Sunday, 7 July 2013

Sasha's birthday weekend

Last weekend was the third anniversary of Sasha's 40th birthday, so we took a little trip to celebrate. Well, kind of. What really happened is that I made us a dinner reservation for Sasha's birthday weekend, noticed the date after the fact, then added a B&B booking in order to make a weekend of it. Because I am thoughtful and romantic like that.

Our chosen hotel, Higher Faugan, called me at the last minute and said that they'd overbooked for the weekend, then asked if we'd be willing to relocate (free of charge) to a holiday home with a jacuzzi. I am never one to turn down a hot tub, plus the new place was nearer our restaurant, so I said "yes".

Our living room and kitchen/dining room...

...and our bedroom.

The new place was located in Hayle, which is a popular holiday destination because it can be used as a base for hiking, surfing, swimming, and generally enjoying the Cornish coastline. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, it was overcast, cool, and a bit misty, so we weren't feeling too excited about the idea of spending time outdoors. Instead, we were hoping to lounge around in the "jacuzzi." Unfortunately, this turned out to merely be a (small) bath tub with jets. *sigh* We therefore went with Plan C, which was to watch Wimbledon and then have a nap.

Afterwards, we both got dolled up for dinner. Not to be self-centered and superficial, but I'd been anticipating this date for a while because I was planning to wear the brand-new vintage-style flamingo dress that I bought a couple months ago. I'd been saving the dress specifically for this occasion, and was quite excited to wear it because I had also purchased a petticoat so that I could do the dress justice. I've always been a fan of vintage and vintage-look clothes, but have never had the guts to really commit to achieving the genuine vintage look. This was to be my big debut, and we'll just pretend that I was doing it all in honor of Sasha, rather than taking his birthday weekend and making it all about me.

Obligatory selfie, taken while wearing the new flamingo dress. You can't see it, but I was also wearing the flamingo earrings that Sasha got me for my birthday last year. It was my way of honoring Sasha, of course.

Our dinner reservations were at The Black Rock, a highly lauded restaurant in St. Ives. It's listed in the 2013 Good Food Guide, and I have also previously seen it on other lists of recommended restaurants in Cornwall. It doesn't have a Michelin star, but it has received the Michelin Bib Gourmand award for three years running. Like many other gourmet restaurants in the region, The Black Rock is all about local ingredients.

We elected to get a taxi to St. Ives so we wouldn't need to worry about navigating the town's narrow, serpentine roads, or finding a parking spot. We were dropped off a couple streets away from the restaurant, which gave us a chance to see a bit of St. Ives before sitting down to our meal. I think I was last there in 2008, during one of the first trips I made to England after Sasha and I started dating. Amazingly, things appear to have changed very little since then; whereas several shops in Falmouth have turned over just since I moved here, I recognized many of the establishments in St. Ives from my previous visit.

The St. Ives waterfront

When I'd called the restaurant earlier in the day in order to confirm our reservation, I'd experienced a moment of panic when the host couldn't find my name on the books. It turned out that they'd misspelled "Kight" as "Knight," which happens all the time because people just can't believe that you'd ever want to spell that name without an 'n'. Imagine my delight when we showed up for dinner that evening and were told, again, that we didn't have a reservation--all because the guy I'd talked to earlier in the day hadn't bothered to fix the typo. Usually I'm an "all's well that ends well" kind of girl, but I have to admit that this bothered me. I cannot tell you how irritated it makes me when people mangle my name. (Side note: A couple weeks ago, I sat through a meeting during which one of my superiors repeatedly referred to me as "Catlin". I'd played a significant role in the event that we were discussing, she'd seen my name in several e-mails scheduling the meeting, and then she'd been formally introduced to me that very day. And still she got my name wrong.) Really, though, if this is the biggest thing I have to complain about on any given day, then I should probably just shut up and think about how lucky I am.

View of the kitchen from our table

Sasha and I were seated at a table with a good view of the kitchen, which was a nice touch. I could only ever see two, or maybe three, chefs--pretty incredible considering that the restaurant had maybe twenty tables. They always seemed pretty calm, too--no rushing around or Ramsay-style swearing. Either they had another kitchen elsewhere where all the real dinner prep happened, or these guys were just remarkably organized and Zen in their approach.

