Tag Archives: Toothy’s Travels

Honey, wine and more wine: Auckland Food Show 2012

On Saturday I went to the Auckland edition of the NZ Food Show, held at the ASB Showgrounds.  Having never been, I wasn’t too sure what to expect so decided that I would assume it was along similar lines to the Edinburgh Foodies Festival, which is really my only other experience with a food show or festival.  And indeed it was along similar lines, although much bigger, indoors (excellent idea in winter!) and with significantly less gin, but a heck of a lot more wine – it seemed that about a third of the stands were wine stands.  There were also masterclasses (although they cost $50 to attend, so I passed) and free cooking demos organised.

There range of products on show and on sale was impressive to say the least – honey, wraps, wines and liqueurs, breads, meats, etc. etc. etc.  But there were also non-edible products such as Tupperware (since when is it all so pretty and colourful?!), knives, Skoda cars (no idea what they were doing there) and Kenwood had a huge show area that I didn’t venture into too much because everything was shiny and tempting (and expensive).  There were some very large and commercial companies there (Kenwood, Tupperware, etc.), some that I recognise from the supermarket (Hellers, Dilmah tea, Farrah Wraps, etc.) but also much smaller producers, which I was most eager to discover.  Uhm, I should probably mention at this point that I got a little distracted by all the samples and wine tastings so I have hardly any photos.  Woops.

There were plenty of chutney and jam stands, but they’ve all more or less merged into one in my memory, as have the wine stands (taking notes might have been a good idea since the number of wine stands there made things a little hazy…), and to a certain extent some of the honey stands.  The producers that really stood out for me were:

  • J Friend & Co Honey – I made a beeline (badum-tschhhh!) for all the honey stands, but this is the one that stood out for me.  All their honeys were fantastic, but I particularly enjoyed the pōhutakawa one.  They also had honeycomb available, which was wonderful.
  • Lighthouse Gin – a NZ-made gin and wonderfully smooth.  Also the only gin stand (sad times).
  • Shott fruit syrups – I love fruit-syrup based drinks, but outside of France it can be difficult to find good syrups.  These, however, were fantastic.  My favourites were the honey blackberry and the lemon, ginger and honey (have I mentioned that I love honey?)
  • Genevieve’s Cuisine pâtés – wonderfully smooth and delectable French-style chicken liver pâtés (or parfait as they call it) in a few different flavours (original, black pepper and truffle).  I hope they’ll expand their range from just chicken, because they certainly know what they’re doing.
  • Moreish butchers – a bit of an unusual butcher in that it’s entirely online, but all their meats are free range and organic.  I prefer to see what I’m buying, particularly when it comes to meat, but since I’m still looking for a good butcher here, I might give this a go, depending on their prices.  Their sausage samples were certainly excellent though.
  • Lewis Road Creamery butter – creamy and heavenly and quite possibly the best butter I’ve ever tasted.  Oh, and makes really good butter sculptures, too, in case you were wondering.  Amazing!

So there you go, that’s my little round-up of the NZ Food Show, Auckland.  If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend going along to get a taste for what’s available in terms of local products – the next edition is in Christchurch from 14-16 September, then in Wellington from 24-26 May 2013, and then back in Auckland in August I should expect (all details are on the website).  I think there might be a bit of variation in producers across the different food shows, depending on which producers are local and so on, although I’m not 100% sure about that.

Were you at the Food Show?  What were your highlights?

Wherever you are in the world, enjoy the rest of your day!

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Watching the All Blacks!

Saturday was a day of much excitement – not only was it World Gin Day (which involved Gin & Tonic scones), but I went to an All Blacks game!  I watched the All Blacks play in real life for the first time ever!  And at Eden Park, no less – scene of their victory in the World Cup (we’ll just skip over the details of who they beat, ahem…).  I’ve wanted to see the All Blacks play in real life for as long as I can remember, so this really was a big deal for me.  It was also the perfect occasion to finally bankrupt myself buy an All Blacks shirt, which was quite an emotional undertaking, for personal reasons that I won’t go into.

The game was the first of three test matches that the All Blacks are playing against Ireland over the next few weeks, so not a particularly important game, but I wasn’t particularly bothered about that.  Since it wasn’t an important game, I don’t really think that many Ireland supporters would have flown over for the matches (since you know, it’s the other side of the world and a little expensive to do so), so I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Ireland supporters that were at the game – I had no idea that there were so many Irish here in Auckland.  The game itself wasn’t the most nail-biting rugby I’ve ever watched, and with a final score of 42-10 (to the All Blacks) it wasn’t exactly a case of not knowing who would win until the very end, but it wasn’t bad rugby and Ireland weren’t exactly pushovers.  My general excitement at just being there more than made up for it anyway.

