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
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.
200ml double cream
200g dark chocolate (70%)
1tsp hot chilli powder (less, if your palate dictates)
dash of cognac or tequilia
edible glitter/cocoa powder to dust
- 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.
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. 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 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
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
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
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….