The restaurant was full of pottery--from little vases on each table to larger ornamental pots in little alcoves along the wall

Because we were in St. Ives, I expected the restaurant to be seafood-heavy, but actually it had a broad range of dishes, from fish to beef to pork to vegetarian. The menu was not huge, but because it had lots of variety, I felt as though I had plenty of options.

Sasha approves of the menu

For our starter, Sasha and I shared a double order of the roasted scallops. I then moved on to the gnocchi with crab meat, while Sasha had kind of an Asian-style pork belly with noodles. While we waited for our food to arrive, we were served some delicious homemade bread.

I was particularly interested in the wooden paddle, which was unlike any butter spreader I've previously encountered. I wanted to sneak it home in my purse, but I resisted the urge.

Roasted scallops
Our scallops were both beautiful and tasty. I don't think I've ever had roasted scallops before; usually I get them sauteed. These didn't have that nice little crust you get from frying them in a pan, but they also didn't feel bogged down by lots of butter. They were light and fresh, and accompanied by a similarly light and fresh salsa.

Slow-cooked Trevaskis Farm pork belly with noodles, pork broth, seasonal greens, and pickles

One of Sasha's all-time favorite dishes is "soupy noodles", a.k.a. Asian-style noodles in broth. That is not what he was expecting when he ordered this dish, so he was pleasantly surprised when that is what he received. 

My meal tasted delicious, but had one serious flaw: It contained several little bits of crab shell. I know that it is practically impossible to extract crab meat without leaving some shell behind, but it can be done. During the summer that I worked in Maryland, for example, I used to buy massive buckets of hand-picked crab meat with nary a shell in sight; even at chain restaurants like Red Lobster (not that I'm admitting to ever going to such a place), you can get crab dishes that are not contaminated by chitin. I can't help but think that a Michelin-recommended restaurant should strive to protect its diners from that horrible (and sometimes painful) sensation of crunching down on a bit of exoskeleton.

House-picked Cornish crab meat, homemade gnocchi, parsley, chili, lemon, and olive oil
One of the things I love about gourmet restaurants is that the portion sizes are very reasonable, which means you can clear your plate during each course but still have room for dessert at the end. Sasha immediately spotted something to suit his palate, but I wasn't too excited by the options that were available. However, this is not a fault of the restaurant; they had several different flavors and formats available, but many of them were things that appeal more to a British palate than an American one. One thing I could tolerate, though, was a glass of port:

Sasha ordered a double port, and our waitress promised to find him a nice "manly" vessel from which to drink it; I, on the other hand, chose to have a single port in the "girly" glass.

Sasha's final course was strawberries in apple cider jelly, a little shortbread cookie with "garden mint" ice cream on top, and a large fresh strawberry. Jelly is a dessert that is quite common in the UK, but is really not my thing. Give me a few years and maybe I'll finally get used to it. Regardless of its flavor or "mouthfeel" (if you'd like to use the pretentious culinary term), it certainly looks beautiful.

Sasha's very photogenic dessert

I ultimately decided to have the brownie with coffee-flavored ice cream. The dish was also supposed to come with custard, but custard is another British thing I can't handle--it's a little too creamy and heavy for my taste. Actually, brownies are also generally a bit much for me, but this was the dessert that I found most appealing overall. Although I'm not a very experienced brownie connoisseur, even I could tell that the quality of this one was pretty exceptional; it was dense and chewy and had a deep cocoa-y flavor. The ice cream provided an excellent accompaniment, not just in terms of taste but also temperature.

My homemade brownie with coffee ice cream

After dinner, we had a bit of a stroll while waiting for our taxi. The weather was still gloomy, but actually quite picturesque:

A view of St. Ives, looking back towards Hayle

Every time I see weather like this, I try to imagine what it must have been like for sailors back in the days before bathymeters and radios and other technological aids to the maritime lifestyle.

Sasha and I soon noticed that my outfit was attracting quite a bit of attention, which I found surprising. Falmouth is full of people--from the arts students at Falmouth University to the owner of the vintage-style boutique Just Like This--who wear "unusual" clothing. Considering that St. Ives is such a hot bed of art, you'd think that the town is full of people wearing avant-garde styles. It was actually kind of eye-opening to turn so many heads. I've always dressed pretty conventionally, so this is the first glimpse I've ever had of what it must be like to march to your own sartorial drummer. Or maybe people weren't interested in the dress itself, but instead the amazing flamingo cloth out of which it is made; after all, flamingos are the most awesome animals ever, as we all know. (Someone should write a book about them!) Or, maybe it was Sasha getting all the attention. After all, he was wearing his snazzy new linen duds that he bought for his internationalization trip to Nigeria last month, and he does clean up pretty nicely.

