Sunday, February 27, 2011

Birmingham: Back to Jamie's

With a rainy Saturday developing, we decided, on a whim, to take the train to Birmingham, for a bit of shopping and a meal at Jamie's Italian. Happily, we were under blue skies before long, enjoying the bustle of the Bull Ring. There's such an energy in that city, and in the open market especially; the air's a-buzz with it, the shouts of the vendors hawking their produce or auctioning off their cuts of meat coming over the top.

We put our name in at Jamie's Italian, and with an estimated wait of forty minutes, took their pager for a stroll. We came upon a fantastic find then: a bin, outside a lingerie shop of all things, filled with old water jugs advertising various breweries, £2 a pop. We picked up five, for less than we've paid for one in the past.

Shortly thereafter the pager went off. I'm happy to say that the Birmingham location is yet another example of the stellar standards we've come to expect from Jamie's. I went with their specials exclusively this time: a golden beetroot soup to start, followed by crab and risotto cakes with a fennel salad. Both were superb; simply superb. The only way the crab cakes could've been any better was if they'd included a few more tangerine segments -- maybe one per cake -- vice the one. Such an amazing blend of flavours. Tea's mushroom panzerotti was the same; probably more so, in fact.

Finally, while we were initially disappointed to learn that our beloved lemon polenta cake is a seasonal offering, the waiter was absolutely correct: the chocolate, raspberry and amaretto brownie with bourbon vanilla ice cream was truly to die for. And I don't normally make a fuss about the bill, but I think it's important that I highlight how affordable Jamie's is: all that, plus their fabulous selection of breads, a bruschetta starter, 1.5 litres of their lovely house red, and tea and coffee only cost £64. At the risk of officially joining their marketing team, I'll reiterate a sentiment I've blogged before: this is some of the best food I've eaten out; ever. And I've paid a lot more than that for meals of similar composition.

Pleasantly full, it was time for a bit of shopping. The last train home was around half nine, so we stopped up with enough time for a pint. Tea's CAMRA app. pulled through again, pointing out the wonderful Anchor Inn, just down the road from the Bull Ring. I'd recommend it for the atmosphere and friendly staff alone, but the list of real ales they had on pushes it to legendary status in my books. And it seemed to be a local favourite too, with lots of folks -- a range of ages at that -- havin' a good time.

The same could be said of the Royal Union, where we finished the night, back in town. It was good to see. We've decided Robin needs to let the dogs come down and mingle more, though.

As always, we've created a Picasa album with more pictures from the afternoon and evening.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A party at Wotton Hall

Walking to the bus stop last night, one could hardly be blamed for worrying whether the evening was going awry. We had a destination (Wotton Hall, Gloucester) and a route (no. 10), but beyond that, it was all a bit fuzzy. We knew there was a small beer festival at that hall this weekend, but their Web site allocated far more real estate to a 60s and 70s dance, going on we knew not when.

As we sat on the bus, halfway to Gloucester, two nicely dressed ladies and a spiffy chap got on. We privately joked about them getting off at our stop, only to suffer that sinking feeling as they pushed the bell while we gathered our stuff. In a scene right out of one of those 80s teen movies, we just stood there on the pavement, the bus pulling away, staring at the dozen lads 'n' lasses in waistcoats and gowns on the hall's steps, smokin' and lookin' right back. After what seemed like a heck of a long time, but was probably just half a dozen seconds, the tension broke and they went back to gabbin' 'n' puffin'. Pluckin' up our courage, we squeezed through the crowd, assuming we'd made some horrible mistake.

Enjoying pints of Codrington Winter Royal
Upon entering, the "Private Party" sign immediately to our left perked us up, as did the doorman's, "Back to the skittles alley," in response to our beery query. Wotton Hall was a-hoppin'! In addition to that reception, there was a skittles match in full swing, a wine tasting, an open mic night, and, thankfully, a beer festival! That place is clearly the heart of their community. Such a great atmosphere; warm and welcoming.

We met up with American Joe and had a great chat over a few pints, then caught the last bus back home, where Matt 'n' I broke out Guitar Hero III, rockin' it double-axe style 'til the wee hours. Good times!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hay-on-Wye: Book town of Wales (and my heart)

Walking in on Friday, we decided it was time for another mini-break. That evening we booked The Swan in Hay-on-Wye for following night. While the weather the next morning wasn't as good as the forecast, it steadily improved as we made our way west. Only fog awaited us as we checked in early and set about exploring Hay.

