Oxford Research: the Duke and I

I spent a good bit of time this morning in the Duke Humphrey Reading Room. This is in the old Bodleian library (as opposed to the “new” one which is still pretty old). Spectacular in its decor, its architecture, its carvings, and its rare and VERY old books, this is almost a hallowed place. It still looks as if monks ought to be sitting in the little cubbies. I went there to review the first edition (1707) of Francois Fenelon’s text on women’s education. I was surrounded, however, by much older books. The desk is old, the bookshelf ancient, pitted, and fitted with brass shelf supports. My personal cubbie is near a window, a depression two feet deep in the massive stone walls. It looks down upon a garden–a walled garden, filled with green plants. And as I sit here, I find it a strange experience… No longer a student, no longer miles away from PhDhood (and the UK, for that matter). I feel as though I’m through the looking glass, reader card in hand at one of the world’s greatest libraries, as though the Bod is no longer the Holy Grail of untouchable greatness.

Well, okay. It still is that. But I am here all the same, sitting where Tolkien and Lewis surely sat, where countless scholars have sat through the ages. It is intense, the near pressure of history–the long years of layered fingerprints, deep thoughts and the ghosting impressions of reflective souls…

Adding my own small moment in time.

Oliver Oil–A review of Jamie Oliver’s Italian (Oxford)

Ah. Food.

If you are not familiar with the foodie world, the name might not ring a bell. However, if you understand the subtleties of cooking genius (think Anatole, Bertie Wooster fans), then you will know what a treat it is to go to Jamie Oliver’s. It is said that he hasn’t made quite the same splash in the US as in the UK, but he has a knack for excellent food–and his bent is simple, organic, fresh. I took my notepad with me to the restaurant (something which seems to get a server’s attention), and so I post the following review in present tense, just as I wrote it:

So here I am, at Jamie’s Italian in George Street, Oxford. It’s a tidy little corner shop, not huge, not that impressive architecturally. However, as soon as I walked into the place, I was rocked by the SCENT. You have been to resaturants, no doubt, where all the smells run together. Not so at Jamie’s. I can smell fresh basil, mint, a subtle hint that may be cilantro. There is a citrus note in the air–lemon, lime, orange. There is a warm, aged cheese smell, a mushroom smell. And something else, these are all distinct in here. You see, most of the prep happens where you can see it–bunches of watercress on cutting boards, cured ham hanging just out of reach (and over the heads of the prep chefs).

Feeling overwhelmed and spoiled for choice, I decided to begin with a drink. Alcohol, in my mind, come sometimes dull the senses, so I have chosen a refresher instead. It includes cranberry juice, crushed strawberries, elderflower, lime and soda, with a splash of grape to finish it off. Called a Tutti Fruti, it has a wonderfully summer flavor. I also ordered the bruschetta. The bread–a focaccia they make fresh here twice a day–is topped with oven-dried tomatoes, basil and ricotta. It was a difficult choice, as they also have a marinated mushroom bruschetta with lemon, thyme and garlic. I await with anticipation as I choose the second. What to have–mushroom friti? bocconcini?

And the food arrives…

Bruschetta: The server, noting my difficulty of choice, has brought both the bruschetta and a complimentary bocconcini or baby mozzarella.  She is clearly a large-souled person. And the dish itself: a lovely presentation! The bread is layered on itself, the tomatoes are multi-colored and the basil fresh and green. It is topped, too, with a bit of watercress. The dish is simple–but elegant–and the CHEESE. I have had some grainy ricottas in my time, but this was creamy and smooth–almost custard like. I detect a hint of lemon, but that may be the taragon? Exceptional. I should also mention that the mozz. was delicate in flavor and perfect in texture–not rubbery but having just the right amount of resistant to the bite before melting on the tongue. Heavens, I love food when it is done well!

Alas, I am now faced with the difficult choice of main courses. They have everything from wild boar sausages to lamb spiedini. However, at an Italian bistro, one really ought to eat the pasta… Not that this is much simpler as there are many varieties at Jamie’s…may with seafood. As Mark would say, “cockles and muscles, alive-alive-o!” The spaghetti tossed with smoked pancetta and leek sounds divine. However, a true test of fine cooking, in my opinion, is not the pasta but the risotto. Still considered in the pasta menu, this is actually a dish of slow-cooked arborio rice…and phenomenally easy to screw up despite looking simple enough. So, on the recommendation of my server, I chose the wild truffle risotto and a small green salad (mostly to sample the lemon buttermilk dressing).

Salad and Main: Arrived together. The lettuce is nicely layered, dressed, and tossed with fine-grated parm and diced red pepper. A nice mixture of mint leaf and black pepper complete. The taste is light and herb-like; a bit like being outside after a rain. The dressing has a taste I cannot place, but it is very nice indeed.

The risotto was something of a surprise. The texture was not what I normally think of–it was not creamy or pudding like. This is not, however, criticism (though it might have been)–because it is an absolutely excellent dish. The rice, by retaining its character, lends a nuttiness to the flavor–and it is buttery and rich. Best of all, however, is the truffle infusion. Not overdone–not too strong–but full flavored and bathing each taste bud. Delicate, earthy. Wonderful, wonderful! I could eat three dish-fulls, but I won’t, because there is–of course–dessert.

Interlude: Now that I have a moment between courses, I should mention decor. While an Oxford sensation and number 1 on the list of places to eat here, there is a strangely down-home feel to the place. The tables are simple and unadorned. The chairs are actually aluminum varieties reminding me of my uncle’s “porch chair.” The napkins–unless I am very much mistaken–are dish towels (or tea-towels, you would say in the UK). The dishes are rustic, and even mis-matched. I don’t know if this is meant to capture the Italian-dinner-at-home feeling (which Oliver admits was his inspiration), but it is actually nice to dine out with so little pretense.

