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Sunday, December 2, 2012
Warwick's used to high tides and chaos - from the first motte-and-bailey in 1068, to the huge expansion of the middle ages, the imprisonment of King Henry IV and the English civil wars it has played a central part in England's fortified history.
It's the most expensive castle we've visited (£45 for two day passes!), and the one with the loudest music - speakers play a continuous, medieval-styled torrent of drums and synthesizers interrupted occasionally by piped-in cheering. Because Warwick is owned by the Madame Tussauds group, there are dozens of wax-figure lords, ladies, knaves, blacksmiths, scullery maids, babies, soldiers and prisoners. It's an ugly display of olde warts and unhealthy stoops.
To survive for nearly a thousand years, a castle has to incorporate a few tricks and have a bit of luck. Warwick's most spectacular feature is its main tower, the Guy's Tower that soars above the rest of the structure and commands a wide view of the surrounding countryside. This highest part was built in 1260, then rebuilt in 1315 as midland England went through it's last period of grand castle building. The curtain walls, a second main tower and the keep were part of the same expansion.As Britain consolidated and turned its attention outward, fortresses like this one became strategic afterthoughts. The last significant action that Warwick saw was in 1642, when the civil war was raging through the area. Parliamentarian forces holding the castle obtained two cannon, and the "besieging" Royalist forces installed two cannon of their own into a nearby church steeple. A few ineffectual barrages were fired, the siege was lifted after about a month, and the Royalists beat a small retreat.
The Madame Tussauds figures - which are frighteningly lifelike - focus on an earlier episode in Warwick's history. The castle's most interesting owner was Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, who led a successful insurrection against King Edward IV. In the convoluted years of the War of the Roses, Warwick was partly responsible for the overthrow of two kings, and earned the name "Kingmaker" as a result. General troublemaking and warmongering brought assaults on his stronghold, though none were ever successful.
The middle part of the 14th century was among the most bloody times in England's history, and the Tussauds figure-makers like to dwell on the sharp points and short lifespans. Aside from their stillness and waxy pallor, they look just like real people.
This kind of fighting - done with glorified slingshots and battering rams - is obviously more romantically medieval than the cannons that later knocked everything down. Though catapults really weren't all that effective, and were probably used much less than people think, at Warwick they're played up mightily. Around the grounds are several models of these siege engines, looking something like monstrous, wood-and-rope insects. In the fortress foreground, on what is normally called the island, are a few model trebuchets; we'd seen just the tops of them when the river was high, and the island had washed over with water.
The line of sight towards the castle wasn't cut off by Madame Tussauds, but by the later Earls of Warwick, who had converted the castle into a grand home. The great hall and living chambers are still decorated in baronial decadence - there are countless oil paintings, queen Victoria's riding saddle, scores of suits of armor, gold-trimmed pistols, plush furniture, Queen Anne's four poster bed, silk brocading - and filled with more stately wax figures. In one bedroom, a diminutive likeness of the present Queen stands somewhat awkwardly beside a mound of pillows and blankets (apparently, her majesty visited Warwick a few years ago).
Still, Warwick looked less sodden than triumphant. It's walls were as impressive as ever. A man was performing a falconry show for the tourists, flying hawks and owls over our heads while speaking over a loudspeaker. He told jokes and fed the birds bits of chicken. Life went on. Warwick's been there for a thousand years. It's seen wet feet and rain before.
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Friday, November 30, 2012
There's a rugged beauty to the Highland landscape, one that just feels like wild red head and rough wool. The thistles and gorse that cover the landscape with purple and yellow when flowered, make for a blanket of thick thorn and spikes at the dawn of winter. Driving along Loch Lomond in Trossachs National Park was spectacular. "National Park" doesn't mean the same thing in Britain as it does in America. Here, the area is not so much "parkland" or nature reserves cared for by rangers. They are whole areas deemed too special to develop. They are unspoiled and pristine, and also the home to thousands of people in villages throughout. Just off to the right of this photo, a white house sat in the blip of flat space between two sweeping hills. It was like an ant between a camel's humps. The narrow dirt path of pull-off room we'd found was probably the very start of their driveway.
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Thursday, November 29, 2012
I think the personality of a place can always be tasted in its cheese. The voluptuous, brash, classic array from Italy. The seduction and traditionalism, sensory overload and decadence of cheese from France. Britain's big three paint a picture of their own. Stilton blue is complex, showy and rich, like the palaces and manor houses. Cheddar is the stone walls and old mills, the Industrial Revolution and the stuff upper lip. And Wensleydale is the B&B owner who has set out a hospitality tray of cookies and teas. Wensleydale is the misty cow pastures, the cream teas and the tailored tweeds. It's the Yorkshire Dales and English hospitality.
Wensleydale cheese has a long history and has changed over time, growing milder with age. Now a white cow's milk cheese, it began life as sheeps-milk blue made by Cistercian monks from the Roquefort region of France. They'd resettled in the valley of Wensleydale and brought their French blue recipe along with them. In 1540, the monastery was closed and local farmers decided to pick up where the monks left off. This is when Wensleydale started to take on its own character, ditching its French roots and blue veins.