With rain threatening, we kept the walk short, down by the lively Wye river. Benches dedicated to fellow lovers of the British countryside could be seen all along the trail, and we took advantage of one part-way, enjoying the view and those smells you only get near fast-moving water.

The reviews Tea had read said the Swan's food was a bit poncey, and the fab Blue Boar was just across the road to boot, so guess where we ended up for lunch. Their food was excellent -- a beef burger for Tea and cottage pie (think shepherd's pie) for me -- and while their namesake IPA was a bit bland, the Landlord more than made up for it.

Bellies full, it was time to see what Hay is famous for: books, books and more books. I've never seen so many shops in such a small town. And some of them are so specialized -- on botany and ornithology, children's books, nineteenth century British authors... Honestly, that's three different bookshops -- you wonder how they can survive. In a word, or phrase, Hay Festival: tens of thousands of visitors flood the town with one thought on their mind: reading.

I won't bore you with my amazing finds -- including the ones I left on the shelves; it's easy to spend well in excess of a thousand pounds on one book, in case you're wondering why I wouldn't satisfy my every whim -- but the highlight of the day was certainly the illustrated edition of Voltaire's Candide by Peter Pauper Press, hardcover in a slipcase. Beautiful!

We decided to rest up a bit before supper. Back in the hotel room, I took in some of the FA Cup fifth round play, very impressed with how non-league Crawley Town fared against Man U. -- that's right: a team effectively four leagues below the team at the top of the Premier League, and, in the end, they were beaten by but one goal. Incredible.

We'd heard the Old Black Lion was the best restaurant in town, and we were lucky enough to get a table without a reservation... Just. The locals were so friendly, first offering us their seats while we waited for a table, and then one gentleman finished early, taking his digestif to the pub area, so that we might have his table sooner. Such a great atmosphere, before I even touch on the fabulous food: a T-bone steak for Tea, and a starter of duck, followed by braised lamb shank for me; superb! Plus, they had the Wye Valley's own Butty Bach on hand-pump! Love that stuff.

The next morning, after a big, tasty full English at the Swan, it was out for a proper hike, south toward the Hay Bluff. The weather was great again, but it had rained overnight, making it easily our muddiest walk to date. Thank goodness for wellies, is all I have to say; well, thank that and balance I summoned from the depths, hauling one boot out while another sank up to my shin, over and over again for a stretch. And I was grinnin' like an idiot, brought back thirty years in one afternoon.

The pig farm was another highlight: these big sows snuffling over to the fence (thinking we had food, no doubt) and scratching themselves on saplings the size of my forearm. Oh, and I can't forget the wee lambs, still trying to master the trick of standing up for seconds at a time. And if walking through all these farms doesn't give you a flavour for life here, every farmhouse we passed had a stool out front with cartons of their eggs and a tin for the money. Stepping back in time would approximate the feeling for some, I guess, but I've never known life like this. Period. It's heaven to me; plain and simple.

After a light lunch at the Blue Boar -- why mess with a good thing? -- it was time for more shopping. I had visions of popping 'round to many different shops, but that was before we entered the phenomenon of Hay Cinema Bookshop. It's pretty much a TARDIS. An old converted theatre, it just keeps going on and on, gobbling up afternoons like kids' sweets. Again, I won't bore you with all that made up our two shopping bags' full. For me, the highlights were N. C. Wyeth's Pilgrims, and a beautiful edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Peter Weevers (although Tea also got some great photography manuals).

The day quickly getting away from us, we decided to hit the road. We still wanted to stop in Ross-on-Wye on the way back, and by the smaller roads that really shouldn't be travelled after sunset. 'Cause it was on the map, we did take one detour: to Arthur's Stone, dented by the elbow of a giant slain by Arthur, according to legend. The kids who were biking away as we arrived didn't seem so impressed, jumping up 'n' down on the neolithic burial chamber moments before. (I leave the mutters and grumblings of "no respect..." and "tanned hides..." as an exercise for the reader.)

We caught the last of the light as we pulled off at Ross-on-Wye. We'll definitely be back, as some of the walks beside the river looked absolutely idyllic. As it was, we stopped in The Mail Rooms for a few pints -- New Moon is an excellent dark, incidentally -- and tea for Tea. When we learned they'd run out of Sunday roast -- of any sort! -- it was down to the Seven Seas for kebabs; super messy, but delish!

