Scottish Cranachan

Doctor Johnson proposed to define the word ‘oats’ thus: ‘A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’ And I replied: ‘Aye, and that’s why England has such fine horses, and Scotland such fine people.<e/m> – James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

We eat a lot of oats because they’re a very versatile grain making a superb porridge, a lovely bread, and a quite tasty dessert — as you see my letter to Ekaterina, sister of Ingrid, Reynard’s wife.

Langdon Cook, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America

langdon_cook_mushroom_huntersI once knew a mycologist who would only go hunting mushrooms well after dark, wearing a light on his head as he said that it was far easier to find the best mushrooms that way, and that in the Ozarks where he was from that it was a common practice.

I was delighted when The Mushroom Hunters showed up for review a few years back but it took me a while to get around to reading it. Now keep in mind that these are not the weekend mushroom hunters who go looking for a few pounds of these fungi to use in their own culinary endeavours. These are hardcore individuals who live rough for months on end, searching the forests where the rarest mushrooms grow in anticipation of selling their harvest to high-end restaurants that’ll pay them top price for them.

Digression: I enjoy hunting for mushrooms and often taking a lunch and make a day of it, but I’m strictly an amateur who’s very familiar with this Estate over my many years here, so I know where each variety grows and more importantly when they grow. It’s a hobby, not a profession for me. Mushroom hunters exist as a special class, an elusive lot that use alias, say little about who they are and mistrust each other with a passion. If you’re thinking they sound a bit  like nineteenth century gold prospectors, you’re not wrong.

Mushroom hunters are only after the best ones — white truffles, smoky morels, rare porcinis, those are what they’re after as they fetch top prices. Langdon Cook has embedded himself amongst mushroom hunters in order to trace the the process whereby the fungi from these hunters travel all the way to aficinados who purchase them and don’t inquire too deeply regarding the legality of the harvest.

Along the way we learn both the natural history and lore of fungi, in a narrative that reads like well-written fiction. It’s quite enjoyable, and well done, and while it not be might be quite as riveting as Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, I found it quite entertaining.

(Ballantine Books, 2013)

Joshua Samuel Brown, The World’s Best Brunches: Where to Find Them and How to Make Them

Cover of the World's Best BrunchesSometime ago I reviewed The World’s Best Street Food, a superb book. Both it and Joshua Brown’s The World’s Best Brunches are from Lonely Planet, and they’ve again produced another superb culinary guide.

When I work the late shift at our pub, the Green Man Pub, I get done around three and not up until ten or so. That means my first meal of the day is really a late breakfast verging into a hearty lunch. So a book on brunches of an unusual nature definitely caught my eye.

Now I’ll admit that my usual breakfast is tea with a splash of cream, a bowl of granola (we make our own) with fresh fruit, but occasionally I like something more elaborate. And there’s certainly a lot of possibilities here, be it the Aussie Steak Sandwich, Eggs Benedict which turns to be an American creation or Polish Easter ham with beetroot salad. Did I mention the recipes here are most excellent?

Though I should back up and say that Bill Granger, an Australian owner of several cafes in Sydney, has a foreword of Marcel Proust levels on the joys of brunch in his native Sydney.

The format here is simple: the left page talks about the dish, say Churros y chocolate from Spain, that discusses what it is (a chocolate filled doughnut), where to find the best ones and what to have with it (hot chocolate which is so thick these baked goods stand up in them) and the origin of the dish (with goat and sheep herders). The right end page gives you a detailed recipe for making these in your own kitchen using easily obtainable ingredients.

Each brunch item lists the author of that item and there’s a brief bio for him or her.

My favourites here? The Aussie steak sandwich, the Indian masala omelet and Pastel de Nata (Portuguese custard tart), but really there are many, many tasty foods here some that I’m eaten in my travels and others we’ve tried out here in the Estate kitchen.

There’s also a separate drinks and condiments section (alcoholic beverages at brunch are not something I do though you might) covering everything from the Bloody Mary (from Paris) and Chai to hummus and Seville orange marmalade. The Estate Kitchen has added the latter to their repertoire

This is certainly the best brunch book I’ve ever seen and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in broadening their breakfast or brunch choices.

(Lonely Planet, 2014)

Of Dolmens, Leylines and Barrowmounds

The first folks here that noted there were leylines here, at least according to Journals in the Estate Library, were the hedgewitches who mapped them out. They noticed that certain forest paths followed straight lines even though it wasn’t the easiest way to get from one point to another. Even the Estate corvids tended to fly along these lines when hunting.

It’s a fascinating tale which might even be true, so go here for its telling.

What’s New this Fortnight

Life’s small comforts can take many forms and the last fortnight’s worth of posts demonstrates that nicely!

