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Haggis and Clootie Dumpling at The Castle Inn, Dirleton

I’m much more Scottish than I am Chinese, if that makes any sense, and it’s wonderful to be back in the country where my father was born, even if he did abandon it at a young age to find his fortune in Australia. It’s also pretty fantatsic to be on solid ground again, recovering from the rolling North Sea ferry trip from The Netherlands. 
Now that I’m feeling hungry again I’m hankering after a Scottish pub meal, somewhere warm and cosy with great food, and hopefully a fireplace, and there is no better place I know of than The Castle Inn at Dirleton, sitting in the shadow of the 13th Century Dirleton Castle, half an hour east of Edinburgh.
It’s a lovely old pub, friendly and welcoming, and unlike some pubs they take their food as seriously as their drink. The owner, Bert, has an impressive commitment to local produce, with Sottish smoked salmon by Dicksons of Port Seton, East Lothian haddock, locally grown duck, Shetland rope-grown mussels, and steak and ale pies with East Lothian Belhaven Best Ale and Anderson’s steak all featuring on their well conceived menu.
I for one coldn’t go past their ‘haggis chimney’ with neeps and champit potatoes (that’s haggis with mashed turnips and buttery mashed potatoes), served with a whisky cream sauce. If you have never tasted haggis, it’s not too late. Considered the national dish of Scotland by many, haggis is an intensely savoury concoction made from a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, ground and mixed with toasted oatmeal, onion, suet, spices (black pepper, allspice) and then cooked inside the sheep’s stomach. I can sense your skepticism about haggis, given that it’s been defamed and maligned by people who have probably never tasted the real thing, but I can tell you, it richly deserves the title of national dish. It’s complex, spicy, and savoury and contrasted beautifully with the creamy and buttery potatoes and sauce. One bite of the Castle Inn’s haggis and I had died and gone to haggis heaven.
Pretty hard act to follow, but the desert blackboard was offering a traditional Scottish Clootie Dumpling with custard. I could remember my 92 year-old grandmother Maisie talking about clootie dumpling, so I ordered a slice. Rich and fruity, like a Christmas pudding without the brandy, it came with hot custard sprinkled with nutmeg. Very delicious. A tot of whisky would have made it taste even better.
Later that day I asked Grandma Maisie about her clootie dumpling. Despite her age her memory is as sharp as ever, and if there’s one thing she likes to talk about, it’s food (other than her other favouite topic, the evil Tory government). She recalls her mother Tansy cooking the clootie dumpling in a cloot – a cloth – in this instance an old linen pillow case kept specifically for the purpose. Once the fruit dumpling had been steamed for several hours, it could then be sliced and fried in a pan with butter, eaten while hot. She still loves clootie dumpling to this day and was planning a piece for her supper. I knew it was good, but I loved the family story behind it even more. 

The North Sea: Not For The Faint-Hearted Traveller

Aaahh….sea travel. One of those things that always seems like a better idea beforehand than at the actual time, and yet I always think it will be…majestic…and raw and pure out there on the open sea in a gently rolling vessel. Well, maybe that’s how it feels to be in the Carribean, or the Mediterranean. But not the North Sea, which is definitely for people who are a little more in the seafaring frame of mind than myself. Those types who wear roughly knitted Aarran sweaters and wellington boots for a jaunt in a boat. Because I love any travel not in a plane, (especially train travel), I very often sign up my long-suffering family for arduous journeys that may have been done more quickly or enjoyably by other means. I love driving. I thought I loved sea travel – yet how quickly I forget the constant distraction of sea-sickness, boredom, and being in a confined space with lots of blokes drinking Heineken.
The journey across the North Sea, from Amsterdam to Newcastle in Northern England aboard the King of Scandinavia, is an overnight voyage of pitching and rolling and falling out of bed. Best to eat dinner as soon as possible before entrenched sea-sickness settles in. After dinner, I take the tablets offered by the steward and drift into a troubled sleep where I am rolling over hills and falling into valleys, and occasionally jolted by something hard. That would be a huge North Sea wave smacking the side of the boat, waking me up. 

