Monday, January 31, 2011

Malmesbury and Tetbury

With a sunny forecast, we set out for a walk near Tetbury. The plan had been to poke our noses in a few of the antique shops it's famous for -- that, and the nearby estate belonging to HRH Prince Charles. Unfortunately, it seems that most of them are closed on Sundays, so we settled for wandering the grounds of the Church of St. Mary The Virgin, and saw the Market House and the Chipping Steps -- with a property for sale! If you can spare most of your limbs, no doubt -- before making our way back to the car.

Aside: I'd be remiss were I not to raise the subject of the decidedly un-cat-like black cat we met near the top of the famous Gumstool Hill. His cries for attention, while prodigious, didn't particularly distinguish him; rather, it was his ingenuity: when I crouched down to take a shot of a nearby hotel, I felt this sudden weight in my lap, followed by much, much closer meowing. I walked around with little muddy cat paws on my thighs for the rest of the day.

A quick flip through our walking book later, we were off to the neighbouring Malmesbury to walk the public and permissive footpaths that surround and divide it. First up, however, was a carvery, at the Smoking Dog, we decided. (Despite my aversion for those horrid "Dogs playing poker" paintings and whatnot, which Tea helpfully brought to mind, pointing at the pub's sign and smirking.)

As I went up to order our pints, my gaze fell upon the "Continental Guest Beer," Blue Moon. I couldn't help but laugh and comment on the sight from 'home', to which the bartender replied, "Oh, yes. It must be an acquired taste." That's one way of putting it, I thought. A final point on the bar: when I was up for another round, I noticed the gentleman who'd been sitting beside us chatting to the bartender. As I waited, I realized he was making good on a comment he'd made at the table about the ale being too cold, and how the management would probably like to know. The two of them were now lamenting how little you can do about the temperature of your cellar. It really is that important to them, folks, and I'm sure they'd be deeply offended by the "warm, flat beer" comments I've heard from the mouths of Canadian visitors. But, to each his own.

Our bellies full -- Tea ordered a burger, which surprised me, though she enjoyed it; pork loin for me -- we made our way past the old silk mills to the ridiculously muddy path. Tea immediately cursed her lack of foresight, as her wellies languished in the car. On we went in the lovely sunshine, slowly ascending through town to the impressive Malmesbury Abbey. The other pub we'd read about, The Whole Hog, wasn't far from the car park, so we decided that some refreshments might be in order.

The Whole Hog has a fantastic bar area out front, with large, well-maintained windows that look out on a square, and, according to our book, a market cross that's one of the best examples from its era in England. It was a great place to take a load off, particularly with a pint of Three Castle's Corn Dolly in my hand, and listening to guffaws, the likes of which I never would've called anything but campy British were I not there to witness the sincerity of their delivery. Good times!

We'd read about the Priory Inn in Tetbury earlier in the day, and in the spirit of perpetuating those good times, we decided to stop in, for supper, as it turned out.

I can't recommend this place enough. They have this fantastic "Thirty-mile food zone" that they do their best to follow, and promote local musicians -- we enjoyed an excellent performance by Juey that evening -- and artists -- we bought a lovely drawing of cows in Cardigan Bay by Carole Condé that we'd been ogling all evening; it really reminded us of our trip to Wales.

So, yes, good for the conscience, clearly, but very good for the soul too. Their wood oven pizzas are delicious -- we saw more than a few take-away orders that evening -- and the treacle and marmalade tart was out of this world!

As always, check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the day.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bringing Thailand home

Saturday saw the arrival of Tea's last Christmas present: a personal Thai cookery lesson with Annabel, of Annabel's Kitchen. Tea chose to make Tom Yum Goong soup, Beef Panang curry and vegetable Pad Thai. Annabel picked up all the ingredients at our local Asian specialty shop, and brought everything we'd need, including the cookware, this massive mortar and pestle, a food processor, those special dishes for the soup, and even the cooktop cleaner and wash-up liquid.

I think the biggest thing I took away from the afternoon, as an eager spectator -- well, and besides the extravaganza for my taste buds, obviously -- was the value of fresh, traditional ingredients. Fresh lemongrass is incredible, for example, and galangal, while similar to ginger, brings something a bit different to the soup.

I know Tea was excited to have one of her longstanding questions answered: how do they get the beef so tender? Braising in cocunut milk, apparently, and then storing it in a mixture of that braising liquid and more coconut milk. One final note on the ingredients: proper coconut milk is really a wet pulp; man, that stuff smelled so good!