Convenience stores in the States are at best, convenient. They’re quite a different matter in Japan as April notes in her look at the one she really, really loves: ‘Not only are you next door, open 24/7, but you’re magical. A bank, ticketing agency, coffee shop and grocery store all rolled into one. In short, just what I need, when I need it.’ Go read A Relationship of Convenience for the fascinating glimpse at life in Japan.

We haven’t abandoned what many considered an obsolete artifact by most libraries as you’ll see in Iain’s look at The Kinrowan Estate Card Catalogue, a beloved tool in use here for nearly one hundred and fifty years!

Now onto the reviews .&nbsp.  Reynard’s got a look at the Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam as a great travel guide can definitely one of life’s small comforts when you’re traveling. He says that it’s the best guide to this fascinating city that he and his wife Ingrid visit quite a bit, so read his review here to see why this is so.

The resident Hedgehog says that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl ‘tells the story of a marriage gone horribly awry. I’m not going to worry about spoilers in this review, since the book has been out for three years, and there was a well-received 2014 film version, as well. So you’ve been duly warned.’ Despite that warning, she liked the book. Read her review to see why.

We’ll finish our look at the reviews this outing with my look at Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones, a mystery set in Wyoming involving Sheriff Walt Longmire. The series is the basis of the Longmire tv series and my review looks at the difference between the source material and the series.

I’ll leave you this time with the Old Blind Dogs version of ‘The Cruel Sister‘ which comes from a concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California on Nov 11th, 1994. And after you listen to this song, go read a unique take on ‘The Cruel Sister (Child Ballad #10 also known as ‘The Twa Sisters‘) by one of our Oak Kings, Steven Brust.

Craig Johnson, Dry Bones

Ok, let’s start off by noting that the characters in Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones are not the same in terms of their characterisation as the those those sharing their names on the excellent Longmire series currently running on Netflix. Even the depiction of such places as the Sheriff’s Office is remarkably different in the Dry Bones novel.

Cover of Craig Jones Dry BonesReading this novel after watching the first three seasons of the show was truly interesting. The characters here and their relationships to each other are markedly different. And some are yet even present. Walt Longmire: the long-time sheriff of Absaroka County is sleeping with “Vic” Moretti:, his Under Sheriff; Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne who is Walt’s best friend is a very large individual, not at all like the character as played by Lou Diamond Phillips in the series; and Branch Connally, the nephew of Lucian Connally, the previous Sheriff, simply doesn’t exist as far as I can tell.

Dry Bones is the eleventh novel in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series and the first I’ve read. This is unusual for me as I usually only read series from the very beginning but thirteen previous novels is too much even for me to do in order to catch up quickly. So I’m judging this novel solely on its own merits. Well and having watched the series of course.

The book itself is narrated by Walt with a sardonic edge and more than a touch of humor. It’s a wonderful voice bringing the story which involves the bones of the largest dinosaur ever found in Montana to life with a death that may or may not be a murder and conflicting claims of ownership given Walt a headache. The story here shows how damned complex land rights are in Wyoming with tribal claims intersecting with landowner rights all wrapped up in both state and federal laws about what happens to Jen, the dinosaur here.

Along the way this, the eleventh in the series (and not an impossible place to start reading the series I discovered) will introduce you to some memorable characters and a fascinating state and its people. The solving of the mystery isn’t as important as the way that Walt, with the able as assistance of Vic, Henry and others, ambles through the landscape asking questions (gently and not so gently), drinking Rainier beer and occasionally getting in and out of trouble.

Is it worth reading? Oh very much so, though I suggest that starting at the beginning of the series make more sense. Judging solely from this novel, it’s a superb series and would definitely make for quite a few evening of reading. If you prefer listening to your mysteries as I often do, George Guidall who voices these works makes a perfect Walt Longmire.

(Viking, 2015)

[Editor’s note: Craig Johnson has a website.]

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

A marriage is a foreign country to the people outside of it, and like a foreign country, a marriage has a language all its own.

Gone Girl cover imageGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, tells the story of a marriage gone horribly awry. I’m not going to worry about spoilers in this review, since the book has been out for three years, and there was a well-received 2014 film version, as well. So you’ve been duly warned.

Things haven’t gone very well for Nick and Amy, the last few years. They’ve lost their New York City writing jobs, their Manhattan brownstone, and they’ve mostly spent their way through Amy’s considerable trust fund. As a result, they’ve ended up in a generic and under-populated housing development full of McMansions in Nick’s boyhood hometown, North Carthage, Missouri. Nick co-owns a bar (ironically named “The Bar”) with his twin sister Margo — Go, for short — who’s one of only three likable characters in the entire novel.

