Sunday, December 7, 2014

Everything (or at least a lot of stuff) tastes better in Scotland

When you tell people you've been to France, or Italy, or probably even Argentina, there's a good chance that one of the first things they'll ask about is the food--what you ate, what restaurants you went to, whether you have any pictures of the gorgeous pastries or platters of pasta or hunks of meat or whatever. When you go to Scotland, and I would assume anywhere in the UK, the food is not a hot topic. In fact, if food comes up at all in any conversation about my trips to Scotland, it's usually something like, "So I guess the food wasn't too exciting, huh?" And I'll admit, if you're going on a trip specifically for the gourmet cuisine, perhaps Scotland shouldn't be on the top of your list of destinations. During my five trips, there were definitely meals that were memorable due to their mediocrity or worse--the "I would have been happier eating the left-over peanut butter crackers that I bought in the airport gift shop" meals. However, I also have plenty of very pleasant food memories. I'm sure that to a certain extent, this has to do with the circumstances surrounding the meal, rather than the food itself, but nevertheless, I do think back fondly on certain things I ate in Scotland.

By the way, let me say right now that I do not like haggis. I've tried to like haggis. I've had it four or five times, and each time I've told myself that THIS will be the one that converts me to a haggis-lover. Guess what? I still don't like haggis. Also I don't like Irn Bru. I'm sorry. I've tried to like it. I just don't. Remember baby aspirin, from when you could still give aspirin to kids and not worry about giving them Reye's syndrome? Well, that's what Irn Bru tastes like.

The food I associate most with my first trip to Scotland is paninis. Yes, paninis. The pressed sandwiches. I know they're not Scottish, but I don't think I had ever had one prior to the summer of 2006, when I went to Scoland the first time. They were all over the place there. Anywhere you could get a sandwich, you could get a panini. I particularly liked the brie and cranberry panini I had for lunch one day. And by the way, speaking of sandwich-like foods, pretty much any time you order a sandwich/filled roll/toastie/panini in Scotland, it comes with a little salad on the side--generally an overly-mayonnaisey cole slaw, a couple of cucumber slices, a piece or two of tomato, and some greens. No dressing except what's on the cole slaw. It's ubiquitous, that little salad. Oh, and speaking of sandwiches, here's a thing. Bread is not white or wheat. It's white or brown, which I suppose is more accurate. After all, white bread is made from wheat.

There were a couple of times during the tours that I've been on when we had a picnic lunch somewhere. We would have a chance to go to a grocery store and grab something quick to bring with us, then at lunchtime we'd all, in theory, sit outside and eat. One time, we were at Fyvie Castle and it was cold and windy and drizzly, and we had been rushed through the tour of the castle because it had been rented out for a wedding and even though the wedding wasn't due to start for another hour or more, the docents were quite anxious to get us out the door because the wedding guests were arriving. Because of the weather most of our group decided to eat in the tour bus. I, however, decided that if we were supposed to have a picnic on the castle grounds, then I was going to have an honest-to-god picnic, on a picnic table, outside, not sitting on the bus. So, I ate my packaged egg-and-cress (egg salad and watercress) sandwich, a Braeburn apple, and a Kit Kat, and listened to a bagpiper playing The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, and I swear it was one of the most delicious lunches I've had. The apple, in particular, was excellent, and I'm pretty picky about my apples. For another picnic, I hadn't had time to go to the grocery store, so I grabbed some stuff off the breakfast buffet--sliced ham, cheese, bread, a yogurt, a banana--and figured I'd have that for lunch. I hadn't wrapped it up too well, and by the time lunchtime came around the bread was kind of stale and the yogurt was a bit warmer than was ideal--but again, sitting outside (I forget exactly where--somewhere on the Isle of Lewis) and chatting with new friends I met on the tour, it was surprisingly tasty.

There are other things that just taste better in Scotland, even though you can get the exact same thing in the States. Nutella, for one. I don't know why, but the Nutella that I had at breakfast at various hotels in Scotland, in little individual packages, tasted better and had a different texture than what you get in jars over here. Also, tea tastes better in Scotland. I don't mean loose-leaf, brewed tea--although that's good too. I'm talking about plain old teabags. It must be the water.

Certainly not everything tastes better in Scotland. I discovered that, at least in the places I was, the concept of medium-rare or even medium beef was completely foreign. Medium-well or well-done was pretty much all there was, even if you asked. Eggs were hit or miss--I really like poached eggs, and some places did them absolutely perfectly, but others--not so much. If the white of the egg is loose, that's not good. But again, for not really having any expectations of particularly great food, I was often pleasantly surprised.

