Sunday, 30 September 2012

Where to eat in Truro: Gravy

I've lived in Falmouth for about three years now, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to nearby Truro for a reason other than hopping on a train. Two of those trips involved going to see a movie; one involved going shopping; one was to attend a party; and the final one was kind of an accident, since Truro happened to be the final destination on the "Round Robin" trip that I took with my parents up the River Fal. When you can remember every single time you've gone somewhere, you either have a terrific memory or haven't visited nearly enough.

It's actually pretty ridiculous that we don't go to Truro more often, considering that it is an official city (thanks to the presence of Truro Cathedral) and has all the associated commercial and cultural opportunities that you would expect of such a place. When I first had the bright idea to eat my way around Cornwall, I discovered that Truro has a highly recommended gourmet restaurant called the Driftwood Hotel. So, when Sasha's aunt and uncle recently called out of the blue to say they'd be visiting Cornwall, I thought it would be nice if we could all rendezvous at the Driftwood. That seemed like a great plan until we realized that the hotel is only nominally in Truro; in reality, it's at least 20 minutes away down winding, narrow country roads. Since we were planning to meet up at the end of a long day of driving down to Cornwall from Oxford, Sasha and I thought it would be prudent to find somewhere a bit easier to locate.

That is how we found ourselves eating at Gravy Boesti, conveniently located right off the main drag at 8 Edward Street. Serendipitously, we had driven past the restaurant on our way up to Oxford earlier in the week, so we knew exactly where we were heading on Friday night--plus we were aware that there was a public parking lot right at the end of the road. Perfect.

What was not perfect is the fact that we were nearly 30 minutes late for our date thanks to two patches of road construction between Oxford and Truro. This meant that we didn't order until after 9 PM, and, consequently, were the last customers to leave the restaurant. However, everyone was incredibly patient and friendly; if they were irritated at having to stay late on our account, they sure didn't let on.

I'm actually the person responsible for our choice of restaurants, which I will acknowledge since it turned out so well. When I had gotten online to peruse reviews of various Truro establishments, I noticed that Gravy Boesti was consistently referred to as "the best place to eat in Truro," as well as a great place to go for a special occasion. I actually think it's pretty amazing that we got reservations for such a popular establishment at such short notice (only 2-3 days, if I recall correctly). This is especially true given the restaurant's tiny size; most of the space is taken up by the open-air kitchen--a very neat* feature allowing you to see all stages of the food preparation process--leaving room for somewhere between only 6-10 tables max.

Although there were four of us at the table, I only have photos of Sasha's and my dishes, since I didn't want to subject in my poor in-laws to my food-photographing fetish (though, to be honest, they are both so nice I think they probably wouldn't have minded a bit).

For starters, Sasha's aunt Elaine ordered the last remaining portion of the sardines, which she de-boned in an incredibly delicate and efficient manner; she pronounced them very tasty. His uncle Tup and I ordered the pumpkin soup, which was topped by honey-roasted pumpkin seeds and came with a side of homemade bread studded with what appeared to be chunks of olive. I needed to add a bit of salt (I actually found all the courses a bit under-salted, which is incredibly unusual given my tastes), but once I did, it was delicious; unlike my husband, I enjoy a bit of sweet-salty contrast, wish is something that squashes are particularly good for.


For the main course, Sasha decided to be adventurous: He ordered the last portion of the evening's cuttlefish special. I have seen people eating octopus and squid, but I did not realize that cuttlefish was also a cephalopod dinner option. These were prepared in an Asian style, with pak choi and soy sauce and various other Asian flavors; Sasha enjoyed them quite a bit (as did Tup, who had a quick taste).

I also opted for seafood, but my variety was a bit more "tame": I ordered halibut on a potato cake with sweet potato and fennel sauces on the side. According to the menu, the "potato cake" was a "rosti," but I didn't notice any non-potato veggies involved, so really it was a potato cake--which is fine with me, because I happen to love potato cakes. Altogether, the dish had just the right amount of food.

Tup and Elaine ordered more terrestrial meals--Tup had a steak (which came with a side of some of the biggest hand-cut fries I've ever seen), while Elaine had the duck. I don't remember hearing any comments about the quality of the food, but I can guess what their opinions were given that they cleaned their plates.

