Thursday, July 31, 2008

Come on, come on, do the locomotion with me...

I know that some of my readers are waited with bated breath to hear my train tales after my fabulous US train adventure and I am getting there, but ever so slowly!

If you want to see how far up the tracks I’ve travelled and forked or whether I'm still languishing in the sidings or even gone entirely off the rails - click here… and it should display the the journey so far.

Choo choo!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

J is for...Jam

Well so says my “A is for Apple, B is for Boar, C is for Caterpillar crawling under the Door” book that I learnt my alphabet from many years ago. But how is this linked to Stephanie and her dispensing a little extra happiness this month by making the month’s blog party theme – blogger’s choice? Hmmm our choice, there's just so many possibilities! I started plotting on the plane over to the US at the beginning of my holiday. It seemed to be one of the things that I was still allowed to do as the plane was taking off. I haven’t flown a US airline for years and they seemed to have added a few do’s and don’ts to the pre-flight instructions, but fortunately pondering blogging party themes in a little black notebook hasn’t been outlawed yet. This airline that will remain nameless, as I was singularly shocked at how spoilt I’ve been on my usual carrier (Virgin Atlantic) and that the infamous quote “Anything that is white is sweet. Anything that is brown is meat. Anything that is grey, don't eat!” definitely applied to this anonymous American airline as the in-flight food was shockingly inedible even when it wasn’t grey. Not that I was worried as a veritable feast of gourmet food lay ahead but honestly, a complete waste of the surly flight attendants' efforts, and that bread roll – I demonstrated how tasty it would be by bouncing it off the seat back in front of me. No, not a memorable meal and only beaten to an all time low by the even worse dross we were served on the flight back to the UK which was entirely irredeemable! But despite the complete lack of foodie inspiration around me I mustered my thoughts in the directions of how my choice should manifest itself. M put forth seafood as a suggestion as she was just hoping she’d get to partake of these fishy bites before returning home but I wanted something a little more esoteric.

What I didn’t want was to whip up every fruit of the sea I could think of to see that next month’s blog party was ‘from the deep’ or something similar. I needed a theme that Stephanie was hopefully not planning for one of her future gourmet gatherings and after much head scratching I decided to go for ‘J’. I would create little nibbles based on the letter ‘J’ and consider some suitably J themed table decorations also. The first on my list was jam, followed by Jaffa cakes, Jerusalem artichokes, jelly, jelly tots, jelly babies, Jersey Royals, Jalapeño, Jambalaya, jerk chicken, juice, jacket potatoes, John Dory and Jägermeister. Hmmm an eclectic bunch and clearly they are all not going to work together, but a jolly good start.

Firstly I was determined to finally christen by mini tart-shaper I bought from Pampered Chef a couple of months ago and make some jam tarts. I’d been trying to find this little wooden ‘pusher’ to help form tarts in my mini muffin tin for ages and when D when an upcoming party I found the very gadget I’d been hunting for. I’ve already made little bread tarts and scrambled egg stuffed smoked salmon with this tin for previous parties but tiny tarts had alluded me being a tad too tricky to shape. All I had to do now was pop a ball of shortcrust pastry in each pan and then push the balls into little pastry shells, it just took moments. Each shell was filled with a heaped coffee spoon of strawberry jam and then topped with a little pastry ‘J’. I baked them at 200o C for about 12 minutes, I kept a close eye on them from 8 minutes but it was nearly 12 that they lost their pallid look. Next time I'll make a slightly smaller ball as the tart shells ended up quite deep but then this is a muffin tin so there is move for expansion.

Whilst the oven was hot I thought I’d also whip up the only savoury bites that made the cut this month. I got the tiniest new potatoes I could (Jersey Royals would obviously have been perfect if it wasn’t too late in the season for them) and anointed them with olive oil. I poured a bed of salt onto a baking tray, topped with the oiled potatoes and dredged with more salt. I gave these about 30 minutes at 200o C and they baked beautifully, the salt really helping to remove the moisture in the potatoes and crisp the skin. When suitably crusted, I brushed off the salt, quartered with the point of a tiny knife and added a minute pat of butter, the obligatory black pepper and topped the jacket potatoes with grated Jarlsberg cheese, well I had to continue the J thing. The jacketed spuds sat pertly on my new little porcelain canapé tray that I procured from my brief foray to Portugal last month. It is accompanied by six porcelain canapé spoons which no doubt will make an appearance at a future blog party.

