06 April, 2006

haggis, neeps and tatties

No, for real. I forget who it was who said that the Americans and English were two peoples separated by a common language? Well, I wonder what whoever it was would say about the Scottish.

Avery and settled into our cozy room, lined on two walls with the original 13th century stone of which the castle is made. The room was on the ground floor and looked directly onto a sloping hill which Avery found useful for going up and down, exiting through the bedroom window itself. After a bit of exploring, we decided to have lunch in the Orangery, the conservatory cafe with a stunning view of the river Eck and the valley of Dalhousie. The menu was presented by Grace, who took care of us for our entire visit, and she laughed to see our reaction to the specialty dish of the house: "Stacked Haggis with Bashed Neeps and Clampit Tatties." I decided that if we were going to get the most out of our Scottish adventure, we'd better start right off admitting we had no idea what anything was! Avery, I must tell you, informed me that "neeps" was the medieval term for turnips. Of course it was. So Grace filled in that haggis is oatmeal and various spices, cooked in the stomach lining of a sheep. That cannot be comfortable for the sheep. "Why not just cook it in a saucepan?" I asked reasonably enough. "The stomach lining is to give the oatmeal flavor," Grace assured me. That's what I was afraid of. Then "bashed neeps" were merely mashed turnips, and "clampit tatties" were sliced potatoes. At this point Avery and I were completely exhausted! I ordered a toasted ham and mozzarella sandwich on balsamic vinegar-infused ciabatta, nice and familiar. Avery ordered what was the first of about a thousand smoked salmon sandwiches.

Directly after lunch the reception lady reminded us of Avery's mid-afternoon horseback riding lesson! We pulled on our new Barbour jackets, grabbed her helmet, changed her from kilt to jodhpurs, and were ready to ride. Except that it turned out the stable was a taxi ride away. We were picked up by who became just about our best friend during our stay: Derek the Taxi Driver, of D & D Cars. His partner is called Derek as well! Their dispatcher conversations in the car were completely unintelligible, but when Derek spoke directly to us, we could understand. I adore that accent. We arrived at the Edinburgh and Lasswade Riding Centre, so named for the village because once in the mists of time a "lass" was able to "wade" across the swollen river during a flood and save half the village from destruction. Yeah, something like that. Anyhow, we were greeted at the stable by no fewer than a dozen yapping little dogs, some Jack Russell terriers and some a skanky, dirty version of the royal corgies. Through the course of the three days we visited the stable, the dogs became gradually filthier and filthier, leading us to believe that Fridays are bath day.

Avery shared a beginner's lesson, sort of a mixup, but she was just happy to be on a horse. She rode Ginger, a school pony with sides of steel, following her instructor up a steep hill, through gorgeous trees and shrubs, and right out of my line of vision. To comfort myself I called up my brother-in-law Joel and got the lowdown on my niece's latest brilliant accomplishments. The child can say "bubble"! Surely Harvard is next. How we miss her. An hour later Avery appeared, having had a heavenly but slightly dangerous trail ride, over fallen trees and a too-high rushing river. It was arranged that the next day would be a regular school lesson, in the indoor arena. We were collected by Derek, who was most interested to hear about Avery's riding back in New York, and he informed us that this was the stable frequented by the Scottish MP Robin Cook. Until he dropped dead on a mountainside, that is. We confessed to Derek that one of our greatest wishes during our visit was to see some spring lambs, but that the hotel had not known where to send us. "I'll give it a think and let you know," he reassured us.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Falconry. About four years ago the Castle finally succeeded in its quest to lure a local Falconry to the Castle Grounds, and under the superb generalship of Julie and Tom, it runs like clockwork. I admit to a little ongoing discomfort with birds being tethered to little perches, or shut up in aviaries. The staff try to dispel this with a little placard that explains, some birds would be uncomfortable in a pen, so they are perched, and some want the freedom to fly about a bit, so they are penned. This all ignores what must be a basic fact: all birds would rather not be in captivity! But perhaps not. Anyway, we visited all the falcons, eagles, kestrels and owls, and made an appointment for the following day to have Avery go falconing. We picked up a little scroll tied up in black watch plaid ribbon that promised to explain all the things you could hire the animals to do. We sat on the stone steps outside our bedroom, under what the English call a "blinking" sky, clouds rolling rapidly over a blue, blue sky and bright sun. We decided that our favorite falconry option was this: for a mere 280 pounds, you can get an owl to deliver the engagement ring to your proposed fiancee. Right on the castle grounds. Of course you should probably choose between that and having the wedding ring delivered to the chapel during the wedding itself. I think both deliveries would be overkill. Can you imagine having the owl swoop down, while you're down on one knee, and the girl in front of you says, "Actually, no."

