Thursday, 30 August 2012

Foodie Penpals: August Reveal

I am very happy to report on this month's Foodie Penpals package--not just because of its contents, but because of its presence to begin with. First I didn't hear from my original penpal, and had to be assigned another. Then, my postman left a "while you were out" slip on a day when I was actually home and could have answered the door; I had to reschedule delivery for the 29th, then sat around watching the clock all day and waiting for my doorbell to ring. Around 5 PM, just when I'd given up hope, I was finally called downstairs to sign for my parcel and see what delights awaited within.

My benefactor this month was Kim, who, like myself, is an American expat living in Europe. Unlike me, however, she lives in Holland, which means that she has access to all sorts of tasty treats that are either absent from, or difficult to find in, the UK. In a letter enclosed in the package, Kim wrote: "...these are a few things that I have discovered as being 'typically Dutch,' that I'd never had before I came [to Holland]."

The savory items in Kim's package include runder rookworst (smoked beef sausage), curry ketchup, and an herb and spice mixture for preparing nasi goreng (an Indonesian fried rice dish). The cooking instructions on the back of the last of these suggest that you use it with chicken, which I actually had planned to make for dinner on the very evening that I received the FP parcel. However, because I also had some other ingredients that I needed to use right away, I decided to hold back the nasi goreng for use on another night.

The sweet items included Stroopwafels, Venco Drops (Soft & Sweet), and miraculously, Lotus biscuits. You'll notice that the package of biscuits had already been opened by the time I took this photograph, and that is because I just couldn't wait to dig in. Lotus cookies are very common in British cafes, where individually wrapped biscuits are served alongside teas and coffees. I'm not really much of a biscuit person in general, but I absolutely adore these, and I've never seen more than one at a time. It will be interesting to see how long I can make these last; I don't give myself more than a week.

I have a few Dutch acquaintances, and I once overheard them arguing about Stroopwafels--specifically, whether they should be eaten straight, or dipped into hot beverages and allowed to go soggy before they are consumed. I can guess which one of those styles I will likely prefer, but I will give them both a try--I am a scientist, after all, and experimenting is what I do for a living. I think my taste buds will manage to cope with the experience.

Thanks very much to Kim and her quick culinary tour of Holland--these snacks will help tide me over until I finally get a chance to visit The Netherlands myself!


The Ancestor's Trail

In 2004, Richard Dawkins wrote a book titled The Ancestor's Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, the book is arranged as a literary pilgrimage, allowing modern humans to read their way backwards through evolution and meet with their sister groups and ancestors along the way. Each such encounter occurs at what Dawkins refers to as "rendezvous points," places where species share their last common ancestor. Humans, for example, soon rendezvous with bonobos and chimpanzees, and this trio then works its way backwards to a rendezvous point with gorillas, then orangutans, and then gibbons. The point of this journey--besides allowing the reader to revel in the wealth of diversity present on our planet--is to show how the process of Darwinian evolution could (and, indeed, did) lead to all extant species, as well as those that were once alive but have since gone extinct.

Sometimes doing is more powerful than reading about, which is why two groups (one in Canada and one in the UK) have organized Ancestor's Trail events during which participants physically re-enact the journey described in Dawkins' book. Hiking distances are carefully measured out so that each step represents a particular number of years back into the past, and different groups of hikers represent various forms of wildlife, joining the trail at pre-specified, biologically accurate rendezvous points. Such events are affirmations not only of evolution but also one's belief in the process, and, of course, offer an opportunity to marvel at the existence of all things great and small.

The reason I happen to know all of this is that I recently participated in an Ancestor's Trail (AT) event being held in the Quantock Hills region of Somerset, UK. This year's event was the 3rd AT there, and the largest yet; participants included not only the pilgrims themselves but also musicians, conservationists, scientific researchers, authors, artists, and even Richard Dawkins himself:

The event kicked off on a Saturday afternoon with an introduction by its organizer, Chris Jenord, who soon introduced the first two speakers: Peter Exley, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Kevin Cox, chairman of World Land Trust Trading Ltd. Both guests discussed conservation efforts; Exley focused mainly on the RSPB's mission to save albatrosses, while Cox spoke more broadly about work being done to preserve vital habitat.

