Sunday, April 27, 2008


Once again, the extraordinary generosity of you folk amazes me.

This time, it was in mid January as I headed off to explore the joy that is Iceland at that time of year. A time when the lakes of capital city, Reykjavik are frozen solid enough for local high schools to use as an extra sports field. A time when most normal citizens of this small but thriving city are wrapped up warm inside.

Backtrack a bit to the beginning of EAT MY GLOBE and I am sitting in one of my favourite bars, Pinchito and, no, it is not just my favourite because it is less than thrity seconds walk from my apartment.

I am telling anyone who will listen that I have just quit my job and will be heading out on the road. The only person who is, in fact, paying any attention is my the manager of the bar and my friend, the glamorously named Magga Kristiansdottir. She is both stunning and can mix a good Martini which makes her, in my shallow book, as close to the perfect woman as it is possible to get.

“Come to Iceland” She announced, between delivering some plates of excellent Spanish food to a table and greeting some new customers.

“You can eat mouldy shark”

To be honest, that was about as good an offer as a man like me is ever going to get from someone like Magga so Iceland was on the list.

Fast forward almost nine months and there I am again in the same bar, this time agreeing with Magga that I shall meet her at some ungodly hour the next morning to head off to London’s least lovely airport, Stanstead for our early flight to her homeland.

Magga, it turned out had the opportunity to head home for her sister’s graduation ceremony. So, it made sense that I join her so, for the time she had free, she could show me around.

We were met at the airport by one of her closest friends, Erla who announced that she was handing me the keys to her apartment to sue for a few days and heading off to stay with her boyfriend. Never, as Frankie Howerd might say, has my flabber been so ghasted. I knew from Magga that I had been offered a bed for my three nights there, but had no idea that the whole place was being turned over to me. As I said, I should be used to the acts of generosity I have encountered as I travel the globe, but people continue to astonish me.

Before pondering on food, Erla and Magga wanted to introduce me to one of Iceland’s most famous landmarks, The Blue Lagoon, formed in the middle of a stunning outcrop of volcanic rock, is a lake that takes its naturally warmed water from mineral springs. It is a beautiful set up and the three of us spent the next couple of hours happily pampering ourselves in the therapeutic waters until The Sun began to decline over the horizon.

Magga had decided that my first experience of Icelandic food would not be in Reykjavic, however, but out on the coast at a small restaurant called Fjorubordid which specialised in local crayfish.

It was only a short distance away from The Blue Lagoon, but when you added that to the fact that it was now dark, beginning to snow quite heavily and that Erla’s car had, to be kind, seen better days, it was one of the more interesting transportation experiences of EAT MY GLOBE to date.

We made it however and were soon seated in the warm and cheery dining room of Fjorubordid drinking our first beer. Actually, it was our only beer because, like everything else in Iceland, everything is ludicrously expensive and the one small bottle of local beer came in at nearly £10. They had wines on the list too, but a bottle that you might turn your nose up to at the supermarket was coming in at close to £40.

The food was expensive too, but not quite as nosebleed inducing as the booze. It was also rather good. The restaurant served only crayfish in varying portions, which came simply steamed with accompanying sauces, salads and deliciously addictive small potatoes. The crayfish were the stars though. Great steaming pots of them, to be peeled and sucked down with dubious slurping noises.

A lot of people had told me that food in Iceland was, well, crap. Some of it was. Much of it was weird and some of it was downright nasty. But, these small, sweet, plump little beauties were as good as anything I had tried on the trip to date and made the effort of getting there and, indeed back to Reykjavik worth all the effort.

By the time we got back to the city and Erla had settled me in her flat, I was ready to crash out. I wanted a reasonably early night as Magga had promised me that the next day brought with it the threat of a boiled sheep’s head, Bill Clinton’s favourite hot dog and the chance to go clubbing with a gaggle of Icelandic lovelies.

As you can imagine, with those thoughts in my head, my dreams were, shall we say, quite vivid.

I was not meeting Magga until later the next morning as she had errands to run, so, I took one of the all too rare opportunities to sleep in, the pelting snow outside being an added disincentive to forcing myself into the great outdoors any earlier.

On top of which, I had just begun to take my Malaria medication in anticipation of my forthcoming trip to South East Asia & India with all the joys of morning nausea that came in attendance.

