Category Archives: travel

A Wee Toast to the Haggis

Haggis TossSomething unusual is happening in the kitchen. A huge stock pot has been gently bubbling on the burner for hours, a piece of parchment paper covering a dark, exotic mass of meatlike objects that bob gently in the broth. The aroma is unique, a rich, heady mix of lamb stew with sharper, more acrid undercurrents that evoke sensory description more common to complex wines: musty, earthy, sweet with a citrus finish.

Jan. 25 approaches and, with it, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Fans of Highland clan lore praise haggis as a national treasure. Others find it alarming, a concoction of seemingly inedible organ meats and roughage better suited to a dog’s breakfast than a banquet table.

The truth is somewhere in between. It is essentially a form of sausage, composed for the most part of lamb offal and steel-cut oats.

The offal in question is organ meat – lamb kidneys, liver, hearts and lungs. Once darkly red, glistening specimens of varying texture: firm hearts; resilient, elastic kidneys; puffy, yielding lungs; glutinous liver, they are simmered down and ground up.

Drained and cooled, the organs are brown, dense and sweet. They are minced, mixed with fat, diced onion, oats and spices and packed into casing to be poached (traditionally, a lamb stomach; these days, into a more conventional beef intestine or canvas sausage sleeve). Two hours or more in 165F water complete the cooking, blending the flavours and softening the oats.

The end result is a lot like a country-style pâté: rich and creamy, with the oats giving a bit of a nutty, crunchy texture.

Scottish Toast

It was originally eaten during poor times or war. The meats involved were cheap and available, high in iron and other minerals and promoted strength and endurance. You’d feel good and full in the cold.

Now, butchers have worked with it over the years, adjusting the seasonings, so it also tastes delicious. Like good pâté, the ingredients may sound scary but, once they taste it, most people want some more.

Is it good for you, too? The fat, oats and spices make it stable, with a long shelf life (a bonus in the days before refrigeration). Organ meats are rich in vital nutrients. Fat fuels the diet of all cold-climate cultures. Most versions of haggis are at least 50 per cent fat – but just three ounces per serving will do.

The world record for throwing a 1.5 pound (680 gram) haggis is 180 feet 10 inches (over 55.2 m.) The sporting haggis weighs 500 grams, with a maximum diameter of 18 cm and length of 22 cm. An allowance of 30 grams is given and this weight is used in both junior and middle weight events. The heavyweight event allows haggis up to 1 kg in weight, but the standard weight of 850 grams is more common, with an allowance of 50 grams.

Burns Day is a great excuse to try it. Just as millions discover an inner Irishman every St. Patrick’s Day, the splendour of skirling bagpipes, kilted porters and steaming haggis at a Robbie Burns night banquet connects with a wild, passionate side of the Scottish character. The heady poetry of “Rabbie” can intoxicate even more than the generous servings of single malt whisky.

Serving it is easy: Just reheat the cooked haggis in a bag in hot water until the internal temperature reaches 155F or bake it for 30 minutes in the oven along with traditional mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnip purée (neeps).

Excerpted from: Toronto Star, January 24, 2009.

Image: Darren McCarty competes in the throwing of the haggis competition during Highland Games in Livonia, Michigan in 2000.

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Stupeur et Tremblements

Stupeur et TremblementsJapan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.

In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.

When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed —  it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.

She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.

Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.

Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.

At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.

Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.

Obama, Japan Parties!

Obama Japan

Temple bells tolled, fireworks were set off and residents danced the hula in the cold Japanese city of Obama on Tuesday to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. president.

The party began several hours ahead of the inauguration ceremony in the sleepy fishing town in western Japan, which has turned into the nation’s leading cheerleader for Obama.

Over a hundred Obama fans flocked to a local Buddhist temple to celebrate the inauguration in Hawaiian style, as a tribute to Obama’s birthplace.

A group called “Obama Girls and Boys,” made up of seven local men and 15 women, danced the hula while others joined to sing a song dedicated to Obama and the city of Obama.

“We are going to party all night until morning to celebrate the inauguration,” said 67-year-old local Rian Obata as she danced to Hawaiian music.

The town’s local souvenir shop welcomed tourists with “I Love Obama” signs and sold a variety of goods ranging from Obama sweet bean cakes to Obama chopsticks.

Barack Obama has known for some time about the small town that bears his name. Last year, the town’s mayor received a thank you letter from Obama for sending him chopsticks and a Japanese good-luck charm.

Source: Yoko Kubota, Reuters

Obama Japan

In Pursuit of Happiness

Montmartre

There are people who feel compelled to leave the place where they were born and the culture in which they were raised and go to Paris, where they find themselves.