Sadly, Sasha and I did not arrive until the coffee break that followed, because, yet again, we were stuck in horrible traffic. We'd left home an hour early, "just in case," and somehow managed to be two hours late. The only comfort in all this is that our lectures were not until Monday, so at least we weren't going to be late to our own shows. Luckily, we did at least get there in time to hear from Alex Taylor, a scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge who discussed his work on XNA, and Alom Shana, author of the Young Atheists Handbook.

Perhaps more importantly (no offense to any of the other speakers), we arrived well in advance of Dawkins' keynote speech. I've previously bumped into Dawkins at behavior conferences (sometimes literally), and, of course, I've read some of his work, but I'd never previously had the chance to hear him talk. He delivered an interesting and sometimes humorous lecture, after which he mingled with the audience and autographed books. Also, he danced:

I have video footage of this, as well, but I'll hold that back until I need to use it for blackmailing purposes. Dawkins and all the other dancers in the photo are shown moving to the rhythms of Soul Cake, a band that has also participated in previous AT events.

After the concert, Sasha and I retired to our dorm room at Kilve Court for what was undoubtedly one of the worst nights of sleep I've ever had. I woke up every time someone else entered/exited the hall, a bedroom, or the bathroom. I also woke up each time Sasha rolled over above me and caused the bed slats to creak ominously; I was convinced that he would come crashing down on top of me at some point. I then nearly had a heart attack at 7 AM (and then again at 7:30 and 8:00) when an alarm went off to wake us up for breakfast. The bell was positioned on the wall directly above Sasha's head, so I'm sure he had an even ruder awakening than I did.

The particularly frustrating thing was that we were not getting up for breakfast, but instead sleeping in (or trying to, anyway) and going to have brunch at a nearby pub. We chose this plan of action because we did not want to walk the entire Ancestor's Trail, but instead join up at the "Jellyfish" rendezvous point; while I would have enjoyed participating in the entire pilgrimage, my back would not have shared this attitude.

Once we were both awake, we made our way to the Hood Arms, where we had a nice pot of tea in front of the fireplace. We had arrived at 11:15, but the pub didn't begin lunch until 12, so we had a bit of time to kill. We browsed the pub's extensive collection of West Country-themed magazines and explored the cheerful back garden before placing our order and sitting down to our meal.

(A reminder of Laddie, my family's late Scottish terrier.)

(Dovecote in the Hood Arms' garden. None of the residents were at home. That was a shame because I would have liked to have seen them; I was told that they are Capuchin doves, which have a cool little ruff around their heads.)

Sasha and I chose the Hood Arms because it was the only pub in town and we didn't feel like driving elsewhere. As it turns out, it was a great place to eat. I had a delicious leek-and-potato soup and a rocket salad with scallops, while Sasha had a lamb steak, mashed potatoes, and veggies; he followed this with a luscious ginger cake. The waitress was even happy to comply with my strange request of a cup of tea with the tea bag on the side (ordered so that I could drink the herbal tea I'd brought to Kilve Court in the hopes that there would be a communal kettle somewhere).

Once we left the pub, Sasha and I explored the Kilve Court facilities and briefly ran through our lectures to make sure that everything worked smoothly. Then it was time to lace up our hiking boots and get a cab ride over to Bicknoller to begin our jellyfish journey. Much to my weak-stomached dismay, Bicknoller was the sort of town that is accessed via roads so narrow you swear they must actually be someone's driveway. Americans like myself can't even begin to conceive of roads this small. Luckily, our taxi driver was not only personable, but also very adept at navigating the twists and turns. She dropped us off in front of Bicknoller's picturesque church, which was one of the landmarks mentioned in the instructions for following the jellyfish trail and linking up with the rest of the AT pilgrims.

(The church was surrounded by trees, so it was hard to get an all-inclusive shot of the building.)

