Sunday, May 23, 2010

Richmond Park

With the beautiful weather and sunny skies yesterday, Keenan and I took the opportunity to visit the nearby village of Richmond and Richmond Park. After a quick bite along Northcote Road, we hoped on the overland train from Clapham Junction for a short 8 minute train ride to Richmond Station. 

Located on the bend of the River Thames in southwest London, Richmond is a leafy village of well-heeled Londoners wishing to escape the bustling pace of life in Central London. It is a beautiful neighbourhood with bars and restaurants along the riverfront and a great High Street with upmarket retailers including Ted Baker and Reiss, to name a few. A short walk from the Quadrant takes you directly on the Thames Pathway flanked by willow trees and exquisite riverside mansions on one side and restaurants/pubs on the other and is connected by Richmond Bridge, one of London's oldest bridges dating back to 1777 (this bridge is as old as my native USA!). It's a picturesque part of town so have your cameras ready.

Further along the Thames Pathway, we found ourselves in Peterham Meadow where we came across the Georgian-style St. Peter's Church and graveyard, and then finally to one of many pedestrian gates into this fenced park. When I told friends and colleagues that we were taking a walk around Richmond Park at the weekend, their immediate response was, "You're walking the whole park?" I didn't realise how big Richmond Park is, nearly three times as large as Central Park! It's massive, and perhaps best explored on bikes to cover every square metre of this 955 hectares nature reserve. 

Among the highlights of the park are King's Henry Mound for views of St. Paul's Cathedral on a clear day, Isabella Plantation, Pembroke Lodge, Pen Pond, and Duchess Wood where you can find the Deer Pen of red deer in captivity. We set up a picnic overlooking the pond, reading, and soaking up the sunshine. It was wonderful, and just what we needed after a rather busy work week. 

We also spotted loads of deer on our way back to Richmond Hill. The first sighting was a small herd of four female deers gazing, but walked away from us as we approached them. The second was a huge herd of deer, maybe 30 deers, resting under a big tree. There are some 600 deers scattered across Richmond Park so you're bound to see them at some point during your visit to Richmond Park.

Back along the path to Richmond Hill, you can see the City and even as far as Canary Wharf in the distance. This is also a lovely stretch of the park. On top of Richmond Hill, there are beautiful views of the River Thames and the vast park itself.  Grab a bottle of rose or a refreshing pint of lager from a nearby pub, sit, relax, and enjoy a breath of fresh air and the view on one of many park benches.  Lovely.

If you're looking to get away from the city, but don't want to travel too far, head down to leafy village of Richmond. I promise, you won't feel like you're in London. Even better, if you own a bike, bring it along, you won't regret it. Otherwise rent them along the Riverfront and enjoy your ride through London's largest park, and then reward yourself with a pint at one of many pubs nearby!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull or “How a Volcano Continues to Intimidate and Bully Us”

A few weeks ago I witnessed one of life’s greatest lessons in action; it’s the random, nonsensical-sounding events that can have the biggest impact on what was expected to be a certain course of action in our lives. Of all the things that you worry about on a day to day basis, a volcanic eruption is probably towards the lower end of the list of probable concerns. This is why when that unpronounceable, obscurely named volcano in Iceland erupted in late March and set off a chain reaction of chaos across Europe, I took a second glance at my life and the things that preoccupy my mind. In a time of political, economic, and security uncertainty, it was a moderately rated active volcano on an island made most famous for Björk and hot springs that had the most direct impact on my life. In fact, if you had looked at my diary that week, it probably would have resembled a contemporary Departures Board at Heathrow Airport as follows:

Dad’s Visit to London: CANCELLED
Keenan and Dad’s Golf Trip to St. Andrews: CANCELLED
Holiday Time: CANCELLED
Work Travel: CANCELLED
Decent Weekend Alternatives to Above Plans: SEVERE DELAYS

After completely disrupting all of my work, travel, and personal plans for an entire week in April, that prehistoric mound of rock and ash can’t let well enough alone and has caused airspace to shut in the UK once again for the better part of today. Memories of colleagues stranded in New York City, London, and the continent are flooding back. Stories of people taking taxis from Brussels to London, freighters from Dubai to Spain, and harrowing 18 hour bus rides across the continent are still a bit too close to home for some people who are not ready for a second go at this. The most fascinating bit is that at the heart of this phenomenon the desperation and helplessness of man against the powerful forces of nature is exposed in its entirety.