By the time I did drag myself up and out of the flat, The Sun was shining and, although it was still as cold as a first date that you take to see Monday Night Smack Down, I was well prepared, with coat, hat and gloves, to take in the city.

It is a small place. The whole country only boasts a population of some 300,000 but the city of Reykjavic itself is vibrant and attractive. The hosts of coffee shops were already filled with bright skinned youngsters talking about ever such important stuff and well-dressed people were milling around the streets doing their weekend shop.

By the time, Magga turned up, I think I had just about seen everything there was to see in the town centre, so was glad when she suggested we head off to lunch. I was slightly less pleased when she said we were going to a café the local bus station, but I knew she must have a reason.

She did. The café at the local bus station is run by a slightly odd looking man whose has taken it upon himself to protect the traditional foods of Iceland.. In particular he wanted to maintain the tradition of eating Swidd (pronounced swith) which I was delighted to find out was half a boiled sheep’s head with the fur singed off.

It is not a pleasant thing to look at. Well, it is half a boiled sheep’s head with the fur singed off as I just told you. The teeth are still intact in the jaw and the tongue is very firmly still in cheek. Despite that, it is quite tasty and I picked delicately at the flesh while sipping the “Xmas Ale” Magga had made for me. An odd mix of the local malt drink and a nasty, synthetic orange pop which, as the name suggests, they like to drink at Christmas. Odd stuff indeed.

Magga, however was in her element and, after devouring the cheek meat, she ripped open the jaw to reveal the tongue and started work on that before picking the whole thing up and gnawing on it. She is very much my kind of woman.

Not trusting dentists in London, Magga had made an appointment with her childhood Dr to have a check up and so left me to my own devices pointing me in the direction of one of Reykjaviks oldest institutions. It may come as a surprise to find that it was not a civic building or a church. It was not a place of archaeological interest or a sight of historical importance. It was a hot dog stand.

The Icelanders love their hot dogs. In fact, the fist thing Magga did when we got to The Blue Lagoon was rush inside and order one from their café. They appear to be addicted to them.

They are not the only ones because, and this wont come as any great surprise to you, when I arrived at the stall, there were a significant number of pictures of one Mr Billy Jeff Clinton gorging himself on them during a recent visit.

Well he has good taste. These are some of the best hot dogs I have ever tried. The dog itself is good, the remoulade sauce gives a nice tang, but the real trick is in the deep fried onions which give a pleasing counterpoint against the soft roll and the sausage. I ate a few during my visit. Not as many as Billy Jeff, that would be silly, but quite a few.

Full of dog and sheep, I headed back to the flat to prepare for my night out with the Icelandic lovelies. I was not disappointed as one after another of them arrived at my, I mean Erla’s flat as planned and began to get horribly pissed as they prepared for a night out.

In Iceland, booze in bars being so expensive, as result of recent prohibition which only ended less than twenty years ago, people tend to buy their liquor at the state run shops and drink at home to get a buzz on before going out where they limit themselves to one or two drinks.

So, I just sat as Magga, Erla and all their old school friends sat around, became more and more in their cups and talked about their husbands, boyfriends and sex lives. I was concerned that doing all of this might be uncomfortable for them with a balding forty something man sitting in their midst, but no one seemed phased and Magga announced

“It’s no problem, you are just like one of the girls”

Bloody Hell. Obviously, just what I wanted to hear.

By about Midnight, I was ready to head to sleep, but the girls were just about ready to head out. Their night was just beginning. Reykjavik has a legendary bar and club scene and I can see why. The main drag of the city is littered with places for people to meet and dance and it does not even begin to get going until well past 1am in the morning.

I gave it my best shot, I really did. But, by 5am, I was about to fall asleep, so left them to their own devices and walked back to the flat and to sleep.

No great surprise then that I did not wake up until well into the afternoon the next day. Peering through the window, I could see that the snow was pelting down again outside and I felt even less inclined to go out than I did the day before. So I didn’t. I ran across to a local supermarket for a snack and sat in the cosy warm flat writing until the doorbell rang at 6pm.

It was Erla.

She had not been up long either and offered to take me on a last tour of the city and to the places where I could go and get some of the mouldy shark I had avoided during the trip.

