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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Aberdour Castle






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Aberdour Castle is a striking, partially ruined manor house just off the coastal road which runs along the Firth of Forth, and lays (disputed) claim to being the oldest Scottish castle still standing. We'd just driven across the Forth Road Bridge through thick fog, and might not have stopped if the visibility hadn't improved, but we arrived at Aberdour in beautiful sunshine which was perfect for wandering the gardens.


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One of the most distinctive features is this beautiful painted ceiling, in one of the remaining original rooms. The colours are faded, but the patterns are still quite clear.



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We also walked across to the huge dove cote, a stone beehive-shaped building which would once have provided a decent supply of meat for the castle's residents. On the terrace below, the curators have re-planted the old orchard, so in a few years time it will be even more impressive.



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Just around the corner, the small Norman church is also worth a visit. Previously fallen into ruin, St Fillan's was restored in 1925-6, and now has regular Sunday services again.



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Monday, 28 May 2012

Warkworth Castle




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Warkworth Castle (in Northumberland) has a beautiful and well-preserved keep, full of narrow staircases and secret passages. Not that these were ever used for the nefarious purposes of which I think when I daydream of castles with secret passages, mind you - they seem to have been built primarily for allowing servants to serve food and drink without wandering through the main rooms. One clear example of this being the stairs from the wine cellar directly up into the great hall - very practical!

We arrived just after a coach-load of small children, which for a moment looked like it could have been very bad timing. Fortunately the kids were being carefully herded around by teachers and parents in quite big groups, so we didn't find ourselves tripping over them all the time. And on the plus side, there were several costumed volunteers on hand to work with the school group, which added to the atmosphere more generally.

There's also a hermitage, accessible only by boat - the boats only run on certain days, and we unfortunately missed it, so it's worth checking to see if you can time your visit to coincide with the boats.


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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Fusion Room, Preston



Preston is famous for having the biggest bus station in Europe, and is the town where I did my A levels... but it's not exactly known for fine dining. So when my mum told me that she'd been to a new, top-class restaurant which was also happy to cater for her vegan, wheat-free diet, I was excited to have chance to try Fusion Room for myself.

UPDATE 2013: I'm disappointed to say that my mum has found Fusion Room is no longer delighted to cater for her group of vegan friends, which is a very disappointing turn of events! However I'm leaving this review in place as it accurately reflects my experiences when we visited.

We phoned in advance, and they prepared a special menu for us, so that we actually had three starters and three main courses to choose from (the regular menu has one veggie option). There was a selection of tasty bread rolls to nibble while we contemplated the menu, of a variety of different styles. There's not much to say about bread, but my mum's gluten free rolls were surprisingly light, and in fact I think her seeded roll could have held its own alongside the regular bread. If you've ever tried gluten free bread, you'll know this is quite an achievement.


Bread & Oil

I had a goats cheese & asparagus slice to start, which was incredibly rich. I seldom wish for less food, but in this case I would have been quite happy with half the portion. The goats cheese was made into a thick and creamy terrine, and the taste was quite mellow, although it still overpowered the asparagus a little.


Goats Cheese & Asparagus Slice


Andrew and my mum both ordered tomato soup, which came topped with a thick layer of basil foam. I've been reading a lot about food science lately, including foam and other textural experiments, so this was fun to see, and the foam was actually warm which came as a surprise to me. I had a taste, and it was definitely something I'd consider if it's on the menu when we go back.


Tomato Soup with Basil Foam


For my main course I selected a dish called "Shallot Textures" which consisted of shallot risotto and a shallot tarte tatin, topped with a roasted fig. I wasn't sure how well the fig would work with the other parts of the meal, but it actually complemented the shallots perfectly. The caramelized tarte was quite sweet, but the risotto was savoury with a slightly bitter edge which balanced it out. I'd certainly eat this again.

The main courses were served with more vegetables than we could eat (broccoli, carrots, and roast potatoes) - a pleasant change from some high-end restaurants who really do seem to believe that less is more.


Shallot textures


Andrew ordered trout (which has no place on a vegetarian blog!) and my mum had a mixed vegetable stir fry, served with rice and a spring roll, which she enjoyed.


Vegetable Stir Fry


For dessert, I had the chocolate & amaretto sponge with orange sorbet. The moment I saw amaretto on the menu, I knew what I'd be ordering. Unfortunately, the orange sorbet was so sharp and strongly flavoured that I couldn't actually eat it with the chocolate cake - at least, not if I wanted to be able to taste the chocolate and amaretto (which I did!). So I ended up effectively eating two separate desserts: a sherbet-orange sorbet, and a chocolate amaretto cake. Both of which were delicious, but it was a shame they didn't quite work together.


Chocolate & Amaretto Sponge


My mum had told us all about a sophisticated rhubarb dessert which she'd loved on her previous visit, so she was a little disappointed to find that when we went, the only suitable option was a selection of sorbets. However, they made it look incredibly pretty, and the flavours were as bold and bright as the colours.


