Scotland 2017: layover in London

What to do with a half day in London? How about enjoying art, beer, and a show?

We started at one of our favorite museums, the National Gallery. Leandra hadn’t seen Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene (a special exhibit) so I insisted we start there. After that we explored several of our favorite rooms for the Monet, Van Gogh, and many other masterpieces, then made our way to the Reubens and Rembrandt exhibition.

mural @ National Gallery

admiring art at National Gallery

As we left a brief rain cleared out the sidewalk in front of the museum.

rainy London afternoon

The Whiskey exchange is only a few blocks away, so we headed there to pick up a bottle of Kilchoman Sanaig which we hadn’t purchased in Scotland.

Since it was May Day, restaurant hours were a bit off – Gordon’s Wine Bar cellar was packed inside when we arrived, and our second choice, Terroirs, was closed. Instead, we walked up to Craft, where we managed to get a table from a departing group. I went with the Partizan lemongrass saison, a beer I’ve had in London before – a nice mild tartness, quite refreshing, good with food – and then a Calypso Siren. Leandra went for the Pig&Porter dance first stout – quite lite but serviceable. With a 7:30p show we also needed to eat early, so we ordered the oak smoked brisket and the applewood smoked pork. Both were really nice, a great snack!

Around 7p we got the theater to pick up our tickets and find our seats for a show we’ve wanted to see for a while, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As usual, we found a good deal on some last minute tickets just a few days earlier. We both enjoyed the staging and production, and we’re quite glad we experienced it before they closed their London run in June.

All in all, another great day in London.

Scotland 2017: Spirit of Speyside day 2

For our last day in Scotland we mixed several Spirit of Speyside events along with some drives and hikes through the beautiful countryside. I started off the morning with a photo session of the Craigellachie bridge.

Craigellachie Bridge  Craigellachie Bridge

Craigellachie Bridge

After a big breakfast at the hotel we drove south toward our first stop of the day, Glenlivet’s open house. But first we had one small detour to the old bridge of Livet, which looks like something from Lord of the Rings.

double packhorse bridge

Parking at Glenlivet was a bit confused, but after a few minutes someone left and we found a space. On our way to the party we stopped at their tiny still to try the raw spirit – lightly smoked and strong!

Glenlivet still

Inside there were several booths with cheese, spices, etc. Leandra really enjoyed the spice table with Ghilli Basan and came away with her own flavored nut mix. A food demo in the corner was quite interesting, with combinations of local foraged items paired with Glenlivet whisky. Of note: the gorse petal cocktail was really good, as was the cake and aloroso-barrel whisky pairing. In between their cooking demos the live music was also entertaining and surprisingly good. We each received a dram with our entrance, so we choose the Glenlivet 18 (very light, floral, not for me) and the Nadurra (oak and cedar, richer, but still lighter side. Fairly nice.).

making my own spice mix w/ Ghillie Basan @ Glenlivet  whisky and food pairings @ Glenlivet

Glenlivet

Our next stop was the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, our favorite whisky shop! We spent a happy 1.5 hours here chatting with Sam, the owner, and other patrons. Sam helped Leandra find a Glenrinnes while I tried a lovely 7 year red wine barrel Caol Illa – the tannin was noticeable so I switched to a Bruichladdich instead. The Gordon & MacPhail tasting rep also convinced us on the Benriach cask – lighter than ours, more vanilla and fruit. Definitely tastes better after sitting for 20 mins, and with water.

The Whisky Castle (our favorite shop in Scotland)

The drive from Tomintoul back north to Dufftown was beautiful and filled with farms with sheep and pheasants abound!

lambs at play

wild pheasant

Compared to the Whisky Castle, our stop at the Whisky Shop Dufftown was more crowded and less helpful. However, Leandra did find several more Benrinnes bottlings, so we did make a purchase before leaving.

Dufftown

We hadn’t yet seen Linn Falls in Aberlour, so we decided to try this pleasant stroll next.

Linn Falls

Done with driving, we parked at our hotel and went for happy hour cocktails at Quaich, then headed across the street to the Highlander Inn for dinner. Though bustling, they had a cozy corner table available without a reservation (yeah!). I ordered the beef pie while Leandra thoroughly enjoyed her smoked fish trio platter (which was a lot more filling than it looks).

dinner @ Highlander Inn

The Highlander also has a noted whisky list, so after dinner we tried a Bruichladdich cask no 3093 + 3095 – 23 year, and a Benrinnes Flora and Fauna – 15 year.

