Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Quest for Good Nachos in Edinburgh (or at least edible ones)

I really miss the almost ubiquitous availability of nachos in North American pubs. A few places over here offer something on their menus called "nachos" but for the most part these dishes bear little resemblance to the nachos of home. One of the biggest problems with nachos on this side of the Atlantic (and channel) is the lack of proper sour cream (sometimes called "soured cream" on Edinburgh menus). Here's a rundown of the places I've tried (with the nachos graded out of 5). Check back again for updates:

La Favorit. A recent documentary about JK Rowlings showed her writing productively at one of its tables. Since it's across the road from my office I decided to try it. Several types of "nachos" are listed on the menu. I tried the ones with tzatziki. Sadly the base chips they used were Doritos and the Dorito flavour overwhelmed everything else. Plus the chips got soggy under the weight of the generous dollop of tzatziki. Not worth trying again. 1

Espresso Mundo. A beautiful art deco building. Nachos arrived with cheese and brown sauce on them. I will say no more. 0

Buckstone Bistro. Passable nachos, made with restaurant grade plain nachos that do not get soggy. Sour cream surprisingly good for this part of the world. Salsa and guacamole, low end supermarket varieties. 3

Lupe Pintos. Mexican deli. Okay, so they don't actually serve nachos here but they sell all the ingredients to make a perfect plate of nachos at home. High food miles. Guilty pleasures. 5

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

British Television Line-up

It has been brought to our attention that we have not blogged in over a year. This is partly a technical problem, our camera needs its battery connections fixed and Mike hasn't figured out how to download photos taken on his mobile, and partly that the shine of newness has worn off our lives here. It's less interesting to blog about routines.

But in the interest of keeping this blog alive, I thought I'd write up some of the good British (and other) television we've been watching here, in case people across the pond have some way of watching it (ahem!).

Doctor Who. Matt Smith, the 11th and youngest ever Doctor, has finally hit his stride this season, as have the writers (who had to recover from the retirement of Russell T. Davies, one of my favourite television writer-creators). The highlight of this second Smith season has been the episode written by Neil Gaiman, but then I'm generally a Gaiman fan. Across the pond viewers should be up-to-date with Doctor Who, as it is being broadcast simultaneously on BBC America.

The Misfits. Actually introduced to us by my sister who was living in Slovakia at the time, a very funny show about ASBO superheros. You might need to be living in Britain to really enjoy the humour, but I am assured that it has broadcast in Canada within living memory.

Spiral (Engrenages). A French crime show that's been shown with subtitles on BBC. What Law and Order could be if it took more than an episode to explore a case, was set in Paris and wasn't aiming at proving the law is always good and right.

Campus. Falls into the category of immature male humour, but if you're living through the higher learning cut-backs we're living through over here, it's good to have something to laugh about. Brits showing they can make fun in a compassionate way. Proves Canadians are the real evil empire.

The In-Betweeners. An explicitly teenage boy show. Very believable and oddly enough occasionally R-rated: apparently teenagers aren't allowed to listen to and watch the sorts of things teenagers actually say and do.

Vera. A typically well-done detective show set in rural Northumberland and featuring a middle-aged woman detective. Before moving over here I always thought the British crime imports were done by BBC, but they're actually almost all ITV, one of the private networks. Go figure.

The Crimson Petal and the White. A disturbing period piece set in Victorian London with a disturbing cameo by Gillian Anderson. I confess I couldn't watch the last episode because I was convinced it was going to go really badly for everyone.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Mike and I got mentioned in the Guardian

Intrepid readers of our blog will recall that we went on a cycling trip in Fife last autumn, led by a storyteller and accompanied by a journalist. Well, the story of our weekend has made it to the Guardian:

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Walking the Speyside Way

Speyside Way Walk

We absolutely loved The Speyside Way long distance route, particularly the bit from Craigellachie to Aviemore and would recommend it to anyone. We definitely plan to return to this part of Scotland, which is a relatively inexpensive and has a huge number of walks and lovely, diverse scenery--particularly if you're partial to trees. (To see more photos, click on the photo above).

