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!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Why nothing goes to waste on Swiss farms

Our plum tree, Victoria, has excelled herself this year
Autumn is here with a vengeance and the garden is a’swirl with yellow, red and brown leaves. The greenery in the polytunnel is beginning to abate, the potatoes have almost all been dug, and Vinnie the vine has yielded the risible harvest with which he deigned to bless us this year.

A potato mosaic (variety Rooster)

Could do better - Vinnie Vine's meagre offering
As predicted in my last post, I spent a lot of my time in September picking and peeling plums. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this experience transported me back 31 years to the summer when I was a mere 19-year-old stripling employed on a dairy farm in Switzerland, where one of my responsibilities was the gathering and preparation of fruit from the farm orchard.

The idea of this working holiday had been to improve my German (mistake number one – Swiss German is almost unintelligible even to native German speakers, so I’d basically to learn a new language called “Mundart”) by spending time on a farm, which I thought would be a relatively pleasant way for a farmer’s daughter to spend the month of August (almost mistake number two).

I say “almost mistake”, as overall my Swiss episode was indeed hugely enjoyable – mainly thanks to the wonderful and welcoming family for whom I had the good fortune to be working. However, it has to be said that the experience wasn’t quite what Yours Truly – as the daughter of a Scottish arable farmer – had been expecting...

I think I first perceived that things were different on Swiss farms when I discovered that the entire farm extended to just 15 Hectares (around 40 acres). Having spent most of my life on a farm which (at that time) extended to some 1,800 acres, this was a shock to say the very least.

What’s more, this tiny farm supported not only farmer Hans and his wife Vreni (plus their two young children) but also Grossvater and Grossmutter (Hans’s parents) who still did their bit around the yard, although they were no longer up to some of the heavy work.

And when I say “heavy work”, I am not joking... At home, even thirty years ago, we had mechanical bale-stackers to lift and load bales onto trailers. On the Swiss farm, it soon became evident that the bale-stackers were Vreni and... er, Yours Truly. As I watched Vreni deftly spear a square bale of hay with a pitchfork and swing it up into the air and on to the back of the trailer, my heart sank swiftly.

The heaviest thing I’d probably ever lifted in my life at that point was a curling stone – and they didn’t need to be swung over your shoulder and propelled several feet up into the air at the end of a flimsy fork.

Vreni and Hans tried desperately not to smile as they watched “das schottische Mädchen” attempt the manoeuvre, and eventually came to my aid until I’d got into the hang of it – which I did... after a few days. Indeed when I returned to Scotland, Supergran reckoned that my shoulders were a good couple of inches wider than when I’d left!

For me, undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of the Arnis being able to support a family off so little land was the fact that absolutely NOTHING went to waste.

Everything (by which I mean fruit and veg peelings, rancid milk, meat leftovers, dry bread, etc.) was fed to some incumbent of the farm – be it cows (delightful dreamy dairy cows with huge, gentle eyes), hens, rabbits (gorgeous giant rabbits, which I loved – little realising at that point that they were for eating!), pigs (the enormous boar, Hubert, used to stand up on his hind legs in the sty, with his forelegs on the gate, waiting for his breakfast and squealing loudly) or the slinking farm cats and quick-to-nip-you dogs. Not a scrap of comestibles was wasted.

Much of the fresh produce – predominantly plums, carrots and apples – was frozen, sealed in jars or (in the case of the apples) sent to the local fruit juice plant to be made into “Süssmost”. This was the local name for gorgeous, cloudy apple juice, which returned from the plant in dark green bottles and was stored underground in the farmhouse “Keller” (cellar) to be enjoyed over the following year. 
Peeled plums playing on my mind...
The apples and plums hung plentiful and heavy in the orchard, which consisted of at least a dozen trees (making our one plum and one apple tree here at The Sparrowholding look a tad paltry).

Needless to say, the bountiful fruit harvest meant hours and hours – and indeed days and days – of peeling and slicing apples and plums. So the mere 150 or so plums that I’ve dealt with this autumn pale into complete insignificance compared with my peeling exploits in the summer of 1982. Back then, I was actually dreaming of plums when I shut my eyes and was haunted by visions of rows and rows of plum trees all waving their laden branches at me and shouting “peel me” (sadly, I’m not joking!).

Still, plum trauma notwithstanding, those intense few weeks on the dairy farm proved to be a very happy and fulfilling period of my youth, even though the hallikit* Scottish farm labourer managed to put the spike of a hay rake through her trainer one day and nearly pinned her foot to the ground!

Working alongside Vreni, Hans and the “Grossis” (as the grandparents were affectionately known) was a hugely rewarding experience – not in any financial way, as I think I earned about 90 pounds “pocket money” in total after deductions for my accommodation and keep, but rather because of what I learnt about how hard people can work physically, day after day, and yet still be content with their lot.

It is a period of my life that I will never forget.  I lay in bed each morning and listened to the cows clinking their way (each wore a bell) melodically towards the milking parlour around 5.30 a.m. I tucked voraciously into lunches of homemade bread and fabulous Swiss cheese produced from the milk of those same cows. And I watched, fascinated, as Grossmutter expertly plaited the “Butterzopf” (literally “butter pigtail”) which was the special loaf of slightly sweet bread made every Saturday evening as a treat for Sunday morning breakfast.

I am still in touch with the family – Vreni and I ring each other on our respective birthdays. Days spent in an easy camaraderie working on the land led to a friendship that has endured over 30 years. That friendship and the vivid memories of a very different way of rural life more than compensate for the hours spent peeling plums...

Last, but not least, here are a few autumnal photos which were snapped out and about around The Sparrowholding recently:
Courgettes still growing in the polytunnel
Looking forward to making green tomato chutney!
Runner beans are still growing in the polytunnel

It was National Poetry Day this week,  so
this spade made me think of the late
Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging"
Spot the sunbathing bluebottle! (on the left)
Autumn Crocuses in all their purple glory - this poor lost butterfly was flying round our hall!
We're on the road to nowhere - autumn leaves