Monday, 17 December 2012

Wind around Wick

In the nineteenth century wind power was the means of propulsion for the vast fleet of herring drifters that converged on Wick for the summer herring fishing. The age of steam followed, then less romantically, petrol and diesel continued our reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear energy seemed to fill the gap for a period but has waned in the face of public scepticism and the resulting political cold feet. As fossil fuels become environmentally unacceptable and scarce, wind once again moves into the frame as an energy source, with tide following on behind. Caithness is particularly well placed for both with its windy moors and tidal coastline.

     Love them or hate them on land or sea they are here to stay at least for a generation or perhaps forever if the scientists don't deliver the Holy Grail that nuclear once promised to be.
A few weeks ago the north quay at Wick harbour was littered with the broken down components of a new wind farm being constructed at Wathegar to the north  of Wick. The turbine blades are enormous, much taller than the Zulu mainsails that rode the wind in the nineteenth century. So far, Caithness windfarms operate 48 turbines with a further 87 approved or under construction. 78 Turbines are in the planning process while a further 150-200 are at the scoping stage. Campaigners are clearly concerned about the impact of such a large number of turbines on the landscape of the county.

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Of even greater interest is the level of activity being planned at sea off Wick. The turbines being planned are even larger than the onshore ones and will have minimal visual impact, perhaps we'll grow to love them at a distance in the haar. Thanks to the Wick Society for permission to reproduce the Johnston image of Wick in the 1860's.
I wish all my readers a very happy Christmas.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. --Book and paperback from all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Paris - Foie Gras Trois Fois

Emerging from the St Michel Metro station it felt like a bright summer's day, despite the November reality. We haven't been to Paris for years but it all seemed so familiar. This time it was  more welcoming than when we lived there thirty years ago. Gone are the grunting surly waiters. A new generation of friendly English speakers has taken over. Parisiennes stopped to help interpret our map when we looked lost and some even offered us their seats at busy times on the Metro.
     The formal reason for this visit was to do some location research for my third novel, set mainly in France. Writers can get a lot from the internet, but there's no substitute for an on the spot visit to get interesting detail. The Sacre Coeur Basilica at Montmartre and the Necker children's hospital were the target locations. 
     For Tuesday night's meal we didn't visit the overpriced Atelier Maitre Albert just along the street from our hotel. Judge for yourself from the pompous statement outside the restaurant.
'La cuisine est l'art de transformer instantanement en joie les produits charges d'histoire.' 

The restaurant we'd planned was closed for refurbishment so we took pot luck on the left bank at the Auberge Notre Dame. Unexceptional foie gras and overcooked duck breast- avoid.
     On Wednesday after visiting the Necker we walked down through les Invalides, across Pont Tsar Alexander III to the Grand Palais. The queue for the Hopper exhibition was too long so we walked through the Christmas market and across the Place de la Concorde to the Orangerie in the Tuillerie Gardens. The tortured pictures of Russian emigre artist, Chaim Soutrine were interesting. L'Homme au Petit Chapeau de Feutre looked disturbingly like Our Minister for Education, Michael Gove.
     Back across the Seine, the Musee d'Orsay beckoned, always worth a visit for the awesome display of impressionists and great views of Paris. At night we dined Au Petit Sud Ouest in Avenue de la Bourdonnais near the Eiffel Tower. Foie gras, pan fried this time and cassoulet were excellent. Cotes de Gascogne white and Madiran red showed just how good  some of the smaller wine local wines can be. A restaurant to be recommended. Book by e-mail.  
     Thursday morning saw us at the Sacre Coeur Basilica. We arrived as mass was starting so we joined from a distance, then had a good look round. For lunch we avoided the tourist trap of the Place du Tertre. Down the steps in Rue Gabrielle we found Chez Marie, recommended in Tripadvisor. All I can say is that the goats in my goats cheese salad  were busy in the small hours! From there we dropped down to the Pompidou Centre and joined the tolerable queue for the vast Salvador Dali exhibition. Well worth the wait to see the full breadth of the crazy Spanish genius.
    Evening vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral was followed by dinner at L'Ange 20, a tiny bistro in Rue Geoffroy L'Angevin opposite the Pompidou centre. The foie gras was made on the premises and easily the best of the week. The stuffed guinea fowl (yes, with foie gras) was unique and 7 hour cooked lamb exceptional. The tightly arranged tables made neighbourly conversation mandatory and we reviewed the result of the US presidential election again. This was the best dining experience of the three and highly recommended. Book by e-mail 
   We walked up to the Pantheon on our last morning. Built originally as a church, it now serves as a memorial to the French Revolution and final resting place to many of the heroic figures who took part, as well as some later famous writers and scientists, including Marie Curie.
     Eurostar was a good travel experience in both directions. We must go back to Paris soon.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Sunday, 11 November 2012