After a quick walk around town, we went back to Quaich bar for the end of the Lomond Campbell session, where we scored a free dram of the Craigallechie 23. Afterwards I also enjoyed an Octomore 6.1 (beautful smokiness) and we enjoyed conversing with several of the folks hanging around, not leaving till near midnight when a Swede started some card tricks… yet another lovely day in Scotland.

Quaich Bar  music @ Quaich Bar

Scotland 2017: Spirit of Speyside day 1

The Spirit of Speyside event registration opened right after our return from Malaysia. A few days before that we went through the events available for Saturday and Sunday and made a prioritized list; some events are quite exclusive and sell out within minutes, so we knew we needed a plan. When the registration opened at 7a EST were able to reserve each item we wanted (several were sold out within the hour!).

Given that background, we were quite excited to start the festival at Cardhu Distillery for the Stillman’s Tour with Willie ‘Buzz’ Hutcheson. This distillery, owned by Johnnie Walker, is quite an operation.

Cardhu Distillery

Buzz was a hoot, providing lots of interesting anecdotes along our tour. We were amazed at how automated the plant is – they can run the whole production with a single Stillman!

Cardhu Distillery

Cardhu Distillery  Eric posing with a 31 year old cask whisky
Beautiful stills!; enjoying a 31 year old whisky

Our tour took us into the storage room where we got to try samples of a very dark 31 year malt (1986) straight out of the barrel. The second dram from a reused barrel (1987) was much lighter, so the 31 was my fave.

Buzz showing off the old casks

We ended the tour with a small tasting in the Johnnie Walker house, which features a beautiful wood-covered sitting room. Even better, they had tubes so that Leandra could take her samples to try later!

Cardhu Distillery

This tour was definitely a worthwhile experience and a great way to start the festival.

Knockando Woolmill is just around the corner so we stopped in to explore. This old wool mill has been renovated to once again run on water power! It wasn’t in operation on this Saturday, but it was fascinating to see how they process raw wool into yarn.

weaving some yard @ Knockando Woolmill

Mind Yer Heid

Knockando Woolmill  Knockando Woolmill

shop @ Knockando Woolmill

Our next stop was Dowans Hotel on the outskirts of Aberlour for lunch. Unique in our experience, we sat in the lounge area to peruse the menu and order our drinks, then seated in the restaurant when our food was ready. The decor and our sandwiches were both memorably good.

Dowans Hotel

lunch @ Dowans Hotel

We made a quick stop in downtown Aberlour to check out a gallery, then the The Spey Larder for their whisky flavored foods event before driving on to Craigellachie. We had just enough time for a quick check-in before our second event, a blind whisky taste-off between the towns of Rothes and Dufftown. This event was amazing, filled with laughter as each town one-upped the other with stories and good-natured ribbing.

Rothes vs Dufftown blind tasting

speeches in between tasting flights  interested bystanders

Over the course of two hours we tasted 10 whiskies.

Round 1: Glenrothes Vintage Reserve vs. Glenfiddich Project XX
Round 2: Glendullan ‘The Singleton’ 12 year vs. Speyburn 10 year
Round 3: Glen Grant 18 year ‘Rare Edition’ vs. Mortlach 18 year
Round 4: Glen Spey 21 year vs. Balvenie Portwood 21 year
Round 5: Cadenhead’s Cask Ends Caperdonich 1992 vs. Wm Grant and Sons Kininvie 1990

In the end Dufftown prevailed 4-1 and we both choose the winners in 4/5 rounds!

Following the blind tasting, the Craigellachie distillery hosted a free tasting under the bridge in town. Each person was allowed one dram, so Leandra choose the 31 year old and I went for the 21. Unsurprisingly, quite a few people turned out for this event! The crowd was quite fun too, as we bumped into several people that we’d met at the earlier events.

having a dram under the Craigellachie Bridge

Craigellachie Distillery options

Leandra had made a 7pm reservation for dinner at the Copper Dog several weeks earlier, which was a really good idea given how busy they were on this festival evening. I went for the fish and chips which were perfectly done and tasty. Leandra couldn’t resist the oysters and, wow, were they intimidatingly large! For her main she went with the venison.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."  venison loin @ Copper Dog