Busking harpist (or harping busker?) playing along the waterfront in St. Ives

When we got back to our place, we polished off the remainder of the complimentary champagne left by the caretaker (yes, I drank some; no, I didn't like it) and watched TV coverage of Glastonbury. The big event of the night was the performance of the Rolling Stones, who were playing at the festival for the very first time. It was quite a thing to see. The Stones are old enough to be grandparents (and may, in fact, already be) but there they were on stage, dancing around as much as the twentysomething artists at the festival, and looking much cooler.

In a way, it was a very appropriate thing for us to watch on Sasha's birthday; he may not feel especially excited about turning 43, but as Mick Jagger and the rest of the band demonstrate, age really is only a number.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Pennywhistle mania

When you're a kid, you can be pretty certain that you will have a good summer. From mid-June until late August, you don't have to worry about anything except choosing ice cream flavors and deciding how you will amuse yourself for the afternoon. It is amazing--relaxing, enriching, entertaining, and, most of all, fun. Then you grow up and summers are like the other three seasons of the year, but with better weather outside your office window. If I had to make you a list of the top ten things that depress me about being an adult, having to work summers would definitely be high on my list.

However, I am currently "between contracts" (to be extremely euphemistic), which has given me an opportunity to have a bit of freedom this summer. For the past couple of weeks, I have been able to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. It's fantastic. I've watched DVDs, I've cooked elaborate meals, I've gone on ridiculously long walks along the coast, I've tried my hand at making a video, and, perhaps most enjoyable of all, I've taken up a new instrument.

Proof that I have been taking long walks along the coast--even in less-than-stellar weather

I last learned a new instrument in high school, when I decided that I absolutely needed to be able to play the guitar. Unfortunately, the idea of the instrument was better than the reality. I struggled to translate my musical savvy from the piano to the guitar, and it was extremely frustrating to me that I made very little progress, very slowly. The best I could ever do was use the guitar to play chords so that I could sing along or write my own songs; I never really got to the point where I could contemplate playing a solo or picking the main melody. My big problem was that I could never really wrap my mind around how the guitar worked. My understanding of the instrument was very superficial, and I had no real intuition. That (and my busy schedule) is why I haven't played guitar for at least a year, and so felt inclined to lend it to a colleague for the summer. "Why not", I figured? "What is the likelihood that I'll want to play it?"

Of course you know where this is going. With all this spare time (and energy!), my desire to make music resurfaced, but I had no instrument to hand...well, almost no instrument. On a shelf in our spare bedroom, tucked away in its original packaging, was a Walton's tin whistle that my mom bought me at least a decade ago when she and my dad were in Boston. I tooted on it a couple of times after I first received it, but have otherwise left it alone all this time; I had a guitar to play, after all, plus I knew nothing about woodwinds and had no real reason to make the time to learn.

My Walton's tin whistle, a.k.a. pennywhistle, a.k.a. Irish whistle, a.k.a. whistle

The whistle came with an incredibly brief instruction booklet and notations for a few songs. Many of them were Irish folk tunes that I didn't recognize, though I was able to attempt some of the traditional American songs that were included. Within a half hour or so, I could haltingly get through an entire song, but there was nothing magical happening. So I decided to get some help from the Internet.

My first whistle tune. Now that I have a bit of knowledge about the whistle, I'm a bit baffled by this notation. It's written in the key of F, but the Walton's whistle is in the key of D. Further, if you cover all the holes, as in the first note, you get a D, not a C (as shown here). Hmm.

What I discovered was that practically every man and his brother plays the pennywhistle. Apparently it is an extremely popular instrument--probably because it's portable, cheap (you can get a decent-sounding one for about $5), and, according to just about everyone online, pretty easy to learn. If you type "tin whistle" into the YouTube search bar, you get over 100,000 hits. You can find tutorials for learning to play things like the "My Heart Will Go On" flute solo from Titanic (like the one here) to "Concerning Hobbits" from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (like the one here). There are also clips of upbeat traditional dancing music (e.g., jigs, reels, polkas), as well as for slower, more haunting songs like "The Irish Sea" (a.k.a. "The Arran Boat Song") and "King of the Fairies."

