More than Haggis

Fluffy eggs whipped and frothed to perfection, a Lazy Susan covered in local preserves, and tray after tray of the smokiest, umami-est, salmon I’ve ever devoured: this was my breakfast for three straight mornings in Scotland and only a nibble of things to come.

Among the foodtopias of the world, Scotland remains forgotten. Its beauty is conjured through images of towering peaks, trains turning bends worthy of the Hogwarts Express, cold rain spitting down, and miles and miles of land to get lost in. I had forgotten the raw beauty of a fresh oyster, of local ingredients deemed low in a world of haute cuisine. After all, when was the last time you heard someone wax rhapsodic about haggis and neeps?

Arriving at Torridon Estate, a centuries-old home and grounds in the Wester Ross village of Torridon, my high school friends and I drove down a gravel path, rhododendron blooming violet on each side. Torridon sits between the River Abhainn Coire Mhicnobaill and Loch Torridon, an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, and about an hour’s drive west from Inverness. Nearby, Beinn Alligin juts out of the earth to a dizzying 3,235 feet, containing two Munros, or Scottish mountains over 3000 feet high. As I looked out Torridon’s window to Beinn Alligin, its peaks seemed to glint invitingly; I couldn’t wait to climb them.

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Mountain, Sea, Sky

The next morning, I woke early, prowling the house as if I were both a Lady of Torridon and a servant downstairs. When breakfast began, I entered the dining room, complete with wide windows, and high, crown molded ceilings. But all of that escaped my notice at first glance. The smell of warm eggs, sausage hot off the griddle, and other things I couldn’t place beckoned. Walking over to the buffet, my eyes bulged, and I hoped my stomach was up to the challenge. I gathered cereal and fruit for my first breakfast. Breakfast two included typical Scottish breakfast sausage, eggs, creamy-soft cheese, and that salmon, quite truthfully, perfection in food form. Breakfast three included more salmon, obviously, and some toast with jam. As I sat nibbling my toast, the lady of the house, Sarah, entered, Scottish fiddle in hand. Her bow flew across the strings as she kept beat with her well-worn boot, and we clapped along in time. The smell of freshly caught Atlantic smoked salmon reached my nostrils and I realized I might know what Heaven is like.

That afternoon, we crossed over a footbridge to walk along Loch Torridon towards the Atlantic. We passed the estate’s old church, now a glass fronted modern cottage. Farther along we saw sheep, and a couple walking their cat, Putin. The ocean glimmered beyond, but we had to turn around when we saw a camper van with a family inside; it felt rude to pass a stirring family.

After our day tramping about, we spoke to Sarah, who owns the estate with her husband Felix. She asked us how long we were staying and when we told her we’d be there three nights, she replied, “That’s good. Most people stay one night and then fuck off.” We had chosen the exact perfect place to hole up in the Highlands.

Our first formal foray into Scottish cuisine began at 1887, the Torridon Hotel’s fine dining restaurant. My friends and I arrived and were guided to a parlor resplendent with 20s glamour. We took their “which whisky are you?” quiz and looked at a map of Scotland marked with whisky distilleries and their styles. More unsure of our choice, we each ordered a whisky. I ordered the Balvenie 12 Year, a distillery owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own neighboring Glenfiddich. I brought the Balvenie to my nose and was instantly transported to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, which I associate with sugary, rich honey. I tipped the glass to my mouth and the sweet, languorous taste of honey flowed down my throat. Later, when my Dad asked if I brought home any whisky, I promised him only the best: Balvenie 12 year.

One bottle of wine, two whiskies, and seven courses later, we arrived back at Torridon Estate. Sarah’s husband, Felix was telling his visiting friends goodnight and asked if we wanted some wine. Never to turn away a free drink, we slumped down on the vermilion couch by the fire to tipple some more.

“That’s Donald Trump’s couch, you know.” My friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in confusion. Quite apart from being taken dramatically out of our holiday mindset, we weren’t sure we’d heard correctly. Felix went on to explain that Trump, having got rid of a hotel in Scotland, needed to sell its furniture, and quickly. Felix proceeded to buy several chairs and couches, and 100 pendant lights for about 10% of their retail price. Pouring us each another glass of red, Felix gallantly responded to our questions about Brexit and Scottish independence; he avoided these topics by deftly switching to praise of Angela Merkel, Germany’s progressive chancellor. Some say politics and wine don’t mix, but with the right host, and the right couch, they just might.