I pondered making some Jaffa Cakes but I really think only McVities and Gary Rhodes can do that satisfactorily so settled instead for cutting them into my favourite shape -hearts. And one lucky Jaffa Cake also had a ‘J’ removed from its chocolaty middle. I was planning on making some jelly, maybe even jelly shots but instead decided to settle on the ‘smashing orangey bit’ to sate my jelly desires. I’d considered (very briefly) about ‘J’ table confetti and decided instead to plump for a ‘J’ adorned table cloth, considerably more practical and despite best efforts I’m still being haunted by bats from a previous blog party foray so that clinched it!

For the required drink I had first thought of Jägermeister, but its curiously medicinal taste takes me right back to an alarming night in a ski-lodge in Sälen, Sweden many, many moons ago that I have no particular desire to relive. So what other ‘J’ drinks could I imbibe, Jacob’s Creek or some Japanese cocktail perhaps? I thought of something juice-based but that seemed a little obvious but after wandering the aisles of Waitrose I opted for J2O, which is just a bottled juice drink let down with some water so it's not cloying as just juice can sometimes be. I thought I'd have raspberry and apple J2O, pepped up with fresh raspberries and mixed with a Scrabble 'J' crowned stirrer. And for a little drink accompaniment, I had rallied a small army of jelly babies, but only the red and black ones!

This event gave me the perfect opportunity to whip out the gorgeous J-embroidered linen napkins that Marcia did so beautifully in time for my birthday last year and as Stephanie always chooses the optimum music to match the mood I thought I’d better put a few of my own quarters in the jukebox and selected Jay Kay and Jamiroquai - there’s plenty more J is my collection but this is perfect funky cooking music.

So, in case there's any doubt - my blog party was brought to you by the letter ‘J’. I hope I guessed right Stephanie, and you’re not planning a J-themed do any day now and shock horror, I’m a tiny bit early but there may be a good reason for this – there is one other thing that ‘J’ stands for and that is - jetlag!

I'm intrigued to see what everyone else has concocted this month, and if you are also, all the other randomly themed blogging party entries will appear here when posted after Saturday...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wide eyed and jetlagged!

Okay I am back! Well certainly in body if not entirely in mind. What is it with me and jetlag? I have visited some fabulous new places, revisited a few old friends, met many lovely new people (and a few frankly way beyond mild eccentricity!) I have enjoyed many delicious meals and just a couple that were only rather average but all will indeed be revealed!

I need to set down my fork for a while and pick up a pen (well metaphorically as I generally type my blog) but I have so many tales to tell and I promise that once the fog has cleared slightly and my email inbox looks less bulging I will be furiously blogging.

Just as a taster - there was chilli with everything, eating at the top of the world, an extended tour of the lesser known Amtrak stations, wondering if the shower would ever stop moving, traversing several US states, being called ma’am more times a day than maybe the queen, spectacular jaw-dropping scenery and a great train – but thankfully, no robbery!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A train with a view

