Friday, 27 December 2013

Smoked Salmon Roulade - an easy-peasy starter

This simple starter would be ideal for New Year's day lunch with family and friends. DD1 made it for our starter on Christmas Day this year, and it went down a treat with all three generations present round the table.

All you need is: around 450g of smoked salmon slices; lemon juice (and lemon slices to garnish); a large pack of Philly cheese (the deep container); greaseproof paper and clingfilm.

Spread about three-quarters of a 300g pack of salmon
out flat over a sheet of greaseproof paper.

 In a food processor, blend a large pack of Philadelphia 
cheese (plain)with several teaspoons of lemon juice (to taste) 
and 150g smoked salmon. Place the mixture in a large 
oblong shape on the carpet of salmon (see above).

Carefully use the greaseproof paper to lift the salmon
carpet up and roll it over in the same way as you'd
assemble a Swiss roll, with the Philly in the middle.

Keep rolling until a long sausage shape is formed (see 
photos above and below).

Roll the completed salmon roulade up in the greaseproof
sheet and then wrap the resultant parcel in clingfilm. Place
in the fridge for an hour to allow to chill.
Remove the clingfilm and unwrap the salmon roulade from
 the greaseproof paper and slice as shown below. 
Slice the salmon roulade - Be very gentle, as
otherwise you'll end up flattening the roulade!
Serve two slices of roulade per person, with a half moon of
cucumber slices and a scattering of salad leaves. Garnish
with a small slice of lemon.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Square Sparrow 2013 - the Antidote to Round Robins

We wish you a berry Christmas!
Since the first Christmas catalogue of 2013 ricocheted off the doormat in early August (and was promptly consigned to the recycling bin), Yours Truly has been trying assiduously to avoid even the faintest mention of the festive season.

However, November is already but a distant memory, and December seems to be galloping past at high speed – giving even Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen & Co. a pretty good run for their money. Alas, it would seem that Yours Truly can prevaricate, procrastinate and postpone no longer: the time has finally come to pen the annual epistle...

DD1 (now 22) spent the first half of the year continuing her pâtisserie language studies in Paris, but at the end of June – much to her “grand chagrin” – her stint in the fabulous French capital came to an end.  After a patience-testing month minding dozens of recalcitrant foreign students at a Cambridge language school, she spent August completing a three-week internship with a commercial law firm in London, which was followed by a week in their Brussels office.

Evidently they didn’t try hard enough to put her off their profession, and the upshot of her summer brush with the law was a training contract with the said firm. This means that once she finishes the French degree, she’ll fly off to a “coven for law converts” in London, which will no doubt entail wearing more black gowns and poring over yet more weighty tomes.

But first things first: after a swift 10-day respite at home, our aspiring legal eagle had to psych herself for her return to Oxford’s dreamy spires (though she claims “perspiring dreams” more accurately describes the experience of the dreaded final year at St Something’s). 

She began the term training with the Blues ladies’ rugby squad, but her chances of Varsity were kicked into touch when a (considerably larger) opponent landed on her ankle during a match, leaving it distinctly mangled.

The only benefit of having to drop out of rugby for a while is that she has had more time to devote to her customary marathon-length reading list, which comprises around 100 impenetrable titles (none of which appeared even remotely tempting to her cultural philistine of a mother!).

The lure of France is, it would seem, strong among Sparrowholding incumbents, because while the start of summer 2013 saw the return from Gallic shores of DD1, the end of the summer saw 20-year-old DD2 depart for an ERASMUS year at Aix-Marseilles University in the south of France. 

Until May 2014, she will be based in the picturesque town of Aix-en-Provence – rather alarmingly the third most expensive place to live in France after Paris and San Tropez. This explains why she, too, was obliged to spend most of her summer at a language school in Cambridge, managing a house full of edgy teenage English students “with attitude”.

Recent perusals of her blog – the appropriately titled “An (Academic) Year in Provence” – suggest that she is rapidly acquiring a Mediterranean sun tan the French phrases essential to any self-respecting music student, including “Do you know any sympathetic accompanists?” and “Where’s the nearest pub?”

Hockey is never too far from DD2’s thoughts, so she quickly sought out a local mixed club, where (she claims) playing against men is “toughening up her game”. However, anyone who has previously witnessed her physicality on the pitch in Scotland has to feel a soupçon of sympathy for the poor unsuspecting French male hockey players currently encountering the razor-sharp elbows of the “Ecossaise”.