John O'Groats Update

Wandering around Caithness in half-term week a few things stood out as signs of economic progress.

     The Rural Retreats development at John O'Groats adds a huge tourist draw to our northern outpost, tempting travellers to tarry in Caithness and visit the many magnificent sites that our county has to offer, rather than hop directly over to Orkney. The chalets and apartments built into the extended hotel shell completely change the balance of the site for the better. The fabric of the old Victorian hotel has been completely renewed and the multicoloured extension looks dramatically Scandinavian from the harbour/sea side.

 One thing that never changes at John O' Groats is the family obsession with finding Groatie Buckies, the small cowrie shells that are said to bring good luck to the finder. There was stiff competition among the grandchildren to bag the highest total. Emma was the winner with 83 closely followed by Ben with 73. They are still wearing the 'pixies' purchased on Orkney a few days earlier. I hope the John O' Groats developers have taken the precaution of gathering a few buckies for themselves.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Friday, 26 October 2012

Orkney Fudge Disaster

School half-term often sees the whole family in Wick for a week together and spending time with their Caithness rellies. Highlight of the week so far was a visit to Orkney. Tuesday  dawned misty but full of promise on the weather forecast. The ferry journey from Gills to St Margaret's hope on South Ronaldsay was the calmest I can remember. In the six hours available we restricted ourselves to the great sites. Orkney is dotted with reminders of WWII. The Italian Chapel is the most evocative, dedicated to beauty and spirituality rather than death and destruction. Maeshowe speaks to us from 5000 years ago of a rich agrarian society with the time and resources to build the best chambered tomb in Western Europe. The grandchildren enjoyed the story of Maeshowe told in a wonderful rich Orcadian accent by Moira, our guide. For her, all small things were 'peedie.' The Viking runes story added spice from a much later period of Orcadian history, when the Norse invaders colonised the islands around the end of the first millenium. The kids love the 'pixies' we bought in the Tormiston Mill shop.
 The impressive Ring of Brodgar shows an extra quality against a low winter sun. The long shadows suggest the very runes that we saw in Masehowe. In Kirkwall we bought Orkney fudge (see below) and visited St Magnus Cathedral and the main shops.
At Scara Brae the grandchildren loved the replica of  house number 7 and wanted to spend the night there. Is there a business opportunity there- A Neolithic night?
     On the ferry journey back the setting sun highlighted the WWII gun emplacements on Hoxa Head and finally disappeared behind  Dunnet Head
 Back at the house in Wick the main event was a blind tasting of Orkney fudge against Granny Jen's. The grandchildren described the Island product as too sweet and sickly. Granny Jen's home made fudge evinced more nuanced replies- delicate, smooth and balanced was the conclusion and her product was unanimously voted the best. So it was 4-0 to Granny and an Orkney icon bites the dust.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk - Around Montalcino

Montalcino is distinctive among the Tuscan hill towns in having a well preserved fortress. From the ramparts we get splendid views of the tiled roofs and spires of the town churches and the surrounding countryside. Every shop seems to be selling the famous Brunello and the main square is lined with cafes and restaurants. We paused at the Caffe Fiascetteria Italiana in the main square watching the world go by. 