The trail's organizers did an excellent job creating specific instructions for navigating towards each of the trail's rendezvous points; we had downloaded the PDF onto my phone and were using both the text instructions and accompanying photographs to figure out where we were going. Unfortunately, the first 30 minutes of our walk took us directly uphill, since we had to scale the Quantock Hills in order to then walk along their backbone. We made the effort more bearable by periodically stopping to look at wildlife.

(Woods! The sea is great and all, but I still miss woods...)

(A view back down towards Bicknoller.)

(The heather and the gorse were magnificent.)

(In addition to kestrels and peregrines, there were also domestic species such as cows and sheep.)

Sasha and I reached the rendezvous point a bit early, leaving us just enough time to catch our breath, have a snack, take a few photos, and then begin to wonder whether or not we'd actually found the right spot. It didn't take long before the other pilgrims arrived, however, and we were greeted with a big cheer. Chris informed us that things had been going well, save for a bit of a mix-up with the port-a-potty. It's probably best for all involved that my bladder wasn't around for that.

The entire jellyfish leg was approximately 5.5 miles long, which probably involved about a mile up the hill from Bicknoller, 3 miles through the hills, and then another 1-1.5 miles from Kilve down to the beach. We had ample opportunity to take in the purple, heather-covered hills, the estuary off in the distance, and then, finally, the dramatic and rocky shoreline.

(As you can see from the lighting here, the clouds were gathering as we walked.)

Once we reached Kilve, we were met by a local brass band called (I think) Big Noise. They provided the soundtrack for the final leg of our journey from Kilve's main road to the beach, where we were treated to a lengthier music performance and the appearance of Helena Biggs, a model/dancer/fitness instructor who acts as a canvas for the beautiful and elaborate body art of Victoria Gugenheim. This was Gugenheim's second display for the AT, and the only one to be exhibited al fresco, under the (cloud-obscured) light of day. Unfortunately, Biggs' appearance coincided with the beginning of the evening's steady rain showers, and her entire dance performance had to be conducted in the wind and rain. Brr.

(Tempestuous weather over Kilve Beach.)

(Helena Biggs displays the body art of Victoria Gugenheim. The design included, among other things, DNA and the tree of life suggested by Darwin.)

We then headed back to Kilve Court via the Kilve Cricket Club, where we had cups of tea and warm snacks. I made sure to stop and photograph one of the most fantastic architectural accomplishments I have ever seen:

(A dragon! On the chimney!)

Because Sasha and I joined the pilgrimage relatively late in the day, we missed some of the musical acts that had been distributed along the trail. However, there were several additional performances scheduled for that evening. My favorite was a set by Jonny Berliner, a science singer/songwriter who covers topics as diverse as evolution, physics, and the unfortunate death of Archimedes. His music was both funny and informative, and I promptly bought both of his albums so that I can feature his tunes on my radio show.

(Jonny Berliner, just about to begin a performance of his Christmas power ballad about Michael Faraday.)

Happily, Sasha's and my second night of sleep was much more restful than the first, and so we arose on Monday morning feeling fairly energetic. This was particularly good news since he and I were scheduled to give the final two lectures of the event. Sasha started the morning with "Unintelligent Design," and I finished up with "Humans as a Selection Pressure." At first, it looked as though we'd be speaking to only a handful of people, but the room filled up just before Sasha kicked things off. I noticed a few people nodding off as we talked, but that's probably to be expected at 10 AM the day after a 13-mile hike; also, it's not any different from what we see when lecturing in front of students, so neither of us was particularly upset by this.

After our talks, Chris gave some lovely closing comments summarizing the weekend's events and describing what he saw as the major accomplishments of the gathering. One of these was "friendship," and, indeed, many participants came up to Sasha and me after our talks in order to initiate friendly and complimentary conversations about our topics; many pilgrims have also made contact via e-mail, Facebook, and Google, emphasizing that the Ancestor's Trail was an experience with effects lasting well beyond its 3-day duration. 