I don't ordinarily order dessert--since I generally don't have any room left for it--but Sasha's uncle helped me out by giving me a bit of his so that I could get a taste of the lemon Cornish cream ice cream. Fantastic.

Sasha ordered an unusual dish that I've never seen anywhere else: a shortbread strawberry cheesecake. The shortbreads are obvious in the picture below; the cheesecake portion was light and whipped and had been piped in between and on top of the shortbread layers. Overall, the entire thing was quite a bit less dense than your typical cheesecake, and, much to Sasha's pleasure, it had never seen the inside of an oven.

Elaine was struck by a sudden craving for crackers and cheese, but wasn't a fan of the cheeses on the cheese board listed on the menu. However, our waitress managed to rustle up a small portion of acceptable cheese--Stilton--some oat crackers, and a bit of fruit. I should re-emphasize the fact that it was, by this time, fast approaching 11 PM, and we were the last customers in the restaurant; despite this, everybody was happy to not only serve us, but to serve us things that weren't even officially on offer!

All in all, it was a delicious evening, made all the better by the fact that we had the opportunity to catch up with family that we almost never get the chance to see (also made better by the fact that they paid for dinner--thanks again, guys!). I can certainly recommend Gravy to anyone who happens to find themselves in Truro. While it did appear to be a bit on the "special occasion" end of the spectrum, none of us was particularly dressy and we didn't feel awkward or out of place. So, if you are looking to have a top-class meal without having to put on your fanciest duds--or break the bank--Gravy Boesti is definitely a good place to go.

*I was recently told (in a friendly way) that "neat" is a ridiculous Americanism and that I should say "fabulous" instead.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hitting the

A couple of weeks ago, Sasha and I received a notice in the mail alerting us to the fact that the Antiques Roadshow would be filming in the square outside our apartment on September 13th. I got all excited and contemplated going down with one of my antiques, and then I promptly forgot all about it. Then, on the evening of the 12th, we looked outside and saw people setting up lots of little garden furniture and umbrellas and decorative trees, and we remembered what was afoot. Looking out at all the hubbub, I made my decision: I would get up early and try to beat the crowds, or I wouldn't go down at all. Time is precious, and I just didn't want to waste away hours of my life standing in a line.

For a couple of hours the next morning, I watched the AR staff run errands and set up their cameras and hold organizational meetings, and I saw absolutely no signs that any crowds were amassing. Even at 9:15, 15 minutes before the grounds opened to visitors, there was no line. I became complacent, and I let down my guard, and the next time I looked outside I saw a huge queue of pensioners waiting to get in. I'd missed my chance.

From my position on high, I could roughly work out how the system worked. Anyone could wander into the "valuation" area in order to spectate, but if you had an antique that you wanted to show to an expert, you had to talk to someone at the main desk. This meant that there were two lines: one that you waited in before having someone check over your goods and wave you through to one of the experts, and one that you waited in in order to actually gain access to the experts. Each of the little garden tables had 1-2 experts, divided according to area of specialty; one table was for antique books, another for military goods, another for jewelry, and so on. Things that didn't fit any particular category were directed towards the "miscellaneous" section, comprising 4 tables rather than the single table devoted to each other type of good. Unsurprisingly, this was the section with the most people and the longest wait.

This is what the scene looked like from above. You can see all the camera equipment down in the front center; in addition to the massive cameras, there were also light-reflecting screens and a big umbrella that, I assume, shaded the TV monitor so the director could see what was being filmed. This setup moved a few times during the day in order to take advantage of the sunlight, but it was consistently used for the really exciting finds; here you can see an expert discussing a couple of paintings. There were also smaller camera units that would be rolled over to the experts' tables in order to do some occasional "spot filming."

Even though I'd decided not to go down if it was going to involve waiting in a line, I wrapped up my editing assignment for the day unexpectedly early, and so I thought...why not? How could I possibly watch the Antiques Roadshow being filmed outside my own apartment, and not go down to participate? Like the running of the Olympic Torch, it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I didn't want to kick myself later for missing out. 

