Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Of Castles and Witches

Today's big event was touring Edinburgh Castle, located on a cold and windy hill that has held a fortress of some sort or other since, oh, about 600. The first royal castle there was built around 1130. I went to the bathroom in a tower that had been built in 1356. Well, actually, it had been mostly destroyed in 1573 but then rebuilt. No matter how you figure it, this place is old! (The visitors' bathrooms, though, are thoroughly modern and well-heated, which was a plus because it was a blustery day with off-and-on rain interspersed with outbreaks of sunshine -- in short, typical Scottish springtime weather.) The castle also houses the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown along with a sword and sceptre) and the Stone of Destiny (also known as the Stone of Scone). The Stone of Destiny is basically a plain oblong rock that supposedly came from the Holy Land, via Ireland where it was blessed by St. Patrick, to Scotland where it was used in coronation ceremonies. That is, until the English hauled it off to London in 1296 where it sat in Westminster Abbey for 700 years, despite them saying in 1328 that they would give it back. It finally came back to Edinburgh in 1996, but only as a "permanent loan" from the Queen. The timeline of British history is astounding, but then I live in a state where anything over 150 years old is ancient. In Edinburgh, anything over 150 years is still pretty new.

We came down off the cold castle heights and stopped for lunch at a beautiful place with a bit of an ugly past. The restaurant is called The Witchery by the Castle, and is named for being a yard where hundreds of witches were burned in the 1500's. The restaurant building itself was built for a merchant, and features a lovely dining room with a charming painted ceiling. Mom dined on fresh pea soup and a zucchini/ricotta tart, while I had haggis and roasted salmon. Yes, I ate haggis, and I hadn't even been drinking whisky at the time. I definitely enjoyed it, it has an oily sausage taste and was the consistency of porridge. Which makes sense because oats is a prime component. I'd definitely eat it again -- at least at this restaurant.

After our very late lunch we went next door to the Scotch Whisky Experience. This is a combination museum, tasting bar, and Disney's Haunted-Mansion style ride. It sounds really silly and tacky but it ended up being interesting and fun. We opted for the "Gold Tour" which allowed us to taste five different whiskies. I tried a Lowland single-malt on the tour, which turned out to be the same Glenkinchie that I had enjoyed a couple of nights before. Then, in the tasting bar, we sampled:
  • Auchentoshan Select - This is a Lowland single-malt that to me smelled like manure. Adding a drop of water only made it worse, and to me it pretty much tasted like how it smelled. This surprised me because I have enjoyed other Lowland malts on this trip.
  • Glen Deveron 10yo - A Highland single-malt that I quite liked. The tasting notes say "malty with toffee notes" on the nose and "rich maltiness with hints of sherry" for the taste.
  • Tomintoul 10yo - A Speyside single-malt that was Mom's favorite. We both thought the color was beautifully bright gold, and noticed that the nose was consistent whether it was straight or had a bit of water added. Mom remarked that it would "stand up well to ice."
  • Ledaig Light Finish - An Island single-malt that neither of us liked at all at first. To us it smelled like a combination of a blacksmith shop and gasoline. Interestingly enough, once we hit it with a spash of water and actually drank it, we found that it had a nice smoky taste that was not harsh at all. I decided that if I had to keep a "manly" smokey whisky around the house, this would be the one.
Whisky tasting completed, we then did a bit of shopping. Is there any better time to shop than after a few drams of whisky? Scotland is a haven for cashmere knitwear, and the prices I was seeing, even in the middle of downtown tourist Edinburgh, were definitely better than at home -- although this sort of knitwear doesn't come cheap anywhere. I picked up a pair of gloves at Kinross that matched the lining of my raincoat, along with a locally-hand-woven merino-and-silk scarf. Then I stopped in just down the street at Highland Cashmere where I picked up a sort of poppy-colored cardigan and a moss green pullover.

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