Chris hopes that the pilgrimage will occur again next year, perhaps growing yet again to include even more people. Those who are interested should keep an eye on the official website in order to find out details on scheduling, funding, and participation.

More of my photos from the event are posted on Flickr.
Videos of my lecture are posted on Youtube (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V).
More discussions of the intersection of humans and nature can be found on my science blog and its accompanying Facebook page.
And, finally, my main professional webpage is here.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

ISBE 2012: Lund, Sweden

The biennial conference of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology may not sound, to most ordinary people, like a romantic event, but it is where my husband and I were first introduced (Tours, France, 2006), where we had our first date (Ithaca, New York, 2008), and where we had our belated honeymoon (Perth, Australia, 2010). In other words, it's a fairly big deal in our little family, and also, of course, in the field of behavioral ecology. Earlier this year, we wasted no time in signing ourselves up to attend ISBE 2012 in Lund, Sweden--a location that, happily, allowed me to finally fulfill my dream of visiting Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, getting to Scandinavia required getting past this: a seemingly endless line of cars. Funnily enough, this is the seemingly endless line of cars that we encountered on a detour we took in order to avoid another seemingly endless line of cars on the main road off the western peninsula of England. All told, our trip ended up being about 8 hours long when it should have been about 6. The only benefit of our meandering was an encounter with one of Britain's most iconic landmarks:

(Tiny Stonehenge in the distance.)

We'd hoped to reach our destination, the Harwood Guest House, in time to watch Mo Farrah's bid to win a gold medal in the 5,000-m Olympic run. Tragically, we were still on the road when his race began, but my iPhone saved the day and we were able to see the big event in miniature (our excitement, however, was supersized). Once we finally did arrive at our B&B, we wasted no time turning on the television in order to watch more of the night's competitions:

Sadly, we did eventually have to leave our room in order to go have dinner. For the second time, we tried and failed to eat at Indochine, an Asian-themed restaurant highly recommended by our hosts. This worked out well for us, since it meant that we ended up having dinner at Dunmow's China Garden Restaurant.


Having Chinese food in situ seems kind of novel and exciting these days, since this has been the go-to take-out genre for the past 2 decades of my life. Sasha and I had a really excellent meal consisting of pepper shrimp, veggie and tofu stir-fry, and mushroom stir-fry. It was ridiculously affordable, and Sasha and I were well aware that we would look back on this cheap meal with wistful fondness once we got to Sweden.

(...and after.)

The next morning, we headed over to Stansted Airport for the second (and final) time this summer. We browsed through the Olympics store while we waited for our flight, more out of curiosity than anything else. The merchandise was generally too expensive to be tempting, but a part of me still wanted to buy something to commemorate the year that I saw the torch in my very own town. That's when I saw this:
Given my sudden and peculiar obsession with the rhythmic gymnastics events this year, I just couldn't say no. Treasure in hand, I reported to the gate to finally head to Sweden.
Once I arrived, a mere 1.5 hours later, I was amazed to discover that Sweden has these:

(7-11s in Sweden. Amazing.)
I also quickly realized that they have terrible taste in architecture and/or exterior decorating: 
(Malmo Airport, from which we took a ~30-minute taxi ride into Lund.)

Our journey into Lund was memorable only because the taxi driver tried to rip us off. The conference paperwork emphasized the need to negotiate taxi prices before getting into the vehicle, and our experience demonstrated why this was a vital tactic. Even though we had already agreed upon a particular price--with not only our driver but also another driver from the same company who was simultaneously taking a car-load of our colleagues to another hotel--the driver suddenly tried to charge us more once we reached our destination. Sadly for him, the driver did not count on Sasha's haggling skills, honed during a lifetime of living and traveling in third-world countries. Needless to say, we did not pay a penny more than the original quote, and we also did not pay a tip.
We had booked ourselves a room at the Hotel Djingis Khan, which, at the time of our registration, was the cheapest conference-recommended hotel in Lund. Unfortunately, it was also one of the farthest away from the conference facilities; it took about 25 minutes to walk into town. This ultimately had two benefits. First, because we were situated away from the hustle and bustle of the city, our room was exceedingly quiet and restful. Second, the walk into Lund involved a shortcut through the north "kyrkogarden," or graveyard. That sounds like a dubious benefit, I know, but as the Swedish name suggests, the graveyard really was a "garden," and it was quite lovely:


 (I have no idea what this building is--a crypt? a chapel?)

