Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties – an Edinburgh delight!

Edinburgh is a damn near perfect city for tourists. It’s small and manageable, lots of the museums are free, and it seems that there’s a pub on every corner. There are lots of touristy tsotchke stores, but they all seem to sell Scotch whisky, kilts, and scarves, so it’s not too bad. People are generally quite nice, and if we speak slowly and clearly, they can understand our thick American accents without too much trouble.

Whereas many big cities have goofy tourist traps like wax museums or Believe-It-Or Not joints, the dorkiest tourist attraction in Edinburgh is something called The Scotch Whisky Experience, which includes a theme park-style trip in a whisky barrel through a virtual distillery, hosted by a moustachioed 19th century hologram. After the ride is over, visitors get a short course in how Scotch is made (complete with scratch and sniff cards – no joke!), followed by a tasting and a visit to the world’s largest collection of whisky bottles. And you get to keep the tasting glass! It was the best tourist trap I’ve been to in years. Oh, and my favorite part about the place is that they offer tours for schoolchildren! You gotta love Scotland.

The whisky hologram - goofy as hell, but fun.

The whisky hologram – goofy as hell, but fun.

For all you people who cringe and whinge about the thoughts of haggis, please get over yourselves. As for the vegetarians among you, well, I suppose it’s all meat to your ilk.

Anyway, haggis. Basically, they take a bunch of sheep parts, grind them up, add some spices and oatmeal, and boil the whole thing. That may sound a little nasty, but I think it’s delicious. It’s basically like giblet stuffing. If you think of it that way you’ll be just fine. It’s traditionally served with a small mound of pureed parsnips and a pile of mashed potatoes, and sold as “haggis, neeps, and tatties” which sounds like a Scottish strip joint if you ask me.

One of the important features of haggis, neeps, and tatties is that you get your meat, your vegetables, and your simple carbohydrates in a package that doesn’t require teeth. I suspect that nursing homes across the country rejoice in this.

Haggis, Neaps, and Tatties - actually quite yummy.

Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties – actually quite yummy.

There’s more to Scottish cuisine than haggis. One extremely good example is a place called Timberyard, a gastropubby joint that is up there with the best places we’ve eaten on this trip. Like many hipster havens, the restaurant is a repurposed old warehouse, complete with exposed ductwork and brick, and the ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers who sing their kohlrabi and salsify to sleep.

Timberyards - hipster shmabulous food in Edinburgh.

Timberyards – hipster shmabulous food in Edinburgh.

There are small batch microbrews and staff with 1920s haircuts and fluffy beards and armloads of tattoos. I know that this makes me shallow, but I always take these to be promising signs.

We tucked in. We started with one of those dishes that makes me groan with unctuous, savory ecstasy – a duck pate served with a duck heart speared on a small stick. It was as if Donald Duck’s girlfriend cheated on him and this was all that was left of him – an impaled heart and a pickled liver.

Donald Duck's heart and liver on a plate.

Donald Duck’s heart and liver on a plate.

Donald’s loss was our gain. We followed with a bright salad of prawn, crab, fennel, mustard leaf, and dill that was happiness and light after all that gothic drama. Then there was a smoked curd topped with thin sliced pickled beets, served with this stuff called ramson, or bear’s garlic, which is a garlicky bulb that grows around here. After that we had a bass with a crispy skin, some kind of yummy foam, and a bit of turnip that was as close to a perfect fish dish as I’ve had. Then came the main event – smoked beef with an arrangement of ingenious accompaniments – braised daikon that had been shaped to look like a lotus root, pickled cauliflower stalks, as well as braised or pickled cabbage and kohlrabi (presumably the ones that were sung to sleep by their farmers). The beef had been smoked and then grilled, but mercifully only just past rare. Getting rare meat in these mad-cow-mad British Isles practically requires a bribe accompanied by a liability waiver. But these tattoo parlor enthusiasts know what they’re doing, and they served up their beef the right way, bless them. I, for one, will be the first to donate to their legal defense fund.

My mother has joined us for the last leg of our trip, which has been great fun. She’s been an avid follower of the blog and when she joined us in Argentina in January I asked her to pick another place to meet us, and she chose Scotland. She seems to be having fun.

My mother enjoying the company of a Scottish highlander.