So with much relief we're back on our beloved train, the Sacramento station platform got old very quickly. And we’re not moving until we get off the train for the very last time, so we're going to make the best of the rest of our journey. We look at the itenary for the rest of the day and decide the Cheese & Wine event in the New York observation carriage sounds a tad more scintillating than some talk on the history of the American railroad. I appreciate that not all the passengers would agree with me and would possibly strike me with a sleeper or something but then the clue is I write a blog about food not rolling stock.
So the "steam-heads and cheese dodgers headed for the domed roof of the Copper Canyon Observation car and M and I swayed and gently staggered the entire length of the train to New York.
This was the first time we'd been to New York, we'd clicked with Mark on our first night in the Seattle baby grand piano bar car when he ever so deftly whipped up a couple of Kir Imperials so we hadn't felt the need to be disloyal.
But it was a great spot and the back of the train had panoramic picture windows to allow us to admire the magnificent scenery developing around us. And what a revelation this was, we entered a national park hitherto unknown to me called Shasta National Forest and it felt like we were the only ones there.
The train track cut a swathe through the secluded forests and over the bridges spanning the verdant valleys past sparkling rivers and the odd American bald eagle. And as the wine was poured the beautiful scenery continued mile after mile after mile.
We chatted to the Chicago contingent celebrating a special birthday by taking this train journey. Only recently (and I ashamed many months after I drank wine in this gently swaying bar (or was that us?)) I discovered a small white plastic bull formerly attached to neck of a Spanish wine bottle in my handbag. How I ended up with it remains a mystery, I suspect the Spanish concrete factory loving architect had more than enough a felt like sharing his bully booty.
The afternoon stretched on, observations on some of our fellow passengers were exchanged, I'm naming no names but stars of this conversation just had to be the man who travelled with nothing more than a briefcase for a week's trip (a clothes hating accountant perchance?) and the unusually hirsute-ly favoured lady with the outfit that was quite curious on the first night but when we saw it every other day was clearly such a favourite with her that she had stashed away multiple versions of it or really she only possessed one outfit. Well it saves on packing I guess.
As the conversation, red wine and tranquil rivers continued to flow, the miles of idyllic scenery rolled by our windows. If I was back home now we would have run out of country and plummeted into the English Channel but we're in Big Country now. Apparently 1.2 million acres of big country I found out later – this is indeed a huge park!
As we snaked our way around the forest one of the action shots we were all trying to capture was the front of our 21 carriage train from our vantage point in the last carriage. And despite the abundant wine I think I managed to grab the shot I desired.
The cheeses weren't as bad as I feared because excuse my ignorance of American cheese because all I could think of was Monterey Jack or cheese that can be squeezed from a tube. And yes I know the English have also committed more recent processed travesties in the name of cheese but if you can forgive the modern aberrations we've committed but only focus on Montgomery Cheddar, creamy Double Gloucester, crumbly Cheshire and Wallace and Gromit's favourite Wendsleydale to name a very small few. But I have to be honest I'm not always true to my British cheesy comestible roots when constructing a cheese board and seem to be veering towards my current fads of eye-watering expensive hence elegant wedge of the finest truffled Brie and also a good hunk of Grana Padano. Though I always ask in cheese shops if they have any Flower Marie, which is a stunning English cheese but sadly rare so generally I'm told that they do not have any. But I don't know much about American cheese but none of the cheeses looked like it could have 'string' in the name so I figured I had nothing to fear. But really the wine was the best part of the cheese and wine event.
It was just the perfect way to spend our last afternoon on the Grandluxe train, meeting new friends, sharing the odd bottle of wine and swapping our memories of the trip so far. As much as I loved the places we’d explored both old and new, I would have appreciated more time to enjoy the process of travelling by train. As we didn’t have many miles to cover much of the journeying was at night, good for navigating around the train easily but o so for scenery watching. In fact due to our impressive size of train we were often relegated to the dullest of sidings whilst ‘parked up’. It was with some sadness we tore myself away from this comfortable hideaway and made our way back to our cabin to change for dinner. Not that you have to change for dinner, in fact I believe some passengers didn’t change at all from one day to the next but any chance for a little sparkle, M and I are happy to oblige.
Thank you to the Shasta National Forest for reminding us why we love to holiday by train so much – you get to enjoy both the destinations and the getting there. And no-one apart from the most avid of plane-spotters can really enjoy the process of airport travel at the moment, especially international travel – unless of course you have a fondness of queuing and a predilection for being frisked! This is so much more civilised, no mad rushing just being fabulously pampered whilst pootling around the countryside – just bliss!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wining and Training

We may have been cavorting around lesser stations of San Francisco until rather late last night but today we’ve got revel in more gourmet food, wine and then just in case we aren’t feeling lavished enough we have a rather fabulous Champagne tasting. What more could a diva desire?

The first part of our day starts with wine tasting in the Napa Valley Wine Train station where we could stocks up on all things grape-related if we weren’t anxious about excess baggage but M does find a rather fetching hat. It is the sort of perfect Californian day for wearing a big brimmed hat yesterday’s fog is left behind in San Francisco, I am happy to oblige and M can now join me in the shade.

The curious thing about our journey on the Napa Valley Wine Train is that we get off one luxurious train and then board another. Many of the other passengers have however arrived by car so the novelty of dining on a train is more apparent; however I am not the slightest bit jaded by all this magnificence and am looking forward to what delights we have for lunch.

As our suitably burgundy wine coloured train carriage named ‘Chardonnay’ starts snaking its way through the golden slightly Provençal style scenery we started on our intriguing plate of Cold Summery Canapés.

Next we enjoy the Soup du Jour, which rather fortuitously turns out to be a tasty Lobster Bisque with not an excessive use of tomato.