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I really like Eden Park as a stadium.  We had seats in the terraces in one of the corners behind the try line, so we got drizzled on a bit, but we were fairly close to the pitch (which is always good), and I think the stadium itself is more or less square, which makes the pitch really wide and gives the impression that the opposite posts aren’t actually that far away.  The only thing that I found a little disappointing was the haka, the notorious Māori dance that the All Blacks do before every match to scare the crap out of welcome their opponents.  This was probably the part that I was most looking forward to.  We were conveniently placed so that the All Blacks were facing us when they did the haka, so we could see what was going on, and they transmit close-ups on the big screens around the stadium (which I imagine is what is being televised), but they don’t seem to have microphones that pick up the sound and transmit it around the stadium.  The haka is significantly less impressive if you can barely hear it.  And I know that the haka is for the “benefit” of the opposing team rather than the spectators, but it’s such an integral part of watching the All Blacks on TV that it seems a shame to lose most of the effect when watching in real life (on the other hand, perhaps having the haka booming around the PA system of the stadium would be a little too terrifying…).

More haka

If you’re a rugby fan and ever visit Auckland, I’d definitely recommend checking to see if your trip coincides with any All Blacks games – just the experience of watching the All Blacks play at Eden Park is totally worth it.  I’m afraid I can’t give you any information on acquiring tickets because somebody else organised that.  You can travel by train to Eden Park from Britomart (the train station at the bottom of Queen St) and back again for free with your match tickets.  I’m not sure if this is also the case for other train routes in Auckland since we left from Britomart.

Enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are in the world!

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Anzac Day

Today (the 25th of April) is Anzac Day, the New Zealand (and Australian) equivalent to Remembrance Day in the UK or the Armistice in France.  97 years ago today the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed in Gallipoli at dawn, which marked the start of a campaign that, like so many of the campaigns of WWI led to huge losses of life on both sides.

Since WWII, Anzac Day is associated with remembering all those who have lost their lives in military service for their country.  The commemorations began this past weekend with a projection of a 12-minute film of archival footage and photographs from the 24th New Zealand Infantry Battalion which was established during WWII, and served in North Africa, Greece and Italy.  The film was dedicated to the 522 men who lost their lives serving in the battalion between 1940-1945, and was shown on Saturday and Sunday evening, projected onto the walls of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which was lit in poppy red for the occasion.

On Anzac Day itself, there is an outdoor Dawn Service held at the Auckland Cenotaph, which is just in front of the museum.  I think that there are Dawn Services all across NZ (and Australia), but Auckland is the largest in the country, and I think it is also televised.  This service is very much a military affair, with the flags of the three Forces flying on the Cenotaph.  After the service, the little paper poppies that many people choose to wear are then pinned to crosses or just lain on the Cenotaph in memory of family members who have served.  Later in the morning there is also a Civic Service where the military flags are replaced by the New Zealand and Australian flags and the Union Jack (because the ANZAC forces fought under the Union Jack), and wreaths are laid by community groups, religious groups, the various forces and many foreign representatives.  Veterans are present at both services, and march alongside currently serving members of the NZ military, and this year there were members of the Australian Navy present as well.  Throughout the day the museum is open to the public for free, and there are various tours through the war memorial galleries.

A friend and I decided to go to the Dawn Service, and we duly turned up at 5am in order to get a fairly good view of the proceedings, which started at around 5:30am.  Despite the horrific time at which I had to roll out of bed (I’m not really a morning person), it was definitely worth it – I found the service very moving – and we actually spent most of the day at the museum.  I don’t have any links to the NZ or Australian military whatsoever, but I wanted to go partially because I don’t really know anything about the ANZAC forces, and partially because it is an important occasion in the country that is now my home, but also as a mark of respect to those who sacrificed their lives in wars (both WWI and WWII) that didn’t really directly affect NZ (as far as I can tell).  These young men died so dreadfully far from home, fighting for the freedom that I have always had the luxury of enjoying without question, and which I often take for granted.  I apologise if this isn’t all that coherent (I was up at 4am after all…) but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.  I’ve rambled more than enough by this point, so I’ll finish off this post with various photos from the memorial film projection over the weekend and today’s commemorations.

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Lest we forget.

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Toothy’s Travels – Auckland: Volvo Ocean Race stopover

I have some exciting news: I finally have internet at home!  Which means that posting no longer involves covert blogging from my desk in the lab (blogging covertly in the sense that all the text was written and photos edited at home and I just had to upload them once connected to the internet – just to reassure my mum that I haven’t been spending all the time at my desk blogging instead of working hard.  Far from it.  Twitter on the other hand…  Kidding!  Sort of.).  I actually can’t think of a way of smoothly linking my new internet-at-home situation to the rest of this post, so in an attempt to distract you from that, here’s a photo of the Sky Tower, just in case I haven’t posted enough of them recently.  It was taken two Sundays ago from the Viaduct Harbour whilst waiting for some of the Volvo Ocean Race competitors to arrive.