Son&Heir (18) finally finished school in June, and it was debatable which were louder: his sighs of relief or those of his teachers…He then spent most of the summer honing techniques for avoiding tidying his midden of a bedroom, interspersed with the occasional sortie into paid employment, e.g. using our garden wheelbarrow to provide tent transportation services for festival-goers at nearby T in the Park.  Surprisingly, this proved a relatively remunerative pursuit – almost compensating for the outlay on plasters for the myriad blisters on his hands and feet.  

In the autumn, he took up residence in a basic-but-serviceable, six-person, third-floor flat in Edinburgh with a “lovely” landlord who (we later discovered) has a history of terrorising his tenants. Of course, after the heinous experience of sharing a house with his invidious, evil mother for the past year, our intrepid hero was unfazed by the prospect of one of Edinburgh’s worst landlords. 

In other news, he has finally found a way of making hockey pay (i.e. stop playing it and coach other people instead) and is currently doing a creditable impression of Tom Cruise while learning the dark art of cocktail mixing in a hip and trendy Edinburgh pub. So if you want “Sex on the Beach”, apparently he’s your man…

By early October, our humble household had thus entered a momentous new phase: after 22 years of full-on parenting, the final fledgling had flown the nest, leaving HunterGatherer and Yours Truly frantically trying to remember what we used to talk about in the BC (before child) era. 

Fortunately, distractions abound hereabouts in the form of a seriously untamed garden and industrial-sized polytunnel (alias weed-breeding hothouse) plus 20 wild and woolly Shetland sheep to chase after – though this is not recommended when you’ve recently turned 50, are wearing wellies and are nursing a slightly torn Achilles tendon…

In between all this, we attempt (when our middle-aged muscles permit) to play hockey for our respective local teams and to fit in the mandatory day jobs, HG wielding a spanner or a tractor and Yours Truly a virtual (red) pen. In short, life is anything but empty – even if the nest is. Better still, although the sheep may need herded occasionally, at least they don’t require picked up from parties in the wee sma’ hours!

All that remains is for me to thank you all for reading and commenting on this eclectic collection of posts throughout 2013 and to wish you and your families a wonderful Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year in 2014. As we say in these parts, slàinte mhath J

May your days be happy and bright...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

November and December: late strawbs, amorous sheep and fairy lights!

Blink and you'll miss them... That's certainly how the last two weeks of November and first two of December have felt here at the Sparrowholding. So here's a quick compilation of photos of the local flora and fauna (including HunterGatherer!) taken over the past four weeks...

We love this pretty pink shrub that flowers all winter in
 the garden, though sadly we haven't a clue what it's called.
Loch Leven (seen in the background of the photo above
is just over a mile and a half from our house). Stunning....
This strawberry was growing in the polytunnel in the
 third week of November - not a bad effort :-)
Same goes for this tomato - we harvested the last of them
in the third week of November, too. The chutney is busy
"ripening" in the jars as I type!
Yikes! After yielding asparagus, carrots, parsnips, potatoes
grapes, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, courgettes, spinach
and runner beans, the polytunnel looks exhausted!
HunterGatherer has some digging to do, methinks...
Mid-November was "tupping time" - Mungo the Magnificent
Shetland ram was looking his best for the occasion.
Initially most of the girls seemed quite interested...
But not everyone was that keen! HunterGatherer's rugby
skills proved advantageous!

Meanwhile, the postie arrived to find the track blocked
by our rudimentary sheep gates...

Eventually everyone was where they should be, and
Mungo wasted no time in snatching a quick kiss!

Couldn't resist photographing this year's wool - the
colours never cease to amaze me. So varied :-)
Someone was NOT amused at all the attention being
paid to the sheep.
There's always something needing done outside on the
Sparrowholding. Our wood-burning stove is a hungry
beastie, so HG has been wielding his axe.
And the result of his hard labour means that we'll stay warm,
come sleet, frost or snow.
Heavy rain, followed by frost, left a huge skating rink in the
pony's paddock.
The colder weather means that mice gravitate towards the house,
so FatCat is kept busy. Only I can't bear to let him kill the poor
wee souls, so I set them free whenever I can! (Supergran tells
me that this slightly defeats the purpose...)
The Sparrowholding by night during the festive period. The sheep are
 slightly bemused. But then that doesn't take much ;-)

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A magical evening: dinner at The Witchery in Edinburgh

The 50th birthday celebrations continue at The Witchery by the Castle
Clichéd as it may sound, there is genuinely something magical about The Witchery by the Castle – one of Edinburgh’s most renowned fine dining establishments and the venue for the final ‘instalment’ of my 50th birthday celebrations this year.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that my generous little brother (a mere stripling at 48 years of age) kindly gifted me a voucher entitling me to dinner for two. So it was that one evening in early October – far enough in advance of Hallowe’en to ensure we didn’t encounter any supernatural shenanigans! – HunterGatherer and I parked the car beside Castle Terrace car park and strolled in leisurely fashion up the road that leads alongside the castle.

