I just returned from my apparently usual February trip to the UK to catch up with friends since business travel has taken me their way less. I visited Erin and Marc in Glasgow and we traveled to Islay and Oban, then went to London to visit Colin and Anthony. These trips get packed in with adventures to report, which I’ll do by categor rather than chronologically.
A major focus of this trip was Islay, an island in the inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Although smaller and less mountainous than Skye, which I visited last year, it still has some varied terrain. It is famous for its peat bogs and there were certainly spots where we discovered the ground wasn’t as solid as it looked. In fact the springy turf was an experience that defies description and really showed me how one can’t just read about places but should visit them. We stayed near Bowmore, apparently the largest town on the island though that’s not saying much. It’s on Loch Indaal, a big inlet to the island. Just across the loch is Port Charlotte, which we drove through to go to Bruichladdich beside it, but then on to the point where there was a small windswept fishing village. We walked down to very tip where we could say hi to the seals popping their heads above the water to peer at us. Later in the day we drove past Ardmore to Kilnave Chapel, an old stone church now missing its roof. Later we saw an amazing sunset from the beach along Loch Indaal, Marc was super-excited. From our B&B near Bowmore it was possible to see Ireland; I was surprised it was so close and learned Scotland was colonized from Ireland via Islay.
After returning to the mainland from Islay we drove to Oban, which is on the west coast near Glencoe. I hadn’t had any expectations but was taken with how striking it is, a port city climbing the steep slopes around it and with constant ferry traffic to the islands. It’s a big outdoors place and even before I learned that I had observed that the vibe is much like Boulder Colorado where people are there more for what they can do out of work than what they do for work. The stay there was short but nice and I’d love to go back in the summer, though the prices go way up.
In London we went to the Tate Britain. I had previously been to the Tate Modern but didn't know there were more. We focused on an exhibit covering several centuries of British art. I found myself more drawn to the fantasy paintings than the ones of rich people, though discovered I lack the literacy to understand them fully. The exhibit moved into contemporary periods and showed interesting challenging subjects. It was also interesting to see the evolution of both technique and materials in tandem.
Unlike last year’s trip, there were no problems with flights, even when weather threatened. I didn’t take a train from London to Glasgow, in order to make it the airline’s responsibility to get me to Glasgow if there were problems (last year I had to shell out $500 extra after flight delays caused me to miss my train), though I would have liked to see the countryside on that route. We rented a car to get around, which means driving on the left side of the road, something I’m nervous about. But I felt much more comfortable with that this year than last year, and didn’t turn into the wrong lane once this time. All the same I let Marc do much of the driving.
The exciting thing for this trip was the ferry to Islay. As an inlander I haven’t taken ferries much, and this was in more open water than I’ve been in before. It was super exciting to see Islay and Jura (the two are separated by a very narrow strait) approaching. There was uncertainty about the return trip to the mainland because an Atlantic storm was passing through and there was a risk the ferry would be canceled. Fortunately in the end it wasn’t, though we departed from the more sheltered Port Askaig instead of Port Ellen as planned. Once we left the strait the waves became bigger and there was noticeable pitch, roll, and even - suprisingly - yaw. It was enough to be fun but
wasn’t too bad, and fortunately I didn’t get seasick though I did stagger around as if I were drunk.
Islay is one of the major Scotch whisky regions, even though it’s an island small enough to drive across in an hour. Distillery tours is a major reason people go there, and many peoples’ favourites are produced there. We only had a day and a half there, and that over a weekend on the off season, so only visited two distilleries: Bruichladdich and Lagavulin.
Lagavulin is a well-liked Scotch among peat enthusiasts. We took the tour that included 5 tastings, starting with a very young one and ending with a 25-year one that was very good but had sold out within 3 days of release. Partly because of the tastings, and the weekend, the tour of the facility was a bit rushed. But it’s always cool to see the place your product is made, and in truth there wasn’t too much novel about their facility, particularly since they’re owned by Diageo, a big company that achieves much economy of scale by sharing processes among its distilleries. I did get a selfie from the pier with the iconic name in the background. href="http://www.laphroaig.com/">Laphroaig, which I find more interesting than Lagavulin, is just down the street from Lagavulin but was closed so I couldn’t get a similar selfie there.