As you can see, the weather was rather dismal.  Pretty similar to the weather we’ve been having since Monday actually (and due to continue until the end of the week – joy).  It wasn’t particularly cold (well, in comparison to Scotland anyway), but it was windy and drizzly and just a bit miserable.  So why, you might ask, would I voluntarily go and loiter in the harbour for several hours?

I’ve already given the answer away, but in case you are just skim-reading and missed it: the Volvo Ocean Race, that’s why.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really aware of it before moving to Auckland, so for those of you in the same boat (badum-tschhhhh), it’s a gruelling round-the-world crewed monohull race consisting of 9 legs, which departed from Alicante, Spain in October 2011 and is expected to finish in early July 2012 in Galway, Ireland, covering a total of over 39,000 nautical miles (over 72,000 km).  There are six yachts competing this year.

The race’s Auckland stopover was from the 8th to 18th of March 2012, between the 4th and 5th legs of the race, and the Viaduct Harbour was transformed into a Race Village for the duration.  Although the boats were expected to arrive on the 8th, most of them only arrived on the 11th on account of bad weather, after spending and exhausting 20 days at sea (!) and sailing well over the expected 5,220 nautical miles (9,667 km) from Sanya in China.  I completely missed the news about the delayed arrival of the yachts, so when I wondered down to the Viaduct Harbour on Sunday 11th to go see the boats (that I thought had already arrived), I managed to accidentally time my arrival perfectly with that of the PUMA yacht, which claimed 2nd place for the leg.  I wandered around (read: took lots of photos of boats and the Sky Tower when it was vaguely visible) waiting for the arrival of the next two yachts, which were battling it out for 3rd place: Telefónica and CAMPER, the Kiwi team.  Sadly CAMPER just missed out by 93 seconds – heart-breaking to watch, but they were enthusiastically welcomed back to NZ by everybody with a foghorn anyway (at least that’s what it sounded like).  In true NZ style, the 11-man crew of each yacht was given a Maori welcome, but I couldn’t get any decent photos of that because they had their backs turned to me (so inconsiderate).

The yachts spent a few days hauled out on the docks for maintenance and repairs.  I’m always fascinated to see boats out of the water – they always looks so impressive, if a little bizarre.  I made a detour via the Viaduct Harbour one evening on my way home from uni to see them – thankfully the weather was much more pleasant.  It was definitely pretty awe-inspiring to see these (multi-million dollar) state-of-the-art yachts that are at the forefront of nautical technological advances and design hauled up at such close range.

Each stopover includes an in-port race which counts towards the final results, and a Pro-Am race which doesn’t.  I wasn’t able to watch them, but I do know that CAMPER won the in-port race, much to the delight of the nation.  I also missed the start of the 5th leg on Sunday 18th (thanks to the time difference I was up until 6am following the Six Nations rugby – let’s not mention the results), which I would have liked to see.  The Volvo Ocean Race takes place every four years and the stopovers change, so we’ll see if I ever happen to be in a stopover town when the race is passing through at some point in the future.

The next Volvo Ocean Race stopover is in Itajaí, Brazil, with the yachts expected to arrive on the 4th of April, after sailing at least 6,705 nautical miles (12,418 km), making it the longest leg of the whole race.  If you happen to be in Itajaí around then, I’d definitely recommend going to watch the arrival if you can!

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Wherever you are, enjoy the rest of your day!

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What self-respecting parade isn’t complete without a nod to the Potato Famine?

Saturday was St Patrick’s Day – when a large proportion of the Western world pretends to be Irish (aside from those who actually are Irish, obviously), and most of the rest of the world probably spends the day being confused as to what the Hell is going on.  I think Auckland is the first place that I’ve lived where St Patrick’s Day is such a huge celebration – there is an annual St Patrick’s Festival, which included a St Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday morning that I went to see.

This is the first big event that I’ve been to here in New Zealand, and I was (pleasantly) astounded by how chilled out the whole thing was.  The parade went down Queen St (the main street in Auckland’s CBD) and then down to the Viaduct Harbour, which is currently set up as the Volvo Ocean Race Auckland stopover Race Village (more about that in my next blog post…).  I went to the Farmers’ Market before the parade, but was meeting a friend near the start of the parade, so I had to walk most of the length of Queen St just before the parade started.  Considering that Auckland is the largest city in NZ (about ⅓ of the country’s population live here), I was expecting barriers everywhere, severe traffic disruptions and lots of police officers.  The reality was much more pleasant and felt more like a small town parade (I was reminded a little of the Kate Kennedy Procession in St Andrews) – there was not a single barrier to keep the crowd apart from the parade, the traffic was stopped from going down Queen St all of two minutes before the parade got underway and I saw a grand total of 4 police officers the whole length of Queen St.  What a wonderful relaxed attitude!!

