Thursday, December 28, 2006

Some Connecticut Yankees on Tottenham Court Road

Our families and some good friends braved the fog at Heathrow and joined us in London to celebrate the holidays. Our strict itinerary (chants of our mantra, "Don't be late; don't deviate!" rose up frequently from the intrepid travellers) included stops at the Harrods Food Hall (for a little last-minute truffle-hunting) and the Winter fair and skating rink on the grounds of the Natural History Museum (complete with honest-to-goodness open-fire-roasted chestnuts).

After a Christmas eve carols service at Saint Paul's Cathedral, the gang sank a few pints at our local, the Crown & Sceptre, before crowding into our tiny flat for our first bona fide personal Christmas tradition, a meal of New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp, which we followed this year with a dessert of poached pears.

New Orleans-Style Barbecue Shrimp

1 pound shrimp (21-25/pound or larger), heads-on
1 stick butter or margarine, or 2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, salt, white pepper, and black pepper
6 cloves chopped garlic
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
3 lemons, sliced
4 ounces beer, optional
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika

Melt butter with crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, salt, paprika, white pepper and black pepper. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add shrimp, Worcestershire sauce and lemons and beer, if using, and cover. Simmer 2-3 more minutes.

Serve over white rice and with French bread.

On Chrsitmas morning, we opened our stockings in Shepherd's Bush (oh yes, there were Christmas crackers, paper crowns and sherry) and the flock herded itself to Notting Hill for lunch at the oh-so-Dickensian Windsor Castle pub, where we enjoyed a menu of home-made sage and pumpkin soup; goats’ cheese and spinach tart with roast tomato chutney; turkey breast with Victoria plum stuffing and chipolata; roast corn fed chicken served on roast seasonal vegetables with redcurrant jus; whole roast trout with roast vegetables, fennel and artichoke; garlic and herb marinated lamb chops with redcurrant gravy; and chocolate puddle pudding (not, Casey was relieved to learn, chocolate poodle pudding); grilled brioche with mixed berries and vanilla ice cream; and rhubarb crumble for afters.

Although we did not, for obvious reasons, participate in the British tradition of bringing boxed presents to our servants on Boxing Day, the holiday did not go unmarked. Boxing Day dinner was a hearty meal of Irish stew following some shopping (tip for future visitors: don't attempt to hunt out bargains on Oxford Street on December 26th without some serious body armor) and a brave stroll along the Thames culminating in a thrilling carousel ride near Blackfriars Bridge.

Other highlights included an investigation of the impressive plunder of empire at the British Museum; a stop to admire the new Islamic gallery at the Victoria and Albert; the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of Much Ado About Nothing, featuring a Latin Beatrice and Benedict whose witty banter played out against a background of militance and class conflict in 1950s Cuba; and numerous pub stops across the brightly lit city.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Like leaves that before the wild hurricane fly

Our tree is decorated; the stockings are hung on the railing of our loft with care; and, while there's no time for long winter naps, Tam is looking dapper as ever in his little cap. Visions of sugarplums ... well, what else is new? Our holiday preparations are at a fever pitch, with shopping (sampling) trips to Fortnum and Mason and last-minute double batches of Christmas cookies.

The city, too, is adorned in its Yuletide finest. This year, the display of Christmas lights spanning Regent Street (where classic British understatement is usually the watchword) is sponsored by the Disney Company, which has seized the opportunity to promote their new animated film (apparently a story about the misadventures of some cartoon mice who find themselves in the city's septic system). As a result, in addition to the dazzling spectacle of colored lights, visitors are treated to the sight of enormous illuminated sewer rats dangling above the street.

As we prepare for a short hiatus from our little blog while we entertain our families and friends who are travelling to London for the holiday, we send good wishes for good cheer to our loved ones whom we'll miss this year but about whom we will think often and fondly during our Christmas celebrations. Ho ho ho and all that from London; wish you were here!

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Totally Baked

Orange Cookies

This recipe came from Tam's great-grandmother Mollie, of Cowdenbeath, Scotland, and we're proud to bring it back to the motherland. They have a delicate, crisp texture and a subtle tangy orange taste. Tam's mom recalls, "I remember eating them as a small child; they were around for as far back as I can remember. They were not necessarily a Christmas cookie. Grandma almost always had fresh cookies baked for daily tea time. " There's no doubt that these make for great tea biscuits, but they also recall the tradition of finding an orange in the toe of your Christmas stocking.

