My image of California's coast has always been that of a magnate for sunshine and surfers living out their lives in a temperate paradise. This summer I discovered that marketing and pr may once again have gotten the better of me, because whilst nearly every beach can boast surfers, fog was far more prevalent than sun.
Much of the area was almost continually wrapped in a view obscuring temperature plummeting grainy blanket. Occasionally it lifted and we'd race off to a few choice landmark spots... only to discover the reason why.
A local told me that all this fog and wind is to do with the Pacific Ocean being much colder and damper than the dry heat of inland California. Yes that's right, the sea is freezing cold too, something else not mentioned in the brochures, all the surfers I saw sported full wet suits and a very fast walk back to the car. The whole experience reminded me of a childhood weekend spent shivering on Bridlington sands. They get fog there too but I don't think it's anything to do with Yorkshire's hot arid climate.
Well they say every cloud has a sliver lining. The temperature drop afforded by California's fog shroud allows grapes nearer the coast a longer cooler growing season than they'd get further inland. This results in some rather tasty Pinot Noirs like this appropriately named number from Waitrose.
This is an enjoyable pinot from Monterey, lusher and softer than New Zealand versions of the grape. What it lacks their vibrancy and piercing fruit flavours it compensates for by being far more laid back and mellow, how very Californian. It could be accused of being a bit bland but it's a polished wine for the money and makes a good sipper for the gogglebox generation. Turn on, tune in and drop off.
Fog Head Californian Pinot Noir from Waitrose. As I type on offer at £11ish normally £15ish.
Anyone witnessing my social media feeds will have found the many fandango creations, particularly around breakfast time, difficult to avoid. I've never really eaten cereal and a hefty dose of Yorkshire blood means an inbuilt hate of waste so breakfast and lunch are always knocked together from whatever's in and whatever's leftover. After many years of trial and error, modesty aside they're all pretty tasty, even the ones that definitely don't look it, but every now and then I hit a real find. Today's lunch was one.
Toasted baguette with a smear of mayo, topped with cold Lincolnshire sausage, cornichons and grated radish on a bed of lambs lettuce with a Dijon based dressing and a few extra slices of sausage and radish thrown to balance the look. As they say on Masterchef, everything came together on this plate. In fact I'd be happy to serve this in my Michelin starred restaurant. The imaginary one that is, whose kitchen I cook in every night.
For marketeers the suggested endorsement of a hunter adds an earthy rustic honest appeal to food and drink and I fall for it every time. I'm always bringing back multiple packets of chasseur sauce from France and, as it bubbles away, like to imagine that the chicken is actually a rabbit snared by me and carried home by one of my hotchpotch pack of chasseur chiens. I'd happily buy a rabbit but it's almost impossible to find them in Glasgow, unlike mice, shame there's not more eating on a mouse.
One thing that I am reasonably proficient at hunting is wine. Cuvée Chasseur from Waitrose has been a bargain for years and it's on top form now. A recent facelift doesn't seem to have gone down too well with the online brigade. I rather like it, although at the risk of appearing in Overheard in Waitrose, I'd say the label says bistro more than chasseur to me.
The grapes are grenache, merlot and 'other local varieties', possibly malbec judging by the taste. This ripe plummy mouthful is quite French in style so works well with food. I can definitely recommend sausages very slowly sautéed till the skins caramelise. I hunted these spicy Italian numbers from Andrew Reid, one of the only original Glasgow butchers left trading in the West End. They are damn fine.
It was one of those wonderful Glasgow nights when warm air magically weechs up the city and drops it down a thousand miles nearer the equator. Outside chairs and tables suddenly appear from nowhere and as we strolled down Argyle Street even the Chinese takeaway had a fella sitting outside sipping instant coffee whilst waiting on an order. We walked on past Old Salty's and Table 11 where they'd opened vast windows giving that alfresco experience to those eating indoors. By the time we reached Rioja it felt like a holiday.
Rioja was buzzing at 9.15 on Friday evening. We were shown to our table, passing the cocktail drinkers lined up along the bar, by a slick waiter from Spain and most of the other staff seemed Spanish too. The interior is 'wan of they eclectic wans' with mismatched everything, lots of upside down lampshades and a menu chalked up on giant boards... and what a menu. Finally a Glasgow tapas joint where I want to try everything. The three of us ordered three dishes each to share and spent the next hour and a half along with everyone else there eating, drinking and chatting loudly. This place has a great vibe.
Now for the food.
The mussels baked with garlic butter had been separated on to the half shell with a little bit of bread crumb on top and were absolutely delicious.
Padron peppers that came unadvertised with the squid were perfectly griddled with olive oil and sea salt. About one in five of these little green chaps is hot, none of our lot were. The squid was a little overcooked and underseasoned.
The pickled anchovies came in their own little kilner jar and tasted spot on.
