Biscuits with Bartok 2 – Soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies

I must admit there’s been a bit of slippage this week on a number of fronts. I have, however, managed to produce my second biscuit for the musicians, a decadent soft cookie oozing with chocolate, complemented by the flavour of fennel seeds. However, a lag means I did this after the gathering. In fact, the visiting musicians sojourn turned out not to be Biscuits with Bartok but Biscuits with Linux. For some musicians, talents extend  beyond music and with help, after several attempts and considerable tenacity, my old laptop has Linux installed and the hamster in the hard drive is on steroids. I thought I had lost it forever after a de-fragmenting disaster.

No more am I chained to my desktop in the office.  I can now sit in comfort by the fire, using one or t’other of the dogs as a footstool and listen to selected vinyl or CDs, since I’m next to the stereo. What better way to blog? Tablet not required for the time being. I’ve been reliably informed by The Man Named Sous, my own personal techni-geek, that the time is not right to invest in a tablet and we will be better placed to buy in a couple of months as new products are on the cusp of release.  I have already decided that although I like my iPhone, the Android system will be the way to go and I have all but ruled out iPad, probably in favour of a Nexus 10. More on that another time.

Biscuit procrastinations

I am embarking on only my second biscuit-making event and I have already been overwhelmed by the choices out there.  Then I was gifted my biscuit epiphany when Cookies, Cakes and Bakes featured some enticing recipes from Annie Bell’s Baking Bible.  I was, of course, obliged to buy the book and although it hasn’t yet arrived, I found a very appealing recipe from it online for soft-bake chocolate and fennel cookies.

Mid-week entertainment

One reason for the slippage this week was the rare opportunity to see a tour by Scottish Opera performing at the village hall in Benbecula. Every year, Scottish Opera take their Opera Highlights tour to very small venues in rural and isolated communities around Scotland.  The tour visits Uist every 2 years, visiting Stornoway on alternate years. The troupe of 4 singers plus pianist offer a pared back performance with minimal props which showcases their vocal talents.

I love opera and regularly went to Scottish Opera performances at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh and I very much miss the opportunity to enjoy the live experience, so this concert was a very rare opportunity to hear opera excerpts and not to be missed.  We were very lucky the concert went ahead at all.  The singers were stranded on Barra after a performance there.  The weather closed in and ferries were cancelled.  Fortunately, they made it across in a weather window on the morning of the concert.

The weather had been tricky and perhaps unsurprisingly, the concert was reasonably well attended but not busy as people were reluctant to venture out.  This was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that our mobile cinema, The Screen Machine had set up for a couple of nights. Despite the weather, it had somehow made it through the storms.  This pop-up cinema is Britain’s only mobile cinema.  The theatre folds out from an articulated truck that tours the Highlands and Islands to bring new cinema releases to audiences and really is a fantastic innovation and a lot of fun to go to.  Sitting in the dark watching a blockbuster, possibly in 3D, one can get lost in the performance only occasionally being reminded that you are in a pop-up cinema in Uist when the wind rocks and sways the theatre.

Unfortunately, a clash of programmes such as the cinema and opera on the same night can deplete audiences significantly in such a small community as ours. This could discourage a return visit, for example, I have been to concerts where visiting musicians have had an audience of no more than a handful of people, which is discouraging for them and offers no incentive for a return visit.  It therefore pays for visitors/event organisers to check what else is on any given night and make sure there is not a clash. As residents, we certainly feel that we should attend anything of interest otherwise it could be the case of use it or lose it.

Had the opera not been on, we would have gone to the cinema, although the choices of The Hobbit and Quartet would have pushed it into second place as we saw The Hobbit in 3D in Glasgow before Christmas and Quartet is probably not to our taste.

The opera was thoroughly enjoyable with a programme of popular arias (from La Traviata, Cosi fan tutte and Carmen) and less familiar and intriguing pieces. My favourite was The Executioners Song from Ines de Castro by Scot James MacMillan, an opera commissioned by Scottish Opera in 1996.  The darkly humorous libretto was delivered with conviction by baritone Duncan Rock, his vocal and acting performance stealing the show for me.

