30 November 2012

Where We Could Pull Over

We'd finally found a pull off spot after an hour's drive through the Scottish highlands.  The last of the day's light was about to disappear behind the stream-veined peaks and thick swaths of grey cloud.  Merlin scurried up a hill with his camera, I stayed below and mostly took pictures of his silhouette.  Nikon appendage against an IMAX movie backdrop.  There'd been a castle at the water's edge just a few minutes earlier, there was an island with a single tree standing up from it like a flag just a little further along.  But this is where we could stop.  And we were more than willing to drink as much of it in as possible.
This is a wide shoulder on British country roads, a foot or so between the pavement and the stone walls.  This is in the Yorkshire Dales, England.  Our car was left a few hundred meters back, in the parking lot of the White Scar Cave.  Our jeans were still wet from the rushing water underground and, at only 3:45 PM, that beautiful twilight was already setting in.  So, we walked along the shoulder.  A tight squeeze even on foot.  Most of the time, there's no space at all, hardly enough room for two cars to pass each other.  Our GPS did an admirable job at keeping us on the scenic route, on leading us from one place to another over narrow stone bridges, off pavement onto dirt, through the villages within National Parks and always, always steering clear of private roads that lead off into the woods to a secluded estate.
Pheasants make their way across the road at their own speed, pulling that long, pretty tail behind them like an airplane over the Jersey shore, going extra slow so you can read the promotion banner it drags behind it.  Land Rovers filled with dapperly outfiitted hunters take a sharp turn onto one of those private roads.  And all you want to do is pull over to take a picture.  But there's just no darn place to do it.  So, you snap a photo from the window of your car.  You're in the Lake District now, the English countryside at its most storybook.  It's the land of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, where dogs sit at their owners wellies in all the pubs.   Rolling green with grids of stone walls, cottages with curly cues of smoke rising from their chimneys, farmsteads with gorgeous old barns.  Sheep in their winter coats.

Back in Scotland, up on Cow Hill, there were Highland cattle, squat, long-haired animals that are more Mr. Snuffleupagus than Bessie the Cow.  Sturdy animals for this difficult landscape - one filled with powerful winds and heavy rains.  Other then them, we were alone on our Highland hike, in the shadow of Ben Nevis with views down over Glen Nevis and the Loche Linnhe.  Our car was down at Braveheart Car Park, built for the crew of that great Mel Gibson epic.  Somehow to keep the trailers and equipment trucks while they filmed here on Cow Hill.  I almost began to hear the Braveheart soundtrack in my head, the bagpipes and strings, but my brain kept getting stuck on Titanic.  All James Horner sounds the same.
There's a rugged beauty to the Highland landscape, one that just feels like wild red head and rough wool.  The thistles and gorse that cover the landscape with purple and yellow when flowered, make for a blanket of thick thorn and spikes at the dawn of winter.  Driving along Loch Lomond in Trossachs National Park was spectacular.  "National Park" doesn't mean the same thing in Britain as it does in America.  Here, the area is not so much "parkland" or nature reserves cared for by rangers. They are whole areas deemed too special to develop.  They are unspoiled and pristine, and also the home to thousands of people in villages throughout.  Just off to the right of this photo,  a white house sat in the blip of flat space between two sweeping hills.  It was like an ant between a camel's humps.  The narrow dirt path of pull-off room we'd found was probably the very start of their driveway. 
There are castles and ruins, barns and walls, old towers and bridges all through the British countryside.  Old stone reflected in puddles and the waters of lakes and loches, structures half covered in bright green lichen.  They mostly blend right in with the scenery, a natural fit like a cloud in the sky.  The Ribblehead Viaduct was an exception and, in a rare stroke of luck, we were actually able to stop our car fairly close by.  Twenty-four arches stretch across the valley of the River Ribble in North Yorkshire, England.  It was a marvel of modern technology in its day, a project that resulted in the death of at least 100 labourers whose graves doubled the nearby cemetery.  An incredible structure, young for these parts at only 128 years old.
We just arrived in Wales yesterday, our final stop in the United Kingdom.  The final days of our entire trip - and the weather has begun to look up.  Clear skies make photos easier, but there's still the issue of finding a place to stop.  We drove across The Cob three times (insert corny joke here - ha!).  Back, forth, back we traversed the rock and slate causeway, a sea wall across the Glaslyn Estuary.  To our right (and then our left, and then right again) was this view of the Estuary.  We finally found a construction site a few minutes' walk away and left our car with the workers'.  Then, we strolled The Cob leisurely on its lower level, next to the cars.  Above, on the other side of the causeway more people strolled, alongside the old steam train track which still gets use most days of the week.