Finally it seemed time for dinner, and the reception desk lady asked us, "Dungeon or Orangery?" Now what would you say? So we found ourselves deep down in the bowels of the castle, surrounded by suits of armor and displays of swords, at a white-tableclothed table for two, the only people there. We talked in extremely hushed tones until we began to feel silly, but there was something hush-making about the atmosphere. Gradually other people appeared, most of them looking like they'd just had a diamond delivered by an owl. We decided to share a main course, since neither of us has enough appetite for the generally enormous sizes of restaurant meals. For a starter I had ordered foie gras on a little bed of lentils, with horseradish sauce. Now, I don't really like lentils, but these were the tiny little ones from Le Puy in France and I figured the foie gras would make up for it. I convinced Avery to try the cured salmon and turbot, and the child bravely did try it, but quickly determined that smoked salmon is good, cured salmon is not. Especially sprinkled with dill. But bless her heart to try it. Shortly after, the waitress brought a little so-called "amuse geuele," a little gift from the chef to amuse our palates. It was a lovely little single ravioli with a pretty carrot coulis in the shape of an exclamation point. I ate half the little ravioli, as did Avery, and then over her shoulder I heard the waitress present the same dish to the couple behind us. "This is a snail ravioli with carrot coulis, compliments of the chef." Eeeww! How could I have missed that salient word when she gave the dish to us?? I couldn't eat the rest, but decided to throw Avery to the wolves and see what she thought, and she ate it bravely thinking it was mushrooms. Slightly shudder-making. Now John has been known to eat an entire platter of periwinkles, with a little pin. But not I.

Our main course, however, made up for the scary little ravioli. Dover sole meuniere, which I have often eaten but always thought had melted anchovies in the buttery sauce. But no, our lovely headwaiter explained that "meunier" is French for "flour-maker," and that "meuniere" sauce is made by dredging the fish in flour and then cooking in butter until brown, which results in a really complex, crunchy flavor. Delicious. White asparagus with it, whose charm was lost on Avery, a huge green asparagus fan. What a trooper, to eat so many odd and fancy things. She decided that vanilla ice cream in our room was a proper reward, so off we went. As she spooned it up, I came clean about the ravioli. "And you let me FINISH it?" she was horrified. "I mean, I like snails! As ANIMALS!" We came up with a mantra for the evening, "Escar-No-No-No."

Saturday saw us at her falconry lesson. Tom took us all around the property with two other kids and their older brother mean to take pictures, and first we went out with a little kestrel called Alpha. What happens is the birds are brought to their "flying weight" in advance of a lesson, which means they weigh enough to feel well to fly, but they are hungry enough to come back to people with food, in this case, rather icky little dead yellow chicks, but OK. So each child wore a glove, and Alpha came back and back for his little bits of lunch. Then we took Alpha back to the falconry and got Boomer the Tawny Owl from his perch, and came out for lunch as well. Really a lovely sport! You can just see the animal judging whether it would be nicer to simply fly away for good, or to have another bite of chick.

At lunch, wolfing down yet another pile of smoked salmon sandwiches, I told the waitress I had heard we were going to be treated to a wedding that evening. "Well, we were," she said with relish, "but it has been cancelled." Oooh! What would it take to cancel a wedding the day of. Perhaps an owl pooped on the fiancee as she received the ring, and she thought it was a bad omen?
"But the guests have decided that, having paid for it all in advance, why not come along anyway and have a family reunion?"

