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Giving thanks

Growing up in the UK and paying little attention to matters beyond the confines of those verdant isles, my only vague understanding of the North American tradition of Thanksgiving came from the sort of cultural osmosis that arose from the post-war mid-Atlantic homogenisation of the entertainment industry. Even then I had no idea what it really signified and indeed thought little enough at all about it, except to wonder why on earth the Americans had instigated another turkey-based festival so close to Christmas.

I most likely assumed that the celebration had something to do with the secession of the US from its former colonial state, or was perhaps somehow related to the civil war. Either way I figured that it had little to do with us Brits and that given our long and (in)glorious history we probably didn’t feel the need to hold any special festival because we were permanently thankful for who we were.

The gentle reader will be unsurprised to hear that I received a rapid education in such matters when the Kickass Canada Girl and I moved in together. I learned that the Canadian and US Thanksgivings were different things and that they take place almost a month apart. As in so many areas the Canadian variant comes first! Whilst yet in the UK we celebrated the festival on a number of occasions with a gathering of Canadian expats and most enjoyable it was too.

What I still had not gleaned (a fact I can only blame on the sad decline of brain activity that comes with age) was that there is after all a correspondence between Thanksgiving and a UK feast day. I refer, of course, to that excellent pagan celebration – Harvest Festival. Doh! In my defence I would point out that Harvest Festival is not a public holiday in the UK, being traditionally celebrated on the nearest Sunday to the Harvest Moon. I was also misled by the lateness in the year of the American version – way after the harvest has been safely gathered in. Nonetheless, now that I have been enlightened it all makes perfect sense.

The long and the short of this inconsequential musing is that we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving last weekend with our dear friends from Saanichton and were treated to a truly magnificent feast. A good time was had by all and the harvest was well and truly lauded.

Hoorah!

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Photo by Andy Dawson Reid“Now I will believe that there are unicorns
That in Arabia there is one tree, the phoenix’ throne
One phoenix at this hour reigning there.”

William Shakespeare – The Tempest

To those who live in any degree of proximity at all to mother nature – be it through custody of some humble (or grand) garden (or yard!) or by virtue of residing on the brink of the barely-charted wilderness – the persistence of the myth of the phoenix will make perfect sense.

To the centrality of the bird (with its magical ability to fly all-seeing above our prosaic earth-bound existence) to mythologies from around the globe is added the life-giving power of the renaissance/resurrection connate in the cycle of the seasons. The added bonus in many versions of the myth of the cleansing/regenerative power of fire only adds to its potency and illuminates the Christian church’s desire to appropriate this pagan apologue (along with many others of course) into its oeuvre – however temporarily it may so have done.

Further idle musing upon the subject of the bird summons for me images of autumn – of the fallen dead leaves fueling November bonfires – of the blade-razed stubble burning in crimson swathes across the moribund fields as the chilled charred soil surrenders to the winter… and then of spring – the first tender shoots pushing their tremulous way through the dank, inclement loam, searching for the first warming kiss of the sun god’s life-giving rays…

But I fear that I digress – and this time I have not yet even begun…

This post – although appearing at an appropriate juncture in the new year – is not actually about nature at all, but rather concerns a quite different rebirth – though one just as keenly welcomed as is (or would be!) the spring itself – or indeed the fiery metempsychosis of the indomitable bird. Allow me to elucidate…

Way back in the early days of these dribblings I posted to this blog a miscellany of images which included one such of my favourite Greater Victorian supplier of meats – Orr’s of Brentwood Bay. I proselytized all too briefly regarding the extensive merits of this Scottish family institution at the time, but in a further post not two years later I found myself reporting the sad news that Orr’s was no more – having in the meantime gone out of business.

It is with great delight – therefore – that I can now report that Fraser Orr has again set up shop in the neighbourhood, this time even closer to us in Saanichton. We will once again be able to source Ayrshire ham, black pudding, Scotch pies, Forfar Bridies, Clootie dumplings, proper haggis and all manner of wonderful meats and other provender from the auld country.

Joy of joys! For this we are truly grateful…

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© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.”

Rabbie Burns – ‘Address to a Haggis’

Hmmm!

A little more than a year ago we spent a most enjoyable evening at the Greater Victoria Police Pipe Band’s ‘Robbie Burns Supper‘. As may be determined from the scribblings with which I marked the occasion, a great time was had by all.