When we'd left Warwick, England for Wales that morning, we were warned about recent weather.  "Oh, Wales is flooded,"  a young woman said with wide eyes and a shake of the head.  While its true that parts of Wales experienced terrible flooding, we found most of it still above water.   Nothing compared to the deep water we'd driven through two days before in England.  These tractor tracks were filled with rain, but otherwise the land was dry.  This was a terrible place to pull to the side of the road, by the way.  A tight squeeze for the two-way traffic, a nerve-racking reemergence onto the road.
Just a few minutes further,  Criccieth Castle cut a beautiful silhouette into the sky.  The village  of the same name stood beside it, tucked inland.  As good a place to pull over as any.  We walked along the pier, which jutted out into Tremadog Bay and looked at Wales all around us.  I don't remember the last time I was able to see as far into the distance, the sky was so clear.  Water to sand to stone to dirt to hills with more hills behind that and more behind that.  We parked the car and ourselves for the night, checking in to The Lion Hotel which was hosting "Christmas Evening" for a busload of seniors.  Mince pies, turkey, a raffle and holiday sweaters.  Our car collected a thick coat of frost by the morning.

29 November 2012

The Most British Cheese

I think the personality of a place can always be tasted in its cheese.  The voluptuous, brash, classic  array from Italy.  The seduction and traditionalism, sensory overload and decadence of cheese from France.  Britain's big three paint a picture of their own.  Stilton blue is complex, showy and rich, like the palaces and manor houses.  Cheddar is the stone walls and old mills, the Industrial Revolution and the stuff upper lip.  And Wensleydale is the B&B owner who has set out a hospitality tray of cookies and teas.  Wensleydale is the misty cow pastures, the cream teas and the tailored tweeds.  It's the Yorkshire Dales and English hospitality.

Wensleydale cheese has a long history and has changed over time, growing milder with age.  Now a white cow's milk cheese, it began life as sheeps-milk blue made by Cistercian monks from the Roquefort region of France.   They'd resettled in the valley of Wensleydale and brought their French blue recipe along with them.  In 1540, the monastery was closed and local farmers decided to pick up where the monks left off.  This is when Wensleydale started to take on its own character, ditching its French roots and blue veins.

Generation after generation continued the craft, even through World War II, a time when most other small production creameries died out.  During the war, cows were drafted into service.  Don't worry, they weren't outfitted with grenades or anything.  Their milk was called in for the production of "Government Cheddar."  Doesn't that just sound delicious?  But somehow, the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes survived.  Today it is the last remaining dairy in Wensleydale that makes the eponymous cheese.  ("Wensleydale" doesn't have the same protection as, say, "Stilton" and can be produced places that aren't in Wensleydale.  But Wensleydale Creamery stuff's the real deal.)  Approaching the Visitor's Centre, you smell warm milk.

The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes really gave a new meaning to the term Visitor Centre.  I see those two words on a sign and assume that it means some sort of tourist set-up with cafe, shop, souvenirs, a small exhibit.  It had all  that and a museum to boot, but it also was just this big, buzzing place full of... well... visitors.  Families came in to grab lunch in the cafe and then go tap on the glass window overlooking the cheese production.  "Simon!" One shouted while waving and snapping a camera phone picture.  Simon's blush could have been the reaction of an embarrassed brother or that of a caught-off-guard crush.

People made the sample station rounds, munching on the different orange and white cubes, flecked with bits of cranberry, apricot, chili and blue mold.  Then, they grabbed the good old mild & crumbly original Wensleydale they came in to get, along with a jar of chutney, and went to the cash register to pay up.  We sat with our computers, happy to take advantage of their "Free WIFI" tabletop signs, another testament to the fact that they wanted you to linger after your "breakfast bap" (bap = wrap) or daily pud special (pud = dessert).  The cheesecake made from the ginger Wensleydale looked divine.