Generation after generation continued the craft, even through World War II, a time when most other small production creameries died out. During the war, cows were drafted into service. Don't worry, they weren't outfitted with grenades or anything. Their milk was called in for the production of "Government Cheddar." Doesn't that just sound delicious? But somehow, the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes survived. Today it is the last remaining dairy in Wensleydale that makes the eponymous cheese. ("Wensleydale" doesn't have the same protection as, say, "Stilton" and can be produced places that aren't in Wensleydale. But Wensleydale Creamery stuff's the real deal.) Approaching the Visitor's Centre, you smell warm milk.
The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes really gave a new meaning to the term Visitor Centre. I see those two words on a sign and assume that it means some sort of tourist set-up with cafe, shop, souvenirs, a small exhibit. It had all that and a museum to boot, but it also was just this big, buzzing place full of... well... visitors. Families came in to grab lunch in the cafe and then go tap on the glass window overlooking the cheese production. "Simon!" One shouted while waving and snapping a camera phone picture. Simon's blush could have been the reaction of an embarrassed brother or that of a caught-off-guard crush.
People made the sample station rounds, munching on the different orange and white cubes, flecked with bits of cranberry, apricot, chili and blue mold. Then, they grabbed the good old mild & crumbly original Wensleydale they came in to get, along with a jar of chutney, and went to the cash register to pay up. We sat with our computers, happy to take advantage of their "Free WIFI" tabletop signs, another testament to the fact that they wanted you to linger after your "breakfast bap" (bap = wrap) or daily pud special (pud = dessert). The cheesecake made from the ginger Wensleydale looked divine.
There's a spring in Wensleydale Creamery's step these days. After two near-closures, the flagship cheese is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit - well, Wallace, specifically, the sweater vest wearing cheese connoisseur. His very favorite cheese just happens to be Wensleydale. Why? Because its delicious of course! But also because the creator just thought that the name sounded so wonderfully British. There is something really quintessential about it, I think. The way it rolls of the tongue like green hills do across the landscape. Quintessential in name and flavor, really.
People say that the heart of the Yorkshire Dales is in the town of Hawes - and the heart of Hawes is Wensleydale Creamery. The town's population is mostly employed at the creamery, the menus at tea houses and pubs all feature Wensleydale cheese in a proud way. Hawes is a tight cluster of old stone buildings, the type of grey, hard-edged exteriors that you know have floral wallpaper and decorative pillows inside. The flowery interior within the walls that were built to last. When you put a knife to Wensleydale cheese, it feels the same way. It crumbles and the morsels are wonderfully bright. A cheese really does resemble the place it comes from.
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
A woman at the Speyside Cooperage cafe gave us this piece of advice about mincemeat pies - "If it's got all sweet things around it, it's probably sweet. If it has meat things around it, it's probably meat."
The intrigue doesn't stop there. Most people make mincemeat pie with jarred filling - it's almost universally regarded as too difficult to make from scratch. When we began looking into creating a recipe, it actually looked pretty simple. Except... not really. As it turns out, we're not fluent in English. What are sultanas? What's suet? Can we buy "mixed peel," or do we have to make it? And, why are there vegetarian versions of meat-less mincemeat?
Here are the answers, and the surprisingly easy recipe for from-scratch mincemeat filling.
Our little Keswick rental cottage, in the beautiful lake district, was outfitted with an oven and range - we cooked all day, kept in by driving rain and a sense of tradition. We dubbed our holiday "Thanksgiving in the Land of Oppressor" and made a feast that was half American and half motherland. An appropriately sized pheasant, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, kale and corn, candied carrots, traditional American stomachaches and traditional English mincemeat pie.
For the citrus peel, boil a lemon (unwaxed if you can find it) in water for an hour, until it's soft and pungent. A great kitchen pleasure is smelling the astringency and sourness of lemon vapor as it boils. After an hour, cut it in half, remove all the seeds and finely mince it (peel and all) or put it into a blender. Add to this pulpy slop a few tablespoons of fresh citrus zest. We used clementines. Also, about a quarter cup of mixed peel (which you can buy in a good supermarket in America), a half cup of raisins and a half cup of sultanas. So, what exactly is a sultana? A golden raisin.
From here, get creative - we used candied ginger, because we love it, and cranberries, because it was Thanksgiving. Chop everything with a knife or blend it loosely with a blender and add in two medium, diced apples. Saute lightly a few tablespoons of minced onion, then add the fruit and peel mixture to the pan along with a quarter cup of brown sugar, the three spices (1 tsp. each of cinnamon and nutmeg, half that of clove). Cook until it's beginning to make some noise, then splash in a quarter cup of cheap cognac, brandy or whisky. Reduce a bit and then add the suet. And what is suet?
Essentially, suet is dried shortening, and it can be used in a variety of roles - a lot of people advocate it as a pastry aid, or as a butter-substitute for frying. It's not particularly healthy, though - it used to be used most extensively for "tallow." You know, to make candles and to waterproof boots. It definitely sticks to one's arterial walls.