The Middle Eight

Sitting next to my vinyl and CD collection brings the opportunity for a blogging soundtrack, not that I can’t do this by using iTunes on the desktop, but the experience isn’t the same.  It’s not as loud for one thing! I also don’t download for a number of reasons; sound quality, tangible enjoyment of holding a CD / record, ownership, for starters. Browsing and selecting music also served to remind me that as well as biscuits, I am procrastinating over gigs too.  Planning trips to the mainland including London and Glasgow over the next couple of months means we will try to tie in a few gigs with trips.  There are a lot of good options coming up.

We have been swithering over whether or not we should get tickets to see Neil Young in June. The fantastic Jeremy Deller conceptual art work below sums this up. This was a phrase borne out of the procrastinations by Neil Young over work commitments when he would regularly ask his manager ‘What would Bob Dylan do?’ Bob Dylan later had the same manager and similarly asked him ‘What would Neil Young do?’ Deller, Jeremy - What Would Neil Young Do? - Conceptual art - Computer print - Other/Unknown theme

We have seen Old Shaky twice before, in 1992 with Booker T and the MGs and again in 1997 (I think) with Crazy Horse.  The venue is off-putting as it is the aircraft hangar that is the SECC in Glasgow.  We have experienced a few less than intimate gigs at this venue and on occasion, poor sound quality.  It’s just too big, as are the ticket prices.  Over the last few years, we have tended to prefer gigs in smaller venues with more sane ticket prices.  The atmosphere is always better with the artist connecting better with the crowd in a smaller setting and vice versa.

That aside and unresolved, the decision will likely be taken out of our hands when the gig sells out. Then came the news that Wilco Johnson, original guitarist with the great Canvey Island blues outfit, Dr Feelgood,  has announced he is terminally ill and is to go on a final blast of gigs across the UK.  Of course, I would love to go, but knew these would sell out quickly and they have, regrettably. Dr Feelgood had a reputation as an engaging live act in the early 70’s thanks largely to Wilco’s stage presence and choppy distinctive blues guitar style. Dr Feelgood have been credited as one of the founders of British Punk, discussed in the excellent film Oil City Confidential which captures the early days of the band’s history.

I listened to a very uplifting and moving interview on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago when Wilco spoke candidly about his illness and his desire to give this last tour while he was still well enough to give his best and thank his fans.  He was so positive and grateful for the life he has lived, tinged with no regret or sadness that he will soon leave this mortal coil.

Smaller venues such as the excellent King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow offers a chance to see contemporary proggers Amplifier. We saw Arch Drude and forward-thinking Mofo Julian Cope there in a memorably intimidating performance. Strikingly tall and thin, he was wearing 6 inch crepe heeled boots and sported face paint, wandered into the audience and stared various people in the audience out.  We hid well away from the front and it was a great gig. We were also very lucky to see another of our favourite songwriters, the thought-provoking Warren Zevon at a small venue in Glasgow not too long before his passing.

To the current, a Richard Thompson gig in Edinburgh is another possibility as well as seeing Polish metal band Riverside.  Devin Townsend has also announced another short UK tour.  That is a given.  Finally, sadly nothing on the horizon from Tool who, after 7 years still can’t seem to decide if they will release an album this year or not.  The band’s enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan appears to be focussing more on growing award-winning wine at his California vineyard.  Rock and Roll!

Blogging soundtrack:  Opeth: My Arms, Your Hearse

Devin Townsend: Epicloud, from the track ‘Grace’;

‘Laugh! Love! Live! Learn!!’

Soft-bake chocolate and fennel biscuits

chocolate and fennel biscuits 055

These were delightful and would not be half as good without the revelatory addition of the crushed fennel seeds, and, to some extent, the apricots.  Genuinely one of the  best cookies I have eaten, really unusual and very chocolatey with the 81% cocoa solids chocolate I used. I’m really getting into the biscuit-baking and don’t really know why anyone would, other than for convenience, buy biscuits from the shops.  Home-made are simple to make, free from the usual additives/preservatives and are considerably cheaper.  I got 36 out of this recipe which was allegedly for 20.  Although they were a bit more expensive to make than last week’s peanut butter cookies, they still worked out at about 10p per biscuit.  That for a real luxury bite of deliciousness.

