Tuesday 26 March 2024

Windmills and horseradish

 Mud, windmills, marshes, pubs to die for, Adnams beer. Yes, we have now left Scotland after our 4 month stint and exchanged it for a couple of days on the north Norfolk coast, visiting friends. Although only a few days on the road so far, we have had a night near Edinburgh and then one in Settle in North Yorkshire, both highly enjoyable, despite the fact it has barely stopped raining. This morning a very long walk with not just Haggis, but Rufus and Seth, our friend’s two border terrorists has left them all worn out and me with stiffness in places I didn’t know I had. Tonight we dine. The very reason we are in this neck of the woods was to visit Big Wee Eck, a Ryeland ram we sold a couple of years ago who resides nearby, but unfortunately his new owner has gone on holiday, which means we will have to come back another day and an excuse for yet more Adnams beer. Meanwhile our own few Ryeland ewes are due to drop any minute, back up there in Scotland under the watchful eye of Robert, our good friend and professional shepherd. By this time next week we will be back in our house in France, after more stopovers to see Louis, my grandson, and a few other friends en route.

On our international return home we usually stop in and buy a few bits and pieces, generally things that we can’t get in France and this time it included a trip to the Pro-cook shop in Gretna, as I wanted some more kitchen knives. Except I am no longer allowed to hold a knife to check how it feels – those of you that like to cook will know how important this is – because I might endanger someone. Seriously, all the sharp knives were enclosed behind Perspex. The scowling lady did pick one out for me which I could view from a few paces away, but not touch. Is this the internet nation we have become, where we buy things online without touch? Or is it yet more health and safety bullsh*t to save us from ourselves. I politely told the lady where she could put her knife but, seemingly, this was me now threatening her with violence. Thankfully I scarpered before the rozzers arrived with the handcuffs. Having spent thousands with that company over the last decade, I am now boycotting them and hence the name and shame! Where will all this nonsense end. Je despair.

I have to say I am not a fan of these outlet village places. The one in Gretna has dozens of high end ‘label’ stores mainly selling clothes at reduced high street prices and whenever we go there it is always totally mobbed. What is it with folks and fashion? A shirt is a shirt, surely? Because it has a Ralph Loren or Hugo Boss motif on it doesn’t make it any better. In fact I am pretty sure all these clothes are made in the same sweat shops in Thailand by people who earn sixpence an hour. And - this being my own opinion - many of the oddly shaped folks shuffling around the shops in their ill-fitting jogging bottoms at this place, don’t earn a lot more themselves. But, oh yes, stick another 500 quid on the credit card and buy a t-shirt with a polo-player logo inked onto it and, hey presto, they are in the millionaire set. Is it any wonder the economy is in such a mess?

Moving on, our next shop was the highly recommended Aldi to get some of their delightful beef. Admittedly the shop is full of similar people to above, buying cheap chocolate chips for their overweight children but, not a lot of people realise this, the steaks from this supermarket are second to none, sensitively sourced and a fraction of the price of our local village butcher. 21 days aged Scottish Angus ribeye for under a fiver each, I’ll take a dozen, please. They are also a hundred times better that the chewy horrid stuff on offer in France. Except here we also have a problem as, since Brexit, under EEC law we are no longer allowed to take meat into France in case it contaminates their own. This is despite the fact that UK has the highest hygiene status in the world when it comes to food production. Well if Mister Customs man pulls us over to confiscate it at the border, we will just hold a great big BBQ and cook the stuff on the spot. Horseradish anyone?

Thursday 15 February 2024

Tartan troos

 Spring is surely in the air, this time of year, even if it is not yet in my step. This year will be the first spring I have not been lambing for many years. Well, that isn’t strictly true as our seven Ryeland ewes will hopefully be going through it but, as yet, we don’t get involved with those as they live at a friend’s farm and hence get lumped in with another 500 or so ewes, all doing the same thing. So, as we don’t have to rush back to France to manage the wooly ones there, we have decided to take a little extra time here in Fife, enjoying the seafront house while it is empty of holiday makers. To be honest, if we weren’t here, it would probably be booked out full by now, as a lot of folks like to come out of season to maybe catch some golf or a shorter queue at the chip shop.

Anyway, I too am enjoying a bit more golf, trying out a few more of the local ‘links’ courses as well as the one in Crail that I am a member of. Generally, as a reciprocal deal with my club, I get good rates on most of them, including Lundin Links, Blairgowrie and even some overseas ones. I still mostly don’t win anything and I don’t think my golf has improved in 30 years, but I get out and enjoy the blustery wind and rain. My wife, however, is rapidly improving since I bought her a course of lessons for Christmas and she is challenging me more and more, which can’t be a bad thing. Even little Haggis has taken up the game, as we sometimes take her round, tied to the trolley. Problem is, we have always encouraged her to chase balls so now she heads off after every shot, taking the trolley with her which usually crashes to the ground spilling clubs all around and scaring her half to death.

Another thing which confuses her is the placement of the beach. I mentioned a few months ago that storm Babbet had rearranged the rocks on our beach to be elsewhere, leaving us with lovely golden sand outside our window. Well since then we have had a couple more storms with stupid names which have brought some more rocks back to the door. Honestly, it’s like a scene-change in a sci-fi movie, where nothing is as it should be. Poor Haggis heads to the sandy part for a wee, only to find she is 3 feet into water and seaweed. For a dog with a small brain, this must be hard to compute!