I wandered around the graveyard every day and, uniquely for me, even at night--we had to pass through it in order to get home at the end of the evening. I'd never actually been in a cemetery at night, thought it is something I've always found appealing in a sort of morbid, horror-movie-loving kind of way. This particular cemetery was far removed from the haunted ones you see in films, because it was incredibly clean and well-tended; as the photo of the gravel patterns shows, there was a sort of Chinese rock garden quality about the place. People come in the evening to light candles and lanterns at some of the plots, so when you walk through in the dark, you can see the lights winking in the distance. It is all very calm and peaceful.

Although I attended both the opening and closing events at the conference, I spent most of the week holed up in my hotel room doing work; such is life. However, I did make time to take my normal daily walk, only in this instance I was doing it in an interesting foreign town, with my camera in hand. 

(I can't believe people live in homes this cute. I want one of these, hollyhocks and all.)

One of the nice things about sightseeing on foot is that you stumble across places you'd never see from a tour bus, or when taxiing from one landmark to the next. This incredibly picturesque neighborhood, for example, was something I just happened to find when taking a short cut back to the town center after sussing out the location of the botanical garden.

Likewise, this cat "graffiti"--which is probably my favorite find of the whole trip--was a pleasant surprise along a new route that I took one day into town.

Of course, that doesn't mean I avoided the famous sights, such as Lund's cathedral, or Lund Domkyrka. Actually, it would be pretty hard not to see the cathedral, since it's right in the center of town and is a pretty obvious feature of the skyline. It is a Lutheran cathedral, and the seat of the Church of Sweden's Bishop of Lund. Lund's first cathedral was built in the 11th century, and this more recent version--bits of which date back to the 13th century--may or may not stand in the same place. Its exterior is not as impressive as many that you will see elsewhere in Europe (particularly in Italy, Spain, and France), but it has many lovely features nonetheless. These include a 15th-century astronomical clock, giant organs (I'm not being euphemistic here--I'm referring to an instrument), and a crypt that dates back to the 12th century and has unusual and mysterious carvings on its columns. You'll also find standard cathedral-y things like ornate choir seating, impressive frescos and mosaics, and giant candelabra:

(Someone's going to need a loooong match.)

(The 15th-century clock, which still works.)

 (One of the tombs in the crypt, which has remained virtually untouched since the 12th century.)

Another "attraction" that you really can't miss is Lund University. Consistently ranked among the world's top 100 institutions of higher learning, LU (as I'm sure the Swedes don't call it) dates back to 1425, when the Franciscans founded a university next to the cathedral. LU's buildings were designed and crafted during a variety of different eras, but all manage to exude that stereotypical learned European vibe:

(Why doesn't my university have a turret?)

For most of our stay in Lund, the weather was absolutely beautiful; the skies were brilliant blue, the clouds were picturesque, the air was warm (sometimes even hot!), and the landscape was dotted with all sorts of wildlife. It was hard to think about spending any unnecessary time indoors, and so I bypassed Lund's many museums in favor of al fresco attractions such as the Botniska Tradgarden:

(I love it when plants are labeled with little signs so that I don't have to wonder what in the world I'm looking at; sometimes when I spend too long in botanical gardens, the next time I'm out in nature I get confused when I can't find any plaques.)

 (Look closely and you will see a baby water rail among the reeds.)

The garden was huge, featuring both indoor and outdoor plantings representative of seemingly every major biome. It was also free, which, thanks to Sweden's incredibly high prices, was an even better deal than usual.