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, diced

200g golden caster sugar

1 medium egg

½ tsp vanilla extract

100g ground almonds

75g plain flour, sifted

1 tsp baking powder, sifted

1 heaped tsp fennel seeds

100g dried apricots, chopped

200g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 200C (fan)


Method

  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer then beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add the ground almonds, flour and baking powder and process to a soft dough.
  • Coarsely grind the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and stir into the cookie batter with the apricots and chocolate.
  • Put a big heaped teaspoon of the mixture onto greased baking trays, spacing them well apart and cook them in batches.
  • Bake for 8–10 minutes until golden around the edges but pale within. Leave the cookies to cool for 3 minutes, then loosen them with a palette knife and leave to cool completely.

Enjoy when barely cool and the chocolate is still gooey with a wee cup of tea (as my gran would have said).

chocolate and fennel biscuits 4

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Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart with bramble ripple ice cream

As a dessert for Burns Night, I wanted to avoid the obvious traditional options. Much as I love cranachan made with raspberries, it is out of season. I enjoyed the local favourite of caragheen pudding at last year’s Burns supper but this year I was looking for something, well, a bit more luxurious.

I opted for a chocolate tart, incorporating the darkest of dark chocolate (81%), a dram and to my mind that definitively Scottish wild fruit that I have adored for all of my life – brambles. Some of my freezer stock of precious brambles from last autumn’s harvest was included in the tart and was also made into a coulis, swirled through vanilla ice cream to form a bramble ripple.

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Although I nod to the traditional by including whisky in the tart, I must admit I am not a whisky lover. Even the finest malts, notably those from the islands (Islay in particular) have the whiff of TCP about them.  I am told if I persevere, I too will enjoy them one day.  Olives are often cited as an example.  During my PhD, my whisky connoisseur supervisor would arrive from Oxford and together with my other Edinburgh Uni supervisor,  we would head out with our research group of an evening to their favourite hostelry, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society members only premises in Queen Street, Edinburgh. There was much discussion about peatiness, tobacco, petrol and however else one choses to describe drinking TCP.  I was the Philistine at the bar requesting a gin and tonic.

Feeling the burn, post Burns

Yes, the duo of dyspepsia did as predicted and in truth, we could not face our lovely dessert after the haggis on Burns night – it containing yet more pastry (bit of an oversight there).

I was in danger of lethargy after haggis-eating and knowing I had proposed a 10km run, and despite the deteriorating weather, I decided to bite the bullet and get out there.  I had just walked the dogs and considered although there was a bit of a breeze, the weather window was good enough.  I elected to run around the picturesque island of Grimsay, a few miles south. The west end of the island acts as a stepping stone for the causeways that link North Uist and Benbecula. Circumnavigation of the island is a convenient 10 km.

View of Eaval from grimsay on a nice day

View of Eaval from Grimsay on a nice day

It was raining by the time I got out of the car and I could see, as is typical of these islands, that within a few minutes the situation would deteriorate quickly. Weather fronts were building to the south and banks of cloud were rolling towards me.  Nonetheless, I opted to run round the island south to north to take the worst of the weather along the exposed southern single track road first.  There were two observations that suddenly struck me about Grimsay.  I have driven but not ran around it before and it is a bit hillier than I recall.  Secondly, the south road is indeed very exposed to the elements.  I spent the next 6 km running into a pretty gusty headwind and needle-like rain with the occasional side gust that knocked me into the verge.

Once I got just over the half way mark, I got a tremendous tail wind as I turned north and the rain battered off my back, no longer in my face. Occasional gusts almost knocked me off my feet, but after feeling the burn initially, things got easier and I made it back to the car not too much over my predicted time.

Round the whole route, I only saw 2 people, both dressed in waterproofs, rushing out and hurriedly taking in washing, cowering in the squawl.  I was only passed by 5 or 6 cars, none which I recognised.  However, no doubt they had a good look and identified me as ‘That woman who is married to (we are not married) the violin-maker’ (as I have been referred to since my other half’s vocation is much more interesting than my own somewhat cryptic occupation) and questioned ‘What on earth is she doing running round here in this weather?’ Good to give people something to talk about other than the weather, at least!