The parade itself was good fun to watch.  I think I’d describe it as a little thrown-together, but not in a bad way.  There were four pipe bands spread throughout the parade (waking up to the sound of the bands practicing and warming up about 2h before the start of the parade confused me a lot), various Irish fiddle musicians and groups being towed on floats, and a procession of the crests of all the Irish counties.  Nothing unusual there, but there were also a few groups whose main reason for participating seemed to be that they were just wearing green.  Various Irish pubs were also represented, and in the middle of all of that the Honorary Consul General of Ireland in a vintage car, along with a random Asian drumming/dancing group (wearing leprechaun hats, which clearly made them Irish).  Oh, and the Team New Zealand cheerleading team.  I genuinely have no idea why they were there – I’m not aware that cheerleading is a huge thing in Ireland, and they weren’t even dressed in green.  My personal favourite part of the parade was a group of children carrying sacks of potatoes followed by a carriage of people all in green with ginger wigs – because stereotyping is underrated, clearly.  The Kiwis seem to have a general disregard for being incredibly PC, which I must admit I’m a huge fan of – it’s wonderfully refreshing!  The parade drew to a close with St Patrick blessing everybody, surrounded by snakes and leprechauns (St Patrick was down with the leprechauns, don’t you know).  Amusingly, the float with St Patrick was pulled by a Guinness-branded car – Ireland in an incredibly stereotyped nutshell?

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Wherever you are in the world, I hope you all had an excellent St Patrick’s Day!

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Toothy’s Travels – New Zealand: Kiwi quirks, eh!

I’ve been in New Zealand for about two and a half weeks now, and you might have been expecting lots of posts about all the really exciting things that I’ve done.  Except that I haven’t really done a lot of visiting of things, and have been focussed on finding my way around, finding somewhere to live (minor detail), sorting out my research project (you know, the reason I’m here), and all the various other random administrative faff that moving and starting at a new university entail.  Oh, and attempting to make friends.  But I’ve made a bit of progress – I’ve explored quite a bit of central Auckland (see one of the many views from the harbour below), I’ve managed to find a flat, which I get the keys for tomorrow; I have a (perhaps slightly over-ambitious) research topic, which I’m now trying to iron out the details of; I’ve sorted out a phone, bank account, etc.; I’ve been given a desk in the postgrad lab; my swipe card to get into the Biology buildings finally arrived yesterday afternoon (although it doesn’t appear to work – sorting that out is today’s ongoing adventure); and well, I’m working on the friends thing (I’ll have a kitchen from tomorrow.  I suspect that the power of cake will help significantly with that one).  Until writing all of that out, I hadn’t quite realised how much I’ve managed to get done.  I’m fairly proud of myself actually!  So, as of today I’m going to end the blog mini-hiatus that seems to have imposed itself for most of the month of February and get back to blogging more or less regularly.

Actually, here’s a little secret (don’t judge me too much): I’ve always been slightly fascinated by the 29th of February , a date that only exists every four years.  When I was younger, my fascination revolved around the people born on this funny quirk of a day – imagine only being able to celebrate your birthday every four years!  I obviously valued the really important things in life…  Now though, I just think of it as a bit of a peculiar yet special day.  I quite like February the 29th actually, because it’s a bit of a quirky day, but there’s a very logical and scientific reason for it existing.

So because today is a bit of a quirky day (in case you think I’ve got the date wrong – it’s already the 29th in my timezone), I thought I’d write a post about a few of the quirks that I’ve come across in the process of settling into my new country (some endearing, some baffling).  Well, quirks might not be quite the right work, more the confusing little differences that I’ve noticed:

The curious lack of ovens – Whilst flat-hunting, I looked at a lot of flats online.  Now I know that space is at a premium in the centre of any city, so I wasn’t expecting huge kitchens, but I was surprised at the number of flats (perhaps around half) that didn’t have an oven.  Much to my bafflement, a large proportion of these oven-less flats did, however, have a dishwasher.  Now, up until now I have always considered an oven as a basic requirement, and a dishwasher as a luxury.  Especially in a small 1-person flat.  So how much washing up does a single oven-less Kiwi create?! And how do they bake cakes?

The sun, part I – I have an excellent sense of direction, but I rely heavily (and unconsciously) on the sun.  Which is fine in the Northern hemisphere which I’m used to, but in the Southern hemisphere the sun is suddenly in the wrong place.  Even though I knew this would happen, I kept going in the wrong direction by accident the first few days that I was here.  At least Auckland has the Sky Tower, which is remarkably handy for navigation.  (My previous encounter with finding directions in the Southern hemisphere was when I was doing boat work in South Africa.  That was seriously disorienting!!)  And my brain is slowly getting used to this whole sun-being-in-the-North thing.