Nearby we visited the abbey of Sant'Antimo dating back to the 10th century. It was an important centre for pilgrims. For lunch we went to the Osteria del Basso Mundo where the food was wonderfully traditional. The 'contadino' Brunello was made by the restaurant proprietor and served from large straw covered bottles reminiscent of the Chianti bottles that were once ubiquitous on the UK market. The day finished with a tasting of top class Brunello at Casanova Di Neri. Lodging for our last night was at the Hotel Dei Capitani, a comfortable establishment which had wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Next morning The arrival of the bus for our return to Pisa airport signalled the end of a wonderful week in Tuscany. Planning is well in hand for next year's event in Sicily.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk- Chianti

The day began with a visit to the Museum of Sacred Art and Archaeology at Asciano. The main objective was to see the altar screen depicting the Birth of the Virgin painted in 1437. The picture shows the Madonna's mother,St Anna in the right frame. The work sucessfully translates of a Biblical theme into a Tuscan setting. The figures are fresh and light with a vitality often lacking in religious old masters. We also saw many Etruscan artifacts dug from local graves.

     Our next objective was the Castello Di Brolio, a grim fortress held in the Ricasoli family for over a 1000 years. The castle was at the centre of many of the power struggles that afflicted Italy long after countries such as France and England were unified under strong monarchs by the end of the medieval period. The main protaganists were the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany allied with Siena and the Papacy in league with Florence which conquered southern Chianti and Brolio at the end of the twelfth century. However the castle changed hands several times before the Medici's unified Tuscany under their rule in the sixteenth century.

     A walk through the vineyards took us to our Chianti tasting  with Sylvie and Roberto at Podere Torreno near Volpaia. We entered their ancient  house via a geranium garlanded stone staircase leading into a totally authentic rustic living space dominated by the enormous fireplace. We tasted their Chianti and Chianti Classico over a splendid lunch.

Dinner in Pienza was in the Restaurant Bacchus. Good food if a little expensive.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book and paperback from all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk- Montepulciano to Montefollonico

We arrive in Montepulciano on local market day and look round the stalls. The various seasonal fungi stalls are the most interesting. The local bus takes us all the way up to the top of the town so that we can enjoy the walk down through the streets to the frieze of Etruscan grave stones near the bottom. The bus then takes us to Montefollonico to start the 2 hour walk downhill through beautiful rolling contryside and up again to Montepulciano and our wine tasting.
This is at the Fattoria Pulcino di Ercolani. They had a wide range of wines from their properties across the area. The star wine was undoubtedly the Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, Riserva 2006. The company dispatches wine to the UK and several group members used the service. The upstairs restaurant provided a good lunch and more wines to taste.
We shuttled back across the valley to the Innocenti cellars dating from the end of the thirteenth century. Ex- philosophy teacher Vittoria Innocenti makes a range of wines in his ancient cellars and is renowned for his Vin Santo. With some reverence we tasted a 1996 made from Sangiovese and Canaiolo. The grapes are allowed to dry until January/February to concentrate the juice before pressing then ageing in small old oak barrels in alternate warm and cold conditions.  The 15% alcohol product is unique, sweet and almost herbal with none of the maderised flavour that characterised the samples we tasted elsewhere made from grape varieties like malvasia. These exhibited the typical oxidied flavour of entry level Madeira.
Back in Pienza we had dinner at the Restaurant del Falco. Sylvana looked after us very well. Our best dining experience in Pienza.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all amazon sites. Reviews at

Friday, 19 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk- Fattoria del Colle

The day begins with a visit to the monastery of Santa Anna del Camprena, now a major agri-tourism enterprise. It was the setting for much of the film, The English Patient featuring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Feinnes. Santa Anna, the mother of the Madonna, is much revered in this part of Tuscany and features in many of the frescos on the monastery chapel walls.