If nothing else, I can’t help but to think that this volcano has provided a small anthropological glimpse into the tendency for man to recognize his feebleness and to submit to it, pleading to the volcano to stop spewing ash and molten glass so that we can go on holiday and conduct business, reminiscent of our ancestors who used to pray to the rain and sun gods for favorable farming conditions. Perhaps Eyjafjallajökull is a merciless Nordic mountain god exacting his vengeance on Europe for opposition to Iceland’s fast-track admission into the European Union after its own financial meltdown? More likely than not, it is just a reminder that despite our progress in science and society throughout history, humankind is still at the whim of nature and there are forces out there which are beyond our control. Unlike the devastating man-made oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, brought to you by BP, there is no short-term solution to the volcanic eruption and we cannot simply plug the volcano’s leak. Ironically however, it is the oil spill’s long-term effects which concern me more. Perhaps ultimately, in light of the real problems in the world and despite my tirades here, the damage posed by Eyjafjallajökull is just really annoying at worst.

The cliché, “expect the unexpected” could never be more relevant than it is now. Last week the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition government and ended the uncertainty that was caused by a hung parliament in the UK. The Eurozone finally agreed to a three-year bailout package for Greece which is meant to mitigate the risk of a massive debt default, an economic disaster which would have threatened the very existence of the euro. After a week of man-made volatility and uncertainty, man-made solutions have been applied to man-made political and economic problems. We are still struggling with a man-made environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the outcome of which is truly worrisome. This volcano teaches us, almost two months after its initial eruption, that there is indeed a limit to the resourcefulness and authority of humankind. If Eyjafjallajökull tells me I am not going to fly, I am not going to fly. As Mother Earth continues to spew her guts and disrupt an entire continent, we should all be left a little bit more grounded. 

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Wine-Tasting Party

I love organising and hosting parties, dinners, and get-togethers, be it a Thanksgiving eat-a-thon, dinner for four or eight, surprise birthdays, potlucks, pre-Marathon pasta feed, picnics...whatever you name it. If anything it gives us an excuse to get friends together and it also allows me to experiment with my culinary skills and new recipes.

Last night we organised a fun wine-tasting challenge and potluck at our flat, and it was a major success! The wine-tasting challenge is a great way get friends together, and learn about, and taste different varieties of wines. We did the Big Eight Tasting Challenge by Varieties, where I assigned each guest a bottle of wine to bring to the party. There was a sampling of eight "mystery bottles": four reds and four whites, four from the New World and four from the Old World. All wine labels were covered by thick cardstock paper and each bottle was assigned a number: White 1 to 4 and Red A to D. With the aid of a "cheat sheet" of tasting notes, in teams of two, we had to guess the variety and the country, where each grape and origin were only featured once in the answer sheet. One point for each correct answer for a total of 16 points.

As the organiser, I didn't participate in the wine challenge (I knew the answers already), but Keenan participated since he didn't know what bottles were assigned to everyone. The prize: Monmouth Coffee and chocolates! The winners, Anneliese and Farnaz, got 10 out of 16 points and even more impressive, they guessed all the correct grape varieties! Well done!

The 8 "mystery bottles," tasting notes, spit glass, water to rinse the glass, and crackers:

Tasting - Chardonnay vs Sauvignon Blanc? Syrah vs Cab?:

Unveiling of the "mystery" wines:

Team 'Stop Wining' (Keenan and Rod) got 5/16 points:

The mystery bottles:
Pinot Noir - Chile; Cab Sauvignon - France; Rioja - Spain; Shiraz - South Africa; Chardonnay - Australia; Sauvignon Blanc - New Zealand; Pinot Grigio - Italy; Reisling - Germany

Of course, the other fun part of a good party: The Food -- Mediterranean Delights:

Ottenlenghi's Grilled Eggplant with Tahini | Pasta with Mushroom & Artichoke | Lebanese Fatoush Salad | Medley of Salads | Baked Salmon Tray | Provencal-style Aubergine and Tomato Bake | Roast Chicken | Truffles | Vino

Great fun! Thanks for the great company last night everyone!

Also, Happy Mother's Day!

Cheers, Lily + Keenan

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Drinking Bordeaux

Having spent last month tasting wines of the New World (South Africa), we thought it would be fun to take a little wine trip to the Old World, that is, to the world-renowned wine region of Bordeaux over the first May bank holiday. As the title of the post implies, we spent the entire weekend…drinking wine…lots of wine, and eating cheese and baguette in the French countryside.

