Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Great British Cheese Festival

Despite the grim forecast, we stuck to our plan of yet another day out in Cardiff; this time, for the Great British Cheese Festival, held on the castle grounds. We met Button at the train station, backpacks stuffed for all occasions with both a blanket and rain gear. We hadn't bought tickets in advance, and were brought up short by the massive line that stretched on in front of the castle. Luckily, however, it moved quickly, and we soon found ourselves on the grounds with an hour 'til our guided tour.

While Tea and Button made their way to the star of the show, I peeled off for the beer tent. Folks were seven and eight deep in front of the bar at that point, so it took me right up 'til tour time to get the two half pints I'd settled on: Sambrook's Wandle Ale -- I'd be wanting to try Sambrook's for a while now -- and Thornbridge's Sequoia. Well worth it, let me say; particularly the latter. (And I'd just brought a mini cask of their Jaipur to a leaving do the night before; you can't have too much Thornbridge in your life, I've decided.) The ladies helped me polish those off sharpish, and we made it to the start of the tour with a minute or two to spare.

After a fantastic guided tour, we met up with more friends, in Cardiff for the start of their holiday in Wales. Tea bought more cheese and breads, I bought a few remaining bottles of the popular Untapped Brewery's stock, and we filled up on Pieminister goodness. Unfortunately, as we ate and drank, watching the surprisingly competitive cheese tossing, they closed the keep. Button was undaunted, however, and amiable to our second choice for exercise: walking to Cardiff Bay; something Tea and I had talked about for as long as we'd been visiting Cardiff, but never done.

The Roald Dahl Plass (or plaza) was really something to see, but it was the smell of the sea -- and the freshwater lake before it, created by the barrage -- that hit us first. The Wales Millennium Centre, the Water Tower, and the Senedd -- home of the Welsh Government -- were all a feast for the eyes, particularly in the light of the setting sun. While we didn't make it all the way to the barrage, we made a good effort, treating ourselves to a taxi back to the castle afterwards. From there, we had time for a quick stop at Zero Degrees to buy a mini cask of the Oktoberfestbier I missed last weekend before catching the train home.

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cardiff: day out

It's been another great weekend so far. Mom's last one of this trip. We took Friday off, and with poor weather predicted for the weekend, decided to make the most of the sun with a day out in Cardiff. It's become a ritual to stop at Coffee #1 near the train station: they're really friendly, and always have a tempting selection of treats on display. After I'd ordered Triple Belgian Chocolate Brownies and tea for my ladies, the woman behind the counter said, "I have to ask. Where are you from?" My response brought gushes, not only from her, but also from the woman behind Mom in the queue: family, friends who'd been, loved it, wanted to go back, saving to go. The consistent enthusiasm for Canada that I've encountered in the UK and abroad over these past two years fills me with such pride. I really do count myself lucky -- the accident of my birth, as they say -- more fundamentally than I did back home, even as a proud Canadian and a proud Newfoundlander.

The Cardiff Market was our next stop: for welsh cakes and a browse of secondhand books; another ritual. Tea had a bit of shopping to do as well, so we agreed to meet at the castle later on. A new favourite of mine is the microbrewery Zero Degrees, and while I was a day too early for their Oktoberfestbier, I enjoyed a pint of their seasonal amber ale before meeting Tea and Mom at the gates of Cardiff Castle.

They'd added a new World War II shelter exhibit since our last visit. The kitchen display caught Mom's eye: she pointed out the old oil heater, imposing at three feet or so, and cast-iron with a large handle: they had one when she was growing up, to heat the front room or parlour when guests were over; the only source of heat outside the kitchen stove.

Mom w. Brains Dark at the Goat Major
We toured the walls, grounds and keep 'til closing, and then popped across the street for a pint at the Goat Major. A Brains pub with an impressive history of guest ales (if the pump clips behind the bar are any indication), we enjoyed pints of Brains' Legends, Dark and gravity-dispensed SA in its warm atmosphere. It was only as we made our way to Zero Degrees for supper that we realized we'd missed a heavy rain shower.