This year – for a variety of reasons – we decided instead to celebrate the ‘Immortal Memory‘ at home and duly purchased a haggis from a local purveyor of ‘meats and more‘, intending ourselves to furnish the neeps and tatties as accompaniment – along, of course, wi’ a suitable wee dram!

Now – we have greatly enjoyed much that we have purchased at the aforesaid emporium over the last year or so and we are jolly glad that it is within but a short distance of us. On this occasion – however – we were to be seriously disappointed. To be fair to them (though I’m not entirely sure why we should be so) they did not cook the haggises themselves but rather purchased them in from a third party.

On first sight the beast certainly looked authentic; I had no argument with the appearance and texture of the sheep’s stomach which forms the traditional enclosure. The puddin’ was most carefully cooked – as it should be – and then cautiously unwrapped. We rubbed our hands, licked our lips and cut into the casing…

What emerged proved to be something that tasted almost exactly unlike a haggis. To be fair – it tasted almost exactly unlike anything at all! It had not the texture of a haggis – it had not the consistency of a haggis – it had not the aroma of a haggis… Had it not been for the appearance of the sheep’s stomach there would have been no way to tell what it was that we had in front of us.

For those unfamiliar with this great (and simultaneously most humble) delicacy, the Edinburgh butcher MacSween’s describes it thus:

Now I find myself in something of a quandary regarding next year’s festivities. Do we take a chance on another locally produced puddin’ or do we revert to celebrating the occasion in a more formal setting?

Or do I simply bite the bullet and make my own haggis?

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Wine…

“…because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad!”

Unattributed

There are those – and I very much count myself amongst their number – who hold that chief amongst the many attractions of the Okanagan valley is its burgeoning viticultural industry. Certainly – to my mind at least – no sojourn there is complete without taking the time to visit a winery or two (or more!) for a tasting.

Though wines have been made in the region since the 1850s the current boom dates back only to the 1980s when the provincial government – in the face of competition from the Californian wine trade triggered by the North American Free Trade Agreement – started to offer grants to landowners to plant vitus vinifera. There are now more than two hundred wineries along the Okanagan valley and the industry is booming.

Though the wineries are small and their produce often not available outside the province – let alone outside Canada – the quality of the wines is astonishing and they have garnered an ever growing number of awards both in the Americas and internationally. Some of my favourite wines come from the aptly named ‘Golden Mile’ between Oliver and Osoyoos.

Here be some pictures from our recent visit:

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson Reid

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidWomen and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.

Robert A. Heinlein

Day two of our sojourn in Vancouver found us proceeding hot foot to the Arts Club Theatre for a matinee performance of the musical, ‘Billy Elliot‘.

The Girl had wanted to see the show before we left London but – what with one thing and another – the chance so to do had passed us by. Discovering that it was on in Vancouver at a time that coincided with the Canada/Japan rugby international seemed an opportunity too good to miss and we duly turned the occasion into a spiffing long weekend.

We enjoyed the show greatly… in my case considerably more than I expected to. The acting, singing and dancing were to a high standard and if some of the cast struggled a little with the County Durham accents then we were mindful of the fact that many Brits also find it a tough one to crack.

After the show there was just time to scamper back to the hotel to change for dinner. We had made reservations at one of Vancouver’s premier seafood restaurants – the Blue Water Cafe. A quick search on the InterWebNet will reveal just how highly thought of is this Yaletown eatery and it will be of little surprise that the Girl and I now think of it equally highly. The food is utterly splendid and the service exemplary – carried out by a team that clearly loves its work. Should you find your good-selves in Vancouver you really should not hesitate to make a reservation.

The wine cellar alone – curated by young Texan, William Mulholland – has won a basket of awards and features quite the best selection of fine French wines that I have encountered in Canada. We reluctantly eschewed the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg Grand Cru for somewhere north of $4,000 and settled for Mr Mulholland’s recommended Pouilly-Fumé instead. At a fraction of the price this splendid Loire white – not that easy to come across in Canada – suited the scallops and halibut well, and a postprandial malt from the equally impressive range on offer left us feeling dangerously mellow.

Not so mellow, however, that we were unable to effect a visit to IKEA on the way back to the ferry the following morning! IKEA has much in common with the modern airport terminal in that it matters not where you are in the world – if you are in IKEA you could be anywhere! I am almost minded to suggest that a visit might be in order for the ex-pat suffering a mild case of homesickness… The Richmond branch is, for example, totally interchangeable with that at Brent Cross in North London!