The sun, part II – As well as being in the wrong place (for me), the sun is also deceptively strong.  Even though I read about it in all the guidebooks before I came, it still surprised me.  I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as in Australia, but it’s definitely much stronger than during summer in the Northern hemisphere.  Despite applying sunscreen, I’ve already managed to acquire a super-attractive t-shirt tan just from walking for 20 minutes down the partially-shaded main street in search of lunch the other day.  Luckily I don’t tend to burn easily, but if I did I definitely would have been caught out, even with sunscreen.

Seasonal confusion – It’s summer going into autumn here, which still confuses me a little, mostly in terms of trying to work out what fruit and vegetables are actually in season.  Seeing blueberries at the farmers’ market on Saturday briefly confused me until I realised that even though my automatic reaction was to consider blueberries in February a food crime, they’re actually in season here.  I need to find myself a NZ-specific chart of seasonal foods.   The trees still have all their leaves, too, which feels odd for February.  I also keep getting a surprise when I realise that it’s still daylight at 7pm, and then I remember that it’s summer…

Pedestrian crossings – The sound effects of the pedestrian crossings still make me feel like I’ve just accidentally wandered into some sort of computer game involving space, rockets and lasers shooting at aliens.  The green man is also animated and walks – in case you forget how to cross a road?  Or to remind people not to do alien impressions because of the accompanying sound effects?

The fauna – Auckland is much greener than I was expecting, and dotted with little parks and public spaces.  There’s a park just next to the university which has some beautiful oak trees (complete with acorns as it’s late summer) which lull me into a false sense of familiarity.  And then I turn the corner and there’s a palm tree, or other tropical fauna.  Occasionally you see a fir tree and a palm tree next to each other – I’m still finding that rather surreal.  Then of course there are all the plants and flowers that I’ve never seen before.

Talking Kiwis – As in the people, not the fruit or the bird, and this is in the endearing category (before anybody gets upset).  I don’t find the Kiwi accent particularly hard to understand, even though they do funny things to some of their vowels, but some of the slang is still throwing me a bit.  Some of it is very much British, and some of it really isn’t (jandals = flip-flops, and one I learned yesterday, chilly, short for chilly bin = cooler box).  The general rule seems that if you can shorten a word or phrase into a minimal number of syllables, then go for it.  A lot of Kiwis also seem to add “eh!” onto the end of sentences for no apparent reason, whether or not it’s actually a question.  I have a tendency to pick up accents and colloquialisms, so it’s only a matter of time before my accent starts changing (seriously, when I told Keely that I was moving to NZ, her first reaction was “oh, your accent is screwed…  Can we Skype lots – I want to hear it!”).

Kiwi attitude – Everybody is so friendly and relaxed.  Chilled.  I don’t know if it’s because it’s still summer, but the pace of life seems a little slower here.  Perhaps that sounds a little odd, but I mean that people seem to take the time to be outside, to stop for a coffee on the terrace, to enjoy an ice-cream, to go for a walk.  Studying is obviously important, but life and the great outdoors are important, too.  I could get used to that (whilst studying hard, obviously, don’t worry Maman!).

On that note, I should probably get back to my desk, eh!

Enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are!

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Toothy’s Travels – St Andrews: St Rule’s Tower

I briefly mentioned in my last post that I spent Friday and Saturday in St Andrews, which was my first trip back since the start of the academic year (the trip involving Kat’s killer whale birthday cake was still during the summer holidays).  It was great being back and I had a wonderful time (the puffer fish cake pops that Kat and I made will be making an appearance next Zoosday Tuesday – I hope you’re excited), but at the same time, it felt a bit strange not belonging there anymore.  I really miss St Andrews, and it makes me sad that it’s no longer my home.  I don’t really know anybody in Edinburgh and don’t really feel at home here, which probably makes me miss St Andrews even more.  As a result, my original post for today ended up being a little on the depressing side – I’m not sure what the blog post equivalent of sobbing is, but I think this one was pretty close.  You’ll be glad to know that I’m sparing you from reading that emotional mess and have decided to do a Toothy’s Travels post instead, since I haven’t done one in a while.  I’m keeping with the St Andrews theme though, and using some of the photos that I’ve amassed over the course of four years in St Andrews…

Until the Reformation, St Andrews was the religious centre of Scotland.  St Andrews Cathedral was Scotland’s largest medieval church, and was the seat of Scotland’s most prominent bishops and archbishops.  The site on which it was built had been a place of worship since the relics of Scotland’s patron saint, St Andrew, are said to have been brought there in the 8th century AD.  The Cathedral was sacked by the followers of John Knox in 1559 and is now in ruins, with only a few parts still standing, resulting in an instantly recognisable skyline consisting of the east gable (in the centre of the photo above) and St Rule’s Tower (the square tower on the right).

