isn't. I felt like I was coming down with a lurgey last night. I needed soup. I got home from the Basquiat exhibition and, start to finish, vegetable chopping to hot spoon of soup in my mouth, this took 25 minutes. Very quick.

Why eat more soup?

Quenches appetite
Most poor countries start a meal with soup, it has the same effect as pasta, it fills you up before the expensive part of the meal- the meat or the fish.

Contributes to your 5 a day vegetables
It's #Veganuary so try vegan soups or at least vegetarian.

Helps combat food waste
Soups can be made with floppy or past-their-best vegetables. You can either use these for stock or in the actual soup itself.

Soup is cheap
You can make soup out of anything. Water + any ingredient = soup. Ever heard the legend of stone soup?

Soup is comforting
Think of soup as a hot smoothie. No don't 'cos that sounds disgusting. But if all the clean eaters replaced smoothies with soup, they'd be a lot healthier.

This soup was made with Comté cheese and a little white wine, to add a fondue vibe. I went to visit the farmers in the Jura last summer and my New Year's Eve supper club was centred around a Comté fondue.
It's quite chunky, but you could blend it you prefer a smooth soup.
Soups benefit from a little sourness. To achieve this, add a little wine, or yoghurt, or vinegar. Here I put in pickled jalapeno pepper slices (a great store cupboard standby).

Potato and cauliflower 'fondue' soup recipe

Time: 25 minutes
Serves 2 to 4

3tbsps olive oil
4 large potatoes, peeled, diced into 3cm cubes
1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1 vegetable stock cube
4 cloves of garlic, minced
750ml hot water
1 glass white wine
150g of comté cheese
Salt and Pepper
Pickled jalapeno slices to garnish

Prep the vegetables, then heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan. Add the potatoes and fry gently for a few minutes.
Add the cauliflower florets and fry for a few minutes.
Add the stock cube and hot water, stir.
Simmer for 10 minutes then add the white wine and cheese.
Season to taste, serve with pickled jalapeno slices.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Glasgow: where to go, what to do

I'm part Scottish, just like many others in England. My Irish great grandfather married Isobel Anderson from Glasgow. My grandfather, John Harris Rodgers, born in Glasgow, was known as 'Jock' Rodgers. Jock came down to London at the age of 16 with his parents. They lived in Islington, in poor flats, near to my grandmothers' Italian family, who were Italian. Catholics marry Catholics. 

My grandfather married Carmela. He was mostly unemployed, for this was during the Great Depression. Regular employment came in the form of War World Two, when he was called up to the Royal Air Force. Being short, his role was as a tail gunner in bomber planes. This position was hazardous, the most vulnerable target, on the small cramped turret at the back of a plane. Tail gunners generally had a short lifespan.

Carmela caught tuberculosis. She had two children, Marianne and my father John. She was in hospital again, ill and pregnant with her third child Sandra, when my grandfather asked for leave to visit. It was turned down. Jock was killed on the 30th operation of his tour, the last flight. He never saw Sandra the baby. Carmela died seven years later of grief and a brain tumour. My father was left an orphan.

My dad thinks that if Jock Rodgers were an officer he would have been given leave to see his sick pregnant wife and baby. Therein begins the innate hatred of my family towards the establishment. This feeling has been passed down: we are all dyed-in-the-wool outsiders and rebels.

I wanted to visit Mary Street in Glasgow, to see the tenement building where my Glaswegian family lived. But a stonking great motorway, the M8 divided the city in the 70s, knocking down the streets where my forebears lived, where my dad and aunt went to escape the London bombing. 

Who were the morons that okayed this? Why are such poor planning decisions made in our great British cities?  (While we are on the subject: who were the idiots that knocked down The Cavern in Liverpool, The Hacienda in Manchester?) Those tenement buildings, modernised, would have been more attractive than what replaced them. It's cheaper to demolish, though, than refurbish. 

Glasgow architecture is haphazard. There is the odd Zaha Hadid architectural gimmick, bits and bobs from Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but also cheap and nasty modern blocks not befitting a great merchant city. Glasgow has grand buildings but it is poor. Amongst the hipster restaurants there are pawn shops and Poundstretchers. There is also a McDonalds Bakers with a suspiciously similar typeface to the more famous McDonalds. I guess they couldn't be sued. The MacDonalds clan come from Scotland after all.

Despite the best efforts of town planners to deter you, I recommend a visit to Glasgow. 

Here are some ideas:

1) Charles Rennie Mackintosh buildings

the lighthouse, Glasgow
I ascended The Lighthouse, an art gallery and building featuring the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to the top, where the visitor can survey, under dark weighted skies, a panoramic of Glasgow. You can also visit the Willow tea rooms, the Glasgow School of Art, and the building that houses the Stereo cafe/bar mentioned in my piece on vegan Glasgow, amongst others.