For the main course we have a choice of: Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Gorgonzola Cheese & Cabernet Red Onion Marmalade in a Red Wine Shiitake Mushroom Sauce ~or~ Roasted Green Peppercorn Encrusted Pork with Sautéed Chard and Fried Plantain in Pork Cabernet with Cranberry Apple Chutney ~or~ Grilled Chicken Breast with a Orange Carrot Baby Corn Sautee on Grilled Bread ~or~ Grilled Salmon Served over Pappardelle Pasta and Sautéed Spinach In Champagne Ginger Cream with Crayfish Cake ~or~ Spinach and Eggplant Wellington with Yam Stuffed Gypsy Peppers. M and I continue the fishy theme and chose the Grilled Salmon Served over Pappardelle Pasta and Sautéed Spinach in Champagne Ginger Cream with Crayfish Cake. The salmon is lovely, not quite to the heady standards on ‘our’ train but we have being truly spoilt at every meal so other restaurants have a lot to live up to.

But you cannot beat the scenery, the train carriage have arched vestibules that beautifully frame the stunning little vineyard vignettes appearing alongside our train.

I didn’t realise how soothing these endless neat rows of vines are as we sweep majestically across the plains enjoying our Crème Brulée and Chocolate Cake with Toffee Sauce in the mahogany panelled lounge car accompanied with a little choice honeyed dessert wine.

After our relaxed meal we have to disembark from the wine train and start more wine tasting, but this time with bubbles!

Railway cats

As we tuck into our breakfast we spot that the train alongside us seem to be the home for a large family of cats (I believe the collective term is ‘clowder’ but I think I’d prefer ‘a haughty of cats’). I count about ten and clearly this is a regular spot as there are blankets and beds under the carriages and numerous bowls for food and water. These are a couple of the stripy ones taking some early morning sun, the black ones had all snacked on their breakfast and were off exploring. I’ve heard of ships’ cats but I’m guessing this was to curtail the rodent population and not as companions for the sailors but not about train cats. I’m not sure it would be entirely practical to also have feline passengers, there are certainly many nooks and crannies they could curl up in but I guess many of us struggle with walking down the swaying, listing train already but the possibility of a friendly cat winding its tail around your legs might just finish you off. The challenges of walking down the 1/3rd mile train when in motion are well known and one of the butlers recommended a simple technique. Hold out one hand in front of you and this will focus your sight and keep you balanced. It is comical to see various people trying the one handed sleep walking technique as they bounce of the wood panelling and the doors. This is probably one of the reasons we are told not to wear high-heels on the train, a rule I’ve pretty much ignored, it’s what you’re used to I guess!
“And when you creep into your cosy berth
And pull up the counterpane,
You are bound to admit that it's very nice
To know that your won't be bothered by mice -
You can leave all that to the Railway Cat,
The Cat of the Railway Train!”
Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – T.S. Elliot

Monday, July 14, 2008

I left my train in San Francisco part 2

We sail past the stark rock of Alcatraz, not too close so as to feel guilty but close to see that it doesn’t look a happy place. But then, what prison does? Apparently it stopped being a prison because it was too expensive to keep prisoners there, so now it’s just a tourist destination. I wonder if any ever get left there.

There’s some great views of the city as we disembark at Fisherman’s Wharf and stroll over to see what has happened to Pier 39 in all those years.

I can see plenty of large metal crabs but I don’t see the rainbow shop I remembered and everything seems a little more tawdry with an abundance of performance artists leaping around – many dressed as pirates in the Captain Jack Sparrow style. M and I however are drawn into a shop selling sparkly things and manage to procure a couple more glossy boxes containing shiny articles to wear down our luggage.

We get stuck in traffic in Chinatown and visit an impressive cathedral, ostensibly for a bathroom break which is a little harsh as it has some very fine architectural features and rose windows which demand more admiration.

We think we’re winding up our day in San Francisco but it turns out that our train needed to have some wheels replaced and though that was resolved fairly easily the new engine that turned up was faulty and we have an electricity-less train with no way to transport it closer to us. So plan B is that see a little more of this eclectic peninsular and then dine on some local specialities back around Fisherman’s Wharf whilst they find a way to reunite us with our train.

So we get to explore beyond the obligatory tourist stops. We meander through Golden Gate Park which is a calm, verdant place much loved by San Franciscans. They relax here, picnic here, jog here and have been known to live here though that’s not entirely desirable to the authorities. One of the highlights for me was the conservatory of flowers which was clearly based on a certain Kew Gardens Palm House which is generally a little closer to home for me.