Although you could jump in feet first and learn by copying, you can also get some actual instruction in order to learn the logic of the instrument--which is exactly what I wanted. Lucky for me, there is a fantastic website called the Online Academy of Irish Music, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. They have tons of videos for virtually every Celtic instrument you can imagine; for the whistle, they offer introductory, intermediate, and advanced lessons that not only teach you specific songs, but also scales, exercises, and techniques.

Over the course of my first evening, I went from knowing absolutely nothing to familiarizing myself with all the notes on the whistle, memorizing a new song, and learning an exercise to improve my fingerwork. I have since picked up an additional three songs from OAIM, plus another couple from other YouTube videos. This is remarkable because memorization has never been my strong suit; I have always felt very naked without sheet music in front of me. I try not to move on to a new song until I feel confident about the last one, which is why my repertoire is pretty small even though I've been playing for several weeks. Now that I'm fairly comfortable with the basic tunes, I'm beginning to learn some of the embellishments that characterize the best performances, and also to play songs at speed (Irish music can be very fast!).

My whistles: my original Walton's, a Feadóg, and a Clarke.

Because whistles become waterlogged after a while, and also because each whistle has its own unique sound, I have purchased a couple others to keep my Walton's company. My first addition was a pink Feadóg, partly because I couldn't resist the ludicrous color, and partly because Feadógs are pretty highly regarded as far as inexpensive pennywhistles go (feadóg, incidentally, actually means "whistle" in Gaelic). Unfortunately, I think mine has a bit of a flaw, because it does not produce a good clear sound even on the easiest of notes. That is a shame because it responds really well to fingerwork and does a fantastic slide. My favorite whistle is my Clarke, which has a wooden mouthpiece. Some beginners complain about the Clarke because you have to learn a whole new "mouth posture" (if there is such a thing) in order to play it. It is totally worth the effort, though, because the whistle produces such sweet notes; the wood also gives the music a gentler, more haunting aspect.

The whistles are a terrible temptation throughout the day. Even though I'm technically unemployed right now, there are still things I'm supposed to be doing--most importantly, work on the revisions to my book. However, all I really want to do is wander around the apartment whistling (it is particularly fun to whistle in the bathroom, because it is so echo-y). I've taken to using the whistles as a reward; every time I meet a goal, I get to do a run-through of all the songs I know, and then it's back to work again. As you might imagine, I set myself lots of goals.

I also have some goals associated with the whistle. First of all, I want to eventually purchase a low D whistle (an octave down from the soprano D whistles I currently play) so that I can play the solo from Bryan Adams' "I'm Ready." It's a song I've loved since I first heard it on MTV Unplugged--way back when MTV still played music--and I have always been particularly captivated by the whistle portion of the track. (No wonder; it's played by Davy Spillane, who is practically a god of Irish music.) Secondly, I would like to pluck up enough courage to actually go play with people. I've already had an (unsolicited) invitation from a friend to go join in with his band, so it could really happen. I've always been shy about performing in public, plus I've never been good at improvising and just going wherever the music leads. Many whistle songs--perhaps even the majority--are meant to be played with a variety of instruments, for a crowd of dancers; I feel compelled to at least give this a try.

Bernard Overton, the "Father of the Low Whistle." As you can see, the low whistle is considerably larger than the soprano, and therefore requires more air. I will need to work on my lung capacity before attempting to make music with one of these! Image courtesy of Piper's Grip.

My only fear is that life will conspire to make this difficult. I never seem to have enough time to do all the things I want to do--the story of an adult's schedule. Even when time is not an issue, there are so many hobbies I start and then have to give up or cut down on for some reason or another (bowling, kayaking, swimming, soccer, guitar, singing...). There is some hope, though. Since getting back into photography a few years ago, I've been very consistent about taking pics and trying new techniques; I also continue to creep along with my crochet projects, and I manage to keep my blogs updated in some way or another even when I am swamped with work. It's all about finding ways to stay motivated, and choosing not to do the irrelevant stuff (*ahem* Facebook *ahem*) when you could be spending your time on more creative and rewarding things.

In the hopes that I will, in fact, continue to love and play the whistle as much as I do now, I have recorded myself performing all the songs I've learned to date. Hopefully I can periodically repeat the exercise in the future and see (or, more accurately, hear) evidence of improvement. That's the goal, anyway, and now that I've stated it in public, it will be embarrassing if I don't follow through!