And of course, we ended the evening in the Quaich bar. It was busy, but we snagged chairs in the far corner so were tucked away a bit. These were the whiskies we sampled:

  • Dalmore 15 – not as good as 12, brown sugar nose but more of a burn.
  • Benriach 20 – light coconut, tropical notes,  cocoa, sharp alcohol. Very nice.
  • Edradour 12 Caledonia – bit of a burn, brown sugar and citrus on nose, vanilla and honey. Good dram.
  • Ancnoc Rascan – nice smokiness, intense. Burnt marshmallows, very nice
  • Inchgower 14 – sea salt smell, pear and lime, bit of a burn, but Leandra’s fave of the night.
  • Kilchoman Sanaig – ashy! Dry, med finish with some iodine on finish. Really strong.

Another long day, but one that was quite memorable.

Scotland 2017: Exploring the Highlands

Our second day in Scotland involved lots of driving, several waterfalls, one particularly rainy hike, and a few drams of whisky (naturally).

We headed north out of Inverness along the A835 to Rogie Falls. It was a short hike to the powerful cascades with a child-friendly interpretive sign about the life cycle of salmon.

hike to Rogie Falls  Rogie Falls

Rogie Falls

While driving along, we saw a parking area near another falls that wasn’t on our list, but Blackwater Falls and the pretty roadside falls around the corner were a nice photo stop.

Black Water Falls  falls off A835

The Falls Of Mesach are located in Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. The large parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived (yeah!) and there was a food truck selling burgers and other snacks near the first entry gate. The gorge itself was surprisingly steep and the view from the limited-person bridge was breath-taking (or terrifying depending how you feel about heights or swaying bridges).

swinging bridge capacity

Corrieshalloch Gorge  Corrieshalloch Gorge

selfie w/ Falls Of Mesach

A little further up the road is this spectacular view of the Scottish highlands…

peekaboo view of Loch Broom

Our next stop was the Lael Forest and although we weren’t entirely sure we had the correct parking lot, we decided to go exploring. Thankfully the cows didn’t seem to mind.

hello cows!

After about a mile, we found a small waterfall next to a water-driven hydro station.

Lael Forest Falls

Feeling hungry, we stopped at the Arch Hotel in Ullapool for lunch. I had the blue cheese tart while Leandra opted for the (traditionally Scottish) Cullen Skink (cream-based soup with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions). Everything was tasty.

downtown Ullapool

On our way out of town, we took a quick detour to the Rhue Lighthouse and then continued on to Knockan Crag. The views from the top were spectacular but the drizzle that changed into rain halfway through the hike was not so great.

Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve

panoramic views

Given the weather we decided to begin our return back to Inverness along A837. In Invercassley we stopped at a small turnout for Achness Falls, which we had all to ourselves.

Achness Falls

Further down the road are the Falls of Shin, which appear to be recently developed with a parking lot and a new ramp and viewing platform. Unfortunately, the view is of top of falls, so it is not a great photo spot – hopefully they will complete a second viewing platform a little further downstream that will provide a much better vantage soon.

Falls of Shin

Given the time we decided to have dinner at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which is known to have a nice whisky selection. Leandra had the mussels and I had the (very light and fluffy) goat cheese fritter salad (which was larger than expected, and quite tasty). Leandra had a few mistakes happen during dinner, including the wrong wine delivered to the table and leaving off the toasted bread on the mussels, but thankfully, everything was fixed quickly.

Dornoch Castle  mussels @ Dornoch Castle

After dinner we were lucky to snag a couch in the Whisky Bar while we perused the whisky list. Leandra tried a Clynelish 15 year cask in her long-standing challenge to identify a whisky like her beloved Benrinnes. Eric started with a local, Glenmorangie 12 year port finish, then went for a Laphroaig Scotch Malt Whisky Society‎ 29.175 16yr. This was lovely, with chocolate, burnt marshmallows, light fruit, nice smokiness.

scotch by candlelight @ Dornoch Castle

All in all, a long but satisfying day exploring Scotland.

Homemade Energy Bites

Ever since discovering Tom & Luke’s cranberry and cashew snackaballs in New Zealand last year, I have been wanting to try a homemade version. After picking up a tub of pitted dates at the Indian specialty market yesterday, I scoured the internet for a recipe I could modify. I decided on two versions, a cranberry/cashew mixture and an apricot/ginger/cashew mixture. Both use the same base ingredients so feel free to try these with your favorite dried fruit.

