Sunday, October 28, 2007

Maggie's Trip to Ireland

Last week I had the good fortune of going on a 3-day celebration with my company to Dromland Castle, a luxury hotel in Ireland. The castle is located in western Ireland in County Clare, near the town of Shannon:

The castle is very old, dating back to the 15th or 16th century. It was rebuilt in 1835, and has been preserved with only minor changes since then, so it still looks very ancient. The outside is stately and regal, while the inside has labyrinthine hallways, stone floors and stone walls. This may give the impression that it was cold and uncomfortable, but the rooms all have modern amenities so they were very nice.

Castle from a distance

The grounds around Dromoland were stunning. We happened to have beautiful (although crisp) weather during the entire trip, which made me feel super lucky, given the fact that Ireland is typically very rainy this time of year. I got up early each morning and took a walk around, enjoying the lake, the sunshine, and the ducks. Some of my coworkers fished on the lake, others played golf, and still others did clay-pigeon shooting (!).

Web-footed friend

One night some friends and I visited a local pub called Durty Nellie's, which is famous in the region for its low ceilings and great Guinness on tap. It's also supposed to be the oldest pub in Ireland, although I imagine that title is fought over (like it is in London). As the hour grew late the locals started singing and playing stringed instruments... it was really fun. Unfortunately I forgot my camera so I don't have any pictures, but it was a great little place.

P.S. This was posted by Maggie, no matter what the little tag below says.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jaffa Cakes: The Hard Science

Specialty grocers in the US will sometimes have a section of British food items, usually filled with bad candy (Cadbury chocolate, Malteasers), curious looking cans of mystery items labeled "treacle sponge" and "mushy peas," strange sauces made by Heinz but never meant to be sold in the US, and a selection of shortbread, cookies (sorry, biscuits), and cake-like items. Within this last category you might be able to find Jaffa Cakes by McVitie's.

McVitie's Jaffa Cakes

A Jaffa Cake is essentially a small piece of sponge cake with a bit of orange jelly filling on top with the jelly side covered in chocolate. Don't call them biscuits - McVitie's sued to have them classified as cakes to get around having to pay taxes on chocolate covered biscuits. The word Jaffa comes from a city in Israel famed for its oranges, hence the slightly odd name. In the US, you can find Pim's made by the French brand LU which are the same concept in multiple flavors including orange, but they neglect to use the essential word "Jaffa".

The basic anatomy of the three major forms of Jaffa Cakes, showing the shape from above and detail in cross section.

McVitie's is by far the most popular Jaffa Cake in the UK, but there are numerous other options. So, to be completely informed, we naturally had to try out all of the commonly available Jaffa Cake options. We undertook this strenuous exercise purely out of scientific curiosity. And a desire to have something tasty with a cup of tea. For the interested or truly bored, here is a rundown of the results from best to worst:

1. Bahlsen "Messino" (Continental Jaffa Cakes): rectangular, thin, always fresh with an intense orange filling.
2. Marks & Spencer: also rectangular and thin, clearly a copy of the Messino type, but slightly less orangey if different at all.
3. LU "Pim's": circular, thick, easily removable chocolate, one of the best cakes but the chocolate is waxy and weakly flavored.
4. McVitie's: the standby, but always a bit stale and the orange filling is gummy and mild.
5. Waitrose: a copy of the McVitie's form, but even more stale and underwhelming.
6. Sainsbury's: another copy of the McVitie's form, very hard and stale, and tastes predominantly of sawdust.
7. Cadbury: this didn't get tasted because we could only find milk chocolate ones, which we couldn't bring ourselves to buy, even for science.

Shockingly, two non-UK brands, Bahlsen and LU, were in the top 3, and the one UK brand, Marks & Spencer, actually has theirs made in Germany (probably by Bahlsen). No matter what we think, McVitie's outsells all the other brands by a fair margin - to be fair, they are almost always on sale and they still taste pretty decent. I know we're supposed to be finding root beer, but we got distracted by Jaffa Cakes.

The winner of the much coveted Best Jaffa Cake According to Us Award

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The New Flat

We have finally moved into our new flat. Hooray! We have been in "move limbo" for the last 2 months now, so it is a major relief to finally have a stable place to call home. We have been lucky that we have had nice interim places to stay - even still, being adrift (but not on vacation) for 2 months is not something we want to repeat any time in the near future. This past Sunday we moved into our really cute flat in Wapping (rhymes with "topping"). We have mentioned Wapping before because we were staying fairly close to here for a while and had our anniversary dinner at Wapping Food. Wapping is best known for its historical importance in the tea, spice, and tobacco trade plus various bits of piratey history, which prompts me to say "arrrrh" and "aye matey" probably a bit more often than absolutely necessary. Our building is an old warehouse that has been converted into flats, a currently fashionable thing to do to old interesting buildings in the area. The Thames is about 50 yards away with easy access and nice views of Tower Bridge and the river boat traffic.