Edinburgh Castle at dusk: as you can see, my poor
Blackberry camera was struggling with the lack of light!
Progress was somewhat slower than might normally have been the case, as Yours Truly was nursing a recent (hockey-induced) tear to her Achilles tendon, and the said injury was definitely not appreciating the multiplicity of steps in the ascent to the top end of the Royal Mile. Still, Edinburgh was at her glorious best in the rapidly falling darkness, with the castle lit up dramatically against a stormy cobalt sky, so at least our steady pace meant we had more time to absorb the unique ambience of Scotland’s capital.

Looking down the dark alleyway that leads to The Witchery
We hesitated for a few seconds beneath a historic-looking sign that signalled our proximity to the restaurant, and peered down a dark, narrow alleyway lit at the far end by myriad fairy lights. Any discomfort in my ankle “disapparated” on the spot, as pain was superseded by excited anticipation. Walking into Boswell’s Court felt like stepping into a scene from Harry Potter, an impression which only intensified when we were met at the door by a delightfully eccentric young man, impeccably turned out, who stood behind a podium and ticked our names off his list with a flourish before pointing us down a wooden staircase. Given the extreme popularity of The Witchery, we had booked our table well over a month in advance to secure a Friday evening slot. The moment we reached the bottom of that staircase, it was evident that every minute of our wait had been worthwhile.

Before us lay another ‘Potteresque’ scene. By the slightly eerie flickering light of the candles placed on each table, we could make out the far end of a sizable Gothic-style dining room. The decor was extravagantly impressive, with ornate wooden panelling, immaculate white table cloths and padded, leather-upholstered seating. It was hard to believe that prior to 1979, the year in which James Thomson – the visionary proprietor of The Witchery – launched this atmospheric eatery, the property had been a near-derelict basement. We were interested to note the building’s connection with Boswell, as HunterGatherer spent several of his teenage years residing in a former inn that was visited by Boswell and Johnson during their tour of the Hebrides in 1773. But I digress – back to 2013 and The Witchery.

In all honesty, we had both found the prospect of dining at a restaurant so far beyond our normal means slightly daunting – indeed, we almost felt like imposters when we confessed at the outset that we would be paying with a voucher! However, we needn’t have worried one whit, as our dedicated waitress for the evening and indeed every member of staff with whom we came into contact were disarmingly agreeable. I can’t quite put my finger on how they achieved the perfect balance of hospitality, but they were friendly without being over-familiar, professional without being stilted, and helpful without being pushy. In short, their service was flawless – as, it rapidly transpired, was the food they served.

Pigeon breast with pancetta and peas
According to the restaurant's website, The Witchery menus feature “the finest seasonal Scottish produce”. As you might imagine, this meant we were spoilt for choice and spent some time dithering over our selection. Eventually, HunterGatherer plumped for delicious Tweeddale pigeon breast, served with warm salad of gem lettuce, peas and pancetta with pigeon consommé. Keen to try something different, I opted for a colourful Terrine of Phantassie Farm vegetables with pumpkin sorbet and pecorino cracknel. Both starters met with their respective recipients’ full approval.

Phantassie Farm vegetable terrine
The main courses duly arrived and looked just as promising. HunterGatherer had signed up for the Roast Fillet of Limousin Scotch beef, served with blanquette of chard, Scottish girolles (aka chanterelle mushrooms) and rosti potato. He immediately professed the meat to be ‘melt-in-the-mouth perfection’, though (being a Scottish ‘farmer cheil’ at heart) he was heard to ponder sotto voce why it was Limousin (a French breed) rather than Aberdeen Angus beef!  My meat choice proved equally rewarding in the flavour department: tender roast loin of Cairngorm venison accompanied by a vegetable selection including celeriac dauphinoise, kale and parsnip purée, plus crisps and chocolate oil. ‘Twas edible heaven.

Fillet of beef  'meats' with HG's approval
The venison vanished quickly!
At this point in proceedings, having done full justice to my first two courses, I began to flag ever so slightly and had to accept, albeit very reluctantly, that I probably didn’t have the capacity for the item on the desert menu that had most appealed to me: the ‘taster’ platter. Fortunately, HunterGatherer was made of sterner stuff, and while I restricted myself to a single slice of rich chocolate torte, he ordered the six mini-desert extravaganza. 