She knows and loves her city and took me on a whistle stop tour of all the places of interest. I loved the fact that you could head right up the driveway of the presidential palace and even more so when she told me that it is every Icelander’s right to make an appointment to see the president if they have something they wish to discuss. Imagine doing that with Mr Brown or Mr Bush

Finally, she took me to a local supermarket that specialises in some of the more unusual items on the Icelandic menu at this time of year.

Thooroblot literally means Thor’s Feast and celebrates the end of the winter when the last of the preserved foods could be eaten and fresh food caught for the first time in months. They are good at preserving things here and on offer with wonders like blood sausage, sour ram’s testicles, dried puffin and of course, Harrkl, mouldy shark.

I am not quite sure how they figured it out, but, because of the cold, the local basking shark has to produce a toxic substance under its skin in order to float. If you were to eat it immediately after you caught it, it would make you incredibly ill. So, they bury it until the toxins are removed by the ammonia produced during decomposition (stick with me) it can take up to six months after which, quite frankly, the stuff smells like piss.

Along with the Durrian fruit, it is easily the worst smell I have encountered on the trip so far.

I bought a tub of it, of course, being an intrepid explorer and I also bought a bottle of Brennivin, the local hooch made with Caraway, which is meant to be drunk with it.

But, and I am going to be honest with you here. I tried some in the supermarket and it persuaded me that the tub I bought, still sitting tightly sealed in my fridge, is going to remain that way for some time to come.

So, that was Iceland. We headed back to London early the next morning and I got ready to fly out to Thailand a couple of days later.

It is hardly the culinary capital of, well anywhere, but I rather liked it. I liked the people who were incredibly hospitable. I liked the city itself, if not the pelting snow and I even liked some of the food. The thought of those sweet crayfish and the onions in the hot dogs often come back to me when I am hungry.

Not so sure about the sheep’s head and the ram’s testicles though. I will leave those to Magga

Next stop, South East Asia

Thursday, April 17, 2008


If you have been reading the blog from the start, you will know that one of my first forays into the world of food and drink on this trip was to meet with the estimable John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky.

He was good enough to spend a whole day with me at the very start explaining all about the processes of making whisky(”good whisky is like good pornography. They both need good wood”) and about his own maverick but highly regarded company specialising in blended and pure malts.

So, fired up by that, I decided that I was going to spend some time between longer foreign journeys and head up to Scotland to see where the sauce is made at the source.

John made a few suggestions and put me in touch with Kilchoman, a new distillery on Islay. There first releases would not be until 2010, but the new spirit, fresh off the stills was already getting good reviews and augured well for the future.

They were incredibly responsive and, before long, I had arranged to go and spend a week with their master distiller, Malcolm Rennie seeing what happened when. Most of the work would be done in the morning which also gave me ample time to visit as many of the eight other distillers on the island as possible.

It sounded perfect. Islay whiskies have always been my favourite with their unmistakable smells of smoke and peat.

It also sounded perfect to John because, once I told him that I was on my way, he managed to sculpt some time from his hectic schedule and agreed to join me for my week’s stay. It was just getting better and better. Not only was I going to be on Islay, home of my favourite whiskies, I was going to be joined by one of the most respected men in the whole industry. A double bonus.

Another bonus came when John, in an act of extraordinary generosity which I soon found out was not isolated, agreed to cover the costs for the whole shebang. Even when the mad, bad and dangerous to know, Mr Nick Strangeway, cocktail maker extraordinaire got wind of the trip and made us a party of three.

What John knows about making Whisky, Nick knows about using it and what he knows about using it, I knew about drinking it. We were an unlikely grouping and I could not help but think of the characters in my favourite humorous novel “ Three Men & a Boat”

The flights were relatively painless. From London to Glasgow and from there, by a small propeller driven plane, to Islay’s tiny airfield and, by early evening we were settled in our waterside guesthouse and having the first of many tastings at the nearest bar which, inevitably had one of the biggest collections of Whisky I have ever seen.

Well rested and plumped up by an excellent in heart attack inducing breakfast the next morning, we made our way the few short miles to Kilchoman (pronounced Kil-Ho-Man) for our first days work.

Malcolm Rennie and his colleague, Gavin have both been in the business a long time and were already working the morning distillation with the sort of quiet professionalism that comes from twenty years in the business. They were also indulging in a constant stream of affectionate bickering, more akin to an old married couple than colleagues. All very funny and which continued over a welcome cup of strong tea as they told us what our tasks would be for the next week.