2) Buchanan Street

Down Buchanan street, the Oxford street of Glasgow, every shop had hopeful sales. In TKMaxx off Buchanan street, they sell mostly anoraks - it's too cold to wear anything else.

3) Glasgow Necropolis

I climbed the Necropolis, a multi-denominational graveyard, on Sunday morning for the view. Glasgow was almost unrecognisable in the sunshine. The sun glinted off the cathedral while chimneys burped smoke in the Gorbals. There are free walking tours available.

4) Glasgow Cathedral/St Mungos

The cathedral and the surrounding area are interesting to visit. You will see the lampposts featuring a tree, bell, bird and a fish with a ring in its mouth, which also form the arms of Glasgow.  These are the symbols of St Kentigern, who is known as St Mungo. Top picture features a street mural of St Mungo.

5) People's Palace

I enjoyed this museum, which documents the lives of the poor, in particular the tenements, some of which housed 20 people in one room. The population of Glasgow grew rapidly in the early part of the 20th century and housing was overcrowded. In the People's Palace, you see the kinds of food they ate, their clothes, games and reproduction of a typical tenement kitchen. They also have a gorgeous cafe area in a large greenhouse.

6) Kelvingrove art gallery and museum

Kelvingrove museum is in a gorgeous Victorian building on the outskirts of Glasgow and is well worth a visit. My favourite galleries displayed vintage jackets in tartan, a heart-breaking painting of the highlander clearances, Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture and china (blue willow). There are also dinosaurs, a spitfire plane, strange hanging heads, so look up as well as around.

7) Tennents Distillery

Tennents is Scotland's oldest beer distillery, probably the most popular drink after whisky, buckfast and Irn Bru. You can do a tour around the distillery. As part of our press trip (comprised of European travel bloggers) we got to hear very talented local musicians, part of Celtic Connections, a winter music festival in Glasgow, playing in the Tennents on-site pub.

8) Police boxes

Fans of Doctor Who and of old British street furniture will be delighted that four of these Police Boxes can be spotted around Glasgow. They were originally used as mini police stations. The above can be seen in Cathedral gardens.

9) Pubs and drinking holes

Drinking alcohol is a Scottish national pastime and part of their skillset. Glaswegians make very congenial drinking pals.

The Old College Bar, Glasgow's oldest pub, was built circa 1515 and incredibly, it's being threatened with demolition. (PLEASE Glasgow STOP KNOCKING DOWN THE PRETTY PARTS OF YOUR TOWN).

For some reason our (Scandinavian) tour guide (in fact most of Visit Scotland seem to be French, the auld alliance in action) said this was Glasgow's most dangerous pub, full of criminals. That just made me want to visit more but I didn't have time.

If you are a whisky fan, visit The Pot Still, which has more than 600 whiskies (as recommended by Rachel McCormack author of 'Chasing the Dram') and Dram in the West End.

10) Billy Connolly murals

Glasgow's most famous son, comedian, actor and musician Billy Connolly had a series of mural portraits painted to mark his 75th birthday. This one didn't look very much like him. 

11) Buy a kilt

Think of a kilt as a woolly sari. A kilt outfit can cost upwards of £600; the most traditional will contain 8 yards of wool tartan, socks with 'flashes' or garters, a sporran (basically a handbag as kilts don't have pockets), a kilt pin. Those shown in the pictures are weekend or walking kilts because they are already pleated and probably not wool. I think all men should wear kilts not trousers. It's just so much sexier. 

Try Slanj Kilts or MacGregor MacDuff for Outlander swoon-worthy macho dressing.
Remember, your clan and tartan are descended from your mother's side, so in our families case, it'll be Clan Anderson, which is a 'sept' (or sub clan) of Clan Mackintosh. 

12) The oldest house in Glasgow

Built in 1471, the Provand's Lordship is one of only 4 medieval buildings they haven't yet managed to demolish in Glasgow. I only saw the outside but there is a museum and garden to visit.

13) Walk along the river

The river Clyde runs through Glasgow and it is a pleasant walk. Now shipbuilding is no longer a big industry, Glasgow is developing the river banks, rather like the Thames in London.

I travelled to Glasgow via the Caledonian Sleeper, courtesy of ScotRail. In 2018 this train will be upgraded to include double beds and wifi.

In Glasgow I stayed at the Abode hotel, which features a 1930s 'cage' lift. The staff were very helpful, especially when I flooded my bedroom. Sorry.

This visit was courtesy of Visit Scotland.