On our final evening in Lund, we hopped on a bus to Luftkastellet, the venue for the ISBE conference banquet. Because the facility is located along the shoreline looking out over the strait between Sweden and Denmark, I had assumed it was a historical building--like the castle where we banqueted in Italy. I was a little disappointed to discover that it was, in fact, a nearly brand-new building, but I was certainly not disappointed with the view:

The next day, there was not much left to do other than check out of our room, loaf around in the hotel lounge (taking advantage of the free wi-fi that we were not able to detect in our room), and get a taxi ride (from a former professional international football referee!) back to Malmo Airport. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a quick photo op with my faithful pink travel companion:

(Florian, making friends with the gnome in our hotel's back garden.)

I don't know whether I will ever again be an ISBE delegate, since my academic career may be winding to a close. Sasha, however, will undoubtedly remain a fixture at the event, and I will tag along when I can. ISBE 2014 will be held in New York City, so my next conference report will be filed from the motherland!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Swedish nibbles

I've wanted to visit Scandinavia for as long as I can remember. This may have something to do with my deep childhood love of Kirsten, the Swedish American Girl doll, or, perhaps, my more recently developed affection for the Kristen Lavransdatter novels. I've always envisioned myself wearing Nordic sweaters and cross-country skiing and watching the aurora borealis during one of the north country's seemingly endless dark winter nights. One thing I never could quite picture, though, was eating Scandinavian food.

I mean, seriously, what are these people thinking, sticking a pot of pickled fish out on a breakfast buffet table? Even just looking at this makes me wince.

Or this, whatever it is--pate, perhaps? If I can't identify it, there's no way I'm going to eat it. Also, if this is pate, there is still no way it's going anywhere near my plate.

Here's another good one: tubes of caviar. Caviar is disgusting under any circumstances (birds' eggs = yes; any other species' eggs = no), but particularly so first thing in the morning. See the face of the young boy on the tube? That's there because these are usually given to children so they can spread the caviar on their toast like butter. I'd like to have seen my parents try that on me when I was a kid.

Of course, it's unfair to judge the whole country of Sweden based on the breakfast buffet offerings at a single hotel--a hotel which did, by the way, serve quite respectable (a.k.a., "normal") dinners. So let's take a look at the dining options in one of Lund's posher restaurants, shall we?

Here you see mackerel with potato wedges, crisp breadcrumbs, and a poached egg. Sounds delicious, doesn't it? That's what I thought when I ordered it. Then I discovered that the mackerel was pickled. Pickled. In the 21st century, in the middle of the summer, in a town that can't be more than a 30-minute drive from the coast.

I just cannot comprehend this. It's not like I don't appreciate pickled things in general--pickles, for instance, are delicious--but I just don't understand why on earth you would want to prepare flesh in this way, unless you are a medieval peasant facing a hard winter in the middle of a land-locked country and had to choose between pickled animals or no animals at all.

You might think I'm being melodramatic, but that is a main course-sized filet of mackerel right there, completely saturated with acid. I truly hope you cannot imagine what it feels like to put something like that in your stomach, because it is horribly unpleasant. For the rest of the evening and most of the next day, I felt nauseous if I even recalled this dish; I also felt as though I might potentially vomit at any moment.

Thank God we had this huge stack of bread on hand, because it did help soak up some of the acid before the mackerel burned a hole through the side of my stomach. Actually, this bread was fantastic anyway; it had some sort of licorice-y secret ingredient (I'm guessing fennel, though it could have been anise) and was really delicious. I'm hoping this is some sort of traditional Swedish thing so that I can easily find a recipe for it.

My main course was as amazingly wonderful as my appetizer was terrifying; the yin to its yang. For what may actually be the first time in my life, I ordered pork. In this case, I was tempted to try "the other white meat" because it had been crusted in tea, and my love of tea overcame my revulsion to non-bacon pig meat. The medallions were accompanied by slices of warm apple, a couple of potatoes, some pak choi, and a really tasty gravy. This was definitely one of the classiest and most satisfying things I've ever eaten, ranking right up there with the food from Rick Stein's and Nathan Outlaw's.