2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups orange juice
4 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 ¼ cups sifted flour
¼ cup grated orange rind

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. Mix well.
Stir together dry ingredients.
Combine the two mixtures.

Drop by rounded teaspoons onto greased cookie sheet.

Bake for approximately 10 minutes. Remove from oven when edges are lightly browned. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before removing from cookie sheet.

When slightly cool, glaze with:
2 tablespoons orange rind
6 tablespoons orange juice
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar

yield: 10-12 dozen

Sweet-Tart Fresh Cranberry Orange Walnut Drop Cookies

Laura devised this recipe to incorporate all things Christmas into one great cookie! The results have lovely burst of tartness from the fresh cranberries, nicely balancing the sugar and spice in the dough, and walnuts add a nutty depth and crunch. They look beautiful and make a nice gift.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 tablespoon orange zest (packed)
3 tablespoons orange juice
3/4 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream butter, orange zest, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup brown sugar together in a large bowl. Mix in eggs and orange juice.

Mix dry ingredients in separate bowl. Rinse cranberries and, while they are still a little wet, toss them with remaining 1/4 cup of sugar to coat.

Mix dry ingredients into butter-sugar mixture (dough will be stiff). Fold in cranberries and walnuts.

Drop by teaspoons onto ungreased cookie sheets and sprinkle tops of cookies with a little sugar. Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to cooling racks.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Un peu de la belle France dans le Bush du Berger

This week, our families began to arrive in London for the holidays. The first bunch came into Gatwick the other day and we have already paraded them around, introducing them to the culinary highlights of our neighborhood: the Middle Eastern market down the street with the best olives in the city, displayed in huge plastic tubs and flavored with peppers, garlic and lemons; the meat shops where the butchers sling giant half-carcasses of lamb over their shoulders and stroll down the street; and the little Lebanese shop across the road that sells freshly roasted almonds and pistachios out of huge bins as well as every conceivable variety of those tiny honey-soaked nut pastries whose intense, grainy sweetness is a delicious and necessary foil to the tongue-tingling bitterness of Arabic coffee. But today, rather than a tagine or tabbouli, these markets provided all the necessary components of a taste-of-France menu inspired both by our recent travels and by the Eastern Mediterranean ingredients in which the Uxbridge Road abounds. We celebrated our families' safe travels and the beginning of our holiday revels with this warming country French stew and an oh-so-Parisian tarte Tatin.

Chicken Provencale

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 4-5 lb chicken, cut into pieces
20 pearl onions, peeled*
1 lb baby bella mushrooms, halved
5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 teaspoon quatre epices
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 14 oz can petite diced tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
2 long strips lemon peel, cut with vegetable peeler
1/2 cup good-quality green olives, pitted
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat olive oil over medium high heat in a large pot. Sprinkle chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper. When oil is hot but not smoking, add chicken and cook until browned on all sides, working in batches if necessary. Remove chicken to a plate, maintaining the heat.

Add onions, spice mixture and red pepper and cook until onions are browned and beginning to be tender. Add mushrooms and cook for a few minutes longer, then add garlic and stir for another minute. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken back into pot.

Add tomatoes, wine, lemon peel and olives. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer until chicken is cooked through and liquid is reduced, about 40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve over rice or mashed potatoes. This stew is even better the next day.

Serves 4.

*The easiest way to peel pearl onions is to drop them into boiling water for a minute, which allows you to slip their skins off easily.

Tarte Tatin
Adapted from Gourmet, March 2001

1 frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
7 to 9 Braeburn apples, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cored

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roll pastry sheet and cut out a round to fit skillet; transfer to a baking sheet and chill.

Spread butter thickly on bottom and side of well-seasoned iron skillet and pour sugar evenly over bottom. Arrange as many apples as will fit vertically on sugar, packing them tightly in concentric circles.

Cook apples over moderately high heat, undisturbed, until juices are deep golden and bubbling, 18 - 25 minutes.

Put skillet in middle of oven; bake 20 minutes, then remove from oven and lay pastry round over apples.

Bake tart until pastry is browned, 20 - 25 minutes. Transfer skillet to a rack and cool at least 10 minutes.

Just before serving, place a platter over skillet and invert tart onto it.

Serves 8; leftovers make an excellent breakfast.

Exploring Shepherd's Bush by Bus

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Perfect Winter Salad?

It seems like every visit to our favorite London gastropub, the Anglesea Arms, is a memorable experience. A recent evening found us slumped on the worn leather couches, warmed by the fire and a couple of pints of bitter, and grazing on a dozen briny Irish rock oysters; a plate of buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil and red peppers; and a salad that combined strong, wintry flavors so successfully that we decided to try it at home.