The elegant 18th century city of Bordeaux is quite lovely. This wasn’t always the case; it was only in the last decade that Bordeaux city underwent a major face-lift -- buildings have been restored to its original splendour, the historic centre has been pedestrianized, and a new ultra-modern tram system has been installed. To our surprise, Bordeaux reminded us of the neighbourhoods in the 5th/6th arrondissement of Paris, with its beautiful architecture and sidewalk cafes.

Photos around Bordeaux:

We spent Saturday roaming around the “Golden Triangle,” admiring the beautiful Cathédrale St-André, strolling along the riverfront, and frolicking in the iconic mirroir d’eau. After spending the better half of the day in Bordeaux, Keenan and I boarded a late afternoon train to the little town of St. Emilion, just 32 km northeast of Bordeaux. If you re planning a trip to the Bordeaux wine region please check the train schedule to St. Emilion as service is often is erratic. It's in French, but you can figure it out.

We spent the rest of our weekend in St. Emilion, a well-preserved UNESCO medieval town with beautiful Romanesque churches and ruins. The town is literally encircled by vineyards (and wine stores galore!) where the Roman planted vines in the 2nd century AD, which makes St. Emilion one of the oldest wine appellations in Bordeaux.

Instead of renting a car this time, Keenan and I decided to cycle around St. Emilion with the bikes provided by our chateau. I got the inspiration from my colleague who is currently cycling around the Loire Valley, another well-known wine region in France, particularly famous for its Sancerre. It was great! Every day we would ride around different "secteurs" of St. Emilion, stopping at different vineyards to learn about its history and of course, to taste the fabulous Bordeaux wines. Mid-day, we would break and have a picnic lunch overlooking some vista, or in a vineyard, and the evenings were spent at the chateau relaxing, reading, and enjoying our nth bottle of wine.

I'm no wine connoisseur, but in a nutshell Old World refers to "classic wine-making" regions in Europe (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain), whereas the New World basically refers to wine produced outside of Europe, including USA, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and Argentina. In general, Old World wines tend to be more subtle and earthy due to the "terroir" in which the grapes grow in. Old World wines tend to get better with age and is best sipped with food and cheese. New World wine tends be bolder, and more fruit-forward and is perfectly fine to drink on its own. The term "terroir" is the French catch-all phrase that encapsulates the very essence of the French wine-making tradition. It denotes the special characteristics that geography, including but not limiting to, the soil, exposure to the sun, mineral composition, the climate, bestowed upon particular varieties of grapes. Wine-making in France is deeply rooted in tradition, and families have owned vineyards for many generations, some dating back to the late 1700s like Chateaux Tremoulet -- nine generations of wine-making.

In the Bordeaux wine region, there are some smorgasbord of 57 appellations, which together produce around 700 million bottles of wine each year, ranging from good quality French table wine to some of the most expensive fine wines in the world. The Bordeaux blend comprises of the big five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabarnet France, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, where the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon is generally the lead variety, and Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot act as supporting cast, as the ladder three grape varieties help add colour, structure, and body.

Most of the wine we tasted last weekend is a Bordeaux blend of 75 to 80 percent Merlot and 10 to 15 percent of Cabernet Franc, the two primary grape varieties in St. Emilion. In all of our previous wine-tasting trips to Napa, Sonoma, the Russian River, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, and the Cape Winelands, we usually taste six to eight different flights of wines, both whites and red. In Bordeaux, it's all about red wine, or as the British would say 'claret,' and we did mostly vertical tastings of the same wines by different years, otherwise known as vintage. You can really taste the difference in the wine depending on the climate and condition of the soil during each year. Based on our conversations with the wine-makers 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009 are good vintages for Bordeaux reds, so if you have one of these in your cellar, hold on to them.

View of our picnic spot:

As I said before, life is too short to drink bad wine…happy tasting!

Update (19 June 2010): NY Times 36 Hours in Bordeaux

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Election 2010: A New Government for Britain?

As the campaign trail heats up during this final week and people head to the polls on Thursday, the buzz in London has turned away from the annoying and unpronounceable volcano in Iceland and to talk of a new government in the UK. On the tube, in the office, and in the shops, people are taking an active interest in the outcome of this election and for good reason. Still recovering from the economic downturn, battling a budget deficit that is almost 12 percent of GDP, fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan, attempting to regulate the banks and corporate greed, reconciling legal and illegal immigration and confronting an overstretched welfare system, the newspapers do not exaggerate when they say that, like America in 2008 and given similar challenging national circumstances, this could be the most significant election in recent UK memory. As David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg make their final push in these last couple of days to lead their parties to a majority, and with some polls predicting a Tory lead with a sizeable Liberal Democrat proportion of the votes, things should get interesting. Either way, it seems almost certain that Gordon Brown’s time in 10 Downing Street is over.