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

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Stroud: Leonard in England

Since Saturday was supposed to be the nice day of the weekend, we made sure we were up somewhat early, and after picking up Matt, made our way to Stroud for their famous farmers' market: supposedly one of the best (the best?) in England. Once parked, we made our way to the nearby high street -- through the train station, I might add; guess how we'll be getting there next time -- Celtic notes filling the air. The Bucket Band was almost through a set, two little girls skipping 'round a little boy just in front of them, like something out of a Newfoundland tourism ad.

After picking up a CD, we wandered the market, taking in all the fabulous sights and smells. Even in the middle of winter, it was substantial. Can't wait to go back when more's in season. We bought olives and focaccia, and after sampling some sausages straight off the grill, a few packages for home -- cookin' them up as I type this, actually; they smell so good! (And I'm cookin' 'em up, too; look at me! *wink*) Plus, we got chatting to the chap from Warcop Brewery in South Wales, and Matt and I grabbed half a dozen of their stouts and porters between us; sounds like he's there year-round, so I know where to go if I like it.

Speaking of ale, we thought it'd be the perfect way to wash down our sausages and rest our feet. Tea's CAMRA app. told her the Queen Victoria was good choice nearby, so off we went. As we sat outside, enjoying our pints -- the excellent Cornish Mutiny for me, and Anastasia's Exile Stout for Matt; the latter's by Ascot Ales, which deserves special mention, as their Alligator Ale came in my most recent CAMRA Beer Club box, and it's excellent) -- a guy approached, asking whether we had any papers to spare, mistaking us for smokers.

He had more success inside, and came out to share a pint with us. As we chatted, he showed us a newsletter he'd just finished for an upcoming series called Lorca In England, celebrating the work of the Spanish poet, Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca. The town has a rich history of supporting the arts, we soon discovered. He'd moved out from London 22 years ago, and fallen in love. He said that now, many of those artists make up the local business community, running coffee shops, pubs, etc. When he found out we were Canadians, he immediately gushed praise for Leonard Cohen, talking about how he's still writing verses for Hallelujah, his ordination as a Buddhist monk, and his bankruptcy. (Much of which was news to me, I have to be honest. Matt easily kept pace, though.) Before leaving, he recommended we check out the Golden Fleece, and hoped to see us there later.

Next on our list was the snowdrops in Colesbourne Park, but we'd passed through Painswick on the way to Stroud, and decided it was worth a stop coming back. After wandering the beautiful grounds of the Church of England parish church of Saint Mary -- with its literally fantastic yew trees -- we stopped for a bite to eat at the Royal Oak, enjoying the fruits of Stroud Brewery -- Budding and Tom Long, specifically -- two bowls of butternut squash soup and a burger between the three of us.

It isn't hard to see why Colesbourne Park is getting so much attention on local radio and television: the snowdrops were more than plentiful. Because of that, I think our later arrival, with an hour 'til closing, worked out really well: the crowds were dying down, and we still had plenty of light to take some great photographs. A great way to end the day.

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

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Are you a *real* Canadian?"

We had a better plan this year, buying a return bus fare that got the six of us to the Tewkesbury Winter Ale Festival a bit before noon -- we'd heard they were limiting the attendance to 300 this year, and didn't want to miss out. I don't know if they got that many, but it was certainly well attended, and better stocked this year, with plenty of choices left on this, the last day. (Last year they had little left but cider less than halfway through the final day.)

A great selection too, that I was largely unfamiliar with: I knew maybe half a dozen of the 70 ales available! Favourites included Orkney's Raven -- lovely nose, almost like pine needles -- Black Ops (can't remember the brewer) and a whopper, at 10%, called... Old Thakey? Thakes? Something like that; more like a port than an ale, but really smooth and tasty. [Correction: I didn't do too bad, actually: the Raven was by Thornbridge, Black Ops was by Salopian (the same folks that do the Lemon Dream that Tea and her friend, Liv, love), and, finally, the whopper was Thomas Sykes Ale by Burton Bridge. Thanks to Matt for digging out the pamphlet.] The entertainment was also excellent: the Tewkesbury town band, followed by Six Nations rugby on the big screen.

On one trip to the cask room, Tea was stopped by two gentlemen serving food, "Are you a real Canadian?" pointing at her recently acquired Roots swag.


"We have a question for you: how do Eskimos bury their dead?"

Tea, Matt (a fellow Canadian) and I exchanged looks and shrugs. I don't think they believed any of our suggestions, which included cremation and boat graves. (We had no clue. Turns out the answer is just like us, and, historically, under cairns.)

Awesome mustard we'd had earlier
Good times. We hit the Bank House for some grub once back in town, followed by a nightcap at a friend's place. Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the festival.