Day 1. We travelled by train and local bus from Edinburgh to Buckie, a fishing town on the North Sea coast. This is a real working town rather than a tourist destination, but the architecture was much nicer than the "gray" description our guide book gave it. We stayed at the Rosemount Guest House, which is cycling and walking oriented. Our hostess told us upon arriving that the water is very good and that we shouldn't buy bottled water, as it is a waste. She showed us the extra high tap she'd installed in the bathroom so that reusable bottles could be easily refilled. Drizzle.

Day 2--Buckie to Fochabers (16km). Woke up to blue skies with fast moving, low clouds. Set out from Buckie, walking along the coast into the wind! The trail took us right through the middle of a Traveller's camp, ponies and children staring at us as we went by. We lunched at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society Wildlife Centre in Tugnet at the mouth of the Spey River. I should pause here and mention that the Spey is the only wild river left in Scotland--a phrase that repeated often to us on our journey. It is a meandering river and is allowed to meander at will. Spey Bay itself changes regularly. We didn't see any dolphins, though there had been sighting from shore the morning before. We left the WDCS Centre resolving to come back north for dolphin watching sometime soon. We stopped off at Baxters Highland Village--Baxters is the Scottish soup empire equivalent of Campbells. In Fochabers we saw our first Scottish red squirrel. North American grey squirrels are much despised here for killing off the local reds. We stayed at the Gordon Arms Hotel which was overrun by recreational fisherfolk.

Day 3--Fochabers to Craigellachie (21 km). Picked up a slice of cheesecake from The Quaich, a diner across the street from the hotel that advertised gluten-free cakes, gf mac and cheese, and gf bacon rolls. One of the best cheesecakes I've eaten, nice and light. Walking on pavement is always the hardest, and on this day we had 10kms of it. Lots of woodland, though, most of it plantation. The nicest bit was the beech woods of the Arndilly Estate which went on for many kilometers ending in Craigellachie, where we spent the night at The Speybank B&B. Highlights of Craigellachie included the Fiddichside Inn, run by an octogenarian, and the Highlander Inn, where we had a fabulous dinner and Mike got his first Real Ales of the trip. In Craigellachie we discovered that the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was on--Speyside is one of the main whiskey distilling parts of Scotland. Unfortunately for us this meant that all the distillery tours and the Speyside Cooperage Centre were fully booked up, so limited our tourist options.

Day 4--Craigellachie to Ballindalloch (19km). A nice easy walk, mostly on old railway track, with beautiful, mostly wooded scenery pretty much the whole way. We even passed a man in an electric wheelchair trundling down the Speyside Way on this section. Since we knew the day was going to be short and easy we poked around Aberlour for a little bit before hitting our stride and found a pretty fabulous deli there. This part of the trail took us past several distilleries including Aberlour, Knockando, Tamdhu. Most of these distilleries seem to be owned by the French company Chivas. Many of the Speyside distilleries had their roofs damaged by the huge--by Scottish standards--amounts of snow this past winter and so were closed pending repairs. We also passed an environmentally-friendly waste treatment plant for Dailuaine Distillery. Ballindalloch was little more than a collection of houses. It was our higher-end accommodation night and it lived up to expectations. We stayed at Cragganmore House, right next to the distillery of the same name. Cragganmore House is owned by the former chef of the Craigellachie Hotel. He grows a lot of his own vegetables (though not in this season) and keeps chickens and ducks--though he doesn't get many eggs as they lay them haphazardly all over the lawn and crows get to them first. We had a fabulous 3-course supper at the Cragganmore House, which was entirely gluten-free, just for me.