There's a spring in Wensleydale Creamery's step these days.  After two near-closures, the flagship cheese is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit - well, Wallace, specifically, the sweater vest wearing cheese connoisseur.  His very favorite cheese just happens to be Wensleydale.  Why? Because its delicious of course!  But also because the creator just thought that the name sounded so wonderfully British.  There is something really quintessential about it, I think.  The way it rolls of the tongue like green hills do across the landscape.  Quintessential in name and flavor, really.
It's not as loud and vivacious as Stilton, and not the dependable workhorse that Cheddar is, but Wensleydale may just be the most British of British cheeses.  It mixes amiably with pickle or chutney on a Ploughman's sandwich, rests on a cracker like an old hand on a walking stick.  Beside a slice of fruitcake, it's the loyal companion, a tad bland, but lovable.  The perfect complement, not too salty or sweet or sharp or tart.  It is a subtle flavor, but a strong one nonetheless.  One could call it brightly acidic, well-rounded, mild but strong. 
People say that the heart of the Yorkshire Dales is in the town of Hawes - and the heart of Hawes is Wensleydale Creamery.  The town's population is mostly employed at the creamery, the menus at tea houses and pubs all feature Wensleydale cheese in a proud way.  Hawes is a tight cluster of old stone buildings, the type of grey, hard-edged exteriors that you know have floral wallpaper and decorative pillows inside.  The flowery interior within the walls that were built to last.  When you put a knife to Wensleydale cheese, it feels the same way.  It crumbles and the morsels are wonderfully bright.  A cheese really does resemble the place it comes from.

The 700 Club

Today is our 700th official day of the trip and, in a bizarre coincidence, we just happened to publish our 700th post.  So, in honor of both milestones, we've decided to pick a favorite post from each block of the trip.  Looking back, we're a little embarrassed by some of our earliest writing and photography.  We didn't quite have a knack for the whole blogging thing yet.  There was also a matter of learning to balance the time spent experiencing things and the time it takes to sit in a dark hotel room and plug away at documenting it all.  We hope you enjoy reminiscing a little with us.
Centrāltirgus, Riga - Lithuania
1-100, Holland to Estonia.   The snow began to fall in Riga and we didn't see uncovered earth again until Ukraine, well into our next block.  This was the beginning of our Slavic winter and wandering into the Centrāltirgus in Riga was surreal.  We had never seen a market like it and still count it amongst the best we've ever encountered - and we got to a lot of markets.  They're perfect gateways into a new place, an accessible entry into the authentic life of a place.   Looking back, it was probably our experience at this one in Riga that really taught us that lesson.  Monumental Brest - Belarus
101 - 200, Russia to San Marino.  We began in one place and ended in quite another.  In between was a lot of snow, a crash-course in Russian language, two Pope Benedict sightings and the last remaining dictatorship in Europe.  Belarus.  Monumental Brest was an experience of true Communist grandeur, propaganda and pomp.  We are forever grateful to have made the effort, obtained the visas and crossed the border into Belarus at this point in its history.  We've no doubt it'll be very different in the not-too-distant future.
Puszta Horse Show - Hungary
201 - 300, Switzerland to Croatia.  Sometimes we resent this blog for keeping us in on a sunny afternoon, keeping a camera in hand when it only adds to our conspicuousness, taking up time we could be spending doing something wonderful and exotic... but more often, we realize that actively thinking about content has lead us to do so many things we wouldn't have otherwise.  For example, the Puszta Horse Show.  Basically a Hungarian rodeo, how could it not make a good post?  It also made for a hysterical, wonderful afternoon.
The Water Cave - Slovenia
301 - 400, Slovenia to Spain.  Like Marketplaces, Caves are a common theme for us.  We love spelunking and never would have even known it had we not gone to Slovenia a few years before this trip began.  That time, we went to the Škocjan Caves (which doesn't allow pictures).  On our return trip, we upped the ante with this once-in-a-lifetime tour of The Water Cave.  One of our very favorite days of this entire trip. 
In a Land Far, Far Away... - Azerbaijan
401 - 500, Georgia to Malta.  At the beginning of this year, we became backpackers.  Our loyal companion Nilla (our Subaru Outback) had been sent home.  We left Christmas with our families and took one, two, three planes to get to Georgia.  It was exhilarating and scary and with our comfort zone punctured, we decided to really just go all-in.  We never would have driven to Xinaliq, Azerbaijan ourselves.  And staying with a family whose house was heated with dung was a homestay to remember.
The Beautiful Lake Komani Ferry - Albania
501 - 600, Albania - Bosnia & Herzegovina.  We found ourselves missing Nilla a lot.  Wishing we could camp, have our own cooking equipment, just have the freedom to get from point A to point B on our own time.  But any time we start thinking this way, we inevitably think of all the experiences we never would have had if we'd kept the car around.  All the situations we were thrown headfirst into.  We always think of the Lake Komani ferry, a bus made to float which carried us, a man showing off his machine gun, elderly people in traditional clothes and whoever they randomly picked up at the water's edge of nowhere to northern Albania.  It was beautiful, yes, but also bizarre, adventurous and unlike anything before it or since.
Forty-Eight People - Iceland
601 - 700, Iceland - United Kingdom.  Iceland is sort of Europe and sort of nowhere.  At the edge of the Arctic and in the middle of the Atlantic, it's very much its own thing.  Huge swaths of the country can only be seen by hiking for days with everything you need on you.  In some places, we got a tiny insight into what it must feel like to be in space.  The deepest sense of isolation in an unimaginably beautiful place.  On the eastern coast of the Westfjords, only a small number of resilient people have remained.  Forty-eight to be exact.  We contemplated staying put and bringing their number up to fifty.