Winter Salad with Sweet Potato, Shallots & Feta and Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon quatre epices*
4 echalions** or 8 shallots, unpeeled
1 head garlic, unpeeled
1 cup 1/2 inch cubes of good-quality feta cheese
1 lb mixed greens
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425 F. Sprinkle sweet potato with salt, pepper and spice mixture. Add shallots and head of garlic and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spread on baking sheet and roast, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and sweet potato is browned, about 30 minutes.

Mix remaining olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a large bowl. Cut the top off the head of garlic and squeeze its flesh into the oil and vinegar mixture. Cream it with a fork and beat it into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper.

Peel shallots and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Toss greens with dressing and divide among 4 plates. Arrange sweet potatoes, shallots and feta around or on the salad, grind fresh pepper over the top, and serve immediately.

Makes 4 first-course servings.

*Quatre epices is a French spice blend, available at some specialty shops. If you can't find it, substitute a blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger.

** Echalions, sometime called banana shallots, are a kind of long, oval-shaped shallot grown in the eastern regions of England. They have an especially sweet taste, but regular shallots would also work fine!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Joyeux Noël

This year, we decided to give each other an early Christmas present - a trip to Paris! La Ville de Lumière seemed especially bright, with holiday displays in the windows of the shops on the Champs-Élysées, an enormous tree in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, and "Joyeux Fêtes!" greetings hand-painted on the windows of every cafe. It was everso tres romantique; so lost in love were we, as we embraced our way from the Musee d'Orsay to the Tour d'Eiffel, that we hardly noticed the freezing drizzle, our failing umbrellas or any onset of les sniffles. Was it our passionate kisses or the dizzying heights of la Cathédrale's bell tower that made our knees feel weak?

It will come as no surprise that our stops at the Centre Pompidou and Sainte-Chapelle were mere interludes between meals. We stopped for sustenance as often as we could, at a traditional creperie near the Arc de Triomphe - where we enjoyed mugs of cider with the specialties de la maison - or for quiche and (French) onion soup at a cafe on the Ile St-Louis.

Our important gourmandising, though, was saved for the evenings.
We dined at Brasserie Flo on Breton oysters (which were kept and prepared on the sidewalk in front by this man, whom we shall call Pierre), choucroute, and Tam's first steak tartare, which was minced and bound with egg in the kitchen, then tossed with herbs and spices tableside by our waiter - tres chic. Brasserie Flo was founded in 1886 by an Alsatian named Floderer and purchased in 1968 by Jean-Paul Bucher (whose purchase of the famous Cafe Balzar caused great controversy in Paris a few years ago, but on whom we have no position) - the first of his many restaurants. Brusque service, expensive champagne, clouds of smoke, everything you could
possibly ask for in a French brasserie.

Le Coupe Chou in the Quartier Latin, with its stone walls, candlelight and open fire, was a different gastronomic experience altogether. It serves classic Parisian fare: pates and terrines, escargots, confit du canard, boeuf bourgignon. The food was lovely, but the true highlight of our evening there was the masquerade birthday party going on in the next room. Parisian after Parisian arrived decked out in top hats, wigs, masks, fishnet stockings and elaborate shoes, passing by our table with a swish of feathers and fur. It was a most entertaining sight to contemplate as we sipped our wine and quaffed our coffee.

The next day we felt brave enough to take on the overwhelmingly giant collection of art in the Louvre. It seems to be a peculiarity of art museums in Europe that people come great distances not to see the beauties of the Mona Lisa or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but to take pictures of themselves with an arm around said famous works. Indeed, any actual close examination of these pieces arouses considerable irritation among fellow museum-goers whose photos you have unwittingly marred with your presence; the etiquette is to line up and have your friend/wife/uncle snap a quick photo of you grinning with, say, the Dying Slave, then move quickly out of the way for the next guy. Unenthused about this mode of observation, we headed for some less frenetic parts of the huge museum, and spent a happy few hours examining Corot and Degas at leisure.