It has to be said that the above fuzzy photo in no way does justice to the enticing presentation of this eclectic desert selection. Unfortunately, my trusty Blackberry was failing miserably to cope with the dim lighting in The Witchery, so I rashly asked HunterGatherer to take a photo of his impressive platter of puds. What can I say? Apart from "never send a man to do a woman's job i.e. photograph puddings." 

So desperate was my dining companion to dive into his tantalising assortment of delectable desserts that he rushed the shot and blurred what was (in my eyes) the most important photo of the night. Still, at least he didn't make toooo bad a job of the photo of my pudding (and me!), plus he let me sample every single one of the opulent offerings on his plate, so I'll forgive him for his lack of photographic prowess  this time...

All in all, our visit to The Witchery was a fittingly fabulous way to bring my birthday celebrations to a memorable conclusion. If I'm utterly honest, I'd have to confess that this turning 50 business hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared. In fact, I might even recommend it!
Before leaving, Yours Truly was presented with this trio of Witchery Chocolate
bars. Apparently, being teetotal , I'd not quite used up the whole gift voucher...
...which meant that I could still enjoy my Witchery experience
long after the actual evening was over!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A chocolate tour of Edinburgh – the stuff of (sweet) dreams...

The first stop: truffle tasting at Patisserie Valerie...
The past few weeks have involved a lot of writing and editing work (i.e. the remunerative word generation and rearranging that pays bills rather than the more-enjoyable-but-not-remunerative blogging stuff!). However, there have been two culinary highlights squeezed in among all the wordsmithery, and this post is an account of the first...

It all came about as the result of a tip-off from a good friend, who also happens to be a tablet-maker extraordinaire and thus knows her sucrose. Aware of Yours Truly’s proclivity for anything sweet, she forwarded me details of an ‘itison’ deal offering discounted tickets for the tantalisingly titled “Chocolate Tour of Edinburgh”. 

A quick check-up online revealed several positive reviews, so I hastily booked two tickets for an unspecified date in the future, suspecting that DD1 would not require much persuasion to accompany me. Suffice to say, she didn’t.

A mutually suitable date was duly agreed, I booked our places online and one bright, late-September afternoon the two of us rocked up at the French Patisserie Valerie on Rose Street in Edinburgh (there's also a branch on North Bridge), ready for some serious chocolate consumption. There we were greeted by two cheery young ladies – Jules and Maria – who were to be our charming and informative tour guides for the afternoon.

Our group consisted of 10 people: six Chinese visitors (including two adorable little boys, who solemnly and determinedly consumed just as much chocolate as the adults) and four Scots – DD1 and I plus a cheery young local couple (both of whom were traffic wardens, which made for interesting chat along the way!).

Maria and Jules began by advising us to buy a bottle of water to carry with us during the tour (to cleanse our palates between chocolate stops!) and then gave us a brief history of chocolate throughout the world as well as in the UK. I’d been aware that the Mayans first invented hot chocolate in its earliest form, but was interested to learn that the first chocolate bar was made by Joseph Fry in London back in the 18th century. He it was who introduced factory methods to the production of chocolate.

We tasted our first "exhibit" of the tour from a selection of Patisserie Valerie’s tempting truffles – DD1 opted for a delicate rose champagne truffle while Yours Truly plumped for a more full-bodied white chocolate truffle. Each of us pronounced our choice to be excellent and our anticipation levels for the afternoon to come rose commensurately...

Patisserie Valerie don't just do truffles...