Ingredients (makes 10 balls, easy to multiply!)

1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews
80g cup pitted dates
1 tsp coconut flour
2 Tbsp shredded unsweetened coconut flakes
3 Tbsp cranberries OR 3 Tbsp dried apricots and a large slice of crystallized ginger
dash of garam masala, cinnamon, or cocoa (optional)
1-2 tsp water, if needed

Add nuts to the food processor and pulse until fine. Then add remaining ingredients and pulse until everything is a uniform size and ingredients start to form a ball. Gradually add a tsp of water, pulsing the food processor, if needed – it won’t take much! Roll into small balls (~20g each) and enjoy!

These freeze nicely as well.

Scotland 2017: Loch Ness

Upon landing and waiting for the rental car, the weather changed multiple times… sunny, pouring rain, cloudy, back to sun, etc. So, welcome to Scotland! We were waiting behind a couple who were having a few prepayment issues but once we got to the front it was smooth sailing and we were on our way in a brand new car.

Hungry, we made our first stop in Drumnadrochit, home of the Loch Ness Monster. Fiddler’s Restaurant is a laid back, typical Scottish pub but the food was even better than expected.  I had forgotten that the Scots cook their hamburgers to death so I opted for the cured meats instead. Everything was tasty, but the venison terrine was outstanding. Eric went with a cheddar burger and a bottled Black Isle Scottish wee heavy aged in an Ardbeg barrel. It was two years old and funky with a hint of sour, yum. I got a half pint of the local stout, also good. We might have had a dram after lunch as well…

absolutely tasty meat plate @ Fiddler's  a dram with Nessie

Drumnadrochit

Although we really wanted to see Dog Falls, I vetoed the hike due to time constraints and my energy level. Plodda Falls wound up being a good choice, it was a short and easy hike to several cascades and viewpoints and once a French family cleared out we had the place to ourselves.

falls on Abhainn Deabhag

Plodda Falls  Plodda Falls

On the drive back we stopped to photograph a roadside falls for a creek that feeds the larger Abhainn Deabhag.

falls on Abhainn Deabhag

We also passed through the village of Tomich, which we learned is the area Lord Tweedmouth created the golden retriever dog breed. So there you go.

Continuing to retrace our path back toward Loch Ness, we tried to get a look at Urquart Castle but due to trees and a carefully placed parking lot, there wasn’t much to see from road, so we continued on. Our next stop was Invermoriston when we both spotted a small ‘waterfall’ sign near a parking area. A quick u-turn lead to Invermoriston Falls (lovely, but really a set of cascades…)

falls in Invermoriston

We rounded the south end of Loch Ness and started heading north again, stopping at the Suidhe Viewpoint. And, well, wow. The top of the hill gives you 360 degree views and it is stunning.

Suidhe Viewpoint

Suidhe Viewpoint

Suidhe Viewpoint

We had one more waterfall to see before we headed back to Inverness to check in and grab dinner, and the Falls of Foyer did not disappoint.

Falls of Foyers

Parking and check in at the B&B went smoothly and we decided on the nearby Rocpools for dinner. Really, any restaurant in town was within walking distance as the Eskdale Guest House was in a great location.

Greig St Bridge, Inverness
Greig St Bridge, Inverness

We split a pork belly appetizer (nuttier and more meaty than NC pork belly), then Eric had the pumpkin sage gnocchi and I had the beef cheek. Both were great and paired nicely with a Provence rose wine. At least four staff members stopped by the table to refill our wine glasses and chat – definitely my kind of place! :)

Not quite tired yet, we strolled across the river to Black Isle for a beer and a whisky. I had the Ardbeg barrel oatmeal stout with a dram of the Dalmore 12. Loved both! Eric went for the Rauschan marzen and the Old Pulteney 21 – nice smokiness to the beer and a complex orange and honey on the whisky. Reminded him of a Bruichladdich. Lovely way to end our first evening in Scotland.