Having recovered back at home, I could say that I unequivocally deserved a slice of chocolate tart with ice cream – and to watch a fun film – ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’, another gem from Aardman Animation. It is a silly sea-faring yarn, of not too competent pirates featuring a parrot that is in fact a dodo and a rather scheming Charles Darwin.  Plenty of pithy one-liners but it is easy to miss a lot of content first time round. I won’t need any encouragement to watch it again, very good fun and a change from our usual film choices.

Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart

A nod to the traditional, containing a dram, with added richness and silkiness. The ganache for this tart is sublimely super-smooth and rich.  Thank you to Michel Roux for the basis of this recipe. It is based on his chocolate and raspberry tart.

Pastry is pate sucree as used for passionfruit and orange tart.  I also elected to coat the base in melted chocolate again.  The brambles were moist from being soaked in whisky and also having been frozen, so I wanted to safeguard the pastry from sogginess.

The ice cream was vanilla, the same recipe used to accompany said passionfruit and orange tart, except this time, I made bramble coulis to swirl through it.

Chocolate tart with brambles

Ingredients

200g brambles

50 ml whisky of your choice

For the ganache:

200ml whipping cream

200g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids

25g liquid glucose

50g butter, cubed into small pieces

Method

  • Soak the brambles in the whisky for a couple of hours.
  • Make pate sucree as per outlined in my previous post, coating the pastry case with melted chocolate to seal it.
  • Strain the brambles from the whisky and arrange on the tart base.
  • Prepare the ganache: bring the cream to the boil, take it off the heat, stir in the chocolate until smooth using a balloon whisk, add the liquid glucose, then the butter, a few cubes at a time.  The glucose adds to the smoothness, as does the butter and which also gives the tart sheen.
  • Pour the ganache into the tart case and over the fruit and allow to cool for a couple of hours.
  • Put in the fridge and take out half hour or so before serving.
  • Cut the pieces with a warmed knife to get a nice clean cut through the silky-smooth ganache.  Serve with the ice cream.

Chocolate tartChocolate tart whole

Bramble ripple ice cream

Using the previous recipe for vanilla ice cream, make a bramble coulis and swirl this through the ice cream once it is churned by your ice cream maker.  Fold it in at the end of churning if you are making the ice cream by hand.

Bramble coulis

  • Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.
  • Take 50 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 150g of brambles.  Add any leftover whisky-flavoured juice from the brambles added to the coulis.
  • Sieve and stir through the ice cream.

Bramble ripple ice cream

And let again the final word go to Burns:

Let other poets raise a fracas
“Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

Robert Burns – Scotch Drink, 1785

Chocolate tart and ice cream

Festive Fiery chocolate truffles – with Tequila?

I have just returned home having been away for 10 days or so on a pre-Christmas  circumnavigation of Scotland, visiting family and friends, As ever, we try to cram in a lot (possibly too much) while we are away, including the inevitable Christmas shopping. It has a plus side at this time of year when we have the excuse to indulge in luxury items from the likes of Valvona and Crolla and Mellis Cheese shop in Edinburgh. We managed to squeeze in an overnight and some fine dining at the Michelin starred The Peat Inn, Cupar (to be reviewed in due course), and I roamed the Stirling foothills trying to find the right farm to collect our bronze free range turkey for Christmas dinner.

Good to be back home after so much frenetic activity of an extraordinary sort, although the temperature in the house of 9C has taken some time to get to a balmy 19C. Festivities are upon us, the tree is up, at last, and some amaretti biscuits are in the oven.  The view from the kitchen window at 1600 hours yesterday served to remind me just what a big sky Uist has (I just don’t notice it in quite the same way on the mainland), and how I missed the tranquility of home.

View from our kitchen window - temple, sunset, sheep

View from our kitchen window – temple, sunset, sheep

As ever, while visiting my parents, my mum came up with some fine recipes – a casserole of pork cheeks with prunes, a refreshing lime parfait, which it might have been good to consume after her chilli chocolate truffles.