Once there, we had a great meal on an interior balcony that overlooked the kitchen. Tea and Mom were mesmerized by the delicate dance around the wood oven -- their menu focusses on pizza, which Tea again raved about. Plus, Mom really enjoyed their Mango Ale. I can't say enough about their Pale Ale -- a really nice hoppy character I keep going to back to -- and I finished with a half pint of their Black Lager: nice body with heavy coffee notes.

Supper at Zero Degrees

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

* * *

Yesterday, we were invited to a big barbecue the Americans had organized at Witcombe Cricket Club. We even got to be guest judges at their chili competition, a highly-anticipated annual event. (I had a tough time, going back for seconds to break ties, but persevered -- yes, the consummate professional, folks.) It was a fantastic atmosphere: great spread, games for the kids, and nice location and weather (early on, anyway) -- they even had an ice cream truck show up!

Later, we took Mom to see Jane Eyre, which we all really enjoyed; particularly the setting. And speaking of film, I should sign off and grab a shower; the main event (from my Mom's point of view) is on deck as a matinee: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. She's over the moon that it opened here ahead of the North American release.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Third Annual Cheltenham Cricket Club Beer Festival

Tea and I have made an appearance at the Cheltenham Cricket Club Beer and Wine Festival each of the three years it's been running. It's improving every year, and always seems to be well attended. We normally go on the Sunday, but yesterday was a nice change: the evening band in particular really dialled things up from the typically relaxed atmosphere, getting folks on their feet.

They planned for all weather as well; handy, given how the sky simply opened late in the afternoon; just bucketed for a good half hour, with uncommon thunder and lightning. The marquee held up well, though, and soon the festivities were spread out over the cricket grounds again.

The beers were excellent as well. My favourite had to be the Lakeland Lager, by Hawkshead Brewery, up in the Lake District. An odd choice, you might think, but, as they (and many others) say on their site, it's an excellent style that's got a bad name in the last few decades. I simply couldn't pass up the chance to try a cask-conditioned lager, and I'm so glad I did: what the tasting notes refer to as a dry character almost approached a sourness, for me, and put me in mind of some of the lambics I've enjoyed; really exciting and refreshing. And now, reading Hawkshead's own notes, it's mostly brewed for the bottle, not the cask, so I count myself doubly fortunate.

Mom, at last year's festival

Other favourites included:

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Magical Forest (of Dean)

We decided to make the most of a day off, and headed for Puzzlewood before noon. The rain held off, and there was barely another soul in the wood, making for a magical afternoon. It's easy to see how Tolkien was inspired; the range of vegetation and colour is truly surreal.

Having worked up an appetite, it was time for the second half of our plan: high tea at Aunt Martha's Victorian Tea Rooms in Drybrook. Tea had it on good authority that they offered an authentic Victorian experience -- and were a hoot to boot. Well, they're that and more. Nadine and "Old Ned" were so hospitable and entertaining: four hours simply flew by; we didn't even realise (and they certainly never hinted at) how long passed closing we'd kept them, chatting and touring their gardens.

But, for me, it was the sentiments echoed by a previous celiac customer -- relayed by Nadine, as we sampled tasty scones and "just tea" -- that stick with me now: I felt normal, eating there. Nadine herself has suffered from gluten and lactose intolerance in the past, and decided early on that she wanted to be able to enjoy all the treats on offer in her tea room. Both Mom and Tea raved about these savoury and sweet treats, and eventually I shed my trepidation, then diving in with gusto. It was a bit like a dream, to be honest, such was this sense of coming home, eating food I hadn't had much of, or enjoyed with such carefree abandon, since childhood.

We got chatting to some caravanners there who recommended Symonds Yat Rock and its impressive vistas, and so decided to push our luck with the grey clouds and waning daylight. That view of the River Wye really is amazing, and we spent a good hour gazing about, hoping to catch a glimpse of the peregrines that nest nearby. We did hear a number of birds of prey, and saw what I believe was a buzzard fly very close by; pretty good, considering the peregrine hunting season is finished now.