First up a tour of Kilchoman’s small but perfectly formed facilities. The malting floor (Kilchoman being one of the few that grows its own barley and floor malts rather than buying in malted barley which the larger distilleries are forced to do) then the mash tums where the heated malts are turned to a beer called wash and then the stills themselves where, as all Scotch Whisky is, the wash is distilled once and then the resulting spirits are distilled again to give the clear liquid that becomes the amber beauty of Scotch after aging in the barrels.

Then a trip to the warehouse to see the first barrels of what will become Kilchoman’s first release in 2011. The New Spirit, that is the spirit given up after second distillation is already being released in small sample bottles and augurs well for the future. There are already the signs of a Scotch that will age incredibly well in the barrel and Malcolm, with all his experience, was quietly pleased as the knowledgeable amongst us ( that will be John and Nick) made all the right noises.

Over the next few days they put us to work. First of all turning the malt on the floor by hand to make sure that all parts of the barley heated through at the same time. Next, shovelling through to the wash and the mash tuns so it could brew and finally, measuring the “Faints” and “stills” of the first and second distillations.

Fortunately, most of the main work takes place in the morning which meant that each afternoon we were able to head off and visit six of the seven other distilleries on the island. John Glaser, before starting his own company was a honcho at Diagio who own most of the distilleries on Islay. Because of that and because of Nick’s own connections, our visits to the distilleries were far more than just the normal tour guides. In most cases we were shown around by the master distillers and then treated to tastes of some very special whiskies indeed. From a 12 year old of the very best distillations from Bowmore to a 21 year old from Lagavulin aged solely in Sherry casks.

My own favourite was from Caol Isla, for so long known as one of the producers of single malts for Johnny Walker, but now producing very fine single malts under its own name

In more recent times, because Bourbon barrels can only be used once for their original purpose, the old barrels have been sent to Scotland to contain Scotch. However, in times past, the barrel of choice was a Sherry barrel and some limited editions are still made in this way which gives the end result a rich, dark, amber hue and a definite hint of matters Jerez to the palate and nose.

The “cheats” way is to age the whisky in the normal oak and then move it for the last eighteen months or so to a sherry barrel to give a similar result in a process called ‘finishing” However, the end result is not the same. The final product tastes like two whiskies grafted on to one another not a smooth drink from first sniff to final taste.

However, if “finishing” is not always the best aesthetically, it is certainly good for business as the re-invigorated distillery of Bruichladdich has proved.

When Mark Reyneier bought the distillery a few years back, he bought with it significant amounts of stock. Given that he would not be able to get a return on his investment from new distillation for at least five years, he had to make the most of these existing stocks.

Using his experience in the wine trade, he decided not to go down the route of releasing the standard 10, 12 and 21 year olds but instead to create a marketing drive based on limited releases of whisky finished in a huge variety of barrels ranging from La Tour to D’yquem. The result has taken the whisky world by storm for good and for bad.

The collector of Scotch, or The Malt Maniacs, have been snatching up every new release so quickly that each bottle is soon worth double or triple its original asking price soon after release. That is if you can get a hold of it.

The Scotch Whisky Society seem much less impressed and Mark it seems spends much of his time constantly locking horns with them as he butts against what is allowed.

I was not wowed by all the Bruichladdich whisky I tried, which suffered much of the layering effect other ‘finished” whisky are limited by, but you cannot help but be impressed by a man who has single handed turned a whole industry on its head.

Talking of things turning, let’s move on to my stomach.

Amongst all the distillery visits, I was keen to take John and Nick out to see some of the other food on offer on Islay. Very little of it is available in the restaurants and hotels of the area. In fact much of the food on the island is pretty dire. The good ingredients all get exported to the mainland and to Europe where they fetch a pretty penny because of their quality.

So, if we could not eat them on the island, we could at least go and visit them at source. One such place was the Islay Oyster Company.

Now, I like Oysters, but after a bad one some ten years ago at The Frankfurt Book Fair, they hate me.

Nick, however, has a cast iron stomach for things in shell and within minutes of us arriving at The Islay Oyster Company, he was scarfing them down like a good un. I look on enviously until I could stand no more. I am not sure what made me do it, perhaps it was Nick going “go one try one. You will never get a fresher one” and, he was right of course, these were plucked straight out of the water.