Dickens describes the hideous sensation of seasickness much better than I can, as always:

‘ was as a maundering young wretch in a clammy perspiration and dripping saline particles, who was conscious of no extremities but the one great extremity, sea-sickness who was a mere bilious torso, with a mislaid headache somewhere in its stomach who had been put into a horrible swing in Dover, and had tumbled giddily out of it on the French coast, or the Isle of Man, or anywhere.

A stout wooden wedge driven in at my right temple and out at my left, a floating deposit of lukewarm oil in my throat, and a compression of the bridge of my nose in a blunt pair of pincers, these are the personal sensations by which I know we are off…….’

From The Uncommercial Traveller : The Calais Night Mail by Charles Dickens

Oh, for it to be over. At least it wasn’t a five day voyage, and hopefully in a week or so my family will start talking to me again. 

Pannekoeken – that’s Dutch for Pancakes!

 Clearly I couldn’t come to The Netherlands and spend all my time relaxing in the middle of a forest – not when the beautiful city of Amsterdam is less than an hour away. What a wonderful place to spend a day! Amsterdam’s compact and gorgeous town centre, a geometric network of canals lined with tall, narrow merchant houses dating back to the 1600s, is just made for walking around. Every new corner reveals a beautiful waterway, lined on both sides with painted houseboats, and flanked with cobbled lanes filled with interesting shops, cafes and bars. Cool Dutch people cycle past you on their heavy bicycles, baskets filled with shopping, scarves flapping in the cold breeze. The recent snow is still lying along the streets and the Christmas decorations are still in all the shop windows.

In the space of just a day we visited the houses of both Anne Frank (inspiring) and Rembrandt (intriguing), antique markets, and meandered for hours in the Nine Canals district just…looking. And of course ate some Dutch pancakes (pannekoeken) at frequent intervals to keep our energy up. Dutch pancakes are officially (according to our in-house pancake critics, unbiased) the best in the world, and they’ve sampled them on every continent. Crepes are lovely if you want something light, but if it’s a meal you’re after, then the pannekoeken are for you. They come in sweet (with powdered sugar, syrup, apple and cinnamon, chocolate sauce or jam) or savoury (cheese, ham, bacon, mushroom) varieties, thick but light and fluffy, and the size of a large dinnerplate. Bring a big appetite or plan to share.

 I spent a long while watching the cook at the lovely pocket hankerchief-sized Pancakes! Amsterdam (below right) to work out the technique. For the apple cinnamon pancakes, apples slices were first fried in lots of butter in the heavy skillet, then batter poured over the top, and flipped once, with cinnmon sprinkled on top while warm and buttery. The savoury pancakes were made the same way, with the ham or speck fried first in the same pan the batter was poured into. There are two types of pannekoeken batter – egg based, or yeast based. Both make a deliciously thick fluffy pancake, but the egg batter is richer. I’ve included recipes for both below.

Pannekoeken Recipes
Egg Batter
  • 4 cups plain flour
  • 8 medium eggs
  • 4 cups of milk
  • pinch salt
  • butter for frying

  • mix all ingrediens together to make a batter
  • melt a large nob of butter in a large size round skillet
  • pour in enough batter to fill the pan
  • flip once when browned and crisp at edges
  • serve with powdered sugar or syrup
Yeast Batter
  • 4 cups plain flour
  • 4 cups warm milk
  • 60g compressed yeast
  • pinch salt
  • butter for frying
  • dissolve yeast in warm milk

  • mix yeast and milk with flour and a pinch of salt to make a smooth batter
  • let stand for 45 minutes in a warm place before cooking as above

Berenstraat 38
(Nine Canals district)