Pad Thai can also be tricky. From start to plate was really quick, and it was amazing to watch Tea bring it together. There's also a specific time and water temperature for soaking the noodles beforehand to ensure they cook up just right.

And just when you think it can't get any better, you realize that all that clinking and splashing behind you is Annabel washing up as you dig in. Bliss!

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the lesson.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A-hikin' again, o'er Crickley

We're back from a great trip home to both Ottawa and Halifax. We got to hang out with Kae, see Mullet Rock play the Rainbow, and celebrate an early Robbie Burns' Day with Joe and Christine (and lots of old friends) -- barely 24 hours before the birth of their first child, James Ian MacDonald, as it turned out! Then it was off to the east coast to share good food and times with our families.

We were up nice 'n' early this morning, hoping to speed along our adjusting to the time zone. The rain had stopped by 9 a.m., so we decided to get out for a bit of exercise. It was also a good excuse for Tea to try out her new camera: a Canon EOS Rebel T1i DSLR.

Grey though the day may've been, many made it out to the Crickley Hill Country Park, where we'd decided to hike. This meant many dogs as well, of course, which Tea loved. And despite the mist and clouds, there were some great views as we made our way to the Air Balloon pub for their carvery. (Bit of a disappointment, that: more in the vein of a Wetherspoons. really, although their seasonal veg was superior; particularly the carrot and parsnip.)

The fantastic views continued after lunch, although I spent more time looking at my feet as the hike went on: all that foot traffic (and the rain, no doubt) made for a very muddy trail. I almost made it back to the car without incident. Near the end, I was taking a picture when I felt both feet slip out from under me; had to sit on a shopping bag for the drive home.

Still, all in all, a great day. We'd both missed our walks through the English countryside.

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the day.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's in Prague

Well, before I start on our trip to Prague, just a few words about our Christmas: it was nice 'n' quiet, with plenty of delicious turkey and roasted veg leftovers -- Tea cooked her big meal on Christmas Eve, which they get off here -- mulled wine and cheesy movies. On Boxing Day we were on our way to Telford and then Newcastle to watch Newcastle United vs. Manchester City live! -- Robbie and Lill got us amazing seats, and the atmosphere in St. James' Park was top notch: the 52000 in attendance birthed this undulating roar that was unlike anything I'd experienced, even at the fantastic matches in Dublin the summer past -- and celebrate Jan's birthday; and, man, I knew her Stan was one-of-a-kind, but there's no half measures with any of the Geordies I met: tons of elaborate 'fancy dress' costumes and things still in full swing when we left in the wee-ish hours.

Tuesday, December 28

Luckily we'd padded our schedule with a day between Newcastle and our flight out of Bristol, as the M1 was pretty much a parking lot for large swathes of the 27th. With an early afternoon flight, we got plenty of sleep, even after a late night of packing. This was our first time on EasyJet, which was much like the other discount airlines (if a bit dirtier, to be honest, although, hey, it could've been worse with how quickly they turn around those planes).

Prague Airport is a ways out of the city, and that, combined with my poor direction sense, particularly at night, and the strange currency, had me a bit worried as the cab ride stretched on. 700 Czech koruna may seem like a lot, but it's really only about £23. (I was just starting to get the hang of converting that on the fly as we left.) After quickly dropping our bags, it was time to meet Ron and Michelle, fellow Canadians coincidentally in for Ronnie's big birthday, near the Prague Orloj, or Astronomical Clock, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. The first of many meals of goulash, chased with much pivo (pretty much all the Czech you need, incidentally) of various sorts, followed.


Prague Castle, or simply 'the hrad' to the locals, topped Ron 'n' Michelle's list for their last day, so we agreed to meet them up there after a fantastic breakfast in our hotel's cellar. (You can see a number of advertisements around town for pubs and restaurants in these cellars, and it's definitely a neat experience.) The hrad grounds stretched on and on; standing in the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral, you could be forgiven for forgetting you're still within its walls. At minus 10°C, we soon needed some mulled wine, as we admired the icicles hanging from the mouths of the cathedral's gargoyles -- "Ice vomit!" as Tea so eloquently put it.