So, casting caution to the wind, I sucked one down. It was good, meaty and plump and I felt just fine. That is, of course until four hours later as we were walking through the cellars of Bowmore and I began to come over all queasy.

They guys rushed me back to the B&B with a few stops for projectile vomiting and I tried to sleep it off. I failed and, at about 6am the next morning, the locals were treated to the sight of me sitting in the tiny A&E department of Islay’s equally tiny hospital, which we had found with the help of an early rising local.

After having a nice lady Dr tell me “it’s probably best if you keep away from Oysters” I returned home to bed while John and Nick went to see the last two distilleries, Ardbheg and the famous, Laphroig. When they returned, they were full of the joys of the beauty of the place and the drams they had been offered. Yippee for them.

Fortunately, both being excellent sorts, they insisted we go back the next day so I could see and taste what we had missed. Not before a final visit to the Kilchoman Distillery to say goodbye to Gavin and Malcolm who, bickering as usual, proved the point that, on a tiny island like Islay, everybody knows everybody else.

“you were ill yesterday, were you not?” said Gavin

“er, yes, I replied”

“and you had to the hospital, did you not?” he added

“er, yes” I added “ the A&E department”

“ I know” he replied “ the woman you asked for directions was ma wife”

And with that, we said our goodbyes and left them to argue about who was making the next cup of tea as we headed off to see the final two distilleries

If there are two companies more beautifully situated than Ardbeg and Laphroig, then I would love to see them. Nestling on the banks of the chopping sea, with the Sun cutting through the chill, it was hard to imagine that I was actually here, on Islay and had spent a week, apart from the time I spent throwing up of course, making a brand new whisky.

There are not too many people I know who can say that. Apart from John and Nick, of course. The other two involed in " Three Men & a Still"

Thursday, April 03, 2008

If Santa Cruz is full of loveable weirdos, then Berkeley is what happens to weirdos when they make lots of money and settle down.

Everything in Berkeley looks perfect. Oh, it has its dark side, I am sure, but it looks perfect. The streets are filled with achingly styled shops and the people look no less designed. It has a kind of “Stepford Wives” quality about it.

I wanted to like it, particularly as it is the lifetime home of my new chum, Alexandra Eisler and her charming family, but if I am honest, I found precious little to warm to in this town which reeks of the neutering which happens when radicalism is bought off with cash and security.

I kept thinking of what my beloved late mother would have said in that Welsh accent she never quite lost

“All fur coat and no knickers”

I managed not to hit anything on my journey up from Santa Cruz, which was a bonus and soon pulled into my last port of call, a traditional style place that reminded me of the motel in Psycho.

It was, as so many places have been on this trip, basic but clean and would suit its purpose of giving me somewhere to rest my head and full belly down perfectly and at a price that would not bankrupt me.

Alexandra had arranged some fun stuff for my time in town and my first task when I arrived was to head off in search of cheese, my contribution to a picnic then next day at the Hendry Ranch winery.

Now, as I have said on many occasions, The USA is the place where good cheese goes to die. So, I had little optimism that I was to going to find anything worthwhile a feeling that was added to when I found that the one store Alexandra had recommended was closed.

I began to walk around town in a vain search for cheese and came across the farmers market where there were two (I think) stalls selling locally made cheese. Neither looked that great but, needs must etc etc, so I went to try some samples. I was right, neither was great, but one would do at a pinch so I bought a round.

You would have thought that I had asked if I fondle the stall holder’s wife’s tits rather than offer him money for a cheese that would not be used as cow fodder in France or the UK. The sour look on his face is probably what he uses to turn the milk to make his shitty cheese. $10 for lousy cheese and service with a sneer. God Bless America.

He was not alone though. As I walked around looking at the other stalls, I saw not one smile from the stallholders. Not one. It was as if this was a black hole where all good humour was sucked up. I began to realise that this is why I am really beginning to fucking loathe farmer’s markets.

I managed to supplement this “cheese” with some better examples I found at an over priced foodstore on 4th St and headed back to my motel with just a stop at Fosters Hot Dog Stand to keep me going.

The next day, Alexandra collected me as promised and, after a brief stop at The Acme Bread Company,

we headed out with Tim, her hubby and Carson her charming daughter to Hendry Ranch Winery up in The Napa Valley.