So much temptation in the shop window, but we had to
save ourselves for the chocolate treats yet to come!
I have to confess that being faced with the prospect of gorging chocolate all afternoon, I had mentally psyched myself for copious cocoa bean derivative consumption, so I was initially somewhat taken aback just to be offered one truffle at the first stop on the tour. However, as we progressed, any slight disappointment soon turned to immense gratitude for the prescient prudence of the organisers – it rapidly became evident that pacing oneself was essential on this yummy marathon so this "gentle" start was absolutely the right approach.
Hot chocolate beyond compare...
Next stop on the tour was just a couple of hundred metres’ walk away, at the renowned Hotel Chocolat on Hanover Street. Here we were served a small cup of the richest, most luxurious hot chocolate that I have ever had the pleasure to taste (and that even includes the fabulous chocolate gloop served at Angelina’s in Paris). Yours Truly would happily have drunk a vat of this divine cocoa nectar, but the tour may well have come to a premature end if I had!
Good things come in threes... especially packs of truffles!
White chocolate treats incl. blueberry truffles!
Hotel Chocolat - a dangerous place to browse...
As if this was not gastronomic heaven enough, we were then offered the chance to sample a couple of fabulous truffles, to boot.  I chose blackcurrant cream the first time – and indeed the second time, the first having been so good that I simply couldn't resist another! Somewhat dangerously, we were given five minutes to browse in the shop and make any purchases deemed necessary – true to form, neither DD1 nor I required a second bidding.
DD1 and I smiled at this sign on the pavement...
The third stop on the tour was a just couple of doors further up Hanover Street at Bibi’s Cake Boutique which – our guides advised us  was renowned for its prize-winning chocolate brownies. As soon as we bit into these idyllic chocolate-imbued creations, it was easy to appreciate why their reputation went before them.
Guide Jules begins to build up the brownie hype...
Prize-winning brownies from Bibi's Cake Boutique
Cupcakes are another Bibi's delicacy
And those larger cakes look pretty yummy, too!
Bibi’s counters and shop windows boasted a cornucopia of colourful cupcakes, and it was genuinely hard to tear ourselves away (not to mention stop drooling!). But move on we must, so a brisk 10-minute walk ensued. This brought us to the Coco on Broughton chocolaterie, there to sample cheekily-named Tia Maria truffles known as “Venus nipples” (check out the photo and the derivation of the name will become immediately apparent!). 
Maria gives us the gen about "Coco on Broughton"
Chocolates with a naughty name!
Our fifth stop on the tour involved another five-minute walk followed by an elevator ride to the top floor of Harvey Nichols, where we viewed and tasted the work of The Highland Chocolatier, Iain Burnett. His tiny cubes of pure truffle ganache filling simply melted in the mouth and I found the delicate artwork on his chocolates somehow reminiscent of William Morris designs.
The Highland Chocolatier's counter in Harvey Nichols
The macaroons in Harvey Nicks looked pretty tasty, too!
Walking through Edinburgh was
good fun on a sunny autumn day
Then it was across Princes Street, through Waverley Station, and uphill for a couple of hundred yards to the Royal Mile where we found stop no. 6: The Fudge Kitchen. There we were tempted by almost every flavour of fudge known to man and even allowed to sample several flavours, my personal favourites being “strawberries and cream” and “salt caramel”.  

It has to be said that even the most ardent chocolate fanatics in the group were beginning to fade slightly by this point (and my feet were in need of an ice bath!), but we rose unanimously to the occasion and downed our fair share of delicious fudge! DD1 and I also invested in some sachets of “fudge hot chocolate”, which I’m saving for a particularly dreary November day.
The sign says it all... a kitchen full of FUDGE!
Triple chocolate fudge - don't mind if we do...
Finally, to conclude our ever-so-slightly calorific but utterly terrific tour, we visited a shop that resembled something from a children’s fantasy story penned by the inimitable Roald Dahl himself. Entering Lickety Splits was genuinely like stepping back in time for the oldest member of the group (i.e. Yours Truly). Familiar sweets and treats of my long-distant childhood lined one wall of the shop while the opposite wall was given over to local craft and jewellery, which provided an unusual but attractive complement to the shop’s stock.

A shop window guaranteed to stop
a 50-year-old Scot in her tracks
Sweet dreams: row upon row of traditional confectionery
Effervescent proprietor Naomi gave us an excellent and comprehensive talk on the origins of some of Scotland’s most “traditional” sweets e.g. macaroon bar (I hadn’t been aware just how often coconut features in traditional Scottish sweets – nor that in the past it was wrapped round meat to keep it fresh!).

We were also shown some Irn Bru humbugs, which were Barr’s original product before the advent of the eponymous Irn Bru drink that is so famous nowadays. DD1 and I bought a “quarter” of the said Irn Bru delicacies for Son&Heir as a housewarming present for his new flat, though after we’d tasted them, his chances of ever seeing them rapidly began to dwindle....
Decisions, decisions...
Undoubtedly the most fascinating traditional sweets in the shop – although their overpowering cinnamon content meant they were not to my taste – were the “lucky tatties”. These  flat, rather unpromising-looking brown objects were apparently often carried by miners, as their high energy content meant that a miner could survive three days underground on one of these alone. No wonder they were considered "lucky".

And so our wonderful tour came to an end, as indeed all good things in life must. Both DD1 and I gave the experience a full 10 out of 10, despite the fact that we were a tad footsore by the end. Even if we had paid the full price per ticket (£30), I reckon the tour would still have offered good value for money. The fact that we only paid £14 per head, thanks to the itison deal, made the experience (apologies in advance...) all the sweeter!