If you like ham croquettes Rioja's are a fine enough example, a light crisp exterior giving way to a soft gooey interior, again though they could go a little more seasoning.
The octopus was absolutely superb, grilled till the skin caramelised and sweet as a nut
Then came a real show stopper: slow cooked pigs cheeks with mash and crispy parsnip. A stunning dish where every ingredient worked together lifting the whole to another level. Beautifully textured moist pig cheek, a deeply flavoured unctuous sauce- verging on sweet and sour- yet perfectly balanced, a lick of savoury mash and the crispy sweet sensation of parsnip. Perfection.
After that the poor old oxtail suffered, it was nice enough but just had the misfortune to follow a superstar. The only disappointing dishes were lamb chops which lacked enough flavour to compete with their sweet sauce and the chick pea & cod stew which had a rather tasteless fresh white fish instead of the expected salt cod.
There was a moment half way through dinner when, amid the general buzz and bustle with Spanish being spoken at the next table and thick accents from the waiters, I began to drift with the breeze to warmer climes. So I might have imagined the Spanish easy listening version of Sympathy for the Devil being played, I hope not, it was very good.
Rioja hasn't been open long, it exudes an effortless and unpretentious cool whilst cooking some seriously tasty dishes, I can't wait to go back.
Last year the sudden and unexpected demise of Mr Chips came as a dreadful shock to the many thousands of Glaswegians who over the years had come to regard this place as their own. A unique and brilliant vision centered around the chip. Attention to detail was everywhere, Mr Chips showed everyone how good chips could be when created in a purpose built environment. Indeed Mr Chips was internationally renowned because it was so more than just a chip shop, this was a place where artists, musicians, revelers, junkies, prostitutes, beggars and even people from the South Side would collide late at night to swap ideas, create new ones and eat chips.
Now from the ashes of Mr Chips springs Pommes Frites, a Belgian style chip shop. Belgium's famous for chips and I'm pleased to report these are damn good, nice crisp exterior with a lovely fluffy inside. They have loads of extra options but no vinegar and the only free salt is Himalayan Pink Salt which struck me as silly but tasted nice enough, although I felt 60p for a squirt of mayo was taking the piss. Other than that at £1.75 a regular portion was good value. It's not Mr Chips but it's a pretty good substitution.
Goodbye, Mr Chips.
Below: 1981 and Mr Chips in it's original site with Adam Ant fans queuing overnight to get chips.
Tucked away in a basement underneath the Glasgow Art Club is 'Inverarity One to One'. Anyone with even a passing interest in whisky, bourbon, rum, tequila, wine or cigars should make an effort to search out the shop's basement entrance off Bath Street.
The two knowledgeable enthusiasts who run the place recently selected their first ever batch of whisky from a single cask. Pete Stewart and Andy Bell chose a 15 year old from Carn Mor distilled at Auchroisk Distillery in Speyside (pronounced Arthrusk) and finished in sherry casks.
Batch #1 has a beautiful viscosity and slight haze, clearly no chill filtering here. For me the smell conjures up nuts, woodsmoke, tart tatin and orange oil. On the palate it explodes into a multiplicity of flavours with barley sugar to the fore. An utterly gorgeous dram that's worth every penny and needs snapping up because they only bottled half a cask.
theperfectsip - Batch #1 15 year old Single Malt: £50
Andy and Pete also do some very amusing tasting videos under the banner 'theperfectsip' and will on occasion offer visiting customers a taste of the limelight.
I was introduced to these beers by a friend and couldn't help but notice the similarity with the Happy Mondays album art work.
A few days later I popped along to The Cave on Great Western Road to pick up a couple more bottles and Nikki who works there told me that these beers were specially selected by Bez at the Herrnbrau Brewery in Germany. Mind blown.
Surely the Happy Mondays endorsement of anything that can get you wasted is worth something. As it happens Bez has chosen a mighty fine couple of beers, both the beerspotters blonde and wheat manage a simultaneous amalgamation of refreshment and complexity that makes for a really satisfying glass. Nice one, sorted, top buzz.
Here's the Happy Mondays at their absolute finest. Back in the day when everything started with an E.
beerspotters blonde & beerspotters wheat £1.99 a bottle from The Cave, 421/423 Great Western Road, Glasgow.
Tesco's own label Valpolicella only costs £5.49, a total bargain that went brilliantly with lamb and chicken kebabs on Friday. A light easy drinker with refreshing acidity and a pronounced sour
cherry flavour. It's good chilled too and only 11% alcohol, so you can
drink loads without getting a thick head. What's not to like? Well sour
cherries I suppose so don't buy this if you don't like them, apart from
that it's simply quaffalicious.