I’ll talk more about the Cathedral in a future post, but today I’m going to focus just on St Rule’s Tower, which was part of St Rule’s Church, the first church in an Augustinian priory.  It was probably built in around 1130, which means that it pre-dates the Cathedral.  The tower is one of the few parts within the Cathedral complex that is still standing, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t completely sacked and hasn’t fallen into ruin.  Perhaps the reformers decided that it would make a useful watchtower or something.  Whatever the reason, it is still standing today, and you can climb it (you can buy the token required to get into the tower from the Cathedral visitor centre).

The tower is 33m high, so there is an uninterrupted panoramic view of St Andrews and its surroundings from the top.  I think it’s definitely worth a climb to see how the town is laid out.  It gives a completely different view of St Andrews and I think it’s fascinating.  There’s a selection of views from the top in the slideshow below.  Seeing the three main streets in the centre of town all lead to the Cathedral really shows how important the Cathedral once was.  West Sands stretches so much further than you expect it to, as do the various golf courses.  If you’re a first-time visitor to St Andrews, the view gives you a good feel for the lay-out of the town.  If you live in St Andrews or know the town well, it’s so interesting to see it from a different perspective and pick out all your usual haunts and favourite places.  I climbed St Rule’s Tower twice during my four years in St Andrews, and both times I was surprised at how funny it is to see the buildings that I was in and out of all the time as suddenly tiny.  I’m clearly easily fascinated…

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Whilst I would definitely recommend climbing St Rule’s Tower, I should mention that it does involve a fairly narrow spiral staircase used by people going both up and down (although I’ve never actually had to pass anybody on the staircase).  So if you’re claustrophobic or not able to climb up 33m worth of stairs without really having space to stop, giving the tower a miss might be a better idea…  Luckily, there’s plenty to explore within the Cathedral complex if you’re with people who do want to climb the tower.  If you’re there during Graduation Week at the end of June you can people-watch as loads of Graduates get their photo taken amongst the ruins (gosh, who would ever do such a thing as that…?).

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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Toothy’s Travels – Ayrshire: Dumfries House

About ten days ago, my mum and I took advantage of Scotland’s surprise three-day summer (that’s right, at the end of September – about flipping time…) and decided to go visit Dumfries House, a stately home in East Ayrshire (in Scotland).  If you watched Britain’s Hidden Heritage on the BBC in August, you may remember Dumfries House, which was featured in the first episode and has recently opened to the public.  If you had more interesting things to do than me didn’t catch it, chances are that you’ve never heard of this treasure-trove of a house.

The house was built in the 1750s for the 5th Earl of Dumfries, and is quite unique in that it was the first and only full house designed by the architect Robert Adams before he went on his Grand Tour of Europe (I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about architecture, but apparently a lot of architecture fans get rather excited about that).  The house was lavishly furnished to make it a family home, with many examples of the Thomas Chippendale’s earlier work as well as many examples of the distinguished Scottish cabinet makers Francis Brodie (father of the infamous Deacon Brodie), Alexander Peter and William Mathie.  Towards the end of the  19th century, two wings were added onto the house to increase the surface area.  The Victorian wings were designed by Robert Weir Schultz and, aside from a slight difference in the colour of the stone, are remarkably well integrated.

Through marriage, Dumfries House and its associated titles were joined with those of the 2nd Marquess of Bute.  Consequently, the family moved into their grander Bute properties, and Dumfries House was used as a stopping-off point as they travelled between their larger estates in Scotland and Wales.  When the family were not using the house, it was looked after by three live-in servants and since the family only stayed for brief visits, the furniture remained in excellent condition and did not require replacing.  The resulting time capsule-like nature of Dumfries House is one of the reasons that HRH Prince Charles helped to save the house at the last minute from being sold and its contents auctioned off.  HRH believes that the value of the house lies in the unique fact that almost all of its original furniture and decorations remain, complete with proofs of purchase in most cases.  Much of the furniture has now been renovated, such as the most important piece of Chippendale in the house, the ‘rosewood’ breakfront bookcase (seen against the wall in the photo of the Blue Drawing Room above) which I believe was valued by Christie’s at around £4 million.  Ya, £4 million.  Oh my god, £4 million?!  No biggie.