Poffertjes and Nostalgia

Arnhem, in The Netherlands, is known to most English speakers as the site of an important battle in World War II, and the setting for the war movie a Bridge Too Far. These days it’s also famous for the Openlucht Museum (open air museum), a place where you can see life as it was lived in Holland over the last hundred or so years.  Set up like a small village within a forest, with windmills, a dairy, an old church, cottages, stables, a school, and a village green with an ice rink, the snow had managed to transform the whole potentially very cheesy concept into something like an old-fashioned winter wonderland, circa 1920.  A little tram took you from place to place, to see the cows being milked, or cakes being baked at the bakery, or a look at the old printing press.
The nostalgia even extended to a delightful and refreshing lack of rules about every little thing. Anyone, for instance, could ice-skate, and skates were free to use with no disclaimers, deposits, insurance papers to sign or age restrictions. Toddlers and old people were all out there skating together in one big happy mess. Falls were frequent, collisions occasional, but who cares? Everyone was having a ball. Open fires burnt in steel drums everywhere on which to warm your hands. No signs told you to keep children away, children just knew that fire is hot and you shouldn’t touch it. I wonder that the Dutch aren’t just much more sensible about everything.  There was even a frozen lake to walk across, without fence, barrier or heed for safety. OK, OK, perhaps not so sensible, and few people were taking that particular risk, but it did just make me think back to when we were all a little less warned, cautioned and risk-averse in our daily lives.

Of course, all that tramping around in snow taking risks makes you quite hungry, and luckily there were plenty of traditional Dutch foods to try, all of which you could watch being made, or even get involved in making, including pannekoeken (pancakes), oliebollen, and poffertjes. If they’re not familiar to you, poffertjes are tiny Dutch pancakes made with a buckwheat yeast batter, and fried in special poffertje pans with little scooped indentations. The poffertje house at the openlucht museum was cooking at a cracking pace to deal with the ravenous crowds, making about fifty poffertje a minute, and still struggling to keep up with demand. Their poffertje cooker was the biggest one I have ever seen, and could cook 240 at once.

Poffertje masters man the giant poffertje cooker..

One pours the batter……the other deftly flips them over with a tiny bone-handled fork..
Ten to a plate, a pat of fresh Dutch butter melting on top, a sprinkle of sugar and a dash of syrup….ready to eat. Very, very delicious. 

Oliebollen: They Sound Good, They Taste Good!

Oliebollen are everywhere I go in Amsterdam – in every corner store and supermarket I can’t avoid the signs advertising their Oliebollen specials, and outside every bakery is a makeshift stall selling Oliebollen, usually with a long queue of hungry people waitng for the next batch.
What are these oliebollen? They’re a delicious special Dutch food eaten on New Year’s Eve, with the most fantastical story attached to their history. I love a bit of food with history, especially when it tastes as good as these little fellows. Oliebollen (say it over and over, it just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? Which would explain why, so far, it’s the only Dutch word I can say convincingly) are translated literally as ‘oil balls’, but don’t let that put you off. They are Dutch donut balls, thickly crispy outside, and with a yeasty sultana-filled dough on the inside, sometimes with added apple pieces, deep-fried then dusted with icing sugar. They should be a Dutch national treasure of deliciousness. Ideally eaten when hot and steaming, on a really cold winter’s day.
So the story behind them goes that during Yule (December 26 to January 6) the pagan goddess Perchta would fly through the dark mid-winter sky accompanied by evil spirits, looking for offerings of dumplings and herrings. Perchta has two incarnations, the beautiful and pale-skinned goddess bringing light to the winter darkness, and her alter ego, the evil and pernicious hag. Those who didn’t please her would have their bellies cut open and stuffed with straw and pebbles. If they had eaten oliebollen though, the oiliness would cause the sword to simply slide off their bellies, saving them from certain death. Cool, huh?

Hoping to avoid this fate, I’ve been eating as many oliebollen as possible. This one is piping hot, and it’s minus five degrees outside so the gloves are staying ON. And yes, that is a blurry windmill in the background.
Oliebollen Recipe
adapted from, original here.
  • 17g fresh compressed yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup currants
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 1 green apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1 litre vegetable oil for deep frying
  • confectioner’s sugar for dusting

  • Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm milk, let stand for a few minutes.
  • Sift flour and salt into a large bowl.
  • Stir in the yeast mixed with milk and sugar, and the egg, to form a smooth batter.
  • Add the currants, raisins and apple pieces to the batter.
  • Cover batter with a cloth and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size (approx one hour)
  • Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 190C
  • Using two metal spoons, shape the batter into balls the size of a small apple, and drop carefully into the hot oil.
  • Fry the oliebollen in small batches until golden brown, about 8 minutes, then lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper.
  • Eat while still hot, dusted with confectioner’s sugar

News for the New Year!!