Our new building

The nice park next to our building

The Thames with The Angel pub in the distance

For celebrity name-dropping, Rod Stewart, Graham Norton, and Helen Mirren live in Wapping (when they aren't somewhere else). Helen doesn't own a car and apparently rides the bus and uses an Oyster Card to get around. Graham Norton walks his labradoodle on Wapping High Street in the mornings and reportedly looks like grim death in person, despite his bubbly TV personality. I want to track down Rod Stewart and have him sing "Maggie May" to Maggie for her birthday (because, of course, no one has asked him this before), or, barring this, at least touch his fluffy hair and run away...but I digress. Wapping isn't your typical trendy celebrity neighborhood, and I'm sure the Jude Laws, Hugh Grants, and Sienna Millers of the world will not be seen anywhere near here. Wapping is simply peaceful and leafy, with nice views of the river, and off of every tourist's radar screen (not to mention tourist maps, since east London simply gets cut off).

Wapping also has several musical connections, including "The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette" by Small Faces, and gets mentioned in several songs that need a word to rhyme with something ending in "-opping". For fans of The Smiths, they recorded some of their early records at a studio here in Wapping and featured our neighbouring pub, The Turk's Head, in the video for "We Hate It When...". I have no idea what this song is, I honestly don't really care for The Smiths, and I don't think I've ever heard anything by Small Faces before, but thanks anyway, Google. I was originally going to call this post "Banned of Gypsys" because we were finally settling down, but then I realized that the pun made absolutely no sense. And yet here I am writing about it anyway. I think I might be digressing again.

The canal that runs through Wapping from St. Katherine's Wharf

We'll post more photos of our place soon. I would post them now, but Maggie has flown off to Ireland today for a few nights in a castle and her company's annual awards party, so, naturally, she has the camera.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Tunbridge Wells

Part I: Scenes from a Mexican Restaurant

Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant, Tunbridge Wells, UK. 8:00 p.m. Andy and Maggie enter. It is a large restaurant with a few people seated at tables, but mostly empty tables in the front and in the other rooms.

Andy: Hi, two for dinner please.
Hostess: Drchit blortpix fleim table?
Andy: Umm… yeah, sure, a table would be great.

Hostess looks confused.

Andy: [Guessing] Oh, no, we didn’t book a table.

Hostess looks at her reservation book. She looks concerned. It is 8:00 p.m. and restaurant is 90% empty. She motions to another woman who comes over and also looks concerned.

Hostess: I’m sorry, but we are full for the evening.

We glance around. Place is still almost empty. Tables of all sizes are available.

Andy: Urrr…
Hostess: I’m sorry, but the tables are booked and they will be arriving very soon, so we can’t seat you.
Andy: Okay, I guess we’ll just go somewhere else.

Andy & Maggie exeunt confused and giggling.

Oh well, so much for our first experience with Mexican food in the UK.


Part II: More on Tunbridge Wells from Maggie…

So Andy and I ended up at a delicious noodle restaurant on the night in question. It was really funny - we were tempted to go back to the Mexican place after dinner and peek in the windows to see if all of the tables were actually taken.

At any rate, we had a great time this weekend in Tunbridge Wells, a small town located in Kent, about an hour south of London. The town is very traditionally English - cute with lots of cobblestone streets and local stores. Here are some pictures to give you a flavor for it:

Maggie’s Favorite Road

There’s an old shopping area in town called “The Pantiles” that’s full of pretty (and expensive) shops and a pub called "The Ragged Trousers". Our favorite place by far was an amazing kitchen / cooking store called Trevor Mottram. We both saw lots of beautiful pots and pans we’d wished we could take home, not to mention French linens, teapots, casseroles, etc.

I think Andy wanted to abscond with some enameled cast iron pots

Overall we had a great time. It was interesting to see a part of England that is so beautiful, quiet, sleepy, and surrounded by sheep - very different than the places in central London where we hang out every day.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Columbia Road

London is home to countless weekend markets. Some of these are posh (and trendy), filled with gourmet foods and alpaca sweaters; others are grungy (and trendy), filled with knock-off clothing, old furniture, used romance novels, and the occasional used board game. Most tourist guide books will list some of the major ones, but you will often stumble across three other ones on the way to find the one in the book. The Sunday Columbia Road flower market is generally in the guide books because it makes for nice photographs, but I doubt many tourists make it there anymore - there is nothing remotely touristy nearby, the nearest tube stop has closed, and it now requires a long walk or bus ride to get there. It is definitely worth the effort, although I don't think this will be a weekly ritual for us.

Imagine a farmers market devoted entirely to flowers and house plants, and imagine it stretches for about 5 long blocks and is swarming with people. It amazes me that a market like this can exist at all, but it seems to thrive. The competition here is fierce, and the vendors aggressively go after their next sale. I think we heard the word "fiver" here more times than I had previously in my whole life. Everything will cost you "only a fiver, just for you sir!" The best part is that these hawkers are usually kind of burly guys with gruff accents, and they can be frequently heard shouting very non-burly-man things like "lovely hydrangeas, only a fiver!" or "fragrant lavender, a flat for only a fiver!" or "You won't see a delicate Phalaenopsis like this anywhere else, going fast! Only a fiver!" Quite a scene. It is hard to imagine a crowded chaotic flower market with frenzied buyers vying to be the next to buy a Euphorbia, or someone pushing in front of you grab the nicest flat of pink heather, until you come here.

I think I spy a tree fern -->