Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hopes Dashed for 'Barbecue Summer'

The first summer we were in England, people actually apologized to us for how crap the weather was. (That's actually appropriate spoken British usage of 'crap.' You can also insert 'rubbish' or ... well, other words for similar effect.) "It's not usually like this," they'd say, as we put on another jumper (British for sweater). Our first summer was marked by floods and cool weather that led us to take a moderately spontaneous trip to Spain because we missed the sensation of being hot.

The next summer, we were prepared: JT had a conference in Florence in late August, so we planned to go together and then spend another week on the beach. That? Brilliant idea. Especially since we had two weeks of summer (80+ degree days) in May, then it was back to business as usual -- temps in the 60s and 70s for most of the summer. Seventeen hours of daylight is only so exciting when you need to spend most of it wearing long sleeves and long trousers.

So, imagine our delight this year when the Met Office (equivalent to the US National Weather Service) came out with a statement that we should expect a 'barbecue summer.' Met Office Chief Meteorologist Ewen McCallum said: "After two disappointingly-wet summers, the signs are much more promising this year. We can expect times when temperatures will be above 30 °C [86°F] , something we hardly saw at all last year."

And, for a while it was pretty darn nice. I got my summer shorts out to actually wear here for the first time, rather than to take to another country. May was lovely, and June was downright hot at times. We spent the hottest week of the entire summer staying in London attending the World Conference of Science Journalists -- in an unairconditioned convention hall. With temperatures of 85 to 90 degrees outside and close quarters--and 900 journalists--inside, well, it was warm.

Then came July.

So far, we've had twice the average rainfall for July and average temp of 15.3 C (about 59 degrees), and if we're lucky, the temperature hits 22 degrees (about 72 F). It was 56 degrees F at 9 this morning -- and it still is a 1:30 in the afternoon. It's been so cool and so rainy that the Met Office has been put on the defensive about their 'barbecue summer' statement, issuing another statement yesterday in which they note: "We acknowledge that the weather we have seen through the last month has been disappointing, especially after the fine weather through June and the heatwave at the end of June and beginning of July."

Well, as we've said all along, no one moves to England for the weather. It's a bit disappointing, though, because on a gorgeous summer day, there's just no better place in the world than Cambridge. I'm very much looking forward to our Labor Day holiday this year, but a tiny part of me wishes we were going to the beach. Where are we going instead? Scotland.

I think I can probably leave the swimming costume (British for swimsuit) at home.

At the Dave Matthews/Bruce Springsteen concert in London on 28 June -- when it hit a lovely 26 degrees C (79 F).

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dining Out, Cambridge Style

One of the true Cambridge experiences is attending a dinner, called a formal hall, at one of the colleges. John and I attended a black-tie dinner in 2007, but it was at one of the new colleges and so didn't have the grandeur of dining in one of the more Harry-Potter-esque halls. John has been to a couple of formal dinners, but also in the relatively new colleges.

On Thursday, I got to attend a formal dinner at King's College -- which by Cambridge standards is a "new" dining hall -- built in the early 19th century. The occasion was the Darwin Festival, and the guest of honor was TV presenter David Attenborough. Perhaps you've caught some of his specials on PBS. Here in the U.K., David Attenborough is a major celebrity. He also happens to be a big Darwin enthusiast, so who better to give the dinner speech than Attenborough himself? (I wrote about the dinner for my day job here.)

We started with drinks on the back lawn of King's College, with a lovely view of the majestic Chapel. Everyone was then escorted into the dining hall. We (meaning the 8 editors from The Magazine in attendance) were supposed to be spread out among the tables, but I was quite happy to see from the placecards that I was seated right next to one of the new editors, a young American who has been in Cambridge for less than a week. That made it a little easier for both of us act like giddy schoolchildren at the majesty and grandeur of our surroundings. The pictures don't really do it justice. Huge vaulted ceilings; long, immaculate banquet tables; placecards for everyone.

The menu -- a three-course affair -- contained dishes from the recipe book of Charles Darwin's wife Emma. How cool is that?! It was:
Baked Cambridge Bleat (a cheese), Aubergine (eggplant) and Sultana pickle, local honey, wild leaf & chervil Salad, baked Crostino


Roast Guinea Fowl, Savoy cabbage, celeriac dauphinois, quince jelly, baby carrots, thyme jus


Gooseberry cream, elderflower sorbet, & shortbread biscuit.

With coffee they served a date & stilton eclair (a date split open and Stilton cheese shoved in it) with pickled walnut. As at most college dinners, port was served to finish.

Attenborough's brief talk was wonderful and definitely an experience I'll remember.
One more thing: You'll see from the photos that it wasn't black tie, but "smart casual," as the invitation said. I was in a skirt and heels. How does one get to and from a Cambridge event all dressed up? By bicycle, of course -- and that's what I did.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Trip Report: Madeira

I've made three business trips to the U.S. in the last five months, and frankly, that long-haul flight zaps any interest I might have in flying for fun. But we looked at the June calendar and discovered much to our surprise that we had very little planned. Clearly we needed to go somewhere.