27 November 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Mincemeat Pie From Scratch

At the village market in Elgin, we asked a man if his mincemeat pies had meat in them.  "Yeah," he said.  "But it gets confusing this time of year.  Christmas mincemeat doesn't have meat.  Those would be mince pies."  We pointed out that his pies were labeled "mince pies," and yet he said they had meat in them. "Yeah," he said, and shrugged.  "It gets confusing around Christmas."
A woman at the Speyside Cooperage cafe gave us this piece of advice about mincemeat pies - "If it's got all sweet things around it, it's probably sweet.  If it has meat things around it, it's probably meat."
The intrigue doesn't stop there.  Most people make mincemeat pie with jarred filling - it's almost universally regarded as too difficult to make from scratch.  When we began looking into creating a recipe, it actually looked pretty simple.  Except... not really.  As it turns out, we're not fluent in English.  What are sultanas? What's suet?  Can we buy "mixed peel," or do we have to make it?  And, why are there vegetarian versions of meat-less mincemeat?
Here are the answers, and the surprisingly easy recipe for from-scratch mincemeat filling.
"Make the mincemeat a year before and keep it in a jar," is a common refrain.  Some sources even suggest that the key to a good mince pie is to let the apples ferment and bubble.  We made our mix the day before, and it was fine. In England, the pastries are Christmas treats and are usually topped by a star.  Since ours was for Thanksgiving, we thought about topping it with a turkey, but decided to keep it simple.
Our little Keswick rental cottage, in the beautiful lake district, was outfitted with an oven and range - we cooked all day, kept in by driving rain and a sense of tradition.  We dubbed our holiday "Thanksgiving in the Land of Oppressor" and made a feast that was half American and half motherland.  An appropriately sized pheasant, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, kale and corn, candied carrots, traditional American stomachaches and traditional English mincemeat pie.
The filling is made up of apple (as a base), citrus peel (in three forms- dried, boiled and zested) and lots of raisins, currants, cranberries, candied ginger - candied pineapple would work too, basically anything dried and diceable.  To this, we add liquor and a bit of onion, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and brown sugar.  The ingredients are great to munch on, add to stuffing, salads (and sip).  Except for one, which we'll get to.
For the citrus peel, boil a lemon (unwaxed if you can find it) in water for an hour, until it's soft and pungent.  A great kitchen pleasure is smelling the astringency and sourness of lemon vapor as it boils.  After an hour, cut it in half, remove all the seeds and finely mince it (peel and all) or put it into a blender.  Add to this pulpy slop a few tablespoons of fresh citrus zest.  We used clementines.  Also, about a quarter cup of mixed peel (which you can buy in a good supermarket in America), a half cup of raisins and a half cup of sultanas.  So, what exactly is a sultana?  A golden raisin.
From here, get creative - we used candied ginger, because we love it, and cranberries, because it was Thanksgiving.  Chop everything with a knife or blend it loosely with a blender and add in two medium, diced apples.  Saute lightly a few tablespoons of minced onion, then add the fruit and peel mixture to the pan along with a quarter cup of brown sugar, the three spices (1 tsp. each of cinnamon and nutmeg, half that of clove).  Cook until it's beginning to make some noise, then splash in a quarter cup of cheap cognac, brandy or whisky.  Reduce a bit and then add the suet.  And what is suet?
Suet, in America, is generally relegated to the bird feeder.  It's made up of the hard, high-smoke-point fat from around beef loins and organs.  Good quality butchers should be able to source or cut the stuff, but they may need a reminder of what, exactly, it is.  At the Booths supermarket - where the butchers seemed pretty competent - they referred me to this dried, shelf-ready version.  It comes in a cardboard box and looks a bit like white mouse pellets.
Essentially, suet is dried shortening, and it can be used in a variety of roles - a lot of people advocate it as a pastry aid, or as a butter-substitute for frying.  It's not particularly healthy, though - it used to be used most extensively for "tallow."  You know, to make candles and to waterproof boots.  It definitely sticks to one's arterial walls.
Nonetheless, we used a healthy dose of it, mixed right into the fruits and liquor.  It dissolves easily and smoothly, and gives an incredible richness to the mix.  That vegetarian version of mincemeat we mentioned earlier calls for frozen unsalted butter or harder-to-find "vegetarian suet," whatever that is.
Our pastry was a simple butter and flour mix, but use whatever recipe you're comfortable with.  Since the filling doesn't really have to be cooked, bake just until the crust is golden.  We set the oven at 375º fahrenheit and let the pie bake for about 45 minutes.
This filling is extremely citrusy, dark and nicely sweet.  It tastes nothing like most American pies - it's complex, savory and tasty, much in the tradition of chutney.  It goes as well with a sweet ice cream as it does a pungent blue cheese.  The best part is it smells intensely like the holidays.  Our kitchen aroma was of lemon, apple and spices.
It's nice to eat the pie a little warm, before the suet begins to harden up again.  It's fine cold, though, and is even better the next day.  Ours went really well with a slice of local Stichelton blue cheese. Of course stilton would do the trick, as would a nice sharp cheddar.  As the English say, "A pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze."  If you have the time, try making the filling a few days or a week ahead of time, so that the flavors have a chance to mingle.  Go ahead and make more than you think you'll need.  If we weren't vacating our rental two days later, we'd have put the extra in a jar and enjoyed it on cheese sandwiches, leftover pheasant and whatever else we had around.