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Bambi!

deer-307438_1280One would think – given the degree of commonality in the respective backgrounds of our two cultures (by which I am am referring of course to those of Canada and of the UK) – that there would be relatively few instances of incomprehensible difference. There are, however, perhaps more than one might expect.

I have mentioned before, I know, my astonishment regarding the bathing habits prevalent this side of the pond. For a nation that virtually fetishises the outdoor life – regardless of the best attempts of weather to curtail it – I simply cannot understand the lack of proper bathing facilities. The ‘foot baths’ with which most Canadian bathrooms seem to be equipped scarcely allow one to wet one’s backside and a good long wallow is out of the question. A side effect of this sorry situation is that it is also nearly impossible to find in the stores the sort of unctuous bathing lotions without which any self-respecting British bathroom would be considered ill-equipped. Little chance of a good long muscle-relaxing soak in some suitably aromatic bath foam here.

I have also previously referred in these postings the strange habit of the owners of what Canadians call ‘stick shift’ automobiles (‘manual’ to the rest of us) of leaving the vehicles in gear when parked, in preference to using the handbrake. Canadians themselves might be less aware of this quirk since the great majority seem to drive automatics anyway.

These random examples were brought to mind by the latest incomprehensibility to which I have been exposed. Now, this has been on my mind for a while but was brought into sharp focus last weekend by a visit to the splendid ‘Beagle‘ public house in Cook Street Village, to which we repaired on Saturday for a spot of lunch. The excellent menu included – and of which the Kickass Canada Girl availed herself – a venison burger! Not just any venison burger, but quite the best that we have encountered.

This splendid treat, however, starkly highlighted the strange fact that – in a land where the animals abound and in a city parts of which suffer a wild deer ‘problem’ – it is simply not possible to purchase venison in any form from any of the puveyors of comestibles. Even the specialist butchers refuse to stock it – though they do carry the somewhat inferior bison. The Girl and I have taken to eating a great deal of venison over the past couple of years. It is a splendid, low-fat and extremely healthy meat, to say nothing of being easy to cook and jolly tasty.

When taxed as to why a country scratching its head as to how to deal with the plethora of unwanted deer doesn’t bow to the obvious and eat the damned things, a bizarre range of explanations are offered – from suggesting that any self respecting Canadian who fancies a haunch simply goes out with his (or her) rifle and blows one away, all the way to a trembly-lipped evocation of Bambi. Get a grip, guys!

We did ask our most helpful server at ‘The Beagle’ as to where they sourced theirs but apparently they buy in bulk from a wholesaler, possibly from outside the country.

Had we a freezer big enough it might just be worth purchasing a truck-load!

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidLast Saturday afternoon found me – somewhat reluctantly – sharing the unlovely plaza that is the arrival hall of the prematurely senescent Terminal 4 at Heathrow with a heaving Babelian mass of humanity. Alternating increasingly irritable pacing with lounging louchely against a pillar I awaited the arrival from Paris of a brace of Canadian girls. In spite of the fact that the marginally more kickass of the pair is in proud possession of British Citizenship, they were still forced to negotiate – at considerable length – the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the UK Border Agency – along with the effusion of seven continents.

When the pair finally made it landside they were hungry. They demanded curry!

Now – my mother (bless her soul!) was a woman possessed of an extremely limited culinary repertoire. She maintained an even more restrictive diet herself, eating like a sparrow and having no truck with herbs, spices and other such fancy distillations. As a result I reached the age of majority equipped with what can only be described as a totally untutored palate.

This state of affairs was not to change until my early twenties – the point at which I got married and left home. My former wife sighed, tutted inwardly and took in hand my belated education in the cuisines of the world. Latterly – of course – the Kickass Canada Girl has generously taken up the baton with regard to this noble task (along with that of all of my other foibles and eccentricities) and has matured me into a dedicated epicurean. There really is now very little that I do not eat, appreciate and enjoy.

Or rather – there was

In the middle of the night subsequent to our culinary expedition to the sub-continent I became what – for fear of distressing those of a sensitive disposition – can only be described as – unwell! Of itself this would mean little, except that something similar has now occurred on the last few occasions on which I have dined thus. It is difficult to avoid the implication that I am no longer able to stomach curry. Worse – this follows previous reluctant recognition that the consumption of duck eggs now also seems to leave me internally incapacitated.