With a few others, Tim and Alexandra buy grapes here and make their own wines. Wines which I was to try later. So, Dr Hendry had agreed to let a few people visit and give us a tour of his impressive winery.

It is quite a place and he is quite a person. A quiet but very heartfelt winemaker who takes the whole business of wines incredibly seriously. Each point of the farm is mapped out not just with variety of grapes but also with clonal types and root stocks. It is little wonder that Hendry was one of the suppliers of grapes for the legendary Californian wine, Opus One.

Dr Hendry, who in his life away from the winery was a creator of electron accelerators, was incredibly welcoming and hospitable and, after our informative tour, he joined us for our picnic and opened a number of bottles for us to sample.

The wines seemed to be the opposite of their maker. Where he is quite and soft spoken, these, like so many Californian wines, were loud and shouty. It boils down to taste and these wines were certainly better than some of the reprehensible fruit bombs I have tried from The Napa, but they were still too big for my distinctly European tastes with the high alcohol content swamping the palate.

The others in the party, more used to such big tastes were much more at home and bought cases to take away. Although, I am still a fan of many New World wines, my preference for the dignity of Old world wine making remains. Hey, it’s my story, I don’t have to be consistent.

On the way home, we made a stop to visit another local Napa legend, Rancho Gordo AKA, Steve Sando. Famous (infamous) on food boards everywhere,

Steve has carved a niche for himself selling a vast range of heirloom beans to foodies across the USA. I have sampled his wares at dinner parties given by friends in the USA, but had never encountered the man myself. So, it was a welcome opportunity to finally put a face to a name. He was in the middle of preparing supper, so our stay was a short one as he offered us prickly pear juice laced with tequila to warm us back to Berkeley.

My final day in Berkeley was also my final day of this leg of EAT MY GLOBE. A leg that had taken in four countries including THE USA, nearly twenty cities and some experiences that it would not be inappropriate to describe as ‘magical” I had made some new friends along the way. Friends who, I am sure I shall know for a long time. I had tried foods that were entirely new to me, the initial point of the trip and I had experienced some lows and some exhilarating highs.

It seemed fitting then that I finish the trip by visiting one of America’s truly iconic restaurants, Chez Panisse where, thanks once again to the generosity of Alexandra, I had managed to get a reservation.

Across from my motel was Café Fanny, also part of the same group as CP. I wandered across for a breakfast of hot chocolate and a muffin. It should have been a sign of things to come. The place looked wonderful, of course and so did the food. It tasted dreadful however. A triumph of style over substance.

Before supper, however, I was invited over to join Alexandra and her family for a pre-supper, supper of freshly caught crab from Northern California. I had to work for my pre-supper supper though and spent a good hour or so filling tasting pots with the jams and marmalades that are part of Alexandra’s new-ish enterprise, The Kensington Marmalade Company before I got near a crab. It was worth the wait. The crab was stunning and made what was to follow all the more disappointing.

Well, let’s be honest. The meal at Chez P was not disappointing. It was iniquitously bad. New words will have to be invented to describe the awfulness of my meal. A shame as one of the pastry chefs, Samantha Wood, had been kind enough to give me a tour of the impressive kitchens earlier in the day. It was also a shame because I was sharing supper with two more local food board regulars, Carolyn and Tamar who had to suffer the tirade of abuse I hurled as each course came out.

An insipid starter was followed by a main course which could used in a court of law to stop Americans ever, ever going near a piece of lamb again.

There was a cheese board that would have made Randolph shake his head in disbelief and a dessert where the filling of a tart tried to make its escape from a rock hard pastry base by sliding off.

All actively noxious and a lousy note on which to end this part of the trip

But, what the hell. It was only one meal amongst hundreds that had passed my lips on this part of the adventure. And what meals they were. BBQ in Kansas, Hot Dogs at Hot Doug’s, Tex Mex and BBQ in Austin, Po Boys in New Orleans and cheese steaks in Philly. Pulled Pork in NYC and tripe tacos in Mexico, Bife in Argentina and Moqueca in Brazil. Thanksgiving turkey in Santa Cruz and fresh crabs in California.

My mum always used to tell me I was a lucky little boy.

She was right. I am a very lucky boy indeed

The journey continues