Here's our recipe:

Thanksgiving Mincemeat Pie Filling
- 2 medium baking apples, diced
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup golden raisins ("sultanas," to the British)
- 1/2 cup combined other dried fruits, such as cranberries, currants or candied ginger
- 1/3 cup beef suet
- 1/4 cup mixed peel
- 1/4 cup cheap, brown, hard liquor (cognac, brandy, whisky, dark rum...)
- 2 tablespoons citrus zest (clementine, orange, lemon...)
- a small amount of onion
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon clove

- Boil the lemon in water for one hour, until peel is soft.  Cut in half, remove the seeds and mince the peel and flesh. Casually mince the raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit and chop the apples.
- Sautee the onion in a pan, then add all the fruit, spices, peel and a good splash of liquor.  Cook for some minutes, then add the brown sugar and cook over low heat, adding more and more liquor (to both the pan and your glass) until the apples have just begun to soften.  Mix in the suet and wait until it's melted.

25 November 2012

The Barrel Builders

The life of a whisky cask is romantic.  It begins as a tall oak tree in the United States, a part of the great American landscape, in places like Tennessee.  The wood is steamed until malleable, bent, pieced together, fastened by big metal rings, made into a barrel.  Then, the likes of Jack Daniels or Jim Beam fill them with spirit.  The bourbon is aged, bottled and the barrels cast off. By law, bourbon barrels can only be used once. So, off across the Atlantic they go, to Scotland, where scotch companies re-use the perfectly good barrels gladly.  They can live on for up to 50 years of whisky aging. There's no bourbon-like rule that stipulates a single use. And then, when there's really no life left in them, they go off to the Scottish smoke houses as chips, ready to live on as the fragrant, worldly, smoky notes on salmon.  Perhaps the coolest stop in the lifespan of a whisky cask is right here, at Speyside Cooperage.
The Cooperage works almost exclusively in mending American bourbon barrels along with sherry casks from Madeira.  Whisky was traditionally made in old sherry casks from Spain, but when all of these once-used barrels became available from America, it was too good a thing to pass up.  So, this is where they're christened European, disassembled and put back together with additional pieces, so that they're a bit bigger.  They're checked for any damage, flame treated to give a new surface to the inside and tested for air tightness.  Most scotch whisky distilleries "marry" spirits that have been aged in bourbon casks with ones that have been aged in sherry casks.  The sherry casks may pass through the Cooperage from Madeira, needing the same repair and rejiggering as the bourbon barrels.  Other sherry casks are made from (American oak) scratch right in the cooperage.  Since it's become a little difficult to source old sherry casks from Spain - and that sherry note is a big part of the whisky recipe - distilleries have taken to filling barrels with sherry themselves, letting it sit in there for 2 odd years and then repurposing the casks for their own use.
The Cooperage used to get a great deal of business from beer breweries, but the switchover to stainless steel dealt a huge blow.  Even a lot of whisky is being distilled in stainless steel, and the oak only comes into play at the aging process.  The fear of this trade being lost has been potent since the 1940s.  In fact, the rule that bourbon barrels can only be used once was created simply to make sure that American coopers would always have a job.   It was a power play made by the Cooper's Union to recover from the blow dealt by Prohibition.  What's ironic is that this rule probably wound up hurting the American cooperage field in the long run.  The one-use rule protected the need for work that could be replaced by machines, but it took away any need for the work that only humans could handle.  Machines can spit out the barrels and only being used once, the barrels require no mending or refinishing or recycling.   The need for a cooper is cut out completely.