Sasha's meal was also a success. He ordered poached (not pickled!) cod with potatoes and peas and various other accompaniments in a nice broth. He also ordered a dessert:

I know this isn't the most attractive photo, but that's my fault more than the restaurant's. This is a raspberry mousse topped with chocolate pudding, fresh raspberries, and sweet croutons. Unfortunately, Sasha doesn't like mixing chocolate and fruit, so he had to do some careful excavation in order to keep the two flavors separate. However, he still gave the dish a thumbs-up.

Two of our dining companions ordered creme brulees, which were "bruleed" right at our table, providingd quite a lot of excitement and entertainment.

This is probably a good point to mention that Sweden is really, really, ridiculously expensive. As in, you're pretty much guaranteed to spend at least $100 for a 2-person dinner even at a relatively average establishment. The above culinary adventure was on course to cost us approximately $200 (wine included), but then one of our companions insisted on paying. I felt guilty (well, only a little guilty, since he is Swedish and gets paid in kroners), but mostly I felt relieved; I was not looking forward to putting that on my credit card.

Because of the incredibly steep prices, Sasha and I took advantage of our hotel's free dinner buffet whenever we could, and I purchased myself some "cheap" (in a relative sense) and easy lunch items in a grocery store. These included 2 ramen cups and a package of cup-of-soups, cheese, wheat crackers, and fresh fruit. Using the kettle in our hotel room, the coffee mug included as part of our conference registration, and plastic cutlery I spotted at the grocery store, I prepared lunch for myself each day; thanks to the menu (and my renewed relationship with poverty), it was rather like reliving my college days.

After the pickled herring outing at Mat & Destillat, I was--understandably, I think--nervous about our 2 remaining nights out on the town. However, our luck improved. On the first night, this was partly thanks to the fact that we went to a place that had already been tested by some friends. There, I ordered what was basically a fancy version of fish and chips:

Specifically, it was panko-breaded fish with potatoes, veggies, and--the coup de grace--herby butter infused with mussel broth. Normally I don't like melted butter, but after dipping my finger in to have a quick taste, I couldn't help but go back for more. I couldn't really taste the mussel flavor much, but what I did notice was the tarragon, which matched the garnish on my fish. I didn't leave anything on my plate but a few sprigs of dill; the dish was, in a word, terrific.

On our final evening, we attended the conference banquet at Luftkastellet, which overlooks the strait between Sweden and Denmark. Truth be told, the most appetizing thing we had that evening was the lovely view, but our meal wasn't bad--especially not by conference banquet standards. I was particularly fond of a side dish that consisted of large barley dressed in pesto sauce; the grains were basically being treated as little pasta.

This is one of the appetizers, which brings us full circle to the topic of weird things that Swedish people do with their food. Notice that the salmon is completely raw. I have nothing against raw salmon--I eat it in smoked and sushi format all the time--but it's not something everyone loves, and those are some pretty hefty pieces. Note also the piles of crispy bread crumbs; you may recall that these were a part of my mackerel disaster, as well. They don't really have much flavor, so I suppose they're on the plate in order to look pretty and add some crunch. Finally, you'll notice the redcurrants. These are as close as I got to lingonberries, which, in jam form, are a staple of Scandinavian cuisine. I'm a little surprised I didn't see any lingonberries, actually, but that didn't really bother me too much; I think it's a bit weird to have berries with meat, regardless of whether you're talking about pairing lingonberries with meatballs or redcurrants with salmon.

That, of course, is just me, and it's pretty clear that my tastes do not align with the tastes of the Scandinavians. Of course, I didn't get to try such classics as mustamakkara (black pudding), leverpalt (liver dumplings), surstromming (fermented herring--one step up from pickled!), or grisfotter (pigs' feet). Maybe those would change my mind.

Note: Nobody Swedish should take my comments too seriously. After all, I come from the land of Cheez Whiz and Jimmy Dean's sausage pancakes on a stick. Besides, both Wikipedia and my hero, Jamie Oliver, say that the Swedes do some lovely things with potatoes and meat. I'll obviously have to go back one day in order to taste these delicacies.