Another of the house’s great treasures can be found in the specially-built Tapestry Room in the west Victorian wing.  This room was specially built to house four magnificent tapestries gifted by Louis XIV from the Gobelins Manufactory (famous for their stunning tapestries) dating back to the early 1700s.  The wonderful thing about this room is that the tapestries are displayed in all their glory in full daylight because all the windows are fitted with UV filters to prevent the tapestries from fading further.  How amazing is that?!  Whilst much of the original furniture has remained the same, during the Victorian times, the white ceiling plasterwork was painted over, and some rooms have been left painted and some have been returned to the original all-white Georgian style – I found it really interesting to compare the two styles, and must admit that I distinctly prefer the all-white plasterwork.  I did, however, really like the Pewter Corridor in the west Victorian wing, as shown below, probably because the paintwork isn’t at all in-your-face.

There are, of course, many more exciting and interesting things to see in Dumfries House, and as the renovation work continues, more wonderful treasures should go on display.  I found the visit absolutely fascinating, and our tour guide was incredibly informative – in fact, I’m awed at how knowledgeable she was!  What was great about the house is that it really is somewhere that you can imagine living.  Assuming you like the rococo style of course, which I rather do (so uhm, if they need anybody to live there…).  Prince Charles also has plans to create specialised artisan training workshops on the grounds to create jobs for young people and also provide the skill set required for the upkeep of the house and its contents, which I think is a great way to involve the local community.

Dumfries House is near the village of Cumnock in East Ayrshire, so if would make a great day trip from Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I would definitely say that it’s worth a visit!  The house can only be visited by guided tour, which must be booked in advance (see here for details), but the grounds can be explored at your leisure (though I’d recommend wellies or hiking boots if you want to venture into the woods!) – maps of the grounds are available if you ask.

Although I took all the outdoor photos, photography is not permitted within the house, so all the indoor shots in this post are from the website.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: The Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Sunday evening saw the spectacular finale of the Edinburgh International Festival, in the form of the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert, which is a fantastic 45-minute firework display set to a live concert played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the Fireworks Concert before, so I definitely wanted to watch it this year, particularly since I’d been on a super interesting behind-the-scenes tour of the preparations for it on Thursday evening (which you can read about here).

Whether I’d be able to watch or not depended on two factors, both entirely out of my control: that the weather stayed dry (I’m not a fan of standing in the rain for 45 minutes…) and that I managed to get back to Edinburgh in time (I went to Oxford the weekend and my train was due to arrive at Edinburgh Waverley about 40 minutes before the start of the fireworks).  Luckily the rain held off until the end of the concert and my train miraculously arrived on time (the station is conveniently right in the centre of Edinburgh so I didn’t have to go very far), so I was able to fully enjoy the concert – hurrah!

This year, the Edinburgh International Festival was celebrating Asia, and six pieces of music were chosen to fit in with this theme (although I feel that adding the Russian and Arab dances to the Chinese dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker may have been slightly tenuous, plus the Nutcracker always makes me think of Christmas).  Although the festival ends with the Fireworks Concert every year, I can’t help but think that it was especially fitting this year, with Asia as the theme, particularly since I found out on the behind-the-scenes tour that the majority of the fireworks for the show were sourced in China (though this is for financial reasons rather than anything else).

The fireworks are launched from Edinburgh Castle and the concert is played down in Princes Street Gardens, so we watched from Princes Street where we had an excellent view of the Castle but could also hear the concert from the speakers (well, mostly – fireworks get a bit loud occasionally).  I think the most impressive thing about the show (aside from the fact that it involves over 100,000 fireworks) is the way it makes use of the different levels of the Castle’s ramparts as well as playing around with lighting up the Castle in different ways, which makes it really quite unique and totally spectacular.

The great thing about the show being 45 minutes long is that they can really play around with and showcase a lot of different types of fireworks in all different colours.  Of course there are the standard huge ones that we’ve all seen before and Roman candles, but there were some really fun ones that I don’t remember having seen before, such as ones where, once the firework burst, the sparks zipped off in every direction like fireflies.  And of course, there’s the firework cascade that comes down the Castle wall – the resounding cheer from the spectators confirmed that it is, indeed, the most popular part of the show – though unfortunately I didn’t manage to get any decent photos of it.

I shall stop rambling on now, and leave you with a few more photos (I know you’re probably bored now, but fireworks are just so pretty…) and my conclusion that watching over 100,000 fireworks explode in the sky in time to a live concert was an excellent way to spend 45 minutes of my life, and if you’re ever in Edinburgh at the end of the Festival, I thoroughly recommend that you do the same (watch the show, not explode in the sky – I wouldn’t recommend that so much).

