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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Royal Castle Hotel: History and Mystery!

A grand old lady, her stark white walls and gold lettering gleaming in the sun, The Royal Castle Hotel, rests placidly by the waterside, overlooking the River Dart and a bay filled with boats and ships.  She has graced the historic harbor since the 17th Century, or maybe before if you count previous inns that have occupied the space, including one Sir Francis Drake stayed in.

You remember Drake.  Elizabethan Admiral (a pirate in Spanish eyes), commander of the victorious British Fleet against the Spanish Armada, and circumnavigator of the globe.

We didn’t stay at the hotel, but even if you choose more modest accommodations, it’s essential to at least sit in the hotel’s Galleon Bar, sip a local DoomBar Ale, and wander around inside to see the grandeur of an old coach inn.  Modest in some ways, yet splendidly opulent in richly woven rugs, overstuffed seating, polished brass fittings, and weathered leather.

light ale on the left, cider in the middle, Doom Ale on the right

Lots of local frequent the Galleon Bar

The Galleon Bar, it’s said, features timbers gleaned from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada.  That was 1688, so the timing is right enough and the timbers do indeed look both ancient and notched from previous use.

In England, history never dies, it just lingers on, cut and polished, and applied to other purposes.  History this hotel has in quantity.  Mary and William stayed here after arriving from the Netherlands to claim the English throne.  Charles II and his female admirers also spent some time.  Edward VII (1841-1910), movie stars such as Cary Grant, and the author Agatha Christie are others of note.  The latter changed the name of the hotel to Royal George in her novel Ordeal by Innocence.

Charles II owns a special place in English history.  His father, Charles I lost a war and lost his head.  Charles II also lost a war, but after Oliver Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy, he mounted the throne.

In The Royal Castle, you not only have history served on a platter, but if you’re lucky, in the dark of the evening, you may even hear the whinny of horses or the cracking of a whip as a phantom stagecoach picks up equally phantom passengers by the front door.  Hey, you can’t call yourself a true English hotel without a ghost or two!

Didn’t stay in any of the 25 hotel rooms, but I hear they are individually decorated in sumptuous antiques, some featuring four posters and modernized by the addition of Jacuzzis.

Top of the stairs looking down on the sitting area.  Note the bells on the top left.

There’s a seafood restaurant on the ground floor and another dining room above that looks out over the harbor.  But, whether you stay or eat or both, do not miss the chance to trip up the winding staircase that looks down on a sitting area.  On the top floor is an old library featuring leather-bound volumes of hotel registers. 

On the wall above the sitting area, look for the 20 bells, in the long ago used by guests to call for assistance from the staff.

We camped in The Galleon bar for some time, ordering plowman’s lunches (cheese, salad, and bread), while we quaffed an ale or two and watched the locals.

The Royal Castle Hotel is a friendly, welcoming place.  You could stay awhile, soaking in the history of the weapons and nautical gear on the walls.  You may be sitting where royalty sat.  It’s a comfortable feeling and you may stay awhile.  We did.

Monday, April 28, 2014

There's More Than Cologne in Köln!

The World Renowned Dom in downtown Cologne

My wife and I took an overnight to Cologne, Germany.  Meeting old friends, seeing an old city for the first time.

I expected the usual:  old buildings, a cathedral, beer, sausages, and a view of the Rhine River.  What I didn’t expect was to be enchanted.  Cologne, or Köln (Kul-n) in German, sports the past like an old and favorite dress, yet has a young and vibrant feel.  People, young and old, stroll the cobblestone streets, stop for a beer at an outdoor pub, view the flowers and the majestic Rhine, and while away the time in some wonderful cafés.  The old city, Altstadt, is a walking wonderland of things to see and do.

Cologne is used to being both old and new and certainly adept at starting over.  An ancient tribe founded the city; then came the Romans in the first century and stayed for over four hundred years.  They built sewer systems, palaces, and baths, all of which are slowly being uncovered and displayed to the public.

The Roman World

Hard to believe this city was 95% destroyed in World War II.  On the night of 13 May, 1942, the first thousand plane raid hit Cologne.  90% of the population fled.

Between Roman times and the National Socialist era, a lot of folks took turns hammering this center of commerce that straddles the famous Rhine River.  Most, noticeably the French under Napoleon Bonaparte and later the French after the First World War, tried to make Cologne a permanent part of France.  The Brits had a lot to do with squashing both those misguided efforts.