What better indulgent delight to make in our cold house than my mum’s Fiery Chocolate Truffles?  Even better, they are festively sparkly too!

I was limbering up for a weekend of indulgence in Glasgow, including tequila tasting at Lupe Pintos Mexican deli in Glasgow, a gig and curry, so what better way than with chilli inspired petits fours. I plan to make these again with a dash of tequila. Mi dios están calientes – perfecto! Gracias mamá!

Fiery Chocolate Truffles

Not subtle, but I do love a big chilli hit and many chocolate and chilli concoctions don’t deliver and have left me disappointed with a view that the combination is a little over-rated.  I re-evaluate my thoughts in light of this recipe.  Cuidadoso – adjust the amount of chilli powder to your palate.

Ingredients

200ml double cream

200g dark chocolate (70%)

25g butter

1tsp hot chilli powder (less, if your palate dictates)

dash of cognac or tequilia

edible glitter/cocoa powder to dust

Method

  • Bring cream to the boil and allow to cool slightly while melting the chocolate and butter in a Bain Marie.
  • Add the chilli powder to the melted chocolate and butter.
  • Pour the cream over the chocolate and butter mix and beat until well combined.  Add a splash of cognac – or tequilia – my choice for the next batch.
  • Chill before rolling into small truffles.  Coat in cocoa or alternative festive coating of your choice.  These will keep for about a week stored in the fridge.

Fiery chocolate truffles

Tequila tasting – Lupe Pintos Deli, Glasgow

I must admit, my knowledge of tequila is limited to only a few facts; it is produced from agave, a succulent plant native of Mexico, parts of southern USA, Central and South America that is pollinated exclusively by bats; tequila never contains a ‘worm’ (it is actually a moth larva), but mescal traditionally does come “con gusano” (with worm).

My experience of drinking tequila is even more limited and essentially stereotypical of many who, with youthful exuberance, overindulge in uncouth slammers with masses of salt and lime and vow never to touch the stuff again thereafter.

Digression warning – Recollections of Ecuador

The last time I drank it was over 10 years ago in a bar in Quito, Ecuador, in slammer form, shortly before our student contingent realised the bar we were frequenting was also a brothel.  Here, I must confess to a propensity for stumbling upon brothels in Ecuador.

After spending 2 months working in pristine cloud forest further west in the shadow of the Andes, myself and a friend had been joined by a jet-lagged Man Named Sous and we three decided to take a trip to to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a rainforest reserve of note for it’s unique combination of biodiversity in the north east Oriente region, in Sucumbayos Province. It is close to the border of both Columbia and Peru.

After an 8 hour slow bus ride from Quito snaking lower down towards the tributaries of the Amazon along hair-raising hairpins of mountainous roads, accompanied by the usual blaring salsa music of choice on such bus journeys across the country (copious Tijuana horns mandatory), we arrived at Lago Agrio, the capital of the province in the evening, just after dark.

Lago Agrio (officially called Nueva Loja but this name is never used) had the definite feel of a frontier town, which it is, being only 20 miles from the Columbian border. It is a key area of oil exploitation in Ecuador, so its position close to the Columbian Border results in a mixed bag of occupants.  These consist of oil workers and locals as well as a smattering of Colombian guerrillas and drug smugglers.  Definately a place to keep your head down.

There’s not a lot to recommend for the tourist here, save for it being the gateway to one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. A polite description of the place would be unkempt.  Threatening would be more accurate. Quickly taking stock of the atmosphere of the place, us three very obvious Gringos opted to walk right up the middle of the main drag, very much being watched from the shadows of doorways of the many seedy looking bars, grills (agouti is a favourite grill meat here) – and brothels. We found a hotel and hid for the night before meeting with our tour guides in the morning.

A lorry took us and some American tourists along tracks cut throught the rainforest to make way for the oil pipelines originally installed by Texaco (beginning in the mid 1960’s) to access oil reserves in the area. We were shocked and distressed at the extent of the destruction of what was primary rainforest as we passed for hours through many miles of cleared forest, the lorry snaking along the route of the oil pipeline towards the entrance to Cuabeno National Park.