What we are talking about here is – of course – an acknowledgement of the fact that I am getting old! My formerly robust constitution is beginning to creak a little – my once indomitable digestion is showing signs of becoming somewhat more finickity.

This is only to be expected, of course, but I certainly don’t intend to go quietly. Though I will at least try to be sensible, when it comes to the foods that I love… all bets may currently be off.

Needless to say – this does leave me somewhat apprehensive for the future…

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidTo mark our transit from Sitges to Barcelona on Wednesday last the Kickass Canada Girl organised something of a culinary coup – in the form of a gastronomic walking tour of the older parts of the city. This was arranged through the good offices of a concern called Spanish Trails – which the Girl had discovered through her latest ‘fave’ InterWebNet service – Chowhound.

The Spanish Trails wine and food tours include one by the appellation ‘Tasting Barcelona’ – which is described on their website thus:

“The focus of Tasting Barcelona is always great food and wine but with the important added opportunity for our guests to explore and experience the best of Barcelona’s sites of interest as well as get a taste of the side street local flavor. Tasting Barcelona is a food and wine tour by nature, but is in turn an exciting and interactive way to experience Barcelona. We can comfortably host small group tours and private tours in a fun, personalized manner away from the crowds and with an amazing and plentiful diversity of wine and Catalan and Spanish tapas and gourmet dishes.”

We were met by our entirely splendid host – Danny (a native New Yorker, ex chef and seven year resident of Barcelona) – in the Placa de Catalunya at 6:30 of the evening and availed ourselves of his enthusiastic tutelage for the next five hours. You will be unsurprised to hear that we learned a great deal – had a lot of fun – discovered previously unexplored quarters of the city – met some fascinating people – and genuinely wondered whence five hours had vanished…

Danny was excellent – knowledgeable, enthusiastic, personable… youthful! – and he did (and had!) a great job! He also took the trouble to follow up the day after our tour by emailing the Girl and I further recommendations and suggestions – which really was above and beyond. To Danny – many thanks!

Now, I’m not going to give details of the bars and cafes that we visited – you’ll just have to sign up for one of the tours yourselves – but I am going to pass on Danny’s descriptions of what we ate and drank. Just remember – envy is a sin! (Yes, I know – so is gluttony!)

  • First port of call:

Wine: Sumarroca, from Penedes (blend of Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Xarelo)
Food: Montadito de cuarto quesos & Montadito de Solomillo

  • Second base:

Wine: Nekeas, from Navarra (100% Grenache)
Food: Patatas Bravas, Spicy Olives, Fried Artichoke chips, tortilla de patata, Croquettas de Pollo

  • Third stop:

Wine: Vermut de la casa (all the rage in Spain at the moment!)

  • Fourth:

Wine: Porron of red table wine

  • Fifth:

Wine: Petit Bernat (blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc. and Picapoll Negre from DO Pla de Bages)
Food: Pan con Tomate, Iberico meat plate, cheese plate

  • Final call:

Wine: Llopart Cava from D.O. Cava (blend of Macebeo, Xarl.lo & Parellada)

Yum!

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidNaturally (for those that know us!) – this was not the end of our epicurean adventure – though for the remainder of our visit this veered from the sublime to the… even more sublime!

At Danny’s recommendation we broke our fast sitting at the counter of the Kiosko Universal in the Boqueria – that amazing market off Las Ramblas which reminds me just ever so slightly of the Granville Island Market in Vancouver.

A freshly conjured plate of huevos y patatas or huevos y setas – the latter from a mound of fresh wild mushrooms on the counter – and a small glass of cold beer… what better way to start the day – especially after the night before?!

And what better way to continue it than a visit to one of the world’s top cocktail bars – Javier de las Muelas’ – “Dry Martini Bar” – in L’Eixample district. Their specialty is – you may already have guessed – the Dry Martini! I was impressed that they not only stocked my favourite artisan gin – Sipsmith – but that the MD of Sipsmith’s had himself been a guest at the bar the week before.

Less good news – from the financial perspective – was that since my last visit a decade and more ago Javier de las Muelas has opened a restaurant – Speakeasy – adjacent to the bar. It would have been discourteous not to have had lunch there, and we are nothing if not polite! Very, very good it was too…

There is – of course – always a price to pay, and we must now haste our way back to the gym!

Bah!

Photo by Andy Dawson Reid

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