However most of the day was taken up with a visit to the Fattoria del Colle, a large agri-tourist enterprise owned by the famous Donatella Cinelli Colombini. The estate was built in 1592 by a nobleman who was recently discovered to be one of her ancestors. For the visit we were joined by two Australian ladies, Cheryl and Sabrina, the former on a quest to recover an English country house that she claims her husband should have inherited. Good luck to Cheryl. Our charming guide Bonella took us on a tour of the gardens and villa. Tuscan gardens tend to be rather formal and lack the variety of their  English counterparts. Lemon trees are put in large pots for ease of removal to the lemonaria in winter. The practise arose, not to make Gin and tonics more fruity but to combat scurvey. Inside, the villa was well preserved to show how a rich family would have lived. The massive fireplace in the kitchen had a corner where milk maids warmed the milk during cheese making. After the visit, a pasta making session where we all watched the cook, Antonio, mix the flour, water, egg, olive oil and salt to make the dough. All were then invited to hand roll/pull out the pici pasta, with varying degrees of sucess!
 The highlight was the winetasting. We began with the 2010 Rosso de Montalchino, a DOC wine made from 100% Sangiovese aged for at least a year in oak barrels. This was followed by Cenerentola (Cinderella) from the new Orcia DOC, made from Sangiovese 65% and Foglia Tonda 35% also aged for a year in oak barrels. Leone Rosso was another Orcia DOC made from 60% Sangiovese and 40% merlot. The absolute highlight was the 2007 Brunello Di Montalchino, a big but harmonious wine that ticked all the boxes. This wine comes from two small vineyards of 11 hectares of Sangiovese grapes and is barrel aged for at least two years. 
Donatella is famous in Italy for employing only female winemakers, not the result of militant feminism but because when she started up all the male wine graduates had been spoken for and only women were left. Since then she has made a virtue of that necessity and proved her point by winning many prizes. It is therefore fitting that she called her top wine Brunello Di Montalchino, Prime Donna, blended with the help of an international group of women who are already famous in the wine trade. I carried a bottle back and look forward to toasting their efforts. 
Lunch followed accompanied by the wines we tasted. Altogether a harmonious visit that covered much of the Tuscan experience under one roof.  

On the way back we visited La Foce, famous for the garden created by Iris Origo of Anglo-American descent. The property was originally an inn on the pilgrims route. It was acquired by Iris and her husband in 1924 and extensively developed until 1939. The garden follows the slope of the hill, merging into the countryside and consists of various formal enclosures. Today the complex is a centre for cultural and artistic activities. 
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback from all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk-San Gimignano and Pienza

San Gimignano is perhaps the most famous of the Tuscan hill towns. It was certainly the busiest place we visited and gets about 8 million visitors a year. The place is dominated by the remaining towers, there were originally 72, virility symbols of competing local families. Unlike Lucca, San Gimignano joined Florence in the fourteenth century. Sitting on the Via Francigena  from Canterbury and France to Rome and the Holy Land the town made a good living on the passing pilgrims. Wine lovers note the Vernaccia di San Gimignano, white wine made from a grape of the same name since the thirteenth century. It's cheap and cheerful!
      In the hills behind lies the winery of Poggio Allora. This is agri-tourism on a massive scale with bus parties galore. Not a place for an intimate lunch and fairly undistinguished wines.