Nonetheless, we used a healthy dose of it, mixed right into the fruits and liquor. It dissolves easily and smoothly, and gives an incredible richness to the mix. That vegetarian version of mincemeat we mentioned earlier calls for frozen unsalted butter or harder-to-find "vegetarian suet," whatever that is.
This filling is extremely citrusy, dark and nicely sweet. It tastes nothing like most American pies - it's complex, savory and tasty, much in the tradition of chutney. It goes as well with a sweet ice cream as it does a pungent blue cheese. The best part is it smells intensely like the holidays. Our kitchen aroma was of lemon, apple and spices.
Here's our recipe:
Thanksgiving Mincemeat Pie Filling
- 2 medium baking apples, diced
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup golden raisins ("sultanas," to the British)
- 1/2 cup combined other dried fruits, such as cranberries, currants or candied ginger
- 1/3 cup beef suet
- 1/4 cup mixed peel
- 1/4 cup cheap, brown, hard liquor (cognac, brandy, whisky, dark rum...)
- 2 tablespoons citrus zest (clementine, orange, lemon...)
- a small amount of onion
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon clove
- Boil the lemon in water for one hour, until peel is soft. Cut in half, remove the seeds and mince the peel and flesh. Casually mince the raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit and chop the apples.
- Sautee the onion in a pan, then add all the fruit, spices, peel and a good splash of liquor. Cook for some minutes, then add the brown sugar and cook over low heat, adding more and more liquor (to both the pan and your glass) until the apples have just begun to soften. Mix in the suet and wait until it's melted.
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Sunday, November 25, 2012
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Friday, November 23, 2012
Everything else was done at home - which is where my visions of looms in the bedrooms come from. However, when machinery was designed that took care of the carding process - the combing of wool to open it up, essentially the same thing as teasing your hair - women welcomed it into their lives. This task had traditionally fallen to the children and was a tedious and thankless job.
Between the two world wars, all the other district mills in Scotland vanished. Somehow, Knockando survived and local farmers were bringing fleece here all the way until the 1960s. Duncan Stewart was in charge by this point. He switched over from water power to electricity and welcomed three young men from England who were interested in the old ways of doing things. One of them was Hugh Jones, who wound up taking over for a retiring Stewart. With no previous experience at all, he became a master and is still the head weaver at Knockando today. The problem was that he had no customers and, as only one man with not even familial support, he struggled to maintain it all. That's where the historic societies stepped in, the private donors and a BBC television show called "Restoration," which gave the cause an audience.
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We took tours at three distilleries over two days, ambling through forests of copper stills and dank, cask-filled cellars. Our first was Glenfiddich, where the countryside around was full of shaggy Highlander cows. Glen Grant, the second tour, was nestled by a little stream with autumn-brown gardens. At Cardhu, on the day we left the region, the small clutch of stone buildings basically made up the entirety of Kockando village.
The truth is, whisky is kind of a benevolent magic for the towns along the River Spey. In the Cardhu tasting room we were shown a photograph of the distillery's founders. The elderly, craggy-faced husband and wife wore muddy, peasant clothes and worn boots. "They were arrested two or three times before they finally got a liquor license," we were told. Distilling was that kind of game in the 1800's, one for half-outlaws in the highlands with little money and small operations. Today, it's the realm of globalized giants. Not only is whiskey from here shipped and revered all over the world, but the world comes tramping back to Aberlour and Dufftown to take a look. Alcohol tourism is a major boon for the area, and the Speyside distilleries are big local employers.
The sugary liquid is left in the tanks for a day or two while it ferments. When it's done, it's basically a strong beer, at about eight percent alcohol. This frothy liquid is sucked through tubes and spat out into the stills, where the actual distillation process begins.
The stills are heated from below and (I'm oversimplifying) the alcohol inside evaporates and goes up the neck into a cooling coil, where it becomes liquid again. Because alcohol becomes a vapor at a lower temperature than water, more alcohol is removed from the "mash" than other liquids, which stay in the bottom of the still. After the first distillation, the alcohol content of the putative whisky is about thirty five percent. A second run-through, in a "spirit still" raises that number to about sixty five or seventy percent. It's clear, strong, undrinkable stuff. A few years sitting in a barrel mellows the taste, adds color and reduces the strength.
"Nothing secret," our tour guide at Cardhu told us. "But we can't take any chances with electronics." They were worried, as all the distilleries are, about an explosion. The hot liquid flowing through the locked box was new, very-high-proof liquor, and the air was thick with the scent of alcohol. After a few minutes near the box, we began to feel slightly tipsy. Any little spark ("faulty wiring" was what they worried about) could blow up the entire town.
Really, there are few decisions to be made - the whole process almost runs itself. At Cardhu we were told that it's possible for one person to run the entire distillery by themselves, at full capacity, for a whole shift. That includes every part of the process, from the raw grain to the barrel-ready liquor. "We're open twenty four hours, every day," she said. "Even Christmas. Even the royal wedding!"
And then there's the tasting. Every tour included a dram or three, even Glenfiddich's, which is free. Speyside whiskies are generally light, clean and have very little peat - much easier to drink than the smoke and brimstone stuff of Islay.
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