Madeira is an island way (WAY) southwest of Portugal, closer to the Canary Islands and Morocco. It's an autonomous region of Portugal. It's got both coastline and mountains, lots of walking alongside its intricate man-made canal system (called levadas), and Madeira wine -- a sweet dessert wine. This seemed like a place we needed to visit.

We arrived pretty late on a Saturday night, but we knew we wanted to get into town quickly -- there were going to be fireworks at 10:30 that night. We made the walk from the hotel district to the marina, where thousands of other people were also heading to watch the fireworks. After seeing that most cafes were overflowing with people, we wandered into a fancier looking place that turned out to be a yacht formerly owned by the Beatles called The Vagrant, now docked in Funchal. My guidebook listed it as super-touristy, but we had a nice meal here, had a delicious bottle of vinho verde, and had a fabulous perch for people-watching -- and, it turned out, for the fireworks.

Sunday we checked out the pool at our swanky hotel, and JT even took a dip in the ocean. Later that afternoon we wandered around Funchal a bit, and took the cable car from Funchal up to Monte. It's a 10-minute ride and about a 500m elevation gain. Monte is pretty, but definitely very small! If we had more time, we would have then taken the cable car to the botanic garden, which is supposed to be phenomenal. There's also an orchid garden I would have loved to go to if we had one more day.

Monday we wanted to go up into the mountains and take a walk. I mentioned the levadas; we would have loved to take one of these walks, but many of them tended to be hours long and involved a fair amount of planning. Since we had such a short time there and didn't want to spend eons doing research, we did this walk. We missed the bus we were supposed to take, so we took a taxi up Up UP to about 1100 m above sea level to Eira do Serrado. The views were breathtaking! We admired the villages below that seemed so small. We then set off on an hour-and-a-half walk down Down DOWN to the village of Curral das Freiras. It was nice to get out, get moving, and breathe some fresh air in the gorgeous scenery. We admired the people who were walking UP. Good for them -- we'll stick to downhill.

We caught the bus back home, which was an experience in itself. Drivers here seem to hurtle down narrow mountain roads with abandon. It's a workout in itself to keep yourself from flying out of your seat. After grabbing some cold drinks and freshening up a bit, we visited Blandy's, one of the big Madeira wine producers. We enjoyed the tour, but decided we'd hold off on buying any of their wine.

Tuesday was our last day there (aside: we kept getting asked, "are you here one week or two? They were really surprised to hear us say "3 ½ days." That's not typical, I gather.), and we didn't really feel like spending it wandering Funchal again, so we took a bus to the fishing village of Camara de Lobos. It was definitely a change of pace from Funchal! The fishermen were already done with their day's work and were spilling out of the bars that line the waterfront. We walked along the water and got a great view of the 580-m cliffs of Cabo Girao. We visited a beautiful church, and the Madeira wine lodge of Henrique e Henrique. We liked the wine here better than that at Blandy's, so we picked up a couple of bottles.

We headed back into Funchal and paid the obligatory visit to the market, a must-do in any city we visit. The most impressive part was the fish market -- huge tuna, tons of espada (black scabbardfish, a local specialty), and dozens of other kinds of fish. It all looked so good! We wanted one last Madeiran meal before we left, so we headed to a restaurant recommended to us by a local, called Restaurante Jaquet. Seafood only -- and no menu! The proprietor will tell you what he has that day, and his sister will cook it for you. Delightful! We had the local specialty, espada, battered and pan-fried for two, with plenty of boiled vegetables and some cold beers.

(Just to round out the food situation, I can tell you that bolo do caco, a type of bread spread with garlic butter, is fantastic, and is served in almost every restaurant. There are street vendors who make it along the water with chorizo baked right in, and this is heavenly. We had delicious steaks at a restaurant called Paradise in the hotel district, and a perfectly fine (but not out-of-this-world) dinner at a restaurant called O Jango in old town Funchal.)

We then headed up the hill to look for one last Madeira wine lodge. We got to where we thought it should be, and there stood a slick-looking operation (well, not as slick as Blandy's, but not what we were expecting, either), Perreira D’Oliveira. Sure enough, we were one number off -- just one door over was Artur Barros e Sousa, a family business that has shunned any technology in their production process and doesn't export their wine. In fact, we stood and watched the bottling process for a few minutes -- one of the brothers was filling glass bottles with a hose and spigot directly from the barrel! We spent quite a while here and brought home a couple of bottles of their delicious wine.

The wine lodge visit was a great way to round out our last day -- it made us feel like we saw the real Madeira rather than just tourist Madeira. After one last swim in our hotel's pool (speaking of tourist Madeira ...), we left for the airport. It was a lovely trip -- and a great way to get our travel bug back.

Full photo album here. If there aren't captions, check back later.