We also seem to get more invites to Scottish dinners these days. A few weeks ago we were at the splendid Balathie House Hotel near Perth for a Burns Supper and all the haggis that entails. Then this weekend we are at the Dunblane Hydro for a charity do in aid of the Royal Highland Education Trust which will no doubt involve us being encouraged to put our hand in our pockets. Only this one is black tie, which in Scottish is a code word for ‘wear a kilt’. Now that is something I have only done once before, some 20-plus years ago at a wedding in Jamaica, believe it or not. But being an Englishman, etiquette suggests that I shouldn’t wear the tartan skirt for fear of being an imposter, which leaves me in a dilemma. Eventually I have settled for dark suit, with a Stewart tartan bow-tie and waistcoat, and hope I don’t get the p*ss taken out of me too much! The following week, we are at the England vs Scotland rugby match in Murrayfield and I know damn well what I will be wearing to that!   

The remainder of my winter time is taken up with writing books and recording my weekly Toplines and Tales podcast. Just recently I have started a quiz too, specializing in cattle and sheep. It may even be the first of its kind although I am not yet sure how successful it will prove to be. I don’t suppose it will be of interest to anyone reading this unless, of course, you happen to know which animal won the Burke trophy at the Royal Show in 1980!

Being a writer, I am aware that I should read more books. Well thankfully I have found a supplier of antiques who keeps furnishing me with some ancient printed works. To start with it was in the name of research for the history book we are still writing but I am finding myself drawn into some of these old narratives, particularly when they involve old cattle drives and sheep husbandry. Is this a sign of getting old? Asking for a friend.

Monday 22 January 2024

Bring on the pampas

 Did you miss me? I knew one day life would go by so fast that I missed a deadline, so my apologies my post was absent last month.

You see, we have been on our holidays. Now some might say our life is a complete holiday but I would dispute that as holidays should be restful and my life is not. Nor was our trip to Argentina, as it happens. It was magnificent, entertaining, enthralling, sometimes breathtaking – but never restful! That’s what happens when you tour with 20 other folks in a group, a few of whom require constant entertainment, and are guided by local folks who love their country so much they want to tell you about every square inch of it, in intimate detail. No, I am not complaining, it is what we signed up for, and our group was made up of some wonderful folks, many of them cattle breeders from Scotland and even one eccentric pair who were wine growers from Kent. It made for an eclectic team where there was rarely a dull moment and very few that didn’t include a laugh, drink in hand. From the get go, after a tour of the beautiful and vibrant city of Buenos Aires, we were soon out on farms looking at cows. The first one didn’t disappoint, apart from being eaten by mozzies, which had 3000 pure bred Angus cattle, all herded through the pampas by gauchos on horseback like something out of the wild west. We thought this was just a show put on for us, until we arrived at the Estanza to be met by more locals, and a flaming asado. For asado, read a big F-off fire with dead cows and sheep crucified next to it, sizzling away for hours until tender. And we were hungry. In fact, I think that is the last time I actually felt hungry on the whole trip as this process was repeated day after day. Not only that but when we got back to the hotel, our local guide had suggested we ate the local delicacies nearby, which also consisted of more beef, preceded with empanadas (think Cornish pasty, only with more meat). Also think Gaviscon. Never mind pampas, I think one or two of us required Pampers!

Now the other reason we went to Argentina was to taste wine, which also started pretty much as soon as we arrived, (before, for some of us) and the taste was good. This vast country has many things, but rural roads are not one of them as our bus journeyed us for hours down dirt tracks to find each venue, with yet more cows. We did drop into an agricultural contractor who had complicated machines the size of tower-blocks that munched up square miles of maize per day, for a glimpse of how the arable farms worked, but it was mainly beef cattle we were here to see. In fact that is the one thing I will take away from the country, just how vast it really is – eg, you could fit Europe into Argentina and still have change.

Then, for some the highlight, a flight to Mendoza in the west and literally a change of scenery from the huge vast pampas plains to the backdrop of the Andes mountains. Some of the peaks still had snow on top, despite this being summer although, as the climate had no winter, it was technically summer all year round. The issue with all-round sunshine is that it tends to leave no rain, and so this area was a desert, or at least it had been until 25 years ago. We were in the Uco valley where some smart guys with brains and vision had recently realized that when the snow melted on the mountains, they could possibly harness the water and use it to grow stuff. And the stuff they grew were grapes. Millions of them. I never quite found out the size of the whole valley but the vineyard we stayed on, called Salentein, grew 2,500 acres of them to start with, producing 20 million bottles of wine per year. Yes, twenty million. And they were one of many producers. Now in France, where I partially live, our local biggest vineyards might knock out 100-200,000 bottles in a good year. By the way, in France, you are not allowed to irrigate vines, it’s the law.  Most people would consider when you mass-produce anything on that scale, the quality would have to suffer, right? Not so, here. We tasted premium wines after premium wines, each magnificent. Anyone with a half interest in the vino will tell you Argentina is famous for its Malbec grape. Correct. That is the product they export world-wide and it is damn fine. But what they also have is a huge array of other grape varieties, and a massive amount of knowledge as to what to plant, where. And in this and their recent adaptation of new technologies, for example how to fend off hailstorms at 4000 feet above sea-level, and this new-world really does have a penchant for top quality. And this also showed in the showpiece wineries we stopped at, all opulently and outrageously designed but a woman who had clearly been on the acid pills. Admittedly, the best wine doesn’t leave the country, not without a hefty price tag anyway, but boy are their whites out of this world. And this, from an author who chooses to live in France and swears by his white burgundy.

We are back in Scotland now, drying out inside, although not outside, and readjusting to a 25 degree drop in temperature. This has left me with the flu, for the second time this winter – hence my not penning this column last month – and I am pretty fed up with it. The problem is quite simply, I believe, that for the last 3 winters we have been so jabbed up with vaccine, letting our immunity guard drop below the knee, until the cowardly little viruses have sneaked their way back in. Give me the needle, any time. Hasta la vista, mis amigos.