Happy New Year to everyone! I spent the last night of 2010 in a snowy farmhouse in the Dutch countryside, listening to the local farmboys setting off firecrackers as soon as it got dark, at about four in the afternoon, and continuing all the way through to midnight. I had spent the day in Amsterdam yesterday (more on that in tomorrow’s post), wandering the wonderful streets and canals and having the bejeesus scared out of me every five minutes by people setting off firecrackers in the middle of bridges. The Dutch seem to go in for noise rather than spectacle in the firecracker department, just like the Chinese. It’s all about the bang rather than the lights! 
The remote farmhouse we’re staying in is in the midst of the Veluwe, a huge forest about an hour from Amsterdam, and I couldn’t be further away from the crowds and business of Shanghai. I can actually hear myself think. I haven’t heard a single car horn, or truck horn, or bus horn, or motorbike horn for a whole week, and I think I can hear birds too, the only other sound. The garden is full of rabbit prints in the snow. I’ve spent a week cooking, taking all the assembled kids for sleigh rides in the snow, and reading, and relaxing, and generally having a very quiet time. It’s been fabulous (and all thanks to my sister, whose idea it was to get as close to the middle of nowhere as possible). We travelled long and hard to get here, having braved the debacle of Heathrow, the snow and ice and frreezing fog the length and breadth of England and Scotland, spent a couple of days in the snow in Edinburgh, to visit my darling Grandma, and gather up my sister and her family, and now survived a North Sea crossing in the Newcastle-Amsterdam vehicle ferry. It does make me wonder why I didn’t just fly directly to Amsterdam from Shanghai, but, you know, I love a train trip, or a boat trip, or a car trip, where you can see the scenery and watch the transition from one place to the next. If you can see through the heavy snow, that is. 

So over the next few days I’ll tell you all about the Veluwe, and Dutch food, and Amsterdam, but for today I have three exciting pieces of news to write about. 
Firstly, a few months ago I was very excited to be asked by iPhone app company GPSmyCity to write a GPS guided walking tour of Shanghai. My very own app! I was given free reign to write a tour of my own devising, so I decided to write about the Old City, the area of Shanghai I love the most. It took weeks of taking photos, and recording the audio over and over again until I sounded like I was just having a chat, rather than giving a high-school presentation, and it was finally published before Christmas. It’s so easy (and daunting) for tourists to get lost in Shanghai, that they rarely stray off the tourist track. So GPSmyCity had this fabulous idea of making tours all round the world utilising the clever GPS thingy in your iPhone. You just take your iPhone, and walk around the old streets of Shanghai with my little voice in your ear telling you what you’re seeing and all the while not getting lost. Brilliant. You don’t even need to be able to speak Chinese.
The tour The Old City – Hidden Secrets is available for the tiny price of $2.99 through the App store  and you can also see it at the GPSmyCity website too. I’ve got another two in the pipeline,  French Concession tour, and the Bund and Nanjing Road. Just working on that relaxed tour-guide voice.

Secondly, I have started writing online for Shanghai City Weekend, as their new blogger. I’m hoping to encourage expats living in Shanghai to just get out there and try something new each week, new places, new experiences, new foods. 
Try Everything Once….. features every Friday on the City weekend website. And my first print article for City Weekend monthly magazine will be out in February. Exciting!

Thirdly and lastly, for foodies who love to read, the Foodie’s Reading Challenge 2011 has invited all of us food-lovers to read more books about food, cookbooks, cooking biographies, and novels with a food theme in 2011. The website will be like a portal for discussion and reviews on the books you’ve read. 

The Foodie’s Reading Challenge 2011 invites you to be a 
  • Nibbler (1-3 books)
  • Bon Vivant (4-6 books)
  • Epicurean (7-9 books)
  • Gourmet (10-12 books)
  • Glutton (more than 12 books)
I for one, have a long list of books I’d like to read about Chinese food (like Musings of a Chinese Gourmet, written in 1954 by F.T Cheng to educate westerners about Chinese food), so I’ve taken up the challenge as a Gourmet, with a view to reviewing 12 books, one every month on Life on Nanchang Lu. 
I invite you to join in too!
So, enough news already. Back to food and travels tomorrow……Happy New Year!