Inverness @ night

Italy 2017: food & drink in Rome

Sunday

Looking for a late lunch, we quizzed our hotel guy for options nearby. One of his recommendations was Lo Zozzone, hidden in an alleyway off a tourist restaurant street. There were many sandwich & pizza choices, all a slight variation of meat / cheese / toppings – and everything was delicious!  I ordered #24 – salami, smoked mozzarella, olive tapenade and rocket greens while Eric had #17 – speck (ham), smoked mozzerella and tomato. The sandwiches were enormous (and a reasonable 7,50 each) and we enjoyed the people watching that sitting outside afforded us.

delicious sandwiches @ Lo Zozzone

family selfie in Rome!
before we walked all over the city and wore ourselves out!

Eric had marked gelato places all across the city on our map, so when we discovered a popular place was nearby we got in line. Worth it! Eric had mint and the namesake flavor (a caramel cookie concoction) while I tried the nutella and chocolate.

waiting in line for gelato  enjoying gelato

It was definitely worth the 10 minute wait in line, and good enough that we returned the next day too!

By Sunday evening Mom was pretty tired, so the rest of us headed up the street to Fermento, near our hotel, for dinner. It is a swanky little place with mood lighting and a hipster vibe. I had the beef tartare that was chunky and tasty with a glass of prosecco and Eric enjoyed the paccheri (large tube pasta) with bacon. The service was efficient and polite and we would return on a future trip.

Monday

After spending the morning and most of the afternoon exploring ancient Rome, we needed some nourishment.  Eric suggested a sandwich and beer at a tiny brewpub, My Ale, near the Campo de’ Fiori area. Thankfully, we found a place to sit (taking up half the seats in the process!) and decided to split a “red” sandwich with ham, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil.  We each ordered an Italian beer, Eric the Lariano Falesia (bock) which was really good and me the Bruton Momus (scotch ale) which was okay. It grew on me but I wouldn’t order it again. Regardless, I would return to this place for the sandwich bread alone – it was the best of the trip!

beers @ My Ale

While exploring the Trastevere neighborhood, we gave our feet a break for a quick glass of wine at Essenza Wine Bar. The food menu looked good as well, but I stuck with bubbles and Eric had his second pecorino of the trip.

Essenza Wine Bar  pecorino by candlelight

Our least pleasant (and overall strangest) meal of the trip was at Al Palazzaccio.  I have no idea if it was just an off night but our waitress seemed to want to be anywhere but there: communication was difficult (wines listed by the glass were not actually available by the glass, the bread basket kept reappearing after we had said we didn’t want any) and the food took forever to come out despite the restaurant being nearly empty. Add a drunk old man banging on the window, being overcharged a few euros for Mom’s dish, and the fact that the food was just okay and well, we wouldn’t come back here.

Tuesday

With one more chance for a panini sandwich before heading home we stopped into Duecento Gradi on the way to the Vatican Museums. Eric had the Irnerio (Tirolese smoked ham, buffalo mozzarella, and pachino tomato) with a Ritual Lab Lemon Ale that was really an APA. I had the Pigneto (bacon, pecorino and porchini mushrooms) with a malty ale, the Be Four Paradise Red.  I should have stuck with “ham” vs. “bacon” as the texture was a bit too raw for me in this sandwich. Everyone else loved their choices.

We left the museums too late to get into St Peter’s so our consolation prize was gelato at the Old Bridge Gelateria. Darn.

  

Eric’s parents were resting before our dinner reservations, so we picked up a few snacks for the plane trip tomorrow at a local grocery, then stopped into Lumiere for a pre-dinner drink. For future reference, the free potato chips that came with our wine were nice but $10 would have gotten us a nice plate of appetizers – good to know for next time! Eric got to try another pecorino and I had yet another lovely prosecco. Curious about the reds on the glass list, we split the Malandrino (Multipulciano d’Abruzzo) – it had nice fruit with a touch of green pepper on the finish.

me and a glass of prosecco @ Lumiere  tonnarelli cacio e pepe (bottom) and gnocchi bolognese (top)

Our final dinner of the trip at Su e Giù was great! I ordered a Chianti Classico for the table that went with all of our delicious pasta dishes. Eric had the traditional tonnarelli cacio e pepe and I had the gnocchi bolognese (with a much redder sauce than the ones up north). For our main, we split a plate of hot sliced beef with rosemary, vinegar, garlic and olive oil. Now I know where my much-loved (Chicago-style) Italian beef sandwiches come from! A lovely lemon sorbetto with cookies for dessert rounded out the meal.