The hard part was choosing which of my antiques to take down. I have several lovely things, all of which a) I was hoping to learn the history of, and b) I thought would be of interest to the experts. This included my Asian silk screen, my lap desk, my 2 Chinese carvings, and my two Chinese hat boxes. I decided to take down one of my hat boxes--the larger of the pair, and the first antique I ever purchased for myself. I bought it for a whopping $150 just after I had graduated from college, at a time when $150 was more than I could really afford; I loved it the moment I saw it, which meant that money was no object. I've always wanted to know more about it, and I was hoping that one of the AR experts could enlighten me.

When I went down--at around 11:30 AM--the first line wasn't too bad. It ran along the waterfront, so at least you had a nice view while you were waiting. Everyone entering the line was met by the chief of security (a man with a tremendous handlebar mustache) and a greeter; the pair handed out an Antiques Roadshow pamphlet and showed you where to go.

The first portion of the wait was pretty boring. I discovered that Events Square is a dead zone for my phone, and so I couldn't get online and so some of the stuff that I was going to do to occupy my time. Instead, I popped in some earbuds and listened to music. After a while, I noticed that someone was interviewing people while they waited in line, so I took off my headphones and prepared to be questioned. Sadly, he never chatted to me. So much for my first shot at Antiques Roadshow fame.

Eventually, I made it to the front desk, where I was informed that my hat box was beautiful (tell me something I don't know!), and was given the dreaded "miscellaneous" classification. This meant that I was in for another couple of hours' waiting. By that point I had already been in line for about an hour, listening to the old ladies behind me talk about weddings and babies and the royal family; I was not sure how much more of that I could take.

The miscellaneous line was U-shaped, which was kind of painful because you could see just how long your wait was going to be; looking at the people opposite you was like looking into your future...your distant future. When I first got in line, I was positioned about where the end of the line was in the photo above. (Strangely, the line always seemed to end just about there--it never got longer or shorter.) It took me a little over an hour to get to the bend in the U, but after that our speed did pick up a little; I think some of the experts had gone to lunch early on, but by the middle of the afternoon they were all working simultaneously.

The bummer about being in line was that you didn't get to experience the real magic of the AR--the "big reveal" moment when you get to find out all the historical details associated with some random object that's been sitting in someone's attic gathering dust for the past 50 years. All of the tables were too far away for you to act as a spectator. However, most people ended up chatting with their neighbors to pass the time, and that was a pretty interesting experience unto itself. There was a group of 5 of us who got to talking about our various antiques; with a hat box, 2 old dresses, a tablecloth, a gramophone, and a selection of toys among us, we were the very definition of "miscellaneous." None of us was particularly interested in the value of our pieces (at least, none of us admitted that out loud--who knows what people were thinking inwardly!). Instead, we were all mostly hoping to find out what our items were, when they were made, and where they came from.

I was the first to finally get to speak to an expert; thanks to my handy AR pamphlet, I was later able to identify him as North Yorkshire-based Adam Schoon. To be honest, I think I was very lucky in being sent to Adam, because it turns out that he is particularly interested in Eastern antiques and had recently sold a piece not unlike mine. Also, he was very, very nice. He confirmed that my hat box is, indeed, a hat box--not a veggie steamer, as suggested by one of the people who was waiting with me in line!-- and that it is, indeed, from China (which is what the price tag said when I bought it). It was probably made in approximately 1900. He pointed out the wax customs seal on the bottom and said that such seals were stamped on all cultural exports prior to their departure from China. According to Adam, the box wouldn't have come on its own, but would originally have contained a hat. The box that he'd recently sold contained such a hat, and the pair together were worth about £1000. He said that adding a hat to my collection would significantly increase the value of the box; as it is, it's probably worth only about £150. I honestly don't care about its value, but I was relieved to hear that I hadn't been swindled. Actually, if you take exchange rate and inflation into account, the box's worth probably slightly exceeds the price I paid, so there is no reason to regret the investment.

After I chatted with Adam, I looked around for my partners-in-line, but I couldn't find them anywhere. I guess I won't know about their antiques unless they make the final cut of the show and I happen to see them on television. By the time I made it back up to my apartment, it was 3:30, so all in all I devoted a whopping four hours to the Antiques Roadshow experience. There is a lot that I could have accomplished during that time--finishing my book comes to mind!--but I don't regret going. 