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Highland Games, Scotland

The next day promised a hike as the weather looked comfortable (meaning gray and 60s). Our directions from Sarah went along the lines of “stay on this side of the river and follow the path as far as it goes.” Her instructions were easy to follow; I proved less successful in convincing my friends to turn left for a climb up the mountain. Instead, we followed the straight and narrow through a valley, two imposing Munros on either side. About an hour and a half into the hike, we met two women in their 60s walking with their dogs, two charmingly bread loaf sized terriers that I’m sure would have outstripped us all. We stopped shortly for lunch, my best friend soaking her butt in a small puddle on the rock where she had chosen to roost. Although we had shed layer after layer on our slow, steady climb, the wind proved too strong for us once seated. So back we went, butt-wet and tummy-full.

As I looked at the mountains surrounding us, I had to remember to watch my step so I wouldn’t break an ankle. Moss covered every rock, slick from recent rain or the passing river. The sky changed from a faint white to raincloud gray, to palest blue, and when we could see it, the loch shimmered as the sun sparkled above. The mountains rose straight up from the sea on either side of us, looking like sleeping trolls cursed to stone forevermore.

After a few hours of “hiking”, my friends and I needed more nourishment. We drove ten minutes down the coastal road to Sheldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen, another recommendation from Sarah. Upon entering, we noticed a Viszla dozing on the floor while a terrier sat on its owner’s lap, waiting for a stray crumb. The dogs and owners alike seemed content, talking with the bartender, and eating fries and fresh seafood. After a quick pet, we sat and perused the menu. I asked for oysters, fresh beer, and a dish of grilled goat cheese with pine nuts. Looking out at the loch beyond, feeling the cold hard pattern of the oyster shell, smelling the salt as I brought it to my nose, it was pure joy to sip it down. What more could a girl want? Another pint, of course.

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Bliss (in the form of fresh Atlantic oysters)

Our last evening at Torridon, we relaxed and dreamed about our next stop on this Gaelic culinary tour. Sitting opposite the hearth on that Trump-red couch, we talked about a doctoral dissertation, court trials, and baroque gowns, things worth working towards, in other words. Sarah, Torridon’s owner extraordinaire and femme insouciante, told of the many types of people that were coming to the area: moneyed drivers of Maseratis, a Big Pharma executive and his wife who turned the estate’s kirk into a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled marvel. It left me wondering where I fit in, with dreams of an itinerant life waylaid by the realities of bills and debt, at least temporarily. Sarah’s brash words and joyful music gave an aura of hope; if she could cast aside other demands for a life full of travellers, music, and sweet smoked salmon, why not me?

After the unexpected musings and epicurean wonders of Torridon, we headed east to Speyside- whisky country, for the uninitiated. Rather than sleeping inside old Auchinroath House, we tested the elements as we glamped. True to the name, the tents included heaters and full-size beds. Drifting off to the changing rhythm of dripping rain, comforter pulled tight around my chin, I slept for hours. I woke around four am to dawn’s dim light and a melody of birds, so I decided to explore. Walking uphill behind our tents, I came to the top of a small knoll which looked out at the rolling land all around. I could see sheep and cattle grazing for miles up and down the countless hills. Back down and around the polytunnel greenhouse, I passed four or five calves in spotted fawn to reddish-brown. They stopped and we stared at each other for a time, until I walked away announcing to their mothers, “Just taking a walk! Enjoy the grass.”

For dinner that night, we went to The Highlander Inn, a hotel, pub and restaurant local to Craigellachie- pronounced Craig-AL-icky in the local brogue. They had whisky flights, which I naively assumed would be small pours. I’m partial to whisky that tastes like it swam in a peat bog, but I wanted a whisky tasting with a bit more diversity. So, I chose the Alternative Highland Flight, and substituted one of the Scotch whiskies for a Japanese whisky. The bottle was pretty and that’s the best I can say. Six whiskies and a dinner later, we found ourselves tipsy, warm, and ready for bed. We wound our way back to our glamping tents, sure to sleep soundly under the cloud-covered stars.

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99 barrels of Scotch on the wall….

The next day, after lunch at Glenfiddich, we drove to Johnston’s of Elgin, a two-hundred-year-old wool mill with a warrant as manufacturers of estate tweed from Prince Charles. I had left the US dreaming of a soft wool blanket, a green and blue tartan to match my family’s heritage. At Johnston’s, my friend found a deeply discounted wool blanket that raised my hopes immoderately. As I sifted through utility wool blankets that scratched a bit too much, and softest cashmere that cost hundreds, I felt my hopes sink. In the next room, I passed my hand over blanket after blanket, quickly turning over price tags to find my diamond in the rough Scottish wool. I finally felt something soft but not so delicate that a spill wouldn’t ruin. I looked at the price tag and exhaled a sigh of relief. The wool was a seafoam chevron, with two patches of color-blocked light blue and creamy moss- colors of the Scottish beach.