Scotland lost a fair share of jobs due to modernization, but as we were told "the machines can make casks, but they can't repair them" and since the flavor of whisky has so much to do with the life of the aging barrel. its seasoning, the human touch is necessary.  The coopers are still vital. There are fifteen men and 2 apprentices currently at Speyside Cooperage.   They get paid by the barrel, not the hour, rolling and hammering and inspecting, going over to a pile of discarded wood to see if maybe there's a piece that will fit their purposes perfectly.   It reminded me of building a stone wall, searching the quarry for that one sorta pointy sorta round piece that you need.  A jigsaw puzzle of your own design.
The coopers may be paid by the barrel, but their part of the team for life.  The two tour guides on hand when we visited Speyside Cooperage were both former coopers, though they wouldn't use the word 'former' themselves.  When we asked who was the longest running cooper still active in the place, they both named a man who was 75 years old.   He was now in the back office, but that didn't make him any less of an active cooper in their eyes.  The two guides were a study in contrasts.   One was older, shorter and more enthusiastic, the other younger, taller and more reserved.   The older was a hammer-wielding cooper for around 20 years.  Short and compact, he looked like he could fit right into one of the casks.  He pointed to a similarly sized man on the floor who'd been at it for over 25 years.   "He's just the right size for a cooper. Not too tall."   The younger tour guide stood over six feet and had to retire prematurely after his second shoulder operation.  The work is physically gruelling and having to bend over more only makes the strain worse.   Some modifications have been made in recent years. Earplugs, lighter hammers." They use 3 pound hammers now. We used 5."
Speyside Cooperage likes to say that each cask begins life as an acorn.   I think it's interesting enough to skip ahead and just imagine the tall, mighty trees a few steps later.   They live for 100 to 150 years old before being harvested for their wood.   Only at that old age do they possess the qualities necessary.  The coopers themselves tend to get better with age as well. It's a lifelong vocation, one that begins with an apprenticeship and ends with whatever service you can offer. Even if its showing a few tourists around.  The Speyside coopers are all local men, the apprentices local boys.  One cooper currently working here is from Hungary, but we were assured that he'd arrived with "all the proper paperwork" to vouch for his skills and experience as a cooper. And having been there for over a decade now, he's considered an honorary Scotsman.  The reeds they use to seal the top of the casks come from a local furniture maker.   The operation is as Scottish as scotch, a homegrown operation... even if the wood does come from America.
We stood in a viewing room, looking down on the operation.  Coopers measured, hammered, examined, disassembled, reassembled.  In another section of the huge space, workers cut wood to specifications, performed quality control processes.  The apprentices along the back wall toiled diligently at building new casks.   The Master Cooper watched over and tutored them.  Against the backlighting of a midafternoon soon, we could see one man after another walk out the big warehouse doors and come back, rolling a cask beside him.   A plume of smoke billowed out as if it were the top part of a chimney, hacked off, but with a last breath left in it.  The inside of the cask is torched, igniting easily because of all that residual alcohol, and a new surface is made.   You know a cask's life as a vessel is up when its refinished one too many times.  The wood gets too thin. It's time for it to move on to the next phase, to retire to some smokehouse.