I have given a lot of thought about how to approach the topic of this election. I actually wrote a version of this post a few months ago, but have found that most of what was written then is irrelevant now and that the political landscape has shifted even more since with the introduction of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as a plausible option. For people who are less familiar with UK politics the differences are quite substantial in contrast to the American system, but without going into too much detail and explaining the mechanisms of the parliamentary model, one thing I find striking is that in this election there are three, almost equally possible political parties vying for victory. Unlike in the United States where it is usually a battle between two main parties with one or two marginal parties taking part on the side, parliamentary systems require coalition governments in which several parties form a bloc, and in the UK it is a race between the incumbent Labour, the conservative Tory, and the more underdog “newcomer” Liberal Democrats. Rather than explaining each candidate and their party’s platform and policy agendas in excruciating detail, I thought I would just run down each one separately and share a few of my own observations.

Gordon Brown and his Labour Party, despite being on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the American Republican Party are facing criticism from David Cameron and the Conservative Party that sounds very similar to that which was hurled upon the Republicans by the Democrats in 2008. Indeed Gordon Brown’s premiership has followed almost the same exact trajectory as that of President Bush, although during a much shorter time span. I get the impression that he is reviled by most of the opposition and merely tolerated within his own party. The Economist referred to his time in office as a “Shakespearean Tragedy” and in 2008 and 2009 he somehow managed to survive an attempted political coup within his own party. A few months ago former staff aides and members of his administration approached the press and accused him of verbal and physical “bullying” and intimidation tactics. Last week he was caught on microphone when he thought he was in private calling a voter a “bigot” for her questions to him on immigration. Aside from the obvious personality deficiencies, he is in a constant battle against critics on both the right and left who condemn his handling of the economy, domestic, and foreign policy issues. To be fair, he hasn’t had any easy ride either. No one can argue that the economic downturn has been an easy test for any leader anywhere, but it is important to remember that Tony Blair, Brown’s predecessor, is now criticized in hindsight for helping to foster the circumstances in which this crisis unfolded and for unlawfully invading Iraq upon President Bush’s insistence. Whether or not this is an accurate or fair assessment, I am not sure, but it is the curse of the incumbent. What most people seem to remember right now is that things got really bad on Gordon Brown’s watch and consequently they are ready for a change.

This brings us to David Cameron and the Tories. The balance of power in the UK could shift slightly further right than it has been for a long time, but it is crucial to understand what this would look like. Such a movement would not necessarily be the equivalent to the same form of the “right” that we have come to know recently in the US with the likes of George W. Bush’s presidency or Sarah Palin and certain elements within the Tea Party movement. When I refer to the mainstream “right” in the UK and in Europe particularly, it is not the ideological equivalent to these, but rather a slightly more right slant of an already very left center. For example, no serious mainstream party, left-leaning or right-leaning in the UK or Europe would ever argue against the concept of universal healthcare or equal rights according to sexual orientation. You do have your anti-immigration, white supremacist British National Party (“BNP”), and although gaining more popularity in certain disenfranchised jurisdictions, it is still a highly marginalized movement with no serious ability to challenge on a national scale. The Tories should not be confused with a “right-wing” movement and Cameron is widely applauded by both liberals and conservatives for modernizing his party even further over the last several years with platforms added on environmentalism and a multilateral approach to foreign affairs.

Nick Clegg is probably the most inspiring and likeable of all three major candidates and his Liberal Democrats pride themselves on defending the welfare state and creating a more fair tax system for Britain. He is a staunch defender of civil liberties and an advocate of voting reform. Of the two television debates I saw on domestic issues and the economy, I would say Clegg came off the strongest and the most confident. Where his critics get him is on the substance and consistencies of his policies beyond these overarching principles. For example, while the Liberal Democrats advocate Britain’s entry into the Euro they would also hold a referendum on whether or not to remain in the European Union. Again, as with Brown and Cameron, it is difficult for me to comment as an outsider, but I see both the allure and the reluctance in throwing an endorsement to Clegg, despite what appears to be his best intentions.

Very shortly the UK will select a new government. As I write this I hear commentators throwing around new poll statistics which would contradict predictions I heard only a few hours ago. Regardless of the outcome, my most significant observation is that people are engaged in the political process again. Will there be a hung parliament? Will the Tories win the majority? Will they enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats? Or will there be a last minute surprise by Labour? Whichever way it turns out, it is clear that voters are energized by the issues and on Thursday it will be their will that is put forward.