Sorbet selection


Andrew had a lemon tart, which was a sort of deconstructed lemon meringue pie (the meringue having been cooked with a blow-torch, straight onto the slate). This was served with raspberry sorbet, but in contrast to my dessert, in this case the lemon and raspberry were both vibrant flavours which could stand together without either overpowering the other.


Lemon Tart


Overall, we had a fantastic meal and it's always great to see a restaurant go to so much trouble to make vegetarian and vegan guests feel just as welcome as everyone else. While there were some elements that seemed slightly unbalanced, this didn't stop me enjoying my meal - and I'm sure it will only improve as the chef gathers more experience. I'll definitely be going back next time I'm in the area.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Coal Sands





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We hadn't really noticed the huge number of tiny black stones along the tide-line of the beach. Or rather, we've seen enough black sand beaches that we crunched through it without thinking any more about it. It was only when our friends pointed out that it was coal, that we realised we were seeing something quite unusual. Apparently they used to dump coal dust from the mines out into the sea, off the coast of Northumberland, and now it comes back ashore with the tides. It was quite an impressive sight, and formed some beautiful patterns of sand and shiny coal.


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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Slow Cooker Recipes



I was browsing recipes when I stumbled across a post about baked macaroni cheese over at Cheap is the New Classy - in which Dawn teasingly refers to her "tried and true" recipe for macaroni cheese made in a slow cooker. Now, I grew up making macaroni cheese in the oven, so the idea of a slow cooker recipe really intrigued me. I didn't even know you could cook pasta in the slow cooker. And how do you get the crispy cheese crust on top?

Unfortunately she doesn't seem to have posted it! So in part, this is an appeal for Dawn to please (pretty please) blog the slow cooker recipe as well.

But in fact, I'm only just getting the hang of my slow cooker in general, so I thought my readers might be able to help me out with some recipes.

Although we were given the cooker as a wedding present, I haven't had as much time as I might like to try new things: experimenting with day-long recipes requires a bit more commitment than my usual dabblings. So far I've pretty much only made soups and stews that I'd normally cook slowly on the hob. I remember my mum putting rice pudding on overnight, for a warming winter breakfast, so I'm planning to try that too.

Meanwhile, I'd love it if you'd share your favourite vegetarian or vegan recipe for the slow cooker. Any ideas appreciated, particularly for main dishes that I could set up in the morning ready for dinner. Thanks in advance!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Belsay Hall, Castle, and Gardens




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Belsay Hall was built between 1810 and 1870, set amidst gently rolling hills in Northumberland, the northernmost county of England. The castle (above), a short walk away through the grounds, predates the Hall but became a fashionable folly once the Hall was in use.

When we visited, it was gorgeous weather for wandering through the gardens - a substantial portion of which consists of passage-ways cut into the hillside. The looming cliff faces and lush vegetation gave the whole place a somewhat fantastical feel, which I much preferred to the somewhat sparse formal gardens nearer to the house.

You can climb the castle for beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, and we enjoyed watching house martins swooping in and out of the towers, clearly enjoying the sunshine as much as we were.


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Sunday, 20 May 2012

An Automated Massage



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When my mum told me that she was going to take me to try out a bed when I next visited her, I have to admit I was more than a little surprised. She did explain that it was a massage bed, but even so, I didn't really know what to expect.

At the Ceragem centre in Preston, you can turn up once a day to get a free massage using these special massage beds; there are fourteen sessions per day so they can fit a lot of people in! Of course, what they really want is to sell the £2000+ beds, but I think it's nice that they're happy to let people attend regularly for free. We went along for the first morning slot on Saturday, which is at 8.30am.

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Although the centre is large, the beds are packed in quite tightly, and it feels strange to be stripping off your coat and shoes and "getting into bed" just a few inches from the next person over. You arrange your sheets and yourself on the bed, make sure your spine is centred, and wait for one of the staff to come and start your machine.

There are jade rollers which move up and down to massage your back, shoulders and neck. It's also heated to 55°C (131°F), which feels surprisingly hot through only a t-shirt and thin sheet. I wouldn't call it a relaxing experience, as the rollers really pummel your muscles, which was sometimes painful. But that's also true of regular massage.

I don't yet know whether it's been good for my back pain, but I was aching all day Saturday, so it must have done something. I was also really hungry and thirsty afterwards, which is typical for me following a deep massage. If I lived close enough to try going daily, I might well see what it was like to do it regularly - my mum and her partner certainly find it beneficial.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Kadriorg Palace, Tallinn



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On the outskirts of Tallinn, the park at Kadriorg Palace is a beautiful and peaceful spot. It was a glorious day when we visited, in the middle of summer, and yet we saw only a very small number of visitors wandering through the grounds. I loved all the colourful flowers, and it was a wonderful place for a gentle walk. I was surprised that it seems to be so overlooked.

There's also a museum in one of the palace buildings, but it was closed when we visited.