A suddenly recalled foot injury led to the announcement and it came an hour after I'd planned be heading up Ben Lomond. I'd delayed on the promise of company up a much smaller hill nearby. Then, from a distant room came a question, "Is there a hill in Glasgow?"... "Eh??"..."Well, I just want to practice walking downhill because I think I'll be alright going up but I'm not sure I'll be able to get back down again".
There were several possible reactions here but mostly a sense of couldn't you have perhaps mentioned this an hour ago sprang to mind. Then suddenly, like a subconscious reaction to cushion the shock, a memory of the wonderful Tom Weir's television programme box set flooded into my head. He was walking around an island near Balmaha talking about the Highland Boundary Fault whilst walking through abandoned graveyards. That man could have made a cow pat interesting.
Thanks to Google and a car within the hour we'd boarded the ferry to Inchcailloch and embarked on our adventure. The boat's a beauty built in the 1930s and we had it to ourselves on the way over, for the five minute journey.
The island's beautiful and in early Spring had a serene quality. Bluebells were bursting out and the woodland floor was hoaching with wild garlic. I picked a rucksack full.
There's a well marked path that takes in the highest point (85m), an old graveyard where the Macsomebody's of Macsomething are buried and a pile of stones that it's claimed was once a farmhouse.
More usefully at the far end of the island, looking out towards the National Park's inaugural shopping centre, there's a beautiful beach with picnic benches, 'barbecue facilities' and dread of dreads, a composting toilet.
At the ferry office they'd recommended spending two hours on Inchcailloch, frankly without a picnic that was pushing it, but there's no denying, medieval shit ditch aside, it's a beautiful place.
We returned ashore parched from our adventure and, after bidding our farewells to the ferryman, headed to the latest addition to the Balmaha complex- a cafe to compliment the shop and pub- and what an addition.
From the outside Cafe St Mocha is a bit bizarre. Mismatched furniture and occasional strips of AstroTurf... yes really. But don't be put off. The first sip of my Darjeeling made me sit up straight and start paying attention, it was outstanding.
I saved the tab from the teabag and later discovered 'Jenier' is a tea company based in Renfrewshire that does mail order. Their coffee's from Dear Green roasters in Glasgow, so it'll be good too.
Then came the ice-cream, wow, the pistachio was sublime, tasting of proper pistachio and with a butteryness that can surely only come from nuts. The cherry yogurt ice cream with it was the perfect foil, fruity, clean and refreshing. All served by a young woman who was enthusiastic and well informed. What on earth is happening to the Scottish tourism industry?
Why do so many adults gibber on excitedly about cake
as if it were an illicit drug? It isn’t. It won’t get you high, result in amazing sex or change the way
you see the world. More importantly it shouldn't leave you bankrupt or get you arrested, unless you steal one. So please stop. It's a cake. Just
eat it and say “Mmm nice cake” or something... and give me a bit.
‘I’ll wait here’, I said to my scout as she bravely pushed forth. I hovered outside, awkwardly; pretending to be fascinated by status updates on my phone, for longer than anyone witnessing would have been comfortable watching. What held me back was pink. Pink signage, windows framed by pink tissue lights, pink menus and when the sun hit the glitter atop of the cupcakes inside I was almost blinded in a bobby dazzling blaze of the colour. Pink is nature's warning sign to men and anyway, it doesn’t suit my skin colour. What my trusty scout brought out though very much suited me. A Chocolate Peanut Butter Stack made with a dexterously light touch and packed full of sweet peanut creamy goodness. So a few weeks later, with my intended sandwich emporium full, I manned-up, bravely braved my pinkophobia and timidly strolled in.
Steve, who runs the place, isn’t exactly the sort of chap you’d expect to be a purveyor of all things pink. He told me he’d grown up in South Africa, maybe pink was illegal there and this was some sort of Veldt nurtured dream?
The goats cheese, beetroot & honey panini I'd ordered was apparently a recipe from an Indonesian acquaintance of Steve. Although lacking any descernable Indonesian ingredients it was superb. Lightly toasted gently yielding bread, giving way to a lovely creamy goats cheese then a bite from the beetroot all followed by an enveloping wrap of honey and a few tasty seeds for texture. This really worked and came with a decent bit of properly dressed salad and the right amount of crisp interest. There's nothing worse than too few crisps with a sandwich, pure torment.
There are three sweet menus in here. Cake hugging heaven. Everything on the patisserie menu is £2.75 and if my earlier stack sets the general standard, that's a bargain. The Salted Caramel Vanilla Crunch was looking particularly tasty on this visit as were the Ferrero Rocher and Red Velvet Cakes, everything on the cake menu's a mere £2.50 a slice. My very good and refreshingly limey Key Lime Pie came with squirty cream. Squirty cream is hilarious, I didn’t even know they still made this stuff, it's the orginal Ferran/Heston ‘foam’. This one thankfully wasn’t pink and tasted entirely of cinnamon dust. Oh the coffee's good too.