This year, Chevron (who now own Texaco’s interests in the region) were fined by Ecuadorian courts to the tune of $19 billion in compensation for environmental damage relating to its operations in the Lago Agrio area after a long battle with local indigenous people and settlers.  Serious pollution from oil spills and deforestation due to clearing for access roads, exploration, and production activities over 30 years resulted in one of the largest such fines handed out to date.

Leaving the oil fields and tracks behind, we were confronted with the dichotomy of immersion into pristine primary rainforest.  We then entered dug-out canoes and spent several hours travelling deep into the rainforest, spending a week at a makeshift camp next to one of the many lagunas along the Cuyabeno River.

Cloud forest had done little to prepare me for the breath-taking array of spectacular wildlife and plantlife on show, as we made our way along the river involuntarily shouting out observations to each other,  Anaconda! Macaws! Caimen! Dolphins! Morphos! (butterflies – huge irridescent blue dinner plates).

This culminated in a moment of utter euphoria for me when I saw my first hoatzin.  I had been obsessed with this enigmatic bird since I was a child.  I knew this gregarious species were found in the Oriente’s riverine forests, but never imagined I would see one, in fact, they were ubiquitous along the river.

The fascination for me stemmed from comparisons of the anatomical features the hoatzin superficially shares with one of the earliest known birds – Archaeopteryx (from whence the obsession stemmed – essentially a lizard with feathers – every child loves dinosaurs). Hoatzin chicks have two claws on each wing which help it grip branches and clamber. This is the feature that has led the species to be compared to Archaeopteryx, information I gleaned from David Attenborough’s marvellous ‘Life on Earth’ series which has fantastic footage of both adult and young hoatzins. I was smitten by this series and became a budding 8 year old zoologist. I received the book accompanying the series from my parents. It was a much treasured possession for many years, notably for hoatzin references.

The taxonomy/phylogeny of the species is subject to much contention, and the species looks evey bit as confusing as it’s DNA suggests. It is pheasant-sized with a crest, blue featherless face and red iris with a lumbering, ungainly flight and a call consisting of hisses, wheezes, grunts and groans. It is also exclusively vegetarian, having a digestive system more akin to a ruminant than a bird. An evolutionary quandary indeed.

The engimatic Hoatzin

The engimatic Hoatzin.  Copyright: 2000 Bill Rydell

At 100% humidity being right on the equator and accompanied by the dense vegetation of the forest canopy that almost obiterated light, the atmosphere within the forest was oppressive, especially at night when the calls of birds, mammals and insects reached an almost deafening crescendo.  We went on night walks around the camp which were fascinating with marsupials, monkeys, owls and weird and wonderful insects in close proximity – not to mention caimen along the laguna shore, tightly lined up like yachts in a marina, eyes shimmering in our torchlights. I though how easy it would be to get lost and was reminded of the astonishing account Benedict Allen gave in his book ‘Mad White Giant’ of his first solo expedition in the Brazilian Amazon when he did get lost. The trip almost killed him and he was in part saved by eating his dog.

After our spending a week taking in these wonders (I passed hours watching leaf cutter ants purposefully going about their caste chores), we and the rest of the group reluctantly headed back to Lago Agrio.  It was evening again and we did not relish a night there.  Against our better judgement, we took the risky night bus (strickly warned against in the guidebooks due to risk of kidnap near the Columbian border).  The view of our fellow American travellers was safety in numbers – we all get on the night bus.  My view was somewhat different when I envisaged the delight of guerillas as they realised they had the bounty of not one or two but ten foreign hostages.

In any event, bus internal lights dimmed, the salsa cranked up again to the max, we headed back to Quito.  A couple of hours later, the bus was stopped and a few bods in fatigues walked on with rifles, took everyone’s passports and papers and frog-marched us off the bus.  I was reasonably certain these were Ecuadorian officials, but had a stash of dollars to hand, just in case – bribes were not uncommon. We walked through a check point where an officer barked a few questions at us in Spanish and returned our passports.  We got back on the bus, no harm done, save for the shattered nerves of a few tourists.