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Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Clandestine Cake Club (Gloucester)



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I first heard about Clandestine Cake Club from Jacqueline of Tinned Tomatoes, who founded a cake club in Dundee. It sounded all kinds of wonderful, and of course I headed straight over to the site to see if there was a group a little closer to me.

So, on Saturday, I went to what was only the second meeting of the Gloucester chapter of CCC.

It was a lovely afternoon, where we got to meet some likeminded (cake-minded) people, and indulge in far too much sugar. I took along a ginger loaf cake - it was one of the simplest offerings, but no less tasty for that! (Personally, I prefer cakes with less icing as I don't have the sweetest tooth.) But I was certainly inspired by the other contributions, particularly Lara's stack of hazel meringues, which I might have to try for myself.

After almost two hours of chatting and munching (with tea and coffee to wash down all the cake), we even got to take home the leftovers. Although I think the Gloucester group acquitted ourselves admirably: there wasn't that much left!

If you're interested in finding - or founding - a group near you, check out the Clandestine Cake Club site.



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So many beautiful cakes!

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Our hostess Fran invited us to tuck in...

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...and we happily obliged.

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After an hour, we'd made quite a dint in the spread.


Monday, 14 May 2012

Ginger Cake Recipe




I love ginger cake. I made this one by starting from a very basic cake recipe, adding lots of ginger (both liquid extract and crystallized pieces), and using half muscavado sugar. It's quick to mix up, although you do need to allow about an hour for baking and cooling before it's ready to eat.

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Ginger Loaf Cake
8-10 slices

3oz muscavado sugar
3oz soft brown sugar
4oz butter
2 eggs
1tsp ginger essence
6oz self-raising flour
3oz crystallized ginger
  1. Preheat the oven to 165°C (or a little higher if you don't have a fan oven) and grease a medium-sized loaf tin.
  2. Finely chop most of the candied ginger to make 2-3mm cubes, but reserve about a quarter for decoration (I chopped these into about 1cm pieces).
  3. Cream the butter and sugars together with a spoon. Break two eggs into the bowl, add the ginger essence, and stir until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Fold in the flour and fine-chopped ginger.
  5. Spoon the cake mixture into the tin, smooth the surface with a spatula. Arrange the remaining (larger)  ginger pieces on the top, pressing lightly into the mixture.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes until the crust is golden-brown, and a skewer comes out clean.
  7. Remove from the tin onto a cooling tray, and allow to cool before eating.

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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Regency Dress #3 - Cutting, Stitching, Wearing



I knew this was an (over?) ambitious project when I started it, given my minimal dressmaking experience prior to this. But how hard can it be to make a dress? You have a pattern, you cut out some pieces, and then you put it together - like a jigsaw with sewing.

Only... turns out it's more like a three-dimensional jigsaw, with pieces that only approximately fit together, and seam allowances and slippery fabrics and only the vaguest idea of how it's meant to look. And it needs to fit.

Combined with the minor fabric emergency (which set me back by at least 24 hours), giving myself less than a week to finish this project may have been crazy. However, with the help of several late nights, stabbed fingers, and a very understanding husband, I managed to finish on Thursday night - just in time for the ball on Friday.

You might be interested to see the "matching" dress which my friend Emma made. We both used the same pattern, but the results are quite dramatically different!

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Stop! This Museum Is Not Ready Yet...



Following the instructions in the Tallinn Card brochure, we took the bus to the suggested stop for the Seaplane Harbour ship museum. It was the stop at the end of the line, and we were expecting signs to point us in the direction of the museum. We found ourselves in a peaceful, leafy, and almost deserted suburb, with beautiful wooden houses, but no signs. To find our way to the museum, we used a compass, general knowledge of "the sea is that way," and an assumption that we'd find the ships on the coast.

So it was that we arrived at this building-site-come-museum. We walked to the ticket office through clouds of thick construction dust, and had to dodge out of the path of an oncoming digger.


Tallinn Ship Museum

Tallinn Ship Museum


The leaflet we'd followed to get there told us of the beautiful new exhibition hall which had "opened in May 2011". I can only guess that they must have gone to press before then, and included an optimistic estimate of their opening date; when we visited in July, it was far from finished. We could, however, enjoy an artist's impression of what was underway. And, of course, an inside view of the construction process.



Tallinn Ship Museum


The Soviet steamer-icebreaker Suur T├Áll was fully open for business (and was a genuine highlight of the entire trip) but to get to it, we had to clamber over rubble and unlaid cobblestones.



Tallinn Ship Museum


The submarine Lembit, launched in 1936, was also highlighted in the brochure. We arrived to see it being unpacked, after it had just arrived on site. Unfortunately we weren't able to get inside, although walking around underneath it gave a very good sense of scale.



Tallinn Ship Museum

Tallinn Ship Museum

Tallinn Ship Museum


A new, themed playground by the in-progress museum hall was a good indication of what this will all be like once it's finished. I think it's going to be a fantastic attraction - we just visited a little too soon.



Playground at the Tallinn Ship Museum


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