Pienza our destination was ideally placed, halfway between the important wine towns of Montalchino and Montepulciano. Our intended lodgings proved to be unsatisfactory and welcome meal anything but. For a few hours the shadow of Winetrials hung uncomfortably over us. However we were quickly moved across the road to the Relais Il Chiostra, a former convent. Pienza's name and fame derives from it being the birthplace of Pope Pius II in 1458. He remodelled the town to its current renaissance glory, a fitting setting for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.   The morning view from the back of the hotel  showed the valley filled with mist. Below the city walls stands the church where Pope Pius II was baptised. Despite its catholic credentials it is decorated with pagan Etruscan symbols.
     Next morning we visited the tiny borgo of Vignoni Alto on the Via Francignina on our way to the farm winery Poggio Al Vento. Roberto's wines are covered by the new Doc/Docg area of the Orcia. As well as the classic Sangiovese grape, Roberto cultivates the ancient Foglia Larga, characterised by its large round leaves. Roberto is an archer and actor in local medieval pageants in St Quirico d'Orcia. His top wine is appropriately called Arcere. We had a picnic lunch under cover from the torrential rain accompanied by Roberto's excellent and good value wines. After lunch Jennifer got trapped in the toilet and was pleased to be rescued by the handsome Roberto who scrambled over the roof and in through the window to rescue her. On such events are memories built!
      Dinner in Pienza was at the Bucca del Fate, a vaulted restaurant in the town centre. A good choice of local dishes and wines. I had the first of several plates of seasonal wild boar, sought after by the many hunters we saw moving around the countryside. A restaurant to be recommended.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback from all Amazon sites. Reviews at


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Tuscany Wine Walk - Aperitivo

Twelve years ago we were part of a Winetrails walking holiday in Tuscany. The organisation was chaotic, we were given rubbish food, lodged in cheap hotels and served inexplicably poor wine. The group quickly gelled in opposition to Winetrails and the event was rescued only by the sheer succulence of the Tuscany environment. Forged in such adversity a group of a dozen of us decided to make a wine walk an annual event in the first week of October. So far we've done all the regions of France, Rioja and Ribero del Duero in Spain and the Port region of Portugal.
     This year we plucked up courage to return to Tuscany this time under the care of Ugo Marriotti from Tuscany Under the Sun. Before the tour began we decided to spend a weekend in Lucca, very near Pisa airport.
     Lucca was an Italian city state which, thanks to its impenetrable city walls, remained independent into the 19th century, long after most Tuscan cities had been forced into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany controlled by the Florentines.  The Duomo St Martino on the left contains the Volto Santo, a wooden statue of a bearded Christ said to have been carved by St Nicodemus. Lucca's greatest monument however is the marble figure of Ilaria del Caretto, the nineteen year old wife of a nobleman. She died in childbirth at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The Church of St Michele stands on the site of the former Roman Forum. It has an elegant facade and the highest bell tower in town.
.The city walls are spectacular. We walked the four kilometers round. Some sections are more ramparts than walls, almost like sea defences up to 30 metres thick at the base. On the walk we came across a seasonal display of hundreds of different species of fungi. Edible and mortally dangerous varieties were on display. Dining opportunities abound. Our most enjoyable experience was dinner at the Buralli. It is family run and decorated with paintings by a local artist who happened to be dining there at the same time as us. The fare was excellent and the ambience very authentic with a majority of Italian diners. Over the weekend we stayed at the Hotel San Lucca Palace. It was very comfortable although the decor was a bit dark and sombre. A good introduction to Tuscany and the week ahead.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Susan Boyle- A Poem

One of Susan's less well publicised achievements is that she reduced Michael Gove to tears with her rendering of Wild Horses. He confessed in an article he wrote as a Times journalist before the last election and his elevation to UK Minister for Education in the coalition government.
As a fellow lachrymose, who needed a bucket every time team GB won a medal during the Olympics, I took special note, pleased to be in such exalted company.
From her astonishing debut on Britain's Got Talent, Susan has gone on to develop a full international career enjoying worldwide success. It's an extraordinary story.

SUBO Dreaming

Almost too late it happened,
a nightingale on a talent show,
wreathed in frump and tousle,
a mismatch of sight and sound,
like Shakespeare from a babe in arms.
We of little faith sat up and listened.
The Princess's voice from Cinderella
soared and touched the million hearts
across the world who ask, Could I?
They dream their dreams through her
and think, It’s never too late for us
while the Magdalane  still sings.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. eBook and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at