My mother enjoying the company of a Scottish highlander.

There is no shortage of dandy cultural things to do and see here. The Scottish National Gallery has a great collection of medieval and renaissance art, as well as Scottish art, and it’s free. As is a rambling but very informative museum of the City of Edinburgh, which helped me get my bearings and better understand Scottish history. We also climbed the 287 steps to the top of Scott Tower, dedicated to that famous but impenetrable author, Sir Walter Scott. (A brief digression – when I was a young actor I appeared on a celebrity edition of Wheel of Fortune. Playing for some lady in the Midwest, I was about to solve the puzzle but crashed and burned when I couldn’t come up with S_r Wa_ter S_ _ tt. Or something like that. This did not inspire me to read Ivanhoe, but I will nevertheless never forget Sir Walter Scott, that bum.)

My favorite attraction by far, however, was Holyrood Palace, the Scottish residence of the Queen. She comes up to Edinburgh as part of the Royal Family’s annual summer vacation to Balmoral Castle. Holyrood is an intensely Scottish place, though, and visitors can see the bedroom of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the anteroom where her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s jealous husband, Lord Darnley. You just can’t make this stuff up. When the Queen is in town, the palace is used for royal events, where she has hosted heads of state, and even Pope Benedict. In the off season, though, for fifteen bucks you can wander the halls where all this history continues to take place. It’s as opulent as you might expect, but it’s still very much a working building, which makes it special.

Holyrood Palace, where my mother went missing.

Holyrood Palace, where my mother went missing.

The most exciting part of the visit happened when my mother went missing. She’s small, but she’s not that small. I retraced my steps and then re-entered the building from the front and worked my way through the entire building, but I just couldn’t find her. I spoke to several security guards, who issued A.P.B.s on their walkie talkies, but nobody had seen her. I finally did the intelligent thing and sent her a text. Turns out she was off in the Palace Gardens. Who knew?

Finally, we had the get the bad taste of Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake out of our mouths, which we did quite effectively with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a very moving play about autism, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. It’s also on Broadway and it was just nominated for a best play Tony, and I hope it wins. Good heavens, but it’s fun when theater is this good.

We will soon be heading north to another castle, near Inverness, because we just can’t get enough of all this Scottish castle stuff. By the way, yesterday was May Day, an official bank holiday here in Scotland, which is meant to commemorate the coming of the warm weather. This must be a joke. We’re freezing our bippies off, but then again, this is Scotland.

Kitschy Nudist Commies and Other Berlin Delights

We can see the end of our journey quite clearly. In less than four weeks we’ll be back in our beds, and snuggling in with our dogs and our cat (well, not our cat because she doesn’t do that sort of thing). Perhaps that’s why the first thing we did when we arrived in Berlin was to go for Mexican food.

When we lived in Japan we used to take a two hour train ride into Tokyo to eat at El Torito so that we could have Mexican food that was bad even by El Torito’s standards. But it made us happy because it reminded us of home. That must have been on our minds when we arrived here and were willing to spend ten bucks on a cab to take us to a Mexican takeout joint in Berlin. It was actually pretty good, considering the circumstances, but it was the symbolism of the act more than anything else that struck me.

We’re winding down. We’re starting to think of home. Does that make us bad people? I certainly hope not.

This is not to say that we spend our days huddling in the corner of our apartment, pining for the fog and the drought and the beginning of the presidential primary season. No, friends, we’re travelers and travelers travel. Throughout this trip, we have tried not to look too far ahead for fear of cheating the present. It’s getting a little harder not to look ahead, but we’re going to give it the old college try.

Herewith, then, are highlights of our relatively brief visit to Berlin.

We squeezed Berlin into the schedule because people just kept talking about it. It’s a new and vibrant city, people say. There’s opera, ballet, one of the best symphonies in the world, and an exciting new art scene.

All those things may be true, but what has struck me about Berlin is the wall. Of course the wall is gone. People wiped it away because it was bad. It divided a country, it divided families, and it was a terrible symbol of the stark difference in the lives of people from the same country who in some places lived just a few hundred feet from each other. Walking around Berlin today it’s hard to imagine that twenty five years ago there were one hundred twenty four miles of wall encircling West Berlin, whose purpose was to keep the population of East Germany out.