We were very relieved to arrive in Quito, albeit in the middle of the night.  The same Americans we were travelling with (who suggested we take the night bus – we should have known better) took us to a hostel they knew would accept us in the middle the night.  ‘It’s great’ they said, ‘only $3 a night’.  Yes, but it quickly became apparent it also had a sideline as a brothel.  We left the hostel very early next morning.  It was called the Happy Volcano. ‘Nuff said….

Tequila – at last!

The tequila tasting session may have brought back vivid memories of Ecuador, but just as importantly, it made me re-evaluate my feelings about drinking tequila.  I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I saw 11 bottles of tequila lined up for the tasting.  This was especially since I don’t drink neat spirits.  In fact, I rarely drink them at all save for the occasional gin or Zubrowka (Bison Grass) vodka and tonic.

Tequila tasting with superb host and

Tequila tasting with superb host and botanas

I needn’t have been concerned, particularly given that the shots were served with a fine range of mexican botanas, all made in house, including cornbread, tortilla, meatballs, salsa (and chips, of course).  We also had fresh fruit with tajin – ground chilli and lime salt, a first for us and delicious and a perfect match for the tequila.

Tajin  - perfect with fruit and tequila

Tajin – perfect with fruit and tequila

This deli really is fantastic, not least because it is the only place in Scotland where you possibly hope to try an extensive range of tequilas. The owner of the deli took us through the history of tequila.  The Spanish Conquistadors began distilling from the agave plant, after being introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, reputedly when their brandy supplies ran out.  Tequila can only be called so if it produced in the state of Jalisco and we discussed it’s provenance relative to the more variable quality mescal.

Our chosen tequila - Herradura

Our chosen tequila – Herradura

I was surprised by the variability of available brands. Two categories exist; mixtos (no less than 51% agave) and 100% agave. it is bottled in one of five categories.  These include Blanco or Plata (white, unaged, usually bottled straight after distillation), Resposado (rested – aged for a minimum of 2 months, but less than 1 year in oak barrels and Anejo (aged – 1 to 3 years in barrels).

The 100% agave blancos have the most distinctively agave flavours, as one might expect, and it was these (smooth) examples I preferred – the aged Resposado and Anejo had an edge that was too reminicient of whisky for my liking.

My preference was for a smooth grassy, peppery flavour, hence I chose to buy the fine quality Herradura (£32). I would highly recommend these tastings at Lupe Pintos as you will get no better insight into tequila in Scotland.  You will also learn the secret to making the perfect margarita, which was way more potent, delicious and authentic than those from your average cocktail bar.

Devin Townsend – ABC, Sauchiehall Street

No weekend would be complete without a good gig.  The Man Named Sous and I were very regular gig goers when we lived in central Scotland and it is regrettable (although I’m sure our hearing has benefitted) that we do now have to be much more selective and can only attend a few a year, so they have to count.  However, a Devin Townsend gig should not be missed. If extreme music is your thing, at least.

Hevy Devy has been prolific since his days from Strapping Young Lad to the present and his output is ever changing but the quality remains undiminished.  Yes, it is essentially metal, with the influence of grindcore and industrial metal such as the supporting act, Fear Factory (great support – heaviness went down well with the crowd), but it also includes elements of Zappa and pop rock. He is in fact unique and in a genre all of his own.  His music is intelligent and crammed with ideas and is usually ornate, can be dense, over-the-top, complex, brutal and challenging as well as beautiful, uplifting and humourous. I would say, it’s also probably not everyone’s cup of tea – some of it isn’t that accessible and can be exhausting to listen to.  Importantly, he is a great live performer with an amazing voice and a great rapor with the audience.  I was delighted that the encore included ‘Deep Peace’ from arguably his Magnum Opus ‘Terria’.  A fitting end to a tremendous gig.

Devin Townsend - indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Devin Townsend – indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Random subject matter aside, normal service may be resumed for the next post. Probably.

Best wishes for the festive period.  I think it’s time to begin over-indulging….