The ridiculously delicious scallops at The Plockton Inn need their own post. I don't have time to do them justice in this one. Also, now I'm really hungry. Until next time...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

I recently returned from my fifth (count 'em, five) Folksong Tour of Scotland and had an incredible time. We went to an area of Scotland I'd never been to before, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, as well as returning to some old favorites, including Plockton, home of the most phenomenal scallops you have ever tasted. But before the tour even started, I had a couple of days in Glasgow by myself. It was supposed to be three days, not two--"mechanical trouble" caused my flight to be canceled and I spent the first day of my vacation in Philadelphia. But I digress. Anyway, I had to cram all the things I wanted to do in Glasgow into a pretty short time. One of those things was going to see Grit: The Martyn Bennett Story.  I had met Martyn's mother, Margaret Bennett, several times before on Ed Miller's tours, and for that reason, as well as the fact that it just sounded like an interesting show, I wanted to see it.

The show was a matinee, so I figured I would go to a couple of museums first and then make my way to the Tramway, the venue where Grit was being performed.  When you go to the Tramway's web site, they tell you pretty clearly that it's hard to get to unless you either drive (and it seemed sort of silly to take a cab) or take a train. There's not a bus stop close by, and they specifically say that it's a long walk from the nearest subway station.  However, the other places I was going first, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Scotland Street School Museum, were both easily accessible by subway (and coincidentally the stop for Scotland Street School Museum is the closest stop for the Tramway as well), so I figured the subway would be my mode of transportation and I'd just get my exercise for the day hoofing it to the Tramway.

Except for some weird anxiety about me or someone else falling off the platform onto the subway tracks (seriously, I had to keep telling myself that millions of people ride subways every day and almost never does anyone fall onto the track), the first two stops were uneventful. I enjoyed the exhibit about Glasgow at the Kelvingrove, and had a brief but interesting look around Scotland Street School. That's when things started to get a bit dicey.  I asked the lady at the desk at Scotland Street School how to get to the Tramway, because I had looked it up and thought I had a pretty good idea, but since I have a notoriously terrible sense of direction, I wanted to be sure.  She said it was fairly complicated, what with streets not connecting and having to make multiple turns, and drew me what was possibly the least helpful map in the world.  (She also said she herself has a pretty bad sense of direction.)  I decided to just give it a try and figured it was an adventure.  So, off I went in search of the Tramway.

What I didn't realize was that not only is it a long walk, and a somewhat twisty-turny walk, but it also takes you through a less than salubrious part of Glasgow. Like a "they might not find the body for a while" part of Glasgow. Boarded up windows, overflowing trash cans, practically no people in sight even though it was Saturday afternoon--like that. Oh, and it was starting to rain, which made it all the more fun.  I considered giving up and just going back, but I really wanted to see the show, and also by this point it had sort of turned into a quest--Alison and the Holy Grail, if you will. The problem (well, one of the problems) was that I wasn't entirely sure I was even going in the right direction.  I finally saw a storefront that had signs of life, so I went in to ask for directions.  It turned out to be a place where people go to place bets, which wasn't what I expected (it looked like a little newspaper shop or something.) I went up to the lady at the window and asked for directions. She had no idea what I was talking about, but one of the customers ("punters", I think they're called) overheard me and told me how to get there. I thanked him and headed out into the (now heavier) rain.

So I was trekking along in the rain (with an umbrella--don't feel too sorry for me) when a car honked and slowed down, and lo and behold it was my new friend from the betting shop. He rolled down the window and said, "I'm going that way. Would you like a lift?" Now, I figured that a) he was probably just being nice but b) getting into a car with a stranger in a scuzzy part of Glasgow would guarantee they'd never find the body, so I thanked him and said I appreciated the offer but I was fine walking. Some more walking (uphill, by the way) and I was finally in sight of the Tramway.  When I was pretty much there, the same guy popped out of a doorway, waved at me, got into his car, and drove away.

When I finally got there and bought a ticket (I actually hadn't checked to see if there were any tickets left before I went, but luckily there were), I had about half an hour before the show started, and I was hungry, so I went to the little cafe in the Tramway. It was packed and the line was moving slowly, so I decided to get soup since that seemed like the fastest thing. By the time I actually got it and found a table, I had maybe five minutes before the show. That's when I learned a life lesson: No matter how much of a rush you're in, it is physically impossible to wolf down hot soup. 

The day's other life lesson is that, while the stereotype that I'd heard about Glaswegians being friendly and helpful and chatty is apparently true, and I'm pretty sure that the betting shop guy wasn't actually stalking me, or at least not in a creepy way, you still don't want to get into a car with a stranger, no matter how kind and/or Glaswegian he may be!

By the way, the show was amazing.

I took a cab back to the hotel--one adventure a day was enough for me.