Our apartment in Prenzlaur Berg sits on the east side of the dividing line, just one block from where the wall used to stand. A casual visitor to the neighborhood couldn’t possibly tell that this was the poor side of town. There are malls, cute little cafes, movie theaters, and yes, Mexican restaurants. A time traveler from 1989 would fall over dead.

Maybe the most famous symbol of the border between east and west Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie – one of the few spots where people could cross from one side to the other. Of course it was impossible for regular East Germans to make the trip to the west, but westerners were allowed to cross, as were diplomats and other credentialed people. There’s nothing original left of the old gate (the real one is in a museum, so visitors have to satisfy themselves with taking photos of a replica, including the famous “you are leaving the American sector” sign). No matter, the fake gate looks real enough, and it’s not hard to imagine the tension inherent in two cold war powers staring each other down across a short no man’s land.

There's almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

There’s almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

If you have trouble conjuring up the image, there are no shortage of exhibits and museums that will fill in the blanks. The cheesiest is the DDR Museum – a kitschy exhibition of life behind the iron curtain. There you can sit in a Trabant, which was considered one of the world’s worst cars, but which was a symbol of East German engineering. (It famously didn’t have a gas gauge, as designers believed that what didn’t exist couldn’t break.) There is a replica of a standard-issue East German apartment (although I’m sure a great many New Yorkers would trade their hovels for one of these places, as long as they were still walking distance to Zabar’s), and some snarky displays about life in the East. It also included, inexplicably, a display on East German’s love of nudist camps, complete with a bizarre diorama.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball - truly the weirdest museum exhibit I've ever seen.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball – truly the weirdest museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.

The whole museum is a bit of a victory lap, but it’s an informative and entertaining one. The shocking bit is that until 1989, a time that many of us remember quite well, that’s what life was more or less like in the very neighborhood in which I’m typing these words. Now I can walk across the street and get a latte.

One of the great symbols of Berlin is the neo Baroque Reichstag building. The building was the home of German parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it burned under mysterious circumstances. After World War II, the West German government moved to Bonn, and the building sat here, unloved and disintegrating. An attempt at restoration in the 1960s was a bit of a bust, but German reunification in 1990 provided the impetus to restore the building properly as the seat of government was returned to Berlin. The British architect Norman Foster reimagined the building in very good ways, replacing the destroyed cupola with a glass dome, from which you can look all the way down into the legislative chamber. The bad news is that you need a ticket to get into the dome (although the tickets are free) and when we arrived to Berlin, the tickets were all gone. The good news is that there is a glorious loophole to the ticket problem. There is a restaurant in the dome and anyone with a reservation to the restaurant naturally gains access to the dome, so we went the loophole route. The bad news is that the food and the service aren’t quite as good as the view. But the good news is that the view and the free audio commentary provide a great vantage point to see the city and learn about its history.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

We also made time for the Bauhaus Archive, which displays a collection from the famous school of art and design, where so many modern design ideas got their start. From furniture to architecture to everyday household items like lamps or even chessboards, Bauhaus designers created work that was meant to be inexpensive to produce, practical to use, and beautiful in its simplicity. Much of today’s so-called “design thinking” owes a huge debt to Bauhaus, as does the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and almost every Airbnb apartment, furnished as they invariably are at Ikea, which is full of Bauhaus-inspired stuff, whether they realize it or not.

A Bauhaus chess set - the pieces tell you how they move.

A Bauhaus chess set – the pieces tell you how they move.

Two meals stood out during our visit. The first sounds awful but was really, really great. At the advice of a friend of Janine, we skedaddled over to the Kaufhaus des Westens (the department store of the west), more popularly known as the KaDeWe, a department store that has served Berlin in one form or another since 1907. Department stores are fine, but this one has a food hall that makes it a real destination. There are counters sprinkled around the sixth floor in between butchers, fish mongers, and sellers of wine, produce, and other good stuff, including, by far, the stinkiest cheese display I’ve ever laid nose on. The counters serve up an equally wide array of gourmet goodness, and after much consideration, we settled on a food counter that specialized in, of all things, potatoes. Janine had a baked potato the size of a basketball, and I opted for pickled pork in aspic served with thin sliced potatoes that were cooked in bacon and onions. Our stools at the counter provided us with the perfect vantage point of the dish as it was being constructed. A chef would ladle some liquid lipid into a pan, then he would toss in a big pile of sliced potatoes, then some bacon and onions, then more viscuous grease, and then cook it until the whole pile was brown and delicious and deeply dangerous. The dark brown German lager with a foamy head like a dirty blonde afro rounded out the dish, and my silhouette.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