I don't really get cupcakes. Tarted-up pieces of sponge laced with icing and glitter, visually promising so much more than they ever deliver. Lots of people do get cupcakes though and for them this Cupcakery is a place to come. They've got them made from Irn Bru, Cookie Monster, Jaffa Cake, Millionaires Shortbread, Caramac and many, many more. All excellent looking examples of the Cupcaker's art and only £1.85 a pop. There's even a cupcake to drink.
So please go, but for goodness sake don't pretend you're doing something naughty. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, crop rotation and a global economy the developed world can now have it's cake and eat it and it's really not that big a deal.
Last night I popped out to get a few ingredients for dinner.
First stop my local independent Asian supermarket for coarse bulgar wheat. I often shop here, they sell top notch basmati rice for a fraction of any supermarket price, very cheap vegetables and all the spices anyone could ever need. Familiarity and all that but I don’t think I’ve ever known what it’s called, anyway they only had fine bulgar and that was a year out of date.
So I headed along to an independently owned Middle Eastern deli, El Baraka, just down the road, they had it, in date and 99p for masses. Madhur Jaffrey’s Bulgar wheat and pea pilaff in case you were wondering. It’s a stunner.
After that wandered over Kelvinbridge to a local independent fruit and veg place. On the way I passed the new mini Tesco that opened that had opened in the morning with protestors outside apparently. It was just after 5pm, through the vast spanking clean glass blazed a dazzling array of newness and the place was mobbed. I carried on.
In Roots & Fruits I picked up a kilo of rather handsome looking vine tomatoes for 1.99 a kilo, a fraction of the cost at any supermarket. However, their courgettes were rather huge in size and price at 3.50 a kilo, so I left them.
Onwards up Great Western Road, a quick stare through the widow of the local independent fishmonger, Fantoosh Fish, revealed nothing particularly appealing, in fairness it was the end of the day, so I carried on to Waitrose.
Here courgettes were 2.50 a kilo and a nice bit of hake from South Africa was reduced to 9.99 a kilo. Marine Steward approved, presumably not climate approved .
The car rolled in across an ancient fertile landscape with oats and barley ripening on the warm breeze. We passed through empty village after village undulating away towards our goal. From an otherwise empty school playground well dressed scarecrow children stared out from the trees and posts to which they'd been roped and I'd swear I heard them whispering, "Welcome to The Black Isle".
It's a wonderful name isn't it? Conjuring up sorcery
and pirates galore. Yet like Harris it isn't an island at all but a
butt of land adjoined to a larger proper isle, in this case Britain. We were visiting friends in Jemimaville, another name I'd conjured with that turned out to be a pretty row of houses with the sea lapping gently at their backs and the UK's smallest Post Office whose other claim to fame is that it doesn't bare the name of the postal district that it sits in. Oh and there's the scar, make sure they show you if you go, where many years before someone cut their way in to fill their boots with gummy envelopes, sellotape and stamps.
Actually you won't need to ask, they'll show you, because round these parts there's a definite sense that people are very busy talking about anything other than 'the thing' that no-one dares to mention. Nobody could recall what happened to the Postal thief, or so they said. There's a genteel haunting on this Isle that's not an isle, a constant wind-chime
too high pitched for human ears but penetrating the subconscious.
After meeting up we headed off to Cromarty accompanied by a mishmash of the sort of people who board buses in Scotland's rural parts. The northern English mother with too many kids and too much shopping, excited teenagers texting to find out which bus stop they're all hanging in tonight, the token genuine local whose accent sounds like part of Cromwell's army visited and never left and of course us, the weirdos.
Cromarty lies across it's Firth from Invergorden where the mighty British Fleet would put ashore when such a thing existed. It's also where the last mass mutiny of Royal Navy sailors took place in 1931. Nowadays it's the place where oil rigs come to die and their skeletal remains loom large.
The town itself is film set beautiful, 18th century Caribbean, honestly, when Disney make Jack Sparrow XV they need look no further. The architecture appears influenced by trade. Centuries ago Scotland's east coast sea towns specialised in different products and consequently traded with different countries across the North Sea, some villages separated by no more than a burn developed different dialects or 'doric' as a result. I'd guess the Dutch weren't strangers here.
Thankfully it was Italy not Holland that influenced the menu at Sutor Creek. Particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays when chef's not in and all they serve is pizza from the wood fired oven. What an eminently sensible idea, if only more restaurants would do the same.
A young enthusiastic team delivered pizzas, wine and lovely Black Isle beer as we munched and watched ships slip by. The crayfish, spicy sausage, ricotta and coriander was particularly impressive, the ricotta tasted so good and fresh it might have been local, I forgot to ask.
We wandered off for a pint beside the Firth then through the town itself as darkness fell. The sound of singing drifted out among the streets, apparently our waitress now home
and practicing for the town's next opera. The Black Isle is a magical