As the wind picked up, we decided a pub was in order. Tea's CAMRA Good Beer Guide application had a number of suggestions off the drive home. At random, we picked the Red Hart Inn in Blaisdon, and, oh my goodness, what a find! They do have a nice selection on the handpumps, but it's the atmosphere and the food that really set this place apart: the staff are uncommonly friendly, from the owner right down to the folks bussing the tables. Mom has to stick to a fairly strict diet, which they accommodated with ease. Tea and I had the pork belly, which had been slow roasting all afternoon; simply amazing. And they served it with blood pudding -- the first time I'd had it outside breakfast -- which was some of the best I've had, truth be told.

If you're getting the impression that it was a stellar day, my job is done. It really did exceed all expectations, and now sets the bar very high for days out in Gloucestershire.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mom in London

[Kept a few notes from our weekend in London with Mom.]

September 3, 2011

On the train to Paddington this morning for a weekend in London with Mom. Got the tube to Victoria Station and checked in at Topham's. After lunch at the Victoria, it was off to the London Eye, tops on Mom's To Do list. (Passed Buckingham Palace on the way, moseyed through St. James's Park.) The line for the Eye was out of sight, so we opted for Fast Track tickets. They let us use them straight away, despite their being for a few hours' time, meaning that the wait to get on wasn't much longer than the ten minutes it took to get tickets. Win!

After a stop for refreshments at St. Stephen's Tavern, we picked up our tickets for Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre and went back to the hotel to get ready. The Palace Theatre was so ornate, with lush reds and velvets anywhere it wasn't. Before the curtain rose, the production manager was on stage telling us that tonight was a special night: it was Scott McKenzie's hundredth, and last, performance as Billy. He'd been away from his folks -- who just happened to be sat right behind us, we soon found out -- for 22 months, and performing the role for the last year.

What a send off they gave him!

I found the material was supercharged that evening: what I imagine as Scott's own experiences mirrored in this slice of Billy's life. Any scene about Billy's leaving home gave rise to fresh sniffles and clearing of throats behind us, and ended with thunderous roars and applause. (The Scots and Geordies -- for there were lots of the latter in attendance, let me tell you -- really know how to show their appreciation!)

The show ends with Billy leaving up the centre aisle, only to run back for the curtain call. They'd moved Scott's mom up to the front during the intermission, and he stopped mid run to give her a big kiss and hug -- Pretty sure the whole theatre melted.

We all really enjoyed the show. It was almost like, for those few hours, we all had a small hand in raising this talented young boy, bearing witness to this momentous time in his life... Or maybe I just got caught up in great theatre.

I think Mom was the most surprised, though: she'd hoped to see Les Misérables (which is booked up well out), and, I suspect, thought little else would measure up. Tea's (rightfully) lookin' pretty good about now: daughter in law extraordinaire!

* * *

Late last night, Tea booked us the 1230 slot to visit Buckingham Palace -- the only one still available; after a hearty hotel breakfast, we made our way to the National Gallery for the hours leading up to it. Favourites of this (short) visit were:

The Palace had changed since our last tour, flush with all things Kate: the dress, the cake, and the pictures. They'd also replaced the exhibit of the Queen's dresses with Royal Fabergé, much to Tea's disappointment.

From there, we dodged raindrops to Cask, West London's CAMRA Pub of the Year 2011. I cannot say enough about this spot; loved it to bits. They have a jaw-dropping selection of beers, good food, and genuinely friendly staff. (My only complaint is that they don't serve hot drinks; how am I supposed to sample all your wonderful delights if I can't keep Tea in the tea?)

It was an adventure of firsts for me; I was new to all these breweries, sampling:
  1. Rooster's Hot Shot
  2. Dark Star's Hophead: nice 'n' hoppy; not much to choose between these first two excellent beers
  3. Mikkeller's Beer Geek Breakfast: lovely full body, coffee roast throughout
  4. Magic Rock Brewing's Double IPA, Human Cannonball: dangerously drinkable, with a pine nose very reminiscent of the legendary Black Ops

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