The book opens the morning of Nick and Amy’s fifth anniversary. That’s the day that Amy goes missing, while Nick is out canoodling with his much-younger mistress (the reader doesn’t find out about her until later, though). Nick takes himself off to work to commiserate with his sister about his punishing bitch of a wife, and indulge in what’s clearly a long-standing habit of day-drinking.

The first part of the book unfolds like a classic noir whodunit, told in alternating he said/she said points of view. Nick whines and obfuscates, providing a counterpoint to Amy’s treacly diary entries — leaving the reader unsure who to sympathize with, and a bit baffled as to  just what to believe regarding Amy’s disappearance, and Nick’s innocence or guilt.

Flynn deftly works with late-twentieth century American media/pop-culture addiction, our cultural fascination with stories of serial killers,  our weakness for charming and handsome sociopaths who murder their wives and unborn children, and our craving for tidy justice all tied up with a bow and presented on the evening news (or a pithy Facebook meme) in time for media consumers to tsk over our morning coffees.

Gone Girl is ultimately about cannibalistic consumption — and thanks to the 24 hour news cycle, we’re not entirely sure the cannibalism is actually metaphorical until the very end. Amy’s parents cannibalize her childhood to write a popular series of children’s books, Nick and Amy devour one another’s best and most decent impulses, the public gobbles the scandalous story of a missing pregnant woman, and the reader consumes the novel.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a smart, sensational novel that’s completely unselfconscious about being deft, powerful, and skillfully manipulative.

 

(Crown Publishing Group, 2012)

 

The Kinrowan Estate Card Catalogue

A library catalogue is an index of all bibliographic items found in a library such as the one here at Kinrowan Estate. Our catalogue covers all thirty thousand or so books, chapbooks, maps and even art. The Catalogue includes data about the physical location of items, for instance, the extensive collection of culinary related material that the Kitchen staff has in their library space (which is also their break room), the Estate Gardener’s collection is kept in his library (which includes centuries of Estate Gardener journals and gardening and animal husbandry material going back a very long time). Here’s how we catalog our books at the Estate.

A Relationship of Convenience

It wasn’t meant to be this way between you and I. You were just supposed to be an occasional convenience, there in a pinch, but not my go-to option. On the side, as it were.

But I was kidding myself. Of course you’re my number one. How could you not be? Not only are you next door, open 24/7, but you’re magical. A bank, ticketing agency, coffee shop and grocery store all rolled into one. In short, just what I need, when I need it..

My darling, my 7-11.

*******

Even if you haven’t been to Japan, you may have heard of the wonders of the combini, or convenience stores. If you haven’t, and my little ode to my local 7-11 (literally next door to my apartment building) brings to mind overpriced, greasy hotdogs and cashiers with glass windows or metal grilles between them and you, then allow me to introduce you to the magical world of Japanese combini.

The word combini is taken directly from “convenience.” And combini are as ubiquitous as vending machines here. Within a ten minute walk of my apartment, I have several 7-11s, two Family Marts, a Lawsons and a Mini-Stop. Other chains include Sunkus, Circle K, Daily Yamazaki and Newdays, among others. They can be found in most city blocks, in malls, in train stations, in airports. In short, anywhere you might be in need of a clean bathroom, a cold (or hot!) drink and a quick snack.

When I was scouting out my new neighborhood in Fukuoka on Google Maps, as one does, I was amused and pleased to discover a 7-11 next door. “How handy!” I thought. But then when I also noticed that I had a 24 hour grocery store about three minutes away, I vowed that I would not give in to convenience, except in a pinch.

But I’m sure it took less than a month for the 7-11 to become my go-to place. First up, some foreign cash cards work in the ATM, an important thing, since I was still living off U.S. funds at the time. My new bank card also works in their ATMs, which isn’t necessarily true of other combinis. Second, iced coffee before work. The coffee here in 7-11 isn’t as good as in the U.S., but it’ll definitely do. (Btw, if you want iced coffee, you buy a cup of ice, then use the coffee machines.) Third, I am lazy, and why get fully dressed and walk to the grocery store, when I can throw on sweats and just go next door.

M711_tomato_salad_pastay 7-11 is small, but packed with goodness. I think it has only failed me once, when I was looking for packing tape. I’ve even replaced headphones and picked up phone cards there. All the usual suspects are present — milk, eggs, toilet paper, coffee — but there’s so much more. Need a bottle of red wine for dinner? No problem. Craving cream puffs? They’re really good. Fresh donuts? They added a donut showcase at the counter this spring. Fried foods? Of course. You can even get an “American dog” (hot dog) and know that it hasn’t been there for days. Packaged bentos and rice balls? You got it. Fresh, healthy salads? Those too. I have gone weeks primarily eating 7-11 food and not gotten bored with it. (It’s worth noting I’ve lost over 20 pounds since moving here, too.) Need to catch up on the latest volume of popular manga (Japanese comics)? Those and magazines take up most of one wall. And that’s just scratching the surface.