Back to the stables with Derek, who told us that after the lesson he would take us to see some lambs. The dear man had spent half the day before driving around the countryside looking for sheep that had lambed, and had finally run a flock to earth in Bonnyrigg. So Avery had rather a boring lesson with little beginners (but still enjoyed it), and I spent the time with other mothers in the viewing gallery, reflecting afterward that it's a universal experience: mothers watching little girls ride around and around, trading stories about our children falling, being thrown, the first canter, what sort of saddle, etc. After the lesson, Derek ferried us to a farm where there were lambs. And not just ordinary lambs, a special kind called Jacob sheep, marked with brown and cream blobs. The lambs were quite prepared to walk right to the fence to say hello to us, until their disgruntled mothers shooed them away and then spent a lot of time baaa-ing at us to leave. There is just nothing cuter than a lamb. Dear Derek! "Will you be jumping, now, at your lesson tomorrow, Avery? I'll be wanting to hear all about it."

It was the most beautiful afternoon when we got back, and Avery spent a lot of time spinning around on the expansive green lawn, making herself dizzy and falling down. We visited the birds, explored the river bank, and had high tea in the gorgeous castle library. As pretty as it was, however, it was distinguished by being the only library I have ever been in that had not a single book I wanted to read. Avery contented herself with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," since the Form Six girls at King's College had performed it just before break. The most memorable thing about the performance was, I gathered, the girl who whenever she forgot her lines, said, "Oh, SNAP!" I had a lovely traditional egg and cress sandwich and Avery had three different kinds of scone, with the inevitable clotted cream and a whole tree full of tiny jam and preserve choices!

Dinner that night was in the Orangery, one night in the Dungeon having proved sufficient. We shared a gorgeous rib-eye steak with huge piles of french fries, and I felt like I was back in the goldfish bowl of Tribeca when the waitress asked, "Well, now, did Derek manage to find you some lambs, then? And how was the horseback riding?" We left the dining room to go look for bunnies under the fir tree by the falconry (the rabbits sleep all day while the birds are out and then there are simply dozens of them on the lawn when the sun goes down and the birds are put away). It was chilly, but we persevered, crouching by the warren under the bush, and being rewarded now and then by little pairs of bunny ears, then a face, and finally little paws all tucked up under bunny chins. No one was brave enough to come out with us, however. On our way back into the hotel, shivering and looking forward to hot water bottles in our bedroom, out floated the sound of bagpipe playing, and there were the erstwhile wedding guests, the men in full Scottish garb with diced hose and kilts, all one family tartan. There were tiny little boys as well, little versions of their dads, all being played into the Dungeon for their dinner. What a sight!

Sunday was one last ride, and it was a great one. She got in with an advanced class, and the instructor was Marjory, the actual owner of the stables. Boy were they worked hard. My favorite of the games was when she paired off the rider and they had to try to ride side by side, at exactly the same pace, each holding one end of a crop! I really feared that one or the other in each pair would simply pull the other off, into the dirt. But it didn't happen. It was thrilling to see Avery get right back at the top of her game, trotting, cantering, changing direction, all her old skills. The only glitch came at the end when she didn't know if she should join the jumpers or not, and in the end her pony Snowy decided she had had enough, and left the ring. Next time... All the more motivation to find the right barn here. And perhaps on Sunday we will.

So we came home on the afternoon train on Monday, and while it was a lot of fun for awhile to look out the window at TONS of lambs in the rolling fields, after a couple of hours the fun paled and we were ready to get off the train. Unfortunately at that point there were three hours of the journey left. So we decided in the end that the sleeper train both ways is ideal. I'm ready for a journey on a train that takes even longer, so some research will have to be done.

Home again to host Anna for a sleepover, and then all day Tuesday at an amazing safari park in Woburn, about an hour outside the city, with all Becky's girls. Tigers, giraffes, elephants, black bears, and my favorite, marmosets! As we walked around, John called from Hong Kong, having a great time at the Sevens rugby matches and about to fly to Tokyo. We will all be glad to be reunited on Saturday...