My feet and back were insanely sore, but the pain was worth the fun of being surrounded by other people who love history and the preservation of beloved old objects. Antiquing is a hobby (even a passion) that does not appeal to everyone, and I don't get to chat about or pursue it with anyone except my mother. For one afternoon, I had the chance to reaffirm my membership in the antiquing community and to participate in an iconic British television show. Now I'll just have to stay tuned to the BBC to see if any part of my adventure was caught on film!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Taking a walk on the Wild Side: My adventures in radio

I have found myself doing a lot of unexpected things over the years--singing in an a capella group, for example, and moving to England--but one thing I certainly never anticipated was having my own radio show.

My father is a radio journalist, so perhaps I should have seen this coming. When I was younger, I used to spend quite a lot of time at his office, where I would sit in the recording studio and pretend to be on air. I remember being particularly enthralled with the act of erasing old broadcasts from previously used tape cartridges. I also recall learning how to sort through old press releases and decide which ones should be broadcasted for a second day, and which should be tossed. I was even on air a couple of times--once because I won some sort of writing contest and was recorded reading my piece aloud, and another time because my dad had recorded me playing piano so that he could use the clip as "natural sound" in the background of a piece. With that kind of history, I was practically destined to grow up and become a radio personality.

The thing is, pretty much everything about radio broadcasting goes against my natural inclinations. I dislike speaking extemporaneously because, when I do, I say unbelievably stupid things. I'm not funny. I am not very good at interviewing or chatting with people. I can't juggle too many things at once, so I don't feel comfortable switching between CDs and microphones or doing fancy things with the sound. Really, the only thing I've got going for me is the fact that I can't stand the idea of avoiding something because it scares me--well, that and the skill of being able to speak at length about things even when I don't precisely know what I'm talking about.

So how in the world did I end up hosting my own radio show? It was suggested by a colleague at the University of Exeter who knew about my interest in science outreach. He had done some guest spots on some previous science-themed broadcasts at our local station, The Source 96.1 FM, so he knew the people in charge and had an inkling that they might want to host a show devoted to science. Before I could think twice and say no, he'd sent an e-mail to the Powers That Be, and I found myself signed up for a training day. 

This is what I found when I arrived at The Source for my introduction to the studio (although this particular photo was taken later--station manager Matthew Rogers wasn't picnicking outside on that first day). The mobile office units were donated to the station by construction companies at the University of Exeter; they allowed Source to move out of their quarters at the University College Falmouth and exist independently. While they may not look too exciting from the outside, they were a pretty big step up for the radio station; besides, the magic results from what happens within.

This is the main studio, from which the majority of shows are broadcasted; there is also a smaller second studio that is mostly used for pre-recording (on the rare occasions when it is necessary). On the training day, I was one of 4 people who showed up to the station to find out about possibly getting a show. We heard a little bit about Source's origins and scope, then were quickly ushered into the studio to get our first lesson on how to work the equipment. That was when I realized that thinking about having a radio show is a very different thing from actually having a radio show; staring down a microphone and resting your hands on the soundboard very much help turn a mere concept into a reality.

I tried to drag my feet as much as possible, but after a couple of follow-up training sessions, there was not much more I could learn about operating the soundboard--basically, you play a song by pushing up one switch and pulling down another, then do the reverse in order to go back to talking. Once I had that mastered, I really had no excuses to put off my first show any longer.

To make things easy on myself, I decided that the theme of my first broadcast would be the topic on which I am (theoretically) most expert: birdsong. Conveniently, I was also in the midst of writing a magazine article on that very same idea, so I was able to use the written piece as a framework for the oral version of the presentation. The one last hurdle I had to clear prior to the first episode was coming up with a name for my show. I toyed with the idea of calling it "Anthrophysis" in honor of my science blog of the same name, but I didn't want to restrict my scope; "anthrophysis" loosely means "humans" and "nature," and I anticipated plenty of times when I'd want to talk about the latter without trying to connect it to the former. I'm not sure where my inspiration came from, but I realized that at some point I had started thinking of my show as the "Wild Side," and that is the name that ultimately stuck.