And now a word about the second meal, Berlin’s most famous food item, currywurst. The word is…meh. Currywurst is simple, but this is a reminder that simple isn’t by definition good. Currywurst is a hot dog cut up into inch-long pieces, sprinkled with curry powder, and drowned in ketchup. It was fine, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly I just don’t see what the big deal is. On the other hand, I saw a guy selling hot dogs from a portable grill that was hanging around his neck. Now THAT’S dedication in service to an important cause. More grilled hot dogs, I say, and less currywurst.

Currywurst. Not the best.

Currywurst. Not the best.

And so, having not nearly done Berlin the justice it so richly deserves, we pack our two bags and make for Wales, where we will visit our dear friend Mark and try to convince him that Wales needs to buy a vowel.

After that we are off to Scotland and then London, and then home on May 11. Hard to believe.

Eating Through Prague With Our Culinary Concubine

Everybody says go to Prague. Friends, acquaintances, enemies, whatever. Nigerian email scammers offer to let you in on this great opportunity to hold their eleven million dollars, and then they extol the virtues of Prague as a vacation destination. Babies in their strollers give it two tiny thumbs up. So?? How’s Prague? Does it meet these outsized expectations? Yep. Prague is pretty damn good.

What’s so good about Prague? Where do I begin? Pick an architectural style and Prague has it in spades – gothic, renaissance, baroque, Art Nouveau, Deco, and even some entertaining but hideous Cold War communist structures. With the exception of a bombing raid that was meant for Dresden but hit Prague, the city made it through World War II almost entirely intact. You could do nothing but wander the old streets, look at the buildings, and be pretty happy.

Typical cliche architecture in Prague.

Typical cliche architecture in Prague.

The Czechs got culture – there are two really beautiful opera houses which also put on classical music concerts, ballet, and theatre. (Remember how I’ve been saying that all the cool old opera houses we’ve been visiting look like something out of Amadeus? Well, Prague is so styling that they have the opera house that the movie Amadeus was filmed in. Take THAT, Buenos Aires and Budapest!)

The Estates Theatre, where Amadeus was shot.

The Estates Theatre, where Amadeus was shot, where we saw a funky dunky Mozart singspeil called The Abduction from the Seraglio.

There are a bunch of funky jazz clubs, a few puppet theatres (could be creepy, but I’ll offer the benefit of the doubt) and something called “black light theatre”, which came out of the sixties, in which the use of black light allows performers to create what can best be described as live-action animation.

They have a really impressive art museum that seems to be all but unnoticed, which is a crying shame because it’s stuffed with all those famous names we’ve come to know and love – Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Chagall, Klimpt – and a long list of Czech artists that you probably haven’t heard of but who were holding their own alongside many of these folks. It also has a wing of contemporary art that is great once you get tired of looking at all that fancy stuff.

And then there’s the food. Let’s face it, central European food will kill you if used as directed, but that’s usually what makes it so good. As in Hungary, the Czech diet is heavy in soups, stews, massive bread or potato dumplings, sour cream, and huge hunks of pig, usually washed down with copious amounts of beer. This is a terrible place to start a diet, but a great place to end one.

But where to begin? We had been here a day or two when I realized how much I envied Anthony Bourdain. After all, he gets paid to travel around the world and eat and drink stuff, but he also always has some local foodie by his side, holding his hand, and taking him to the best place for blowfish, or guinea pig, or whatever. I believed these folks are called “fixers” in the travel show business. Well, I want a fixer!

Why should we have to make all the arrangements? Why should we do all that web surfing and trial and erroring? Why can’t we have a fixer like Bourdain?

It turns out anyone can have a fixer. Fixers are everywhere. They’re called tour guides. But average workaday tour guides just give tours. Sometimes they’re even counterproductive. They take you to glorified souvenir stands where you’re expected to buy stuff, which is just awkward for everyone. We needed someone better than that. Someone who would take us places, feed us stuff, and who knows what’s really, really good. A person like this would talk to us, laugh at our lame jokes, and be our friend (for a small fee). I guess what we were really looking for was a culinary concubine.