Day 5--Ballindalloch to Grantown-on-Spey (21km). This was the most challenging day of walking, not because of hills but because of bog. Fortunately we were sent us off with packed lunches (mine GF again, thank you Helen). The landscape on the first part of the day was exactly what I pictured the boggy, peaty, Northern Scottish distillery area would be like. A number of sections in the early part of the day had large stepping stones for us to walk across. Unfortunately, many of the stones had sunk into the wet ground. Mike nearly lost a foot to a hungry bit of ground and spent most of the day walking with a soaker. Our guide-book had warned us that we might have to wade through a burn, but fortunately a bridge has recently been installed over it. We also walked through a diverse range of forest from mono-cropped plantation to mixed-plantation to open birch woods draped in lichen and grazed by cattle. The last 4 kms were through the community-owned Anagach Pine Woods outside of Grantown. The woods are a sanctuary for the endangered capercaillie. We were exhausted by the time we reached Grantown, but we managed to have a look around town and even found an excellent wee bookshop: The Bookmark. The owner told us about a folk music concert happening at the local high school as part of the Strathspey in May festival, so we grabbed a quick supper at the Seafield Inn and then followed the locals down to the auditorium where we were treated to an Edinburgh band fronted by a local boy who is now studying at Stevenson College, Gallus, and then to the really fabulous and somewhat famous Ewan Robertson and Gary Innes Band (which was actually a four-man band). We spent the night at the quiet Kinross House B&B. Grantown was probably my favourite town, it had a tourist side to it, but not overwhelmingly so and it was surrounded by forest.

Day 6--Grantown to Boat of Garten (17 km). After my favourite breakfast of the trip (GF toast and an assortment of fresh berries, Mike had a full Scottish as usual) we headed out of town. Again we were mostly in woodlands, the landscape theme of the trip. It was cold and we got snowed on a couple of times (light snowball type snow, almost hail). We'd planned on visiting the Spey Valley Smokehouse on our way but they had a huge "No Nuts" sign outside and since were packing a pretty big bag of trail mix we had to pass them by. Next point of interest was Balliefurth Farm, which is a LEAF demonstration farm (Linking Environment and Farming). A number of placards were posted along this section of the trail that explained how their practices encourage local biodiversity. We had planned to eat lunch at Nethy Bridge. However, they weren't yet serving food when we got to the hotel and the menu looked pretty mediocre. So we bought snacks at the local Spar and ate them on a picnic table. By the time we'd finished eating we were both freezing so we hung out in the Explore Abernethy Centre and chatted to the ranger until we could feel our fingers again. Unfortunately, the toilets at the centre were not heated and a sign on the door read "Please keep the door shut in order to prevent frost from entering". The stretch of the trail after Nethy Bridge was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me traveling through the RSPB Abernethy Forest Nature Reserve, home of the famous Osprey Centre (where we both saw an osprey and a capercaillie). Ospreys were driven out of Britain early in the 20th century. The first confirmed returned Ospreys made a nest in this forest in the 1950s. There has been an RSPB Osprey Centre in the forest ever since. More than 2 million people have visited since it opened. While the ospreys were wonderful to see, it was Loch Garten itself that I fell in love with. (BTW, we had to take a small detour off of the trail to see the loch and osprey centre). We stayed in Boat of Garten ("The Osprey Village") at the Boat B&B, which was basic but met our needs. We had a fabulous dinner at the Boat Hotel in their bistro/bar. The woman at the next table asked the waiter in an indignant tone of voice "is there no place better than this to eat?". He led her off somewhere, so I suppose there was a place with table cloths, but we were quite happy with the food and the selection of Real Ales.

Day 7--Boat of Garten to Aviemore (9.5 km). The walk to Aviemore was short and very easy. Walking out of Boat of Garten in the morning we saw why the tiny village is able to support two gourmet restaurants and has no normal ones. Boat of Garten appears to be where the rich keep their huge summer homes in this part of Scotland. Between Boat of Garten and Aviemore we passed through moorland with spectacular views of the still-snowy Cairngorm Mountains. The Strathspey Steam Train passed us on the way. We beat our bags to the Ravenscraig Guest House, had a decent pub lunch at The Winking Owl, walked the main drag several times since we had nothing better to do until we eventually found our way to the Cairngorms Brewery for a tour and free tasting. Too late we discovered that the Mountain Cafe had an extensive GF menu for breakfast and lunch (closed at 5:30), so we returned to the Winking Owl. Our evening entertainment, as on a number of previous nights, was watching the snooker championships on BBC2.

We took an early train back to Edinburgh the next day only to find ourselves transported from winter to spring. Whereas it was still ski season in Aviemore, the leaves in Edinburgh had finally unfurled and the cherry blossoms had bloomed.