Museums abound in this city, and two of my sudden favorites are the Ludwig and the Wallraf.  Art from every age, but I usually key-in on the late nineteenth and twentieth Century.  Impressionists.  Cubists.  Both museums feature names you’ll recognize, no matter your preference.  From Reuben and Rembrandt to Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, and Pollack, you’ll find them here.

Picassos Inside the Ludwig Museum

The large painting is an Edvard Munch inside The Wallraf Museum

For me, viewing art is not only a question of time, but of the ability to mentally digest what I’m seeing.  A museum is such an elaborate banquet of designs, styles, colors, and subjects.  Seeing all of it in one fell swoop is like trying to eat your way through the full menu at a Michelin Three Star restaurant.

My brother has taught me well. For every hour in a museum, there must be an hour on either side at a pub.  Ale cleanses the mental palate and renews your spirit for living.

Thankfully, Cologne is dedicated to enjoyment of beer, as evidenced by a word found few other places in Germany:  Kölsch.  This pale beer, with a taste much like a smoother lager, has found its way down thirsty throats for centuries.  Even today, Kölsch is strictly controlled through an agreement between members of the Cologne Brewery Association, known as the Kölsch Konvention.

The thing to remember when you park yourself at a café and order a Kölsch, is that tall, slim glass in front of you will be refilled again and again, until you either mumble to the waiter that “I dink I gad genuf…,” as the beer dribbles down your shirt, or you put your beer coaster over the top of your glass.  In Cologne drinking beer is serious and the waiters carry special little trays (Kranz or wreath) of little glasses of beer, designed both to cut down on the spillage and to serve dozens of customers at the speed of slosh.

Ok, you’ve had your beer and your museums and taken a look at the mighty Rhine River, but there’s at least one thing left.  You can’t leave this famous city without a glimpse inside the magnificent cathedral.  You’re thinking, “This is my second week in Europe and if I see another freaking cathedral, all this beer is going to trickle its way down my legs and between the cobbles on the street!”

Slow down.  This is not just another cathedral, but one of the most famous and majestic in all of Europe.  It’s full name is Hohe Domkirche St Petrus, or in English, High Cathedral of St Peter.  Best known as simply the Dom.  I’m not going to spoil the fun by giving you a full rundown.  Besides, you need more beer to really appreciate this edifice that’s been around in one form or another since the 13th Century.

Inside the Cathedral 

But, I will answer a couple of questions before you even ask:  Yes, the Dom was hit in World War II, but no it was not destroyed.  One reason is the suggestion that it made an excellent visual checkpoint for bomb runs into other parts of Germany.

And, who can think of speaking of Cologne without mentioning Eau de Cologne?  Giovanni Maria Farina, an Italian, launched the citrus-scented original here in 1709 and the collective cologne business has flourished ever since.  Yes, there is a cologne museum and cologne shops galore.

Don’t’ know about you, but I think all this sightseeing calls for another beer.  Now, if that waiter would just hurry up!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Stuffed Red Bell Peppers that'll stuff you!

Before we move on to a most delicious recipe, modified, twisted and turned to meet my own very selfish persuasions, there are some things you need to know.

I like stuffed peppers, whether we’re talking about the justly famous Mexican dish of  “Chile Relleno,” or the traditional American variety, using bell peppers.

I’m also the serendipity kind, awkwardly inspired by what ever happens to jump into my field of view at the local market.  I walk in thinking pot roast and see bell peppers on sale.  The rest follows as naturally as foamy beer on a mustache.

Just to be clear, for recent high school graduates, that last bit was a special type of metaphor called a simile.   Also, I do not have a mustache.

Red bell peppers suit my taste buds better than the green variety.  Slightly sweet.  Silky smooth, with no acrid aftertaste.  Sometimes I just do a rough chop and eat ‘em as a snack food.

Back to constructing a luscious, one item meal for your wife and desperately hungry children, or that special someone whom you want to impress by stuffing peppers, while leering stupidly and trying not to dribble wine down the front of your shirt.

Stuffed Red Bell Peppers

4 Large red bell peppers
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Cups chopped green onions, both white and green parts
6 Tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro
4 cloves freshly minced garlic
2-3 Cups cooked rice
1 Tablespoon paprika
Salt to taste or 1 ¼ teaspoons
1 Teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ Teaspoon allspice (about 3-4 shakes)
2 Cups tomato sauce (I use the boxed type, as opposed to the canned)
¾ Lb ground beef
¾ Lb ground pork
¼ Teaspoon cayenne pepper (as with the allspice above)
2 Eggs, beaten

Cut about ½ inch off the top of each bell pepper and scoop out the seeds.  Remove and discard the stems.  Roughly chop the flesh of the tops.