Apparently the citizens of San Francisco looked towards New York and Central Park (and obviously Kew Gardens) and decided that they wanted one of those. So during the 1860s, plans were put into motion to transform the bleak sand and shore dunes that decorated San Francisco into a usable, inviting park for the all to enjoy, and importantly to make it bigger and better than Central Park. In 1870, an engineer named William Hammond Hill started working on the huge planting programme that resulted in the paradise we see today. However, perhaps in hindsight one of the worse decisions was to introduce the incredibly fast growing blue gum eucalyptus tree from Tasmania. The trees grew rapidly but the plan to use them for the extensive building a burgeoning California required was thwarted by them turning out to be too flimsy for the role. They make good firewood though, possibly a little too good as the continually flaking bark from these trees make them extraordinarily flammable, as the California wildfires have sadly been a testament to. The fog that obscured the golden-ness of the Golden Gate Bridge this morning is also a residue from these dreadful fires.

After our extended tour we head back for Pier 39, this time past the basking sea lions and climb up to what I think was called Neptune's Bay View Café. Outside the window gangs of rival pelicans patrol the harbour sweeping in low formation and in Top Gun parlance – way below the hard deck.

Starter is a rather good clam chowder, I’d hoped it would be served in a hollowed out bread bowl but instead it was just a bowl. It was tasty though and actually the best part of the meal.

For main course we had a choice of seafood grill with sea bass and a lemon beurre blanc, salmon and fat shrimps or lemon chicken pasta or the infamous New York strip sirloin. Well we were far from New York, and it seemed so very wrong to be in Fisherman’s Wharf and not indulge in lashings of seafood. It was okay but the emphasis seemed to be too much on quantity and not quality. It was considerably below par from what we’ve been lavished with during our train journey so far but I appreciate that finding a restaurant that could accommodate our party – “table for one hundred and fifty please?” at such short notice. I think the best part was the sea bass and I had to ask what the sauce was before I realised it was a lemon beurre blanc, is that a good thing I wonder.

The dessert was billed as chocolate mousse but was actually cake with raspberry sauce. It looked okay but really managed to taste of nothing much, oh how we have been spoilt on the train! I've been wondering all night how much of the mis en place the kitchen staff had completed before they realised they'd have no one to enjoy it. I had visions of the servers all sitting down in the dining cars being waited on by the butlers and Mark tinkling out a few show tunes on the baby grand whilst Bonnie shook up a couple of martinis in the bar car. It transpired that the evening of Baccilian delight I had envisaged was way off the mark as they were completely devoid of power so instead of whooping it up they're eating a hastily grabbed Subway in the dark, though probably basking in the glow of a demanding passenger-less train.

After our meal we thought we were heading back for the train but our coach took a detour to allow us to take some night shots of the now Twinkly Gate Bridge but this turned out to be a cunning diversion tactic to distract us from the fact that our train was being mysteriously being held hostage by the custodians of the track and was being prevented from returning to Oakland station to collect us. However believing that this would soon be resolved we headed hopefully for station.

By now we’re onto plan C, which transpired to be an extensive visit to the outer reaches of Oakland station where we’d have a considerable time to acquaint ourselves with every nook and cranny whilst craning our necks to see a glimpse of our dearly departed and much loved train. The station seemed rather keen to close and get rid of these terribly unwelcome passengers but luckily there were way more of us than them so despite repeated requests for us to leave so they could lock up, we held our ground. Finally Amtrak could find no more reasons to detain us and could find no more random freight trains to throw in the path of our train so after many, many hours we were back being fabulously cosseted by our train team.

Mark was pouring cockle-warming Kir Imperials in the Seattle bar car so help us recover from our ordeal. Then we had to get to bed as tomorrow there’s more drinking to be done.

Salmon in Sausalito

We now get to enjoy a bit of Californian sun as we arrive in Sausalito. We are really here to eat which is a bit of a shame as it would be nice to have more time to find about the hill people and the house boat people. Though I’ve read that there are a lot less house boat people as the considerably richer hill people felt that the watery communities were impeding their stunning view.
When we were told yesterday that lunch was ‘salmon’ there was a lot of mumblings of dissent, though I’m not sure why. I like salmon like the next person but I guess I thought we’d have some pale, slightly flaccid poached fillets but I think everyone was pleasantly surprised by the juicy seared salmon fillets that looked like they’d just been whipped off an enormous barbecue.
The wedge of tiramisu was a little too solid and way too coffee laced for my tastes but sated by the fine salmon it gave me the opportunity to leave the others eating and have a little mooch around the crafty shops of Sausalito to secure the obligatory fridge magnet (plus the tiniest of ducks for D, sadly they were right out of chickens!) before hitting the ferry. The houses on the hill are rather attractive all perched on the hillside like pastel birds.
As we waited to board we were able to enjoy the sights of the waterfront.
Holding onto our hats, the ferry glided out of the pretty bay lined with the chocolate-box houses back to San Francisco and Pier 39.