Not long after our purchases were wrapped up with a bow, we drove to the village of Cullen. The town is famous in Scotland and beyond for its Cullen Skink, a dish made not from the slippery salamander-like reptile, but cold-smoked haddock in a rich potato-filled chowder. It was a typical Scottish day, cesious sky with rain always imminent. The drizzle came down softly, but the cold stayed in my bones as the wind from the ocean blew through me. Cullen sits on a cliff above Cullen Bay, white waves crashing into rocks that have endured its onslaught for centuries. It made for a romantic picture, but not one we wanted to experience outdoors. We headed for the nearest pub, finding one that looked like my grandmother’s living room in the 90s, framed applique included. When I went to use the bathroom, I noticed a picture of Tony the Tiger on the wood-panelled wall. I smiled at the thought of someone’s grandma sewing him onto a throw pillow.

After a pint, we had worked up an appetite, so we decided to stay in Cullen for dinner. At the Royal Oak Hotel, we ordered Cullen Skink. It came, hot in its cream ceramic bowl, ready to be indulged. Putting spoon to mouth, I sipped, then bit into some haddock and potato. The chowder tasted of ocean and bacon, the rich broth mixing it all together magically; Cullen Skink did not disappoint.

We rounded out our tour of the Highlands with a visit to the city- Glasgow, where students and hipsters mingle with dog lovers and joggers. I had read somewhere that the best haggis in Scotland could be found at The Ubiquitous Chip (so named for Scotland’s supposed chip on its shoulder). Walking from our hideaway in West Glasgow, we trotted down leafy paths with urban gardens. As we turned into the alleyway to our destination, a mingling of whitewashed buildings awaited. The restaurant itself is part greenhouse, part 1920s Paris salon, with huge skylights bathing all its plants in sun and warmth. As advised, we ordered the haggis, a Scottish dish usually made from a sheep’s internal organs, mixed with oats, seasoning, and traditionally cooked in the animal’s stomach (if that doesn’t make your mouth water, then you are completely normal). On a platter with traditional neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), the spiced venison haggis tasted slightly of anise and rich game. We returned the plate, sparkling white, in a matter of minutes.

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Pigeon, far right

We noticed another, weirder item alongside the haggis starter: pigeon salad. Never one to refuse an unorthodox meal, I asked the waitress about it. “It’s my favorite thing on the menu. I’d order it every time if I could.” I wished my stomach were emptier, so I had room for pigeon. Unable to resist, we returned the next day for late lunch and a pigeon. Dark like duck, fatty like goose, the small strips of pigeon nestled among the greens, melted on the tongue. Pigeon, rat of the air, is indeed fine dining.

Rarely do trips turn out as I expect. From fine pigeon to missed hikes, the unexpected frames how I live while away. But I also travel to escape my expectations, or at least let them drift behind while I soak in the present. An easy romp and rainy sky are perfect reasons to cozy up next to a fire, whisky in hand and slàinte mhath on my lips.

Returning home, I sat at my desk and tapped out responses in Outlook, dreaming of Scottish peaks and wild salmon. On a whim, I checked prices to Inverness for a long weekend and saw a sale on tickets from the West Coast. I set a tracker for September, hoping against hope, that sale would get me back to Torridon, where Beinn Alligin’s two Munros waited and watched, ready for me to test my luck.

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Why I Joined Peace Corps

“Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall.” Alain De Botton. The Art of Travel

A couple of years ago, a study emerged claiming there are 2 types of people: those born with a certain “wanderlust” gene, one that would spur its owner on to risk-prone behaviors like boarding aircrafts for hard to pronounce locales, or putting too much wasabi on a particularly pungent piece of sushi, and those born without it. I implicitly distrust these types of studies; how could a piece of my DNA inform my desire to ride on a train for seemingly endless days over seemingly endless swathes of Siberian landscape, punctuated by stops on platforms hawking hard boiled eggs, ice cream on a stick, and those fuzzy-furry Russian hats we all secretly want to wear?

Beach house in Treasure Beach

Beach house in Treasure Beach

DNA aside, upon reading the book whose quotation introduced this post, I decided to uncover why it is I joined Peace Corps, beyond the reasons I stated in my application essay. If I figured this out, perhaps a piece of me would begin to unravel like a bit of loose string on an old shirt, and once pulled out, I would understand myself more fully. Continue reading

beauty is dirt caked fingernails

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Beauty is fleeting.”

