Travel: Vienna

Nine years ago, I spent a month in Vienna and completely fell in love with the city. I had a fantastic time, eating lots of food, meeting lots of people and speaking lots of German. A few weeks ago, I returned for a holiday. Here are a few highlights:

Schreiners

This hotel is a little refuge in the centre of the city. It has a handful of rooms arranged around a central courtyard, but we were lucky enough to stay in the garden room. This was a separate building to the rest of the hotel and came complete with garden terrace, log burner and a good selection of teas. The breakfasts here were excellent, with the traditional Brötchen and other breads, cold meats and cheese, fruits and yoghurt. It sounds simple, but the extremely high quality of the ingredients as well as the care taken in their presentation made it really special.

Kaiserschmarrn

Possibly my favourite thing about Vienna is the coffee houses. I love the culture surrounding them, the fact that your hot drinks come with a little glass of water, the waiters in suits, the newspapers on little wooden frames, the pianos and the fabulous cakes. Café Diglas, near Stephansdom (the cathedral) is a great example of a typical Viennese Kaffeehaus. There, I ate my favourite Austrian dish, Kaiserschmarrn. This is basically pieces of thick, fluffy, shredded pancake covered in icing sugar and served with a plum compote. It was delicous.

Schönbrunn

This is the imperial summer palace and is an excellent place to spend a day in Vienna. The tour of the house is informative, detailing much of the history of the most well-known members of the imperial family and the grounds are a great place to have a wander. They include a maze, an orangery and the Gloriette, which has stunning views across the city. There is also a little café which makes excellent apple strudel. We returned in the evening for a concert held in the gallery, which was a really evocative location. The first half of the concert focused on Mozart and the second focused on Strauss, featuring well-known pieces by these composers. The second half featured a lot of audience participation and was great fun, making it very accessible for those of us who know little about the music of the period.

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A little luxury

When I was in London this summer, I visited the V&A museum and had a wander around their exhibition on luxury. It got me thinking about the meaning of luxury, both how it’s culturally and socially defined, and how I define it for myself. Generally, it’s thought of as being something expensive, but the exhibition made me realise that luxury is often related to scarcity and, therefore, things that require unusual skill, opportunity or effort could all be seen as luxurious.

I cooked a luxurious meal the other night. Why was it luxurious?

  1. I made pudding just because I felt like it
  2. There was a bottle of wine
  3. I cooked a more time consuming and complex main course than I would usually attempt

Julia Child is one of the most well-known food writers of the last century, and I’m lucky enough to own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book provides a thorough introduction to French cooking techniques, all of which are clearly explained. The recipe I chose to make (Fricassée de Poulet à l’indienne) combined two key skills of French cuisine, neither of which I’d attempted before, which were making a fricassée and enriching a sauce with egg yolk and cream.

You start, as is standard for a stew, by softening onion, carrot and celery in a pan, then browning chicken pieces. Where this differs from a stew is that you then allow the chicken to cook without any liquid for about ten minutes, after which you add white wine and stock. You then allow it to braise in the liquid until the chicken is fully cooked. The difficult bit comes with the enrichment at the end – removing the chicken from the pan, straining the sauce and then using it to temper a mixture of egg yolks and cream, hoping all the time that the egg won’t scramble.

I modified the recipe substantially, adding curry powder (a variation suggested in the book) and serving it with spinach, rather than onions and mushrooms. I also used dried herbs rather than a herb bouquet, because they were what I had on hand. I strained the sauce earlier than the recipe stipulates, in the vain hope of reducing the mess, and omitted a final butter enrichment to the sauce, which I didn’t feel was necessary.

I’m really pleased I tried this recipe – the result was a triumph. It tasted rich and decadent and would be great for a special occasion. It wasn’t an expensive meal to make, rather the luxury of it was about having the time to create something fabulous (I was in the kitchen for a while), tending to it, trying something new and scary, and presenting it proudly at the end of the process.

P.S. The pudding I made was this chocolate pudding pie from Smitten Kitchen. Far less grown-up than the main course, but yummy.

P.P.S. For another good use of curry powder, I would recommend these curried potatoes from Budget Bytes. This recipe is a great blueprint – I threw in some spinach last time – and makes a filling meal with some naan bread on the side.

Travel: Yorkshire

Just a few highlights from a recent trip to visit family:

Saltaire

I never really know whether people outside Yorkshire will have heard of Saltaire or not. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt to provide decent housing and other facilities (a church, a park, a school) to the workers in his mill – revolutionary at the time, given the conditions suffered by most people working in Bradford’s mills. Bradford was built on the wool trade and therefore Saltaire is a crucial part of the area’s history. Salt’s Mill is no longer a working mill, instead housing a variety of businesses, some of which are aimed at tourists. The David Hockney gallery, for example, is on one floor of the mill. The best bit for me, though, is the bookshop. It’s one of the best bookshops I know, always stocking an eclectic and inspiring range of books. The cookbook selection is excellent, as are the children’s books, general fiction and poetry. I always find exciting books there that I’ve never heard of. Right next to the bookshop is an excellent café that sells perfect chocolate milkshakes.

Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire

This is a National Trust property that, strictly speaking, is nowhere near Bradford, but is about 2 hours away by car. It’s worth it though. It’s a really interesting manor house, but for me, a trip to Nunnington Hall is a treat for three reasons 1) the Carlisle Collection – an exhibition of antique miniature rooms, like beautiful dolls’ houses for grown ups 2) the walled gardens, complete with an ideal bridge for Pooh sticks and a couple of resident peacocks 3) the tearoom, which makes fantastic scones.