I was pretty terrified on the day of my first broadcast, to the point where I was physically ill the night before and the entire day of the show. Ditto the next week and the week after fact, things didn't start getting any easier until my 5th or 6th episode. You would think that after all these years of performing in front of people, it wouldn't bother me any more, but it still does. It doesn't matter whether I'm playing an instrument, singing, acting, running a race, giving a lecture, or, now, hosting a radio show; I still feel absolutely miserable. It's an especially weird reaction to broadcasting because, as far as I can see from my position in the studio, I am completely alone; I'm basically sitting in a room just talking to myself. My mind, however, is aware that there is (potentially) an audience out there, so I still get the nervous adrenaline rush and all the fun side effects that come with it.

One of the things I do to minimize the stress is make my shows as simple as possible. Eventually I may do "fancy" things such as taking calls and interviewing guests, but for now I essentially do a lecture not unlike one I might give to students at the university--only in this case I take occasional breaks to play music. I started off discussing topics for which I already had presentations prepared and/or research compiled, including animal communication, deception in the animal kingdom, and the ecology of urban environments. After that, I had to step out into the great unknown and talk about things that I'd only just researched during the week prior to my show. That was a nerve-wracking transition to make, because I hate saying anything that I am not 100% sure of, and for me, being 100% sure requires doing months and months of reading. Each week, I type out notes that I can use as an intellectual crutch to get me through the broadcast. I don't read them out like a manuscript, because I'm pretty sure that would bore listeners stiff. I do, however, use them to make sure I discuss things in the right order, say the correct names and dates, and know when to break for songs.

The songs themselves are probably the most fun thing about doing the broadcasts. I have a truly massive music collection, including lots of stuff that I acquired simply because I found it odd or amusing. I now finally have a reason to own all of this music. I prefer to choose songs that refer to the overall theme of each week's broadcast--for the birdsong week, for instance, I chose songs with "bird" in the title or, where necessary, the name of a particular bird ("dove," "eagle," etc.). Occasionally that is difficult to do, and I have to choose songs that express the different topics or themes I discuss throughout the broadcast. That is what I had to do for my show on science history, because, as it turns out, there aren't lots of songs with "history" in the title.

If there is anything that could be considered my broadcasting kryptonite, it is distracting bird activity outside the studio window. I have had to train myself to ignore all the little house sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, and blackbirds that come and go while I am on air. There was one early episode during which I realized that I'd completely zoned out for about 5 minutes--while talking--because I was watching the birds outside. Another thing I find totally distracting is the sound of my own voice. Frankly, I'm not really sure why I even wear headphones while I'm in the studio, since I have the volume turned down so low that the speakers are basically not transmitting any sound into my ears.

Listeners (again, assuming there are any other than my family) may not be aware of too many obvious differences between my first and most recent shows, but I certainly feel different. Since I first went on air, I have become much more comfortable with the whole broadcasting process, from the rushed turnover between shows to adjusting volume levels while talking to shrugging off the errors I make while speaking. Much of this is thanks to studio manager Jerry Padfield, who has coached me from Day 1. I still have a long way to go, but I am no longer feeling as much pressure to be perfect all the time (if only I could apply this same attitude to the rest of my life!). I have even relaxed enough to start taking a video camera in to record my episodes for later uploading to YouTube.

Of course, the purpose of the show is not to expand my horizons or make me popular or get me a job with the BBC (all of which, however, are fine by me!), but to teach people about science. While I have absolutely no idea whether it is succeeding at that goal, I have my fingers crossed; if only one person learns one thing each week, I have succeeded. I'd also be happy to learn that someone discovered a new musician thanks to the songs I play. (That possibility, incidentally, is one of the things that first attracted my father to radio.) If nothing else, though, I've had the chance to meet new people, learn new skills, conquer old fears, and gain a tiny bit of perspective on what my dad has been doing every weekday for the past 30 years. I may not get paid the big bucks for hosting "Wild Side" (or, in fact, any bucks at all), but those achievements are reward enough.

If you want to hear "Wild Side," tune in to Cornwall's The Source 96.1 FM from 1-2 PM GMT every Wednesday (over the airwaves or online). Podcasting is coming soon, either via The Source or my own website. You can also visit the latter to access YouTube links to episodes 8 ("A Brief History of Science") and 9 ("The Science of Bird Migration").