Red lips pouting at me from the mirror, highlighter catching the fluorescent light and making my cheekbones shimmer subtly, a highly arched eyebrow raised in scrutiny, I gave myself the once-over, attempting to leave no detail unnoticed.

Growing up in a world where beauty is often touted as the ultimate achievement, especially for women, I find it difficult not to care about what I look like, at least to a certain point.

Fortunately, there’s a different narrative.

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Red-ripe Tomatoes…Guess who’s makin’ pizza Friday?!

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Each Day, One Difference, One Person: My Manifesto

When I woke up this morning, stretching and daydreaming of the pancakes I would later make, I thought to myself, “This day is for me. I’m going to do what I want.”

About an hour later, a good friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer called me crying. As a Floridian, she was worried about her friends, especially those she couldn’t reach. No one expects such carnage to happen in her backyard; this shock mingles with a helplessness that makes you wish you could be there to do something, to help in some way, while the other half of your brain tells you there’s no difference you could possibly make.

While washing dishes, I thought about my own responses to these tragedies. Terror, anger, and despair rush through my veins in waves of intense emotion, muddying my thoughts as I try to make sense of them. The problem is that there is no sense in actions of deep-seated hate, such as in the attacks in Orlando. So how should I respond? What should I do? What can I do, if anything? Continue reading

Jamaican Lessons I

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Sunset in Portland

People say you learn something new every day, but I imagine I learn much more during this great experiment of life. My dad always says, “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” to which I always reply, “Guess it doesn’t really matter then, does it?” What I do remember from what I’ve learned pon dis rok, though, I’d like to share; I find it stunning how differently we humans live our lives, yet all still smile at a pink streaked sunset, laugh when our 86 year old Grandma farts, and cry in the security lane of an airport’s Departures terminal, glancing back to see our Mom crying too.

And so begins my first installment of Jamaican Lessons… Continue reading

How to Order the Perfect Cone

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Me eating ice cream at Devon House, Jamaica

I walk into an ice cream shop with two thoughts: 1) What scoop pairs well with chocolate? 2) Do they have waffle cones? At some point in my 27 years, I’ve become a fastidious ice cream eater. I can’t pinpoint when this happened, but I can rationalize it. Better yet, by the time I’m finished, you may never order ice cream the same way again. Here, then, are the Cash Rules for Ordering and Eating Ice Cream (yes, they’re more like guidelines).

  1. I always order two flavors, and one of them is almost always chocolate. If you don’t like chocolate, skip to step two- this step is not for you.

    Chocolate goes well with almost all other ice cream flavors. Vanilla? Duh. Blood orange? A combination I salivate over like a Pavlovian dog when memories of cobblestone and cranberry colored citrus creep into my cranium. Cinnamon? Never question the power that cinnamon and chocolate combined wield.

    The fact remains, ice cream flavors are a reflection of what we eat for desserts, so you won’t find kale and quinoa ice cream stocked at your local creamery. Furthermore, chocolate is one of the most common dessert ingredients, and clearly the best. What else can take a frozen banana from “why?” to “why do I not eat this every night?” What other food comes from a magical plant that offers antioxidants, instant pleasure, and the release of dopamine into the bloodsteam, scientifically proving its toe-curling, eye-closing, beyond-articulated-speech powers?

  2. So I’ve ordered my scoop of chocolate. You may think two flavors is overkill, but if you’re already getting chocolate (and if you’re not, go back and reread step one), you need to get an exploratory flavor. Maybe you’re in Bali, and they have dragon fruit ice cream, and you don’t think you could get that elsewhere. Maybe you’re really in the mood for citrus. Maybe you have no idea of what you want. Since we already know it will taste good with chocolate, think about what flavors you’re in the mood for, what’s common and/or tasty locally, and what the shop specializes in. Triangulate your flavor mood with local offerings and store specialties, and you’ve found your second flavor!
  3. Order waffle cone, if available. It’s less shitty-sugar tasting and has a snappier bite-crunch than sugar cones. Who cares if it costs more? You’re already spending more than one would want on flavored frozen cow’s breast milk.

    Also, if you’re thinking of ordering a bowl, just don’t. Ice cream is a dessert for the mature, for the young, and all ages in between. You don’t need to use a spoon just to showcase your refined motor skills. Real ice cream eaters order a cone. Forget the bowl, embrace the cone! (If traveling in a vehicle, this becomes more acceptable, as ice cream in your lap is worse than ice cream in a bowl.)