Favourite pub with real ale: The Winking Owl (Sheepshaggers Gold was particularly good)
Favourite suppers: Highlander Inn, Cragganmore House
Favourite B&B accommodation: The Speybank B&B, Cragganmore House
Favourite breakfasts: Kinross House, Ravenscraig B&B
Favourite bookstore: The Bookmark, Grantown

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Voting in the UK

This past week, I voted in my first UK election. Despite not being a UK citizen (like my beautiful wife), the rules of the UK Electoral Commission allow resident Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK elections. Similar rules would also allow me to vote in Scottish Parliamentary elections, as well as European Parliamentary elections, but not in elections of The City of Edinburgh Council (in which case I would need to be an EU National).

I was surprisingly excited to vote. In some sense, the election involved similar players and issues compared to Canada. Though I still feel like a bit of an outsider which, in some strange way, made it a little easier for me to make my voting decision. As the results indicate, more than 65% of eligible voters cast their vote (which is similar to Canadian participation levels from 2006, but more than those of 2008).

In our riding (Edinburgh West), we elected a Liberal Democrat (see local results), as has been the case since 1997 (though with three different representatives).

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Return to Cairndinnis

(Click on photo for more pictures.)

Faithful readers may recall that for my birthday this year Mike took me alpaca trekking in East Lothian with Cairndinnis Farm. As part of the outing, I got a skein of alpaca wool (from Belhaven) to play with. I made a headband out of it and enjoyed the feel of working with this yarn so much that I decided my next major knitting project would be made out of Cairndinnis alpaca yarn. A week ago I got an email from Carole to say that their latest stash of yarn had arrived and would be available on a first come first serve basis.

I started plotting immediately. The roads have been icy of late (worst winter in 50 years here in Britain), so Mike was not keen on getting a City Car Club car and driving out there. Fortunately, a search on Traveline Scotland showed that it was easy to get to East Linton by public transit and a further search of walking routes revealed an off road path from East Linton along the River Tyne to Hailes Castle and from there up to Traprain Law, which is right beside the farm.

Today we made the trek, catching a bus two blocks from our flat that took us to the heart of East Linton in under an hour. From there we followed the well marked trail along the Tyne to the Castle and then up to the base of Traprain Law. The walk also took just under an hour. When we arrived, Carole and John insisted on serving us hot bowls of soup, bread and cold cuts. Through the kitchen window we could see the alpacas peeking out of their barn every once in a while to see if the snow had gone away yet.

I bought enough of Pride of Place's yarn to make a genuinely 25-mile jumper. It's DK weight, so the project should take me most of the year (I'm a slow knitter). It knits to the same gauge as Berrocco's Ultra Alpaca Light, so I'm going to use one of their patterns.

It was an absolutely beautiful day out and it was truly enjoyable doing business with such generous, hospitable people. Having already spent some quality time with the beast whose fur I'll be working with is an added bonus.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Doctor Who Nation

Sci Fi has a bit more cred over here in the UK. It is a well-respected Christmas tradition to sit around and watch the good doctor save the planet (or at least London). Coffee-vending police boxes make coy references to Torchwood and the Tardis. In fact, Tardis is a word in common usage amongst the general public. And paraphernalia from the show is considered worth appearing in special exhibitions at publicly-owned museums (which we went to see in Glasgow before Christmas, Mike forgot to mention that in his previous post).

As mentioned in a previous post, we have been blessed with plenty of snow this year. We returned home Saturday night to discover our neighbours had been busy building a Snow Ood (photographed above). As someone who did an "interest talk" in grade 5 on set and costume design for Doctor Who, I have to say I'm enjoying living in a country where such interests are not seen as a sign of incurably nerdiness.

(I'm sure Mike will want me to make it perfectly clear that it is me, AJW, writing this and not him.)

Having just watched all five episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, I have to say that the Doctor Who spin-off series has finally found it's legs. The previous two seasons suffered from silliness, but in Children of Earth Russell T. Davies treats his characters brutally and creates a gripping story-arc that provides an at-times painful portrayal of what people are capable of when their backs are to the wall. Well worth watching if it makes it across the pond.