Harlow Carr, Harrogate

These gardens are owned by the Royal Horitcultural Society and remind me of a smaller version of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. A good spot for a wander, we particularly liked the fairy circle, no doubt intended for small children. There’s a Betty’s kiosk in the middle of the gardens, which supplied us with tea in paper cups and a few Fat Rascals.

Malham Cove

This is one of the most spectacular sites of the Yorkshire Dales. Malham Cove is a limestone cliff with a naturally formed pavement at the top and it makes for a really lovely walk. Despite the fact that on this trip I trod in a cowpat, was stung by a nettle and scraped my knee, it was a really good day out. The walk from Malham itself to Malham Cove is fairly gentle and well-paved, but becomes more strenuous when you walk up to the top of the cliff. From there, we joined the Pennine Way and walked to Malham Tarn, which involved enjoyable scrambling over some rocks. We then made our way back to Malham Cove and returned to Malham via Janet’s Foss. I love Janet’s Foss – it’s a short woodland walk with an impressive waterfall and along the path you’re surrounded by the scent of wild garlic.

Skipton Castle

I’ve been to Skipton Castle several times, but none since I was a child. I’ve visited many castles since then and I think it’s only on returning to Skipton that I realised how impressive it is and how well kept. As a child, I remember being scared by the dungeon, fascinated by the ‘toilet’ (hole in the wall with a steep drop into the stream running below) and overawed by the age of the yew tree in the courtyard (planted in 1659).

Travel: London

I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in London this summer, and thought I would give a quick overview of the things I did while I was there. A few highlights:

Wallace Collection

This is a stately home near Baker Street that has been turned into a museum to showcase an extensive and impressive art collection. I know very little about art, but I enjoyed seeing the Laughing Cavalier, as well as the rest of the collection of Dutch art (I like Rembrandt). There was also an impressive collection of armour, which was strikingly presented.

V&A

I love the V&A. I’ve been once before, gravitating to the medieval collections and not seeing much else. This time, in order to broaden my perspective, I restricted myself to their permanent gallery on Theatre & Performance, and also had a look at their temporary exhibition on Luxury. The Luxury exhibition was one of my favourite things about London this summer. It’s fairly small, so easy enough to take everything in, and says some really interesting things about how luxury has been constructed in the past and how we may relate to it in the future. I’m really excited now about the V&A opening in Dundee.

Rabot 1745

This was absolutely my highlight of the trip. It’s the Hotel Chocolat restaurant, where cacao is part of every dish. The food was incredible. As I was uncertain what cacao would taste like in a savoury dish, I ordered a simple starter of sourdough bread with three dips – The dips were cacao butter (good, but my least favourite), pesto (slightly chunky and absolutely delicious, with chunks of pine nuts and cacao), and chocolate balsamic (also delicious, I desperately want to try it with strawberries). I had braised lamb for the main with some kind of cacao glaze, plus a cacao/roasted garlic mash, which was fantastic. I think my favourite was the pudding – chocolate lava cake. I finished up with a cacao infusion. I thought this would taste something like the chocolate tea you get in Anteaques in Edinburgh, which is black tea including chocolate, but this was an infusion of the cacao pods themselves and therefore didn’t taste particularly chocolatey. It was a really good after-dinner drink, like a tisane. I would definitely recommend this restaurant – a wonderful treat.

Travel: Islay

I don’t generally think of myself as being a beach person. This is largely due to common perceptions about what beach holidays include – sunbathing, extremely hot weather, the probability of sunburn. However, there are other ways of enjoying beaches and, for me, Hebridean beaches cannot be beaten. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time on Hebridean beaches, most memorably on Iona when I worked there about seven years ago, and on both Iona and Eriskay when travelling through the islands with friends four years ago. These beaches were beautiful, calm and peaceful. The sound of the waves lapping against the shore, among all the little coves and rock pools, is incredibly soothing. It’s the closest I get to a happy place. These beaches were a good spot in which to unwind, pray, clamber and explore, and a complete contrast to my current city life.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on holiday on Islay with family. Islay is best known for its distilleries, having eight of them on a relatively small island (Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Caol Ila). I’m not a whisky drinker, but am married to one, so some time was spent dropping off and picking others up from distilleries. Bunnahabhain distillery is a bit off the beaten track; it’s quite close to Port Askaig, which is one the ferry ports on Islay, but is a four mile drive down a small, winding road, so after dropping off some of our party we needed to kill some time during their distillery tour. We ended up on a mini adventure, discovering a beautiful, secluded beach near the Bunnahabhain distillery. It was practically perfect, including the following joys:

  • It was hidden away and involved a scramble to reach it, just like a Famous Five-style adventure
  • There was a stream flowing into the sea, which we had to cross over a little bridge, resulting in the slowest, most gentle game of Pooh sticks I have ever played
  • There was grass right up to the beach
  • The beach was covered with pebbles, rocks and shells, including pastel-coloured snail shells and shards of crab shells, presumably after the crabs had been eaten by birds
  • There were a handful of Oyster catchers sharing the beach with us and a bird of prey in the distance
  • There were spectacular views across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura

That’s the kind of beach trip I enjoy!

Other highlights of Islay included:

  • Meal at Yan’s Kitchen in Port Charlotte. I had goat’s cheese with black pudding for a starter, which was a spectacular combination
  • The RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart – there are two walks at it, a woodland walk – which was beautiful, like wandering through a fairy glade, lots of wild flowers, twisted trees and butterflies, and a moorland walk – where we came practically face to face with a deer.
  • View from our holiday cottage of the lighthouse and Loch Indaal. As ever in this part of the world, the view changes all the time – we watched the sea in good weather and bad, secure in the cottage.