In the last few hours before our train departed, we indulged in that most Parisian of all pastimes, shopping. We made a quick sashay through Le Bon Marché, all decked out for the holidays in sparkling lights and golden baubles, watching elderly French ladies in hats and furs debating over Chanel bags and Hermès scarves. Then we crossed the street to Paris' grocery store du monde, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, which sells everything from perfect glossy fruit tarts and glorious fresh produce to olives and cheeses; it even has an American specialties section where you can buy things like Heinz ketchup and Karo syrup. We bought some Camembert to take home, and spent the train ride home looking around innocently when people wondered what could be causing the terrible smell in car 4.
More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Stone Age Soup

It may surprise some of our readers to learn that, despite being newlyweds and foodies, our kitchen in Shepherd's Bush is woefully ill-equipped. It's true that mere months ago, we were showered with wonderful culinary wedding gifts from our friends and families - a blender, an ice-cream maker - and we delighted in using them for a couple of months before we left the US. In truth, our stateside kitchen is the envy of all who have the pleasure to behold it. We're proud to have nearly every useful gastro-gadget known to man, from microplaners to Laura's beloved Cuisinart, plus a great set of dishes to boot. Alas, upon embarking on our current extended honeymoon / research adventure, we had little choice but leave all of our culinary wonder widgets behind.

Actually, as we've outfitted our temporary, bare-bones kitchen in London, it's been interesting to see which items we've deemed to be essential - a desert-island list of kitchen utensils. In addition to the service for six set of stainless steel cutlery (knives, forks, soup spoons and teaspoons), service for four set of dishes (plates of two sizes, bowls and mugs), a pair of serving dishes, and various assorted glasses from the 98p Store, we've also accumulated the following:

  • bottle opener
  • can opener
  • 8" chef's knife
  • colander
  • grater
  • 12" iron omelette pan
  • liquid measuring pitcher
  • vegetable peeler
  • 4 quart stainless steel pot with lid
  • 1 quart stainless steel saucepan with lid
  • tongs
  • spatula
  • 2 wooden spoons
  • whisk
  • baking sheet
  • 8" square cake pan
  • toaster
  • electric kettle
  • French press style coffee maker
We recently added a 10" serrated bread knife to this list when Tam confessed that his new primary criteria for buying a loaf of bread was how easy it might be to cut with a chef's knife.

As you might imagine, this limited roster precludes the accomplishment of many a kitchen task, most notably blending, pureeing and mixing (electrically, anyway). The creation of beautifully creamy vegetable soups, for example, has been made vastly more complicated by the sad, if temporary, loss of our immersion blender. But with a little ingenuity and a willingness to engage in a little light manual labor, we've discovered such tasks can be accomplished; and their completion can not only lead to a sense of connection with cooks of past, less technologically advanced ages, but can also result in some satisfying culinary results, as in this lovely winter soup.

Leek, Potato and Parsnip Soup

2 slices bacon
1 leek, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 parsnips, peeled, cored and chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat large heavy pot over medium heat until hot. Add bacon and cook on both sides until crispy and brown. Remove bacon with tongs to paper towels, leaving fat in the pan. Turn heat to medium low.

Add leeks and thyme, seasoning liberally with salt. Saute for a few minutes until soft, being sure not to let them brown. Add potatoes and parsnips, and just enough broth to cover vegetables. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Mash vegetables thoroughly with wooden spoon or fork until they are a creamy mass, then thin out the mixture with the remainder of the broth. Let simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cream and lemon juice, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If you like, crumble the bacon and sprinkle on top of each serving.

Serves 4.

A couple of notes:

Obviously, the unorthodox part of this recipe is to cook the vegetables in a small amount of liquid and then add more broth later. We did this to facilitate mashing the vegetables by hand, which is much more difficult with more liquid. If you have a better-equipped kitchen, you could of course blend the whole mixture with an immersion blender in the usual way. For an extra-creamy, luxurious result, you could then put the soup through a sieve.

Also, we served these garnished with parsnip chips. If you want to try this, here is how to do it:

Parsnip Chips

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 parsnips, halved across and then sliced paper thin (if you have a mandoline, this would be a good use for it)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Add parsnip slices, carefully spreading them out in the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, turning when necessary, until slices are brown and crispy. Remove to paper towel and season with more salt and pepper if desired.

These are not quite as crispy as deep-fried chips would be, but they're very tasty and make a good snack!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Inside Man II

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the pub...

The Inside Man’s infiltration has been short-lived, but with the holidays on the horizon and a new career waiting in the New Year (or so the fortune cookie would have us believe), Tam is ending his tenure at the Crown and Sceptre this week. In addition to the thrill of being called “barman” on a regular basis, his time inside has yielded some useful information about drinking in London. While this slang doesn’t rhyme, it might help you out if, some day, you find yourself behind the bar in an English pub taking orders for drinks you’ve never heard of from people whose accents you don’t understand.