The mere act of going through the motions in another city, in another language, can be a distraction from the mundane. In Paris, every errand requires a new vocabulary, words one would never come across in Molière or Baudelaire: tournevis, crochet, marteau for a trip to the hardware store; tache, doublure, before heading off to the dry cleaner.

But the truth is, Paris also takes one’s mind off troubles in unforeseen ways. Everywhere, something urges you to pay attention: a taste, a smell, some subtle flourish that a person trudging through life might otherwise miss.

From a walk-up apartment half a block from the Seine, you might listen through open windows on a summer night to the chamber-music concerts across the street at the Musée de la Monnaie, with Mozart’s ripe harmonies carried upward on the dense, warm air. Going on midnight, the noise of the traffic might be interrupted by lurching, bleating oom-pah-pah renditions of popular standards as the Fanfare des Beaux-Arts, a marching band of students from the school of architecture, snaked its way through the narrow streets, its gusto fueled by wine.

Shopping for groceries, you might bring home fraises des bois, plump figs from Turkey, and yogurt made from goat’s milk. At the bakery on the corner, you might discover congolais—haystacks of pure, intense coconut or, if it is Christmastime, crystalline marrons glacés. In the Luxembourg Gardens, you might see children sailing their boats in the fountain or, in October, watch a parade of citrus trees in their jardinières, being taken to the Orangerie, where they will sit out the winter.

Many of us in North America share the middle-class values instilled in our parents by their parents: diligence, discipline, thrift, and a particularly Calvinist delight in the virtues of self-denial. Work is every upstanding person’s reason for being, and pleasure and leisure are the rewards for a job well done. From this austere outlook, we might conclude that the self is to be constantly policed and kept in check.

Spending time with the French allows us to loosen our iron grip. We envy their capacity for moderation, and realize for the first time that pleasure makes moderation possible. We begin to build little treats into the day: a walk along a street we love, 20 minutes with a book in the Tuileries on the way to an appointment; a late-night glass of Champagne at a café; Poilâne’s walnut bread for breakfast. Where we might consider flowers a reckless indulgence, except for Mother’s Day, in Paris, no vase ever goes empty.

The French know that pleasure is something to be discovered, there for the taking, and something to be cultivated. Its pursuit, as it turns out, is not a mindless slide into debauchery but a science, rigorous and exacting, discriminating between the merely good and the sublime. The thing about pleasure is that it immerses you in the moment. The present becomes more compelling than the future or the past. There is no better cure for heartache.

Having spent time there, could one ever be happy living anywhere else? That’s not the lesson.

Because in the course of learning to love the city and its inhabitants,  one also learns to savour the texture of everyday life, in Paris or anywhere.

Sacre Coeur Dufy

Adapted from Holly Bruback, Gourmet, September 2008

Image: Arnaud Frich, Montmartre

Image: Eglise St Pierre et Sacré-Coeur par Jean Dufy

Tour de Dog

David Sylvester and Chiva are a human and canine best friend team exploring North America by bicycle to encourage and to teach responsible animal/human relationships.

The goals of Tour de Dog are to raise awareness about the challenges and problems animals shelters and control facilities face and to improve their images and capabilities.

Their plans are to tour animal shelters and control facilities throughout North America, and champion the cause through speaking engagements, blogging, reporting and fundraising. David would like to produce a video documentary of human/animal relationships, and implement improvements for shelter facilities in need.

“In the picture below, Chiva is seen in the gas chamber. Pipes were hooked up to car exhaust and the animals were left in the dark to suffocate. Chemical gas chambers are still used today in the United States to euthanize animals.”

Gas Chamber

Biking Dog Blog

The Lion of Lucerne

Carved into a sandstone face above the town of Lucerne in 1820, the famous ‘Lion of Lucerne’ is a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who died attempting to save Marie Antoinette in 1792.

Lion of Lucerne

The Swiss have a long tradition of supplying mercenaries to foreign governments. Because the Swiss have been politically neutral for centuries and have long enjoyed a reputation for honoring their agreements, a pope or emperor could be confident that his Swiss Guards wouldn’t turn on him when the political winds shifted direction.

The Swiss Guards’ honor was put to the test in 1792, when, after trying to escape the French Revolution, King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and their children were hauled back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. A mob of working-class Parisians stormed the palace in search of aristocratic blood. More than 700 Swiss officers and soldiers died while defending the palace, without knowing that their royal employers had left.

In the early 1800s, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen was hired to sculpt a monument to the fallen Swiss Guards. The sculpture was carved in a sandstone cliff above the city center, near Lucerne’s Glacier Garden, and it has attracted countless visitors since its dedication in 1821.

… the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.
~ Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff – for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. How head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion–and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.

More at luzern.org

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Thee legends of St. Francis exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.