Well done – you made it through a lot of terrible pictures of fireworks.  You should give yourself a pat on the back! Here’s one last one (of the finale, appropriately enough), just for good measure:

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: Behind the scenes at the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Every year the Edinburgh International Festival ends with a spectacular fireworks concert, which involves a concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens, set against the backdrop of a fantastic fireworks display timed to the music and launched from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.  This year’s Fireworks Concert is this Sunday evening (4th September) at 21:00.  This year, the event has a new sponsor in the form of Virgin Money, and in order to increase awareness of this, yesterday evening they organised a little behind-the-scenes tour of the firework preparations for interested Edinburgh bloggers.

Now, I realise that fireworks are a bit of a departure from the norm on what is primarily a food blog, but… uhm, hello, fireworks are awesome, of course I wanted to see behind the scenes!  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it was really rather interesting, particularly since I know absolutely nothing about fireworks, except that they’re pretty and can be dangerous.  The little tour was given by Keith Webb, the Project Director for Pyrovision who are responsible for putting together the display which involves over 100,000 fireworks (uhm, wow!).  Here he is showing us the set-up for a wave of fireworks that will make up a grand total of around 7 seconds of the 45-minute show.

What I found very interesting to learn about was the huge role of technology in the firework display.  Now, my grasp of electronics isn’t exactly fabulous, so here’s the disclaimer: whilst I took notes, I might be using totally the wrong terminology, but hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to talk about.  Keith explained that alternating fireworks on the frame above are on different circuits, in case something goes wrong, so that at least half the fireworks will still be able to go off for the show.  I’d never realised how much technology and electronics are involved in modern firework displays.  It totally makes sense, but I guess I’d never really thought about it – I may or may not have had a vague mental image of people running around with hand-lighters to light the fuses on the fireworks, kind of like you see in cartoons.  Like I said, I’d never really thought about it…

Every single firework in the entire display is set off by an electric match (I didn’t even know that such things existed) which is connected to a cable, which is ultimately connected to and controlled by a computer.  It’s totally mind-blowing, particularly when you consider that there are over 100,000 fireworks, plus spares, just in case.  That is one heck of a lot of cabling.  Obviously, there have been lots of technological advances since the Firework Concert first started, and the control of the display has moved from human fingers pressing buttons (or lighting fuses) to the use of computers to programme the display.  Keith explained that one of the huge advantages conferred by the use of computers is that it allows them to time the fireworks much more closely to the tempo of the music, particularly when the music reaches a tempo faster than a human would be able to press all the firework buttons.  Amazing!  Of course, this make it sound really easy – programme the fireworks, sit back and relax as they all go off in time to the music – but of course, the fireworks are timed to a live show and the tempo of the music depends on the conductor down in Princes St Gardens.  Therein lies the challenge – continuously monitoring and altering the tempo of the programmed display to match that of the music that the display is accompanying.

As well as monitoring the live music, the technicians (professional pyromaniacs?  Not really sure what their official job title would be) also keep an eye out on the weather and if the wind speed picks up too much (we’re in Scotland, so obviously that would never happen), they can cut off the really big fireworks from the display programme, in order to keep the display as safe as possible for the public.  As I briefly mentioned, there are plenty of spare fireworks and a lot of redundancy is built into the whole system and display, in case of technical failures and malfunctions, to ensure that the show still happens regardless.

I think Keith had planned to show us the apparatus to set up the firework cascade that comes down the North wall of the Castle, but sadly we ran out of time.  The cascade is by far the most expensive part of the whole display, but also the most popular (it is so impressive to see the sparks fall from the Castle’s ramparts and down the sheer cliff), and the timing of the cascade within the concert is a closely guarded secret.  We’ll have to wait until Sunday evening to find out when it will happen…

Which brings me onto my final note – the concert itself.  This year, the Edinburgh International Festival was celebrating the wealth and diversity of Asian cultures, and the Fireworks Concert pieces have been chosen along this theme (you can find the listing here).  Even though the Fireworks Concert happens every year, I can’t help but feel that the long history of fireworks in Asia (and I think particularly China) makes this event a particularly fitting end to the Festival this year.  Perhaps even more apt that most of the fireworks come from China (apparently it’s more cost-effective, but I’m sure they also produce really good fireworks.  They’ve been making them since the 7th century, so that’s quite a lot of practice!).

Setting up all the fireworks requires about 15 people, with an additional four on the night of the concert, supported by additional staff from the Castle.  I take my hat off to all of them for A) being able to understand all the cables and B) being able to put together such an impressive event, and look forward to an exciting Fireworks Concert on Sunday evening!  If you’re in or near Edinburgh, I strongly recommend that you try to watch the event – whilst access to Princes St Gardens is ticketed, I believe watching from Princes St is completely free, and if you’re watching from elsewhere in Edinburgh, I think that the concert is broadcast on local radio so that you can enjoy the music, too.

Thank you to Virgin Money for this wonderfully eye-opening behind the scenes tour!

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