Michelle wanted to pick up some art, so we shopped our way back to town, over the famous Charles Bridge. (I've seen pictures of it in the summer, and I have to say, even then, there was something so right about it set against grey clouds, snow resting on its 30 statues.) I know many would call the galleries and little stands along that stretch touristy, but I was really impressed with the quality of the watercolours and ink drawings I saw; probably the most beautiful and varied I've seen of what you would consider readily available to the casual buyer.

Shopping's thirsty work, so we decided to stop at the Hotel U Zlatého Stromu's heated patio for some refreshments. Well, one look at probably one of the best menus I've ever seen (in terms of presentation) quickly pushed this well beyond even our substantial definition of a 'snack': check out Page 72 for a glimpse of Ronnie's skewer from the gods. More than sated, we resumed shopping, determined to rebuild our appetites for the amazing ham sandwiches at the Christmas markets -- reminiscent of the "slab o' ham" sandwiches from Cologne... Boy, do they know how to cook good pig in that part of the world!

While I think I preferred the Christmas markets in Cologne overall, one area where the Prague markets excelled -- and the old town square market, in particular -- was the live entertainment. The traditional (what I would call medieval) instruments, lighting that didn't drown out that of the big tree and stalls, and plenty of room for all to gather round really made for an immersive experience. (I recorded this sound clip by the stage.)

Speaking of medieval, later, when looking for somewhere to warm up and have a few, we happened upon such a themed restaurant. Initially, only the bar held our interest, but as late afternoon became evening, we learned that they were putting on a show later in the basement. Well, expecting something along the lines of Medieval Times, I was really impressed by the quality of the entertainment -- excellent musicians, belly dancers (carrying snakes and juggling flaming torches at different times throughout the show) and swordplay -- and the food; more food than we could eat, in fact. (I recorded these excerpts right from my seat.)


We decided to skip the hotel breakfast in favour of an epic lie-in. In typical fashion, the idea came to us that New Year's at the Prague State Opera's gala event, Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus, would be fun. However, we didn't bring any nice clothes with us, so, after a breakfast of klobasa from the old town square Christmas market, it was off to buy new outfits; Tea was crushed, of course.

The stores were surprisingly quiet for that time of year. We completed our mission in record time, I thought, and was particularly tickled that Tea found such a beautiful dress. After dropping our shopping in the hotel room, we decided to try the restaurant, Rainer Maria Rilke, right next door. It was a beautiful place, if a bit drafty, and the owner was very accommodating. I had roasted duck -- his grandmother's recipe! -- and Tea had salmon. So tasty!

New Year's Eve

Since this was the last day of the Christmas markets, we spent some time picking up a few gifts, and stuffing ourselves on the treats, of course. I think it's safe to say Tea's favourite was the trdelnik, which is a spiral of dough wrapped around a roller (called a trdlo), sugared and cooked over open coals. Very addictive!

It started to snow as we wandered 'new town', so we stopped in Branická Formanka for lunch. The place was packed, with only reserved tables open. However, as the Good Beer Guide Prague stated, it's always good to ask: we found a table that was apparently reserved special for us. Our waiter was very friendly, actually (which is unusual for Prague, incidentally). Good goulash and beer followed, then it was back to the hotel for a kip before the big night.

I'd reserved a taxi to the State Opera House for 6:30 p.m., but found, once we were in the lobby, it was the hotel driver who would be taking us. And then he offered to pick us up at a time of our choosing! No mad hunt for a cab on New Year's in Prague, apparently. The Opera House was absolutely breath-taking; the ceiling and balconies were so beautifully detailed.

Tea and I felt perfectly at ease amongst the well-dressed crowd -- thank goodness we'd shopped! They had an open bar, which was a nice touch, and as I was reading the English summary of the operetta, beer in hand, Tea struck up a conversation with a Dutch couple nearby.

When the operetta started, I surprised to see a large flat-screen above the stage, for the Czech and English subtitles as it turned out. (The operetta was performed in German.) I think there was a large French contingent behind us, as you could hear their translations -- presumably for their non-polyglot or short-sighted members -- in the quieter moments. (That, and there was an enormous cheer when the cast got to "Bonne année!" at midnight.)

After the first act, the buffet was served. Oh - my. Let's just say we were foolish to attempt to queue for what descended to a free-for-all. (It brought to mind a music video from ages past where everyone was in tuxedos and gowns to begin with, all prim and proper, only to become something like bipedal zoo animals by the end for reasons that escape me -- please comment below if this rings a bell, as it's bugging me and my Google-fu is weak.)