Shandy: Half lemonade, half beer (usually lager)
Shandygaff: Half ginger ale or ginger beer, half beer (usually lager); the omniscient Wikipedia claims that "this drink is known to have existed in England since the 1600s"
Snake Bite: Half hard cider, half lager, with a shot of black currant cordial (lime and black currant cordials seem to be popular additions to pints of lager and, in the case
of the latter, Guinness)
Lager Top: Beer with a small splash of lemonade; as the name indicates, this is usually made with lager as well, but in his short time behind the bar, Tam served several ale tops and shandies
One of the unique things about the Crown and Sceptre is the international bar staff. With Tam’s short-lived tenure, the staff includes representatives from five of the seven continents - and there really aren’t that many Antarctican pint pullers. Incidentally, Tam creamed his colleagues in a recent round of Trivial Pursuit: The International Version, wherein each color represents a continent (also unapologetically excluding Antarctica; we suppose there just aren't that many questions to be asked about penguins).

Our local second division football (soccer) team is the Queens Park Rangers (QPR), whose pitch is nary two blocks from our flat. Since long before it was acquired by Fullers, the Crown and Sceptre has been the pre-match meeting place for QPR fans. One aspect of this interesting local-to-locals relationship is the presence of this portrait of the QPR mascot, the Rapid Ranger, on the wall between the bar and the kitchen. When Mike the Manager first took the reins of the pub just over a year ago with an eye towards its dandification, he thought of selling the portrait and hanging some less-kitschy black and white prints in its place. He received bids in excess of £3,000. But, just before he got it off his hands, he got a message from the Fullers central management office stating that under no circumstances and for no sum was he to part with this priceless work of art. Consequently, Sotheby's won't be descending on the Crown and Sceptre any time soon.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The great big annual London foodblogger cookie swap

One great reason to do a little blogging is the potential for invitations to events like this weekend's Christmas cookie hoo ha. Wonderful wine paired with a tasting of fondue and raclette, lively conversation with some of the city's most devoted foodies, plus a whole bunch of amazing cookies...

But what do you eat when you get home from a cookie swap? You're not really that hungry, but you need something to counteract all the sugar. For weeks, we've been toying with a recipe for a zucchini omelette. This frittata was a happy byproduct of our quest, and makes for an excellent and easy post-gluttony light supper - a food category especially relevant during the holiday season!

Zucchini (Courgette) and Gruyere Frittata

1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium zucchini, cut into matchsticks
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 large eggs
1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat broiler.

Melt butter over medium heat in a skillet until it stops foaming. Add onions and cook until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add zucchini and cook until tender and browned. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Turn heat to low.

Beat eggs together in small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add cheese to egg mixture and pour evenly into skillet with zucchini mixture. Cook over low heat until eggs are almost set, about 4 minutes. Put under broiler until top is puffed and beginning to brown, 1-2 minutes, and serve immediately.

Serves 2.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Creoso I Cymru

For Americans, traveling in the United Kingdom differs from travel anywhere else in the world, in that every tourist experience is influenced by preconceived notions gleaned from the mountain of British literature we consume from childhood onwards. British writers have historically dominated children's literature; for every Lemony Snicket, there are several E. Nesbits, John Masefields, C.S. Lewises and now, of course, J.K. Rowlings and Philip Pullmans to form images of the streets of wartime London and plant an awareness of the house system at Eton in the minds of small inhabitants of rural Michigan and Pennsylvania. Later, long before we actually see the Houses of Parliament or the spires of Oxford, we have visions of the dirt and squalor of Dickens' Victorian London; we understand the distinctions between earls and barons and their implications for the desperate social climbing depicted in Jane Austen and Trollope; we know about the elitism and superciliousness of Waugh's Oxford ("I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour"); we see Dublin through the eyes of the Blooms. The result of these years of inculcation is that Britain often seems vaguely familiar when we finally arrive - almost, as Alison Lurie says in her tremendously witty transatlantic comedy Foreign Affairs, "an experience of déjà vu."

Wales, though, is underrepresented in the British literature that crosses the Atlantic and forms pictures of the isles in our innocent Yankee heads. We arrive with perceptions, accurate or otherwise, of England, Scotland, Ireland, but what do we know about Wales? We've read some Dylan Thomas, and devotees of epic novels featuring characters with really long names might have come across John Cooper Powys. Laura's vision of Wales comes almost totally from a set of children's books by Susan Cooper called The Dark Is Rising, set partially in Wales and portraying it as a place of ancient secrets and violent magical forces. So, in our vague imaginings, Wales appeared remote and isolated, a place of dragons and fog. Who knew what we might find there?