free_711_alcoholLike so many things in Japan, 7-11 is seasonal. In the winter, they expand their selection of hot bottled drinks, and have a steaming, bubbling oden display on the counter. I’ve yet to be brave enough to try the latter, but the former are life-saver for quickly warming your hands and tummy. They also had multiple catalogs with Christmas meals and New Year’s osechi that you could order. Late spring brought heavenly fresh tomato soup, summer will bring new ice creams, and fall will bring prepackaged goods with root veggies. New products come and go in the blink of an eye, so don’t think “oh I’ll get that next time.” I am already mourning the tomato soup, which lasted just a couple of weeks.

The really convenient thing about combinis, though, isn’t the food, or even the other goods. It’s the services. You can buy and pay for concert tickets at many, pay your bills, even pay your taxes. Order something online, but don’t want to pay with a credit card? Some sellers will allow you to pay at combinis. Not going to be home for a delivery? Get your item delivered to the combini and pick it up when you can. I’ve yet to explore the 7-11 machines thoroughly, but Family Mart and Lawson machines have not only event tickets, but limited goods and foods and more. If you can read a lot of Japanese, they can do much more than that, such as official documentation and the like.

711_sanrio_merch_cottoncandyThe staff at my 7-11 are very nice and cheerful, always. They noticed when I stopped drinking iced coffee, worry about me when I don’t seem to be dressed for the weather and are generally pleasant and helpful. Not to mention they will heat your food up for you, provide you spoons or chopsticks, helpfully bag hot foods and cold items separately and discreetly package personal hygiene items into paper bags for your peace of mind. How they haven’t been driven nuts by repeated exposure to a muzak version of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer,” I’ll never know. (That song is almost always playing when I go in.)

Combinis frequently do tie-ins with popular anime or movie franchises, with special foods and goods being available for purchase, or kuji (lottery). 7-11 also has special kuji of their own, where if you spend a certain amount of money, you get to draw a card and see what you win. Sometimes it’s just points for their online site, but I’ve also won ice cream, lemonade and alcohol (yes, some of the lotteries have an alcohol option!). The current lotteries in my 7-11 are for the anime/manga Attack on Titan, Disney’s adorable “tsun-tsun” characters and a in-house 7-11 lottery.

And, of course, there’s the points cards. I have them for 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart. The latter two, you present when you make a purchase, and rack up points you can use for a variety of things. My 7-11 Nanaco card, I charge up and use like cash, collecting points as well. Now if I could just find a good way to use them . . .

So if ever you make it to Japan, do yourself a favor, check out a combini or two. But fair warning, you’ll miss them sorely once you return home.

(Interesting note: 7&i Holdings, which owns Japan’s 7-11s, purchased the U.S. stores in 2005. 7&i is also the single biggest retailer in Japan, owning the Seibu department store chain, among others. So the Japanese can be forgiven for thinking 7-11 is a Japanese chain.)

[Editor’s note: Do read April’s previous Fukuoka Flights of Fancy: First Flight, and check out her blogs Afloat in Fukuoka and Endless Desire: A Granrodeo & Kiiyan Blog. April Gutierrez is on Twitter too.]

Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam

imageThe Irreverent Guides are a successful attempt by Frommer’s, one of the major players in this business, to create a hipper, less dry style. I’d say that they’ve succeeded based on this guide. Now let’s note that nothing is covered in any depth here, as this is a guide wide in span and fairly shallow in depth. You get, to use an area I’m familiar with, a concise view of the music scene, particularly the classical music area. In a single page, the writer does a very nice job of giving the reader the best venues to catch this music.

The food section, on the other hand, is fairly deep and covers pretty much everything a traveller needs to know, such as the Amsterdam cafes are generally rather smoky and much of the food is both heavy and fatty. That’s not to say that you can’t find a lot of superb food, provided you follow the suggestions here, especially if you like fish, particularly herring. Smoked meats and cheeses are popular as well. (You are aware that Amsterdam is really cold and raw much of the year?)

What the guide does helpfully point out is that Indonesian dishes, as a result of the Dutch control of that region, are very popular here and are quite tasty. If you can’t get to Indonesia, do treat yourself to a rijsstafel, a sort of rice-based buffet. Really yummy!

There’s a lot of other useful information, from where to stay to the lowdown on both that infamous Red Light District (the one that gave its name to all others) and a look at those hashish cafes. A fair warning though: this guide was last updated a decade ago and some of the information is of course out of date, including who can legally smoke in these hash cafes.

All in all an excellent guide to a city that I wholeheartedly recommend you experience at least once.

(Frommer’s, 2005)