Well, I’m sure you’re all screaming at your iThingys right now, because the solution was so obvious. Just go on an eating tour. Every city has one. An eating tour is even better than a hop on, hop off bus. Some nice person will take you around town, feed you all the best stuff, liquor you up, and unlock all the secrets of your new city. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you their business card and tell you to just send an email if you need any more recommendations during the rest of your stay, and they’ll mean it.

Like the man who discovers the joys of golf on his eightieth birthday, at the end of our long adventure I have finally figured out a dead easy way to get started in a new city. Take a food tour, dumb dumb.

I was doing a little web research on Prague and stumbled upon something called “The Food Lover’s Guide to Prague,” and holy sweet mother of pearl was that a good idea.

Our new best friend, a hip, friendly, voluble fellow named Jan, was just the ticket. He started our tour with a classic Czech dessert, called a hořice, a rolled wafer stuffed with whipped cream which comes with a warm chocolate sidecar for dipping. It was a bit unconventional to start our tour with dessert, but I was game.

Priming the pump with horice, thin-rolled wafers stuffed with whipped cream.

Priming the pump with horice, thin-rolled wafers stuffed with whipped cream.

Next we strolled through the old part of town a bit and made our way to a place called Sisters, which serves something called chlebičky, which are fancy little open-faced sandwiches. Ours had the first good version of pickled herring I’ve ever had, as well as a very nice whipped beet spread with goat cheese, and a celery root slaw sandwich.

Open-faced sandwiches at Sisters.

Open-faced sandwiches at Sisters.

Next door was a butcher shop called Nase Maso, (which translates to “our meat.”) Well, Czechs like meat, but these guys really like meat. This is a post-modern butcher shop where the staff is young and attractive and the butchers visit the farms and go pet the pigs before they are invited to the great beyond (and then your plate). We had two kinds of ham, a spicy sausage, and a delicious thing that was somewhere between a terrine, a meatloaf, and a sausage. They were served with a crusty rye bread, a zingy mustard, and delicious little pickles – all made in house. Damn, make it stop!

The butcher plate at "Our Meat." Have you noticed how I've restrained myself from making a joke about a place called "Our Meat"?

The butcher plate at “Our Meat.” Have you noticed how I’ve restrained myself from making a joke about a place called “Our Meat”?

Then we were off to a charming, quiet garden café that doubles as a furniture store just off chaotic Wenceslas Square where we had red current wine and pork terrine. The square was the site of a series of anti-Soviet demonstrations and later the Velvet Revolution that produced the Czech Republic’s modern democracy. After that it became infamous for its red light district and British hooligan tourists taking advantage of $20 airfares on Ryanair, but it now seems like just another busy shopping district in a big European city. After that, we headed to Restaurant Zvonice, which sits in the belfry of the Jindrisska Tower. The tower dates back to 1475, and at almost seventy meters it’s the highest stand-alone belfry in Prague. The visit would have been worth it for the view alone, but like geese being fattened for liver-ectomies, the food kept coming. This time it was a vinegary and really delicious sauerkraut soup, an old Bohemian favorite, and I can see why.

By this point we were feeling like that guy in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, but we hadn’t even had our main course yet. For that, we were off to Café Louvre, another old Prague classic, which was a former haunt of Kafka and Einstein, among others. The main course was by far the most unusual of the day – Svíčková, a braised beef served on top of a root vegetable puree, with a cranberry compote, some fluffy Czech bread dumplings, and, strangely, a rosette of whipped cream. It was delicious but I’m still not sure about the whipped cream. After all that they had the nerve to place an aircraft carrier-sized piece of apple strudel with a small pitcher of custard crème on the side, which we ate, of course.

Braised beef with dumplings and...whipped cream!

Braised beef with dumplings and…whipped cream!

Even though they were serving us what they called tasting-sized portions, by the end of the tour we were all ready to be wheeled home on gurneys. It was some of the most over the top gluttony we’ve done so far, but we got the chance to taste Prague’s greatest hits, and they were pretty terrific. Our new friend laughed at our jokes, fed us the good stuff, and sent us home happy, although if we keep eating like this, we may need to be sent home in shipping container.