As Act III came to a close, champagne was passed 'round the audience, the cast toasting the new year with us in an astounding number of languages. Then, over the course of no more than twenty minutes, the orchestra pit was raised to meet the stage, thus creating a large dance floor. During the first few numbers, as couples slowly made their way to the front, there was one real stand-out: you could tell this couple had been dancing together for many, many years, and there wasn't a step they didn't know. Simply mesmerizing, as they made use of the still-sparsely-populated dance floor. But then it was packed, and stayed so as we shared a final drink with that Dutch couple, before saying our goodbyes around 2 a.m. I'm sure that place was hopping 'til the moment it was scheduled to finish, an hour after that.

A quick New Year's skype with Tea's family, and then it was time for bed.

New Year's Day

The hotel had humanely extended the hours of breakfast; after taking advantage, we set out to check some last spots off our list: Obecni Dum, and the Alphonse Mucha (pronounced MOO-ka) museum. (I'm embarrassed to admit that, while being a fan of his art for many years, I didn't realize he was Czech. A happy surprise, I can assure you.) We both really enjoyed the museum: the layout was excellent -- and beautiful, of course. There were many pieces I hadn't seen, and themes to others that I'd never picked up on. The documentary was also very well done. We came out of there with laden arms, in search of sustenance.

Another item on the list -- well, let's be frank: my list -- was a 'tankovna' or tank pub, where they serve unpasteurised pilsner (mostly Pilsner Urquell in Prague) from these polyester-lined steel tanks. Bredovský dvůr was my first choice, as the GBG Prague also highlighted its honey-glazed ribs. And with good reason! They were absolutely amazing! (Although Tea 'n' I probably could've shared an order.) The Pilsner Urquell was also excellent -- could I pick it out from the stuff for export if I was blindfolded? I honestly think so. The difference in the 'nose' and depth of flavours is significant.

Wandering the city the day before, we'd been handed a number of flyers for various concerts, either on New Year's Eve or early in the new year. We'd made the decision to go to the New Year's concert in the Clam-Gallas Palace, featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as well as selections by Mozart, Dvorak, Pachelbel and Telemann. We left Bredovský dvůr with just enough time to make the 6 p.m. start.

Clam-Gallas Palace is famous for a number of reasons, including hosting a concert by Ludwig van Beethoven himself, as well as a ball that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attended. Sitting in that intimate room, which honestly held little more than fifty guests -- a private concert, really, in other words -- so ornate (thinking of the Opera House again), and with that history in mind... Well, good G**, even I can't fail to grasp that I've really arrived: the Europe I've always dreamed of is before me.

I don't mind telling you that that ten-piece string orchestra's performance of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D brought me to tears; and flowing ones at that. The whole concert, certainly less than an hour, was unbelievable, really. A violin soloist, Lucie Hulova, according to the programme, took the floor a few times, and her performance of Winter (I don't know which movement of Concerto No. 4 specifically) in particular opened my eyes to: 1) the leeway they have in performing these pieces, as she sprinkled little... quarter notes, I would imagine, throughout, and 2) what true passion can bring to a performance -- particularly when you standing barely 15 feet from the musician!

If you haven't guessed by now, I would have to put this in the Top 3 concerts of my life; if weighted with ticket price, at the equivalent of £15 per person, it shoots to #1, easily. And, as I said, we had our pick of these concerts without even trying. What an absolutely amazing city!

We finished off the evening at the nearby pub, U Zeleneho stromu. They had pretzels at the table, hanging off these neat little trees, and more unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell. At some point an entry on their beer menu caught my eye: Master Special 18°, which doesn't mean 18%, by the way, but rather is the percentage of malt sugar present before fermentation. Still, generally speaking, the bigger the number, the stronger the beer. This was brought home to me when I ordered it, "Is a strong beer, yeah?" was the waitress' reply. Well, holy tootin', she wasn't kidding. A beautiful dark, it was so much smoother than I'd expected. In truth, I nursed it, because with every swallow I could feel its punch. I defy anyone to have three of those in a night and make it home under their own steam.


Our flight wasn't scheduled 'til the early afternoon, so we took the opportunity to go a-wanderin'. We ended up outside the hrad main gate as the changing of the guard was finishing; quite the production, especially under the gaze of those battling titans.

Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our bags, after lunch at the nearby Prazsky most brewpub. All in all, a fantastic trip. Tea's already talking about returning in 2011, which suits me fine.

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.