23 November 2012

Where There is Wool, There's a Way

Something about 'historic woolmill' conjured up images of women in bonnets behind big, pedaled looms, metal brushes, spinning wheels, wooden equipment tucked into the corner of a bedroom. Perhaps I've visited one too many folk museums. The smell of machine oil, the nuts and bolts and auto mechanic feel surprised me. The Knockando Wool Mill is the last one of its kind, the oldest working wool mill in Britain. The Victorian machinery and make-do architecture are relics of not one bygone era, but many. A whole period of time, spanning generations, during which communities had a central place, a District Mill, where they could go to process their fleece.
These district mills were really no different than a local gristmill or dairy cooperative where farmers could come with their wheat, corn or milk and leave with flour, butter and cheese.  The shepherds would come with fleece and leave with knitting yarn, blankets and tweeds.  The link between agriculture and food production is obvious and well-traced.  In Scotland, the link with textiles was just as important and widespread.  In fact, the well known clan tartans, the different plaids to represent different families, began simply as the pattern of each community's mill.  Everyone in town wore the same tartan because all their fleece was processed at the same place.  "Knockando tweed [was]...rather coarse and scratchy but lasted forever."  
The very first district mills provided shepherds' wives with the two things they didn't have at home.  Enough water to waulk and wash the wool and enough space to dry it out.  Town records from the late 1700s list Knockando Wool Mill as "Waulk Mill," making its purpose obvious. 
Everything else was done at home - which is where my visions of looms in the bedrooms come from.  However, when machinery was designed that took care of the carding process - the combing of wool to open it up, essentially the same thing as teasing your hair - women welcomed it into their lives.  This task had traditionally fallen to the children and was a tedious and thankless job.
So Waulk Mill got a carding machine.  The same one that's still there today.  Knockando mill grew to fit whatever need the community had.  At different points in the early and mid 1800s,  documents list the mill as a wool dyeing place, a spinning operation.  More machines followed, all second hand, and attachments to the mill were built, ramshackle, to shelter them.   There was the Platt Mule, which could spin 250 threads at a time.  Built in 1872 and still going strong it's the oldest machine of its kind still in use in the United Kingdom.  Each generational owner put their mark on the place and once a machine was purchased, it was never replaced.  Only repaired.
The two behemoth Dobcross looms, dated 1896 and 1899, are also the oldest working ones of their kind.  We peaked at them through a doorway, this sculptural mass of everything that is masculine and feminine jumbled together to symbolize "work."  Visiting the mill was great because we were allowed to just poke around, go into different buildings, keep a safe difference delineated by ropes and read about what we were looking at on a provided laminated info sheet.  They were just two of the additions made by Duncan Smith, who took charge of the mill in 1863 and made advancements and changes for a good 40 years.  He extended buildings or sometimes just erected a roof in order to make space for a new machine, resulting in the meandering factory layout that's there today.
Between the two world wars, all the other district mills in Scotland vanished.  Somehow, Knockando survived and local farmers were bringing fleece here all the way until the 1960s.  Duncan Stewart was in charge by this point.  He switched over from water power to electricity and welcomed three young men from England who were interested in the old ways of doing things.  One of them was Hugh Jones, who wound up taking over for a retiring Stewart.  With no previous experience at all, he became a master and is still the head weaver at Knockando today.  The problem was that he had no customers and, as only one man with not even familial support, he struggled to maintain it all.  That's where the historic societies stepped in, the private donors and a BBC television show called "Restoration," which gave the cause an audience.
The mill's machines are undergoing some repairs right now, so we didn't see them in action.  Instead, we the got the nuts and bolts at rest, in repose. For the moment.  The smell of oil, bolts on the floor, tools, gloves.  Cardboard boxes filled with odds and ends, scribbled notes peppered the rooms.  Places like this are rare, survivors that are recognized as such at exactly the right time.  Like endangered species, the world comes to their rescue (hopefully).  Prince Charles (with Camilla, of course) came to the re-opening of Knockando Woolen Mill just over a month ago.  His Royal Highness restarted the water wheel, now fit with plaques naming some of the biggest donors.   It signaled that this mill, which has been processing wool since 1784, was back in business. 