Dessert: Shockingly, I departed from my usual tonight. I am usually a fan either of the chocolate torte (and variations) or of panna cotta (something I often get when eating Italian). After discussion with the server, I decided on a delicate and yet flavor-complex item: the Amalfi Lemon Curd. Custard, but with additional firmness and a lemon zing, sits atop a biscuit base and is topped with fresh English rasberries, clotted cream and a healthy dose of crushed pistachio. I also ordered a nice coffee. These did not last long, though I did attempt to savor. A great end to a grand dining experience!

June 1 Supplemental: The Scottish Journal

I didn’t quite get to the blog during the Scottish tour, but I did keep a regular journal. I present you with the Scottish Supplemental pages… much as I recorded them. Forgive the breathless quality–I was hiking a lot, you see.

MAY 21-22

We arrived in Edinburgh about 2pm and drove straight up to Perth! We stayed in a small room with the tiniest bed! But we went down, heard a band, had a pint, and ate some Haggis. We were very Scottish.

Left Perth and drove to the outskirts of Inverness. We stayed at a Holiday Inn (how embarrassing!) But it was a good day. We stopped in a little town of Stonehaven—it is on the North Sea. Such a lovely little sea village; we bought scones and then went hiking 2 miles to the ruins of an old castle—Donneter (my spelling might be off here). We walked up the bluffs and along the rim—it was SO windy!! The castle once held the Scottish Regalia, and was the site of religious persecution, too. The ruins were so wonderful, and we took many photos of it. I was glad we packed the scone—we ate it on the way back and then continued north to Inverness where we had a waitress who didn’t speak English well and kept saying “What?” over and over. We bought some provisions for the trek north, and went to bed early.

MAY 23

We left Inverness and headed up the East coast. We stopped at a castle called Dunrobin—the first tower was built in 1100, and it has been added to ever since. Part of it is a museum and the Countess still has apartments there, though she is in her 90s. Queen Victoria once slept there and we saw the bed that was hand-made for the occasion. We saw a great falconry show—though the little owl was getting blown all around since it was windy. His name was Plop. Guess why? We had a warning as he flew over our heads, but no one got messy. He then ate a mouse the size of his head. Nifty. Afterwards, I was freezing because of the rain so I went to the tea room for a scone. Mark went to the museum, which was so neat—wish I would have gone. The tea room was in the servants kitchen, though, and still had the brass bell pulls. We left the castle and drove up to Wick, WAY up north. We were threatened by 100 mile an hour winds (well, actually these were south of us), and ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The town of Wick lost power while we were there, but we had tea by gas-power (and no need for light, as it does not get dark till past 11pm…and light at 4am. THAT far north!!) We talked with our guest-house hosts John and Phyllis for hours and got all the good info on the area. We also saw a rainbow in town—Mark suggested Slovenian gold might be at the end of it [another of those family jokes].

MAY 24-25

We left our hosts and traveled on the north road—which is one lane (you have to pull off if someone is coming the other way). The scenery speaks for itself, though photos don’t do it justice. There is NOTHING up there, in the highlands. Makes you wonder why the English took it from the highlanders. We passed John-O-Groats and Durness (highest points on the Scottish mainland). We also stopped at a hippy/gypsy village in Durness to by chocolate from the cocoa mountain artisans. We kept moving and got really tired of driving, so we didn’t do any sight seeing. We drove right to Ullapool and got a room. Then we ate dinner and played pool in the local pub. Ullapool is a fishing village and they do lobster and crab catching. We saw the ferry and bought sweaters at the woolen mill. Then we went south, intending to stay in Blair Atholl because I got it confused with another town (Pitlochry). Blair Atholl does have a truly lovely watermill tea house that we stopped at the next day (went there three years ago as well). We went on to sleep the night at ButtonBoss hotel in Pitlochry, down the road. What a nice place! We ate at the Fern Cottage and then played chess until bed time in the ButtonBoss lounge. (No one ever wins–somehow this double-alpha family always ends in a draw).

MAY 26

We love Perthshire–and Pitlochry. We shopped, we did laundry, we enjoyed scenery. HUGE Scottish breakfasts: meat with a side of meat. Really. Haggis, black pudding, bacon, sausage and eggs. That is all meat. Mark was so happy. We took a nice walk in Blair Atholl, and the watermill there still grinds its own flour to make bread. Such a great place…Hot buttered scones!!

We had a leisure day and then gathered our things for the trip to Ben Lawers, past Aberfeldy, where we stayed before at Machium Farm cottages. A nice drive. VERY narrow roads. For dinner we had fabulous food—chicken stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon, served over black pudding with whiskey-cream sauce. There was one piece of cauliflower on the side. That counts for veggies up here. Mark had curry, and we schemed about owning our own BandB.

MAY 27-28

We left Ben Lawers and went back to Pitlochry to stay at the ButtonBoss again. Loved it there. We saw a 5000 year old Yew tree today, too, which was very impressive; it was geriatric when Jesus was born! Used to measure 56 feet, but people abused it over the years. Neat place, in a little graveyard. That evening we walked to the dam and fish-ladder. And unlike the states, they let you go anywhere without a bunch of hoopla because they expect you not to be stupid and fall over the dam. We ate dinner that night at Victoria’s—I am writing a review of them for TripAdvisor; they were lovely. We spoke a while to the owner, Angus, then off to play chess again (for a draw).

The next day, we took a walk through town and then drove south to Edinburgh. And the trip sadly drew to its close. For Mark. For me, it was beginning a-fresh–back to work!