  4. LICK, don’t bite! I’ll never understand why some people bite their ice cream instead of licking it. When I lick it, each flavor spreads across my tongue, sweeping from the sweet buds to the tangy; I slowly embrace the creamy, cold concoction cooling my tongue. If you bite, you get ice cream all over your face, feel stabbing waves of icy pain in your teeth, and most sadly, the ice cream is gone more quickly. So lick!
  5. Enjoy! You’ve come a long way, so savor the most flavor diverse dessert in the world!

As a treat, I leave you with the most unforgettable cones I’ve licked and lapped to completion. Sweet dreams truly are made of these:

  • Blood orange and dark chocolate gelato, Chiaso, Italy
  • Cinnamon OR dragon fruit, Ubud, Bali (but NOT together; order with chocolate! My mouth was a little too fiery after eating a cinnamon/dragon fruit combo…)
  • Any creamy goodness, with chocolate, from Annapolis Ice Cream Company, Annapolis, Maryland. I’ve had the opportunity to try their cones many a time so maybe it’s local pride, but honestly, this shit is goooood.
  • Rum raisin or Devon Stout, Devon House, Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaican alcohol + Ice cream = DUH. Order it.
  • Absolutely any flavors you come across in Sicily. I am not exaggerating when I say most days I spent there involved two trips to a gelato shop, sometimes three. There’s a reason for it. Go, eat, and conquer!

How to Eat Chicken Foot

  1. Fly (or boat, or swim) to Jamaica

    Flying to Jamaica Photo Credit Stephen

    Flying to Jamaica
    Photo Credit Stephen

  2. Find a family to take you in until at least Saturday.
  3. Wait until Saturday Soup Day.
  4. On Saturday, your host family will make you soup, because Saturday is Soup Day, a day on which Jamaicans let a pot of soup simmer for hours. Make sure you ask for chicken foot in the soup.
  5. Don’t stare at the ominously puckered chicken foot as your soup is set before you. Picturing Chicken-You-One-Chased won’t help either.
  6. Eat the chicken neck if it’s there. You’ll know it’s a neck because it looks like a neck. It’s meaty goodness!

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

  7. Do glance at your host family as they eat the chicken foot. They will most likely spoon the foot up to mouth level, from where they will take their fingers, pinch the foot at its widest part, and bite off all three toes in one chomp.
  8. Do what they just did. Bite off the three toes.
  9. Repeat with the part of the chicken foot you pinched. Don’t eat the bone, but the cartilage is edible.
  10. Enjoy eating food some would not deem worthy of the word.
  11. Thank your host family!
  12. Help with the dishes, remembering to ask how to correctly wash dishes in Jamaica so you have content for your next blog post 😉

One Perfect Night

Palais Garnier

A view of the chandelier and Chagall-painted ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris

I wish I could have seen my face as I stepped inside Paris’ Palais Garnier. I could feel my eyes growing larger, my neck tilting to catch every last detail, and my cheeks tensing because I couldn’t stop smiling. I saw women in floor-length dresses, wrapped in furs, arm-in-arm with their tux-clad lovers. I saw young girls similarly awed by the Opéra’s majesty, running about and pointing emphatically.

I walked up the grand staircase cut from Italian marble, soft light reflecting off each step. Every time I see a staircase like this, I can’t help but think that people just look sexier on staircases. Why else would Jack have that awed grin on his face as Rose descends the Titanic’s grand staircase?

I walked up and up, and entered my box. It had a place for coats, a little bench, and individual chairs overlooking the stage. I imagined myself in the nineteenth century, waiting as my friends and admirers came to my box during intermission to gossip about everyone else.

I leaned over the edge of the box, holding the column with an iron grip, straining my neck to see every last detail of Chagall’s colorful explosion on the ceiling. He painted scenes from various operas, from Carmen to L’oiseau de feu to The Magic Flute, indicating to which composer each opera belonged.  Some may think the newer ceiling clashes with the late-nineteenth century building, but I thought the ceiling balanced the auditorium in a way that paintings of nymphs and goddesses from antiquity never could.

When the curtains raised, dancers in Christian Lacroix-designed costumes sprung about on stage, telling the story of La Source, in which a beautiful water nymph sacrifices herself so that a hunter she falls in love with can be with the woman he loves. As the dancers moved, light would catch the Swarovski crystals adorning their costumes, splashing glittery light across the stage.

I felt my eyes become watery as the water nymph sacrificed herself and the two lovers embraced. I didn’t want the night to end! Descending the grand staircase and watching again as the spectators glided down the steps in their fancy dress, I beamed.  There are certain moments in life you think of and recall exactly how ebulliently happy you were. When I think of my night at the Palais Garnier, I smile, that sense of awe and inextinguishable curiosity coursing through me. A la prochaine!