Tipsy Tours of Speyside

Under pagoda-shaped cupolas all along the River Spey, goose-necked stills steam and gurgle.  This is whisky country at its most densely congested - a full half of Scotland's distilleries are found in the Speyside region.  Driving along the roads is like taking a quick tour of a bar shelf: there's Balvenie, here's Glenfiddich, now we're passing Glenlivet and Johnnie Walker.
We took tours at three distilleries over two days, ambling through forests of copper stills and dank, cask-filled cellars.  Our first was Glenfiddich, where the countryside around was full of shaggy Highlander cows.  Glen Grant, the second tour, was nestled by a little stream with autumn-brown gardens.  At Cardhu, on the day we left the region, the small clutch of stone buildings basically made up the entirety of Kockando village.
Of the three distilleries we toured, the Glenfiddich plant was by far the biggest and most commercial.  We were shown a sweeping, highly-stylized video about the founder of the company and the heather-filled highlands around the town (lots of slow-motion, rain effects and mist).  The video was more mythology than nuts and bolts, and made the process seem like alchemy more than industry.
The truth is, whisky is kind of a benevolent magic for the towns along the River Spey.  In the Cardhu tasting room we were shown a photograph of the distillery's founders.  The elderly, craggy-faced husband and wife wore muddy, peasant clothes and worn boots.  "They were arrested two or three times before they finally got a liquor license," we were told.  Distilling was that kind of game in the 1800's, one for half-outlaws in the highlands with little money and small operations.  Today, it's the realm of globalized giants.  Not only is whiskey from here shipped and revered all over the world, but the world comes tramping back to Aberlour and Dufftown to take a look.  Alcohol tourism is a major boon for the area, and the Speyside distilleries are big local employers.
The magical process is really pretty simple, even if it's carried out on a large scale - it's both romantic and mechanical.  "Malted" barley - which is grain that's been allowed to begin sprouting and then dried out - is put into huge wash tanks (called "mash tuns") and soaked in hot water.  Sugar is released from the grain and seeps into the water, which is then pumped into a big fermentation tank, where yeast is added.  Less image-conscious distilleries use stainless steel, but all three plants we visited had wooden tanks, which were almost thirty feet tall (what you can see in the picture is just the very top).  Some of these mammoth things were as old as fifty years; their wood was black and soft with age.
The sugary liquid is left in the tanks for a day or two while it ferments. When it's done, it's basically a strong beer, at about eight percent alcohol.  This frothy liquid is sucked through tubes and spat out into the stills, where the actual distillation process begins.
The deep luster of copper isn't all for show.  The metal helps remove impurities in the liquor, and it transfers heat well… but the dull, orangish gleam is also regally impressive, especially when it's executed at this scale.
The stills are heated from below and (I'm oversimplifying) the alcohol inside evaporates and goes up the neck into a cooling coil, where it becomes liquid again.  Because alcohol becomes a vapor at a lower temperature than water, more alcohol is removed from the "mash" than other liquids, which stay in the bottom of the still.  After the first distillation, the alcohol content of the putative whisky is about thirty five percent.  A second run-through, in a "spirit still" raises that number to about sixty five or seventy percent.  It's clear, strong, undrinkable stuff.  A few years sitting in a barrel mellows the taste, adds color and reduces the strength.
Down in a corner at one end of each distillery was a locked, brass and glass case, about the size of a coffin.  Inside, visible behind the glass, hot, clear liquid splashed and flowed from copper tubes. Beakers and hydrometers filled, emptied, bobbed and gave readouts. These were the most fascinating things, like relics of some fancy, 19th century laboratory - and we weren't allowed to photograph them.
"Nothing secret," our tour guide at Cardhu told us.  "But we can't take any chances with electronics."  They were worried, as all the distilleries are, about an explosion.  The hot liquid flowing through the locked box was new, very-high-proof liquor, and the air was thick with the scent of alcohol.  After a few minutes near the box, we began to feel slightly tipsy.  Any little spark ("faulty wiring" was what they worried about) could blow up the entire town.
The glass boxes are locked by the British government - the distilleries are only allowed to open them if something breaks inside.  "Every shipment of grain we get is recorded," the Cardhu guide told us.  "The government knows exactly how much whiskey we should get at the other end." They can't even taste their product until they've paid the tax.  When I asked the tour guide at Glen Grant about how the distillers knew things were going okay, he told us that it was all computerized.  "There are instruments inside the pipes," he said.  "We get feedback from those, and then we make a few decisions."
Really, there are few decisions to be made - the whole process almost runs itself.  At Cardhu we were told that it's possible for one person to run the entire distillery by themselves, at full capacity, for a whole shift.  That includes every part of the process, from the raw grain to the barrel-ready liquor.  "We're open twenty four hours, every day," she said.  "Even Christmas.  Even the royal wedding!"
At Glen Grant, in the village of Rothes, we took a tour with a group of Welshmen as the evening grew dark.   From room to room, warehouse to storehouse, the smell in the air changed.  In the beginning, the odor was of barley and autumn fields.  By the fermenting tanks and mash tuns, it was deeply sweet, a cross between a bakery and rotting apples.  In by the stills, the air was almost palpably thick with sharp, fiery liquor.  In the aging buildings it was rotting wood, old sherry and damp earth. Even though Glen Grant's a big business (and part of the giant Campari multi-national), it was a reminder of how pleasing the alcohol process can be.
And then there's the tasting.  Every tour included a dram or three, even Glenfiddich's, which is free.  Speyside whiskies are generally light, clean and have very little peat - much easier to drink than the smoke and brimstone stuff of Islay.
Something about distillery tours… they're all the same.  We came to expect everything about the routine, from the jokes about fermented grain waste being fed to cattle ("we have very happy cows in Scotland") to the familiar refrain about the evaporated alcohol that escapes from whisky casks ("we call that 'the angel's share'").  The mash tuns were the same, as were the fermentation tanks, and the stills differed mostly in arrangement.  The tastings had diffrerent styles, but it was the same general idea - swirl, taste, add water, taste again, agree that it was very tasty, say thanks and leave. Essentially, if you've been to one you've been to them all.  Which is to say, definitely go on a tour.  Just don't go to all of them. And don't try to do too many in one day, at least without a designated driver.