Bruichladdich was reopened under new ownership after having been closed in the 1990s, and has a much less corporate approach (though they were recently purchased by another major alcohol company Rémy Cointreau). Beyond having a variety of casks left over from its previous operation, they’ve done a lot of experiments with different malts and aging regimes, and had a stunning array of bottles on display. After the usuals of seeing the grist mill and being given a malting description, we were able to stick our noses into the washbacks to see and smell the wort under fermentation. They were surprisingly deep, and the smell quite pungent. It’s always neat to see the stills, including the gin still they use to make Botanist Gin - I was surprised to learn they only make gin twice per year because each batch is so large that’s all they can sell. Finally we got to go into a warehouse to see actual
casks aging. They have a barely moist surface from slow evaporation of the contents, and are stacked up as far as you can see but only 3 high. Because of the greater access and more general excitement about their operations, this was my favourite distillery tour so far.
Oban is on the mainland of Scotland, and the town had grown up around the distillery, hemming it in so it now can’t expand. It’s another Diageo distillery and the tour was unfortunately quite uniform with the other Diageo tours I’ve experienced, and also seemed pretty unexciting for the guide and therefore for us. There are only two stills there, one wash and one spirit, so production is quite limited. Their main product is a 14-year; they previously had produced a 12-year but it wasn’t selling, and the extra two years of aging was the sweet spot between quality and cost I guess. Like many Highland malts it’s less peaty than Island malts but has some smoke, and this distillery focuses on developing fruity characteristics a slow fermentation.
It’s always fun to see local food when I travel. Last year was the year of smoked salmon; this year unfortunately I had less of that, and fewer memorable meals overall. But there were still some very nice experiences, starting with a very nice Sikh restaurant in Glasgow. On Islay we had dinner the first night at the Bowmore Hotel where I had a very nice venison stew, but way way way too many potato side dishes came with it. We worked on their amazing whisky menu though, and were particularly taken with a Laphroaig 25-year, which unfortunately can’t be found any longer in retail stores. In Oban we ate at Ee-Usk, a
seafood restaurant on the pier, and part of the reason for the trip to Oban. I found the food to be good but not excellent, but did have the best oysters I’ve ever had, so that was a step forward on my slow journey to raw oyster appreciation. In Kent we found a place called the Windmill Pub, which had really quite good food, surprising in such an out-of-the-way place.
The other thing I wanted to do was visit William Curley Chocolate, whom I had seen do demos on Youtube and was impressed by his skill. I sampled a great many of the goods and though they were all very good. As a person who’s always critiquing my own chocolate-making skill, there were some minor technical issues such as too-thick caps and filling leakage, but on the other hand these were the best chocolates I’ve had so perhaps the technical things go with the territory. I tried some flavours I hadn’t had before, particularly interested by rosemary and olive oil, strawberry, and whisky, but I tried at least 10 which I didn’t write down. Some of the flavours didn’t some through for me unless I read the label, but they did for Colin and Anthony. Others came through nicely, and it gave me a sense both of what flavour combinations might work, and what intensity to aim for to make it identifiable but not overpowering. They had copies of his
chocolate book there to flip through and it seems to cover a lot of techniques new to me, so I’m excited to get a copy.
Colin and Anthony like to see theatre shows when I visit, and we did two this trip with last-minute tickets: wonder.land and Matilda. The first used the Lewis Carroll stories as a metaphor for cyberbulling and escapism. It had some interesting uses of the metaphor and it was striking to see how the work I do on the World Wide Web has worked into popular culture to such an extent, but in the end the execution wasn’t the best. Matida was better produced but hard to figure out what it was about. The title character is a brilliant but misunderstood and mistreated young girl who eventually develops telekenetic power; Anthony (a psychologist) saw it as a very good metaphor for psychosis.