We left Paddington Bear behind in the morning, still waiting patiently for his rescuer, and began the winding journey westward, collecting some basic facts about Wales along the way. The political identity of the area has been quite fluid right through the twentieth century, and its national character is by no means as assured as Scotland's or Ireland's. The southeastern part of Wales for which we were headed, despite being identifiably Welsh culturally, was until recently not considered part of Wales at all; before 1974 it was unclaimed by either England or Wales, and maps of the region were titled "Wales and Monmouthshire." Cardiff was only proclaimed the Welsh capital in 1955, and the revival of the Welsh language dates only from about the 1960s. Although the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Welsh Defense Movement) were responsible for a series of bombings protesting the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in the 1960s, enthusiasm for Welsh independence was often somewhat attenuated and in 1979 the Welsh decisively rejected the idea of a Welsh assembly in a referendum. (It was mooted again and passed with a very narrow majority in 1997.)

Wanting to see some of the countryside before getting to Cardiff, we disembarked in Newport and caught a quick glimpse of the Norman cathedral where the fifth-century founder of the church, St Woolos, is supposed to be buried. It's also the site where the Chartists, protesting for parliamentary reform, were gunned down by British soldiers in the massacre of 1839; Queen Victoria later knighted the mayor who ordered the shootings. Having hit the high points of Newport, we ran back down to the station and boarded the next train towards Gloucester, then alighted (as they say here) at Chepstow, where we caught an extremely rickety local bus going towards Monmouth. (The driver seemed somewhat surprised to have two new additions to what was clearly a fairly constant clientele.) As we careened around a sharp curve in the country road, the stone skeleton of Tintern Abbey rose up before us. The ruins of this Cisterian monastery manage to convey much of the asceticism to which the industrious members of the Benedictine order aspired; on a chilly afternoon in late November, it was easy to get a sense of all the isolation any self-respecting, self-flagellating monk could ask for.

A short train ride got us to Cardiff in time for a stroll up Cathedral Road and dinner.We had a great time hanging out in the bar at the Churchill Hotel, where logs were piled up around the fireplace, people chatted in Welsh on the couch, and lights flashed on a Christmas tree decorated in the height of Celtic kitsch as everyone downed pints of Brains. The name of this popular Cardiff ale makes for some startling coincidences on Welsh menus, like "Steak and Brains pie." When the Brains-sponsored Welsh football (soccer) team plays in France, where alchohol advertising on uniforms is forbidden, the players wear jerseys that read "Brawn" instead of the usual "Brains." Clever, no?

While a breakfast of eggs and kippers(!) was certainly a treat, the culinary highlight of our adventure was easily lunch at the Armless Dragon. Specializing in contemporary Welsh cuisine, the set menu included game terrine and chutney (plated with sprouts and mixed greens), spiced aubergine soup (served with a drizzle of créme fraîche), mackerel and crab sauce (on a bed of baba ganoush-like aubergine mash), braised lamb (with a turnip mash - a modern take on hotch-potch), and sticky toffee pudding.

(A note on the dessert: the British word "pudding" refers to any number of foods that are prepared by mixing various ingredients with a binding agent. A British pudding may be sweet or savory, and can be baked, steamed or boiled. Colloquially, "pudding" in the UK may also refer to dessert generally, as may "sweet" or "afters." Specifically, sticky toffee pudding is a British dessert consisting of sponge cake made with finely chopped dates and covered with toffee sauce. As one might expect, its origins are in dispute, with claims to its invention made from Millington to Newburgh, but there is some consensus that Francis Coulson popularized and shared the recipe at his Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel in the Lake District. We like it with vanilla ice cream. Oh, and "aubergine" means "eggplant.")

We walked off lunch with a stroll through Cardiff Castle, a somewhat bizarre structure which was rebuilt and redecorated, incorporating Roman and Norman remains, in the late nineteenth century by the fabulously wealthy and apparently somewhat eccentric Earl of Bute. He acquired the property through marriage and, in collaboration with the decorative artist and architect William Burges, created a romanticized Victorian version of a fairytale medieval castle in which he and his family spent six weeks every year pretending to be feudal lords. This odd monstrosity encloses a large area of grounds and a twelfth-century Norman keep, surrounded by a moat, in which Robert, Duke of Normandy, was imprisoned in a most unfraternal way by his brother Henry I. It's a splendid place from which to direct battles or watch the sun set over Cardiff.

Maybe next time we'll see a dragon.