Make the rice.

Parboil the red bell peppers for 3 minutes, then remove from the water and place them upside down on a paper/tea towel to dry.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC)

In a skillet, cook the beef/pork to the ‘just losing the pink’ stage and set aside.  Don’t wash that skillet yet!  Use it for the next part!

Heat the oil and beef/pork drippings in the skillet and add the onions, chopped pepper tops, cilantro, and garlic.  Add a dash or two of salt and pepper.  Cook until the onions are well wilted, about 5-8 minutes.  Put in a large bowl and mix in the rice and spices.  Allow to cool about ten minutes.

Add the beef/pork, beaten eggs and 1 to 1 1/2 Cups of tomato sauce to the mixture.  Mix well, adding more salt and other spices to taste.

Stuff the peppers with the filling mixture, mounding it on top.  Place the stuffed peppers in a baking dish small enough for the peppers to stand upright without falling over.

Sprinkle on some Parmigiano-Reggiano and they're ready for the oven!

Surround the stuffed peppers with any extra filling.  Add a dollop of tomato sauce to the top of each pepper and to any extra mounds of filling.  Generously sprinkle the tops of the peppers with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Put the peppers in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the tops are browned.

Serve hot.  Expect screams of joy and boisterous demands for more wine.

Note:  I use only Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Call me a snob, but I like to know what I’m eating.  In my not so humble opinion, American processed food is so adulterated as to be unrecognizable from the original.  I have to say, there may be some boutique American cheese makers who do a magnificent job, but in the main, the big bullies on the supermarket shelves are to be avoided.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Floating Bridge Inn

Do you like Brit pubs as much as I do?  Wait a sec…’like’ is too tame a word…crave!  The murmur of voices.  Glistening pint glasses of dark amber.  A row of hand pumps that tells you this is the place for traditional ale.  None of that fizzy stuff for a true pub lover such as you and I.  Did I speak too quickly?  What?  You’ve never been inside a Brit pub???  Good god, man!  Are you old enough to drink?  Have you completely missed the sublime pleasure of relaxing in a pub, pint in hand, and your troubles floating away like the evening mist?

You may have been listening to all those old saws about Brit beer being warm, flat, et-freaking-cetera.  Ah, so that’s the problem.  Probably think the food is bad, too.

Wander with me inside a riverside pub in Dartmouth, Devon, England.  The Floating Bridge Inn.  What’s in a name?  In this case, the name tells you the pub is parked nearly on the riverbank, right beside the Dartmouth-Kingswear Floating Dock, a vehicular cable ferry that crosses the River Dart.  Cars roll on and off all day. 

Let’s go inside the big white pub, which dates to the 19th Century, or on a sunny day we can sit outside and soak up some vitamin D-3.

The bar area has a lighter touch than most, with a nautical air.  They serve DoomBar, a local brew and one of my favorite Brit beers. But in this case, I didn’t come to The Floating Bridge for the beer.  Shocking, I know.  But, their kitchen shines like a star in the hungry night.  And if you don’t fancy a pint with your lunch or supper, they offer a superb wine selection.

Now to settle a few scores.  Brit beer is not served warm.  They keep the barrels in the cellar and hand pump it to your glass, meaning it’s usually about 50-60ºF.  The beer is top fermented in the keg, meaning there’s only natural fermentation and traditional ale is not fizzy.  Lots of flavor, much of which would be lost if the beer were to be served icy. Learn all the details at:

I often say English beer is a different beverage from American/German style, bottom fermented beer.  It’s almost like comparing tea and coffee. 

Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s let our eyes wander the menu and see what’s for supper.  Matter of fact, let’s make your mouth water:  Belly Pork with mushrooms, in a brandy cream.  Mushroom, walnut, and goat cheese tart on mixed leaves.  Plowman’s with English cheddar.

Pork Belly doesn’t sound appetizing?  Boy, are you wrong!  This is the most tender pork you’ve ever eaten, with a thin layer of crisped fat riding on top.  The sauce is out of this world and the dish comes with creamy potatoes.

Pork Belly

Never tasted anything to compare with the goat cheese tart!  Succulent flavors melded to lip-smacking goodness. The combination is so perfect that you find yourself mumbling about goat cheese and the soft, dark sauce that permeates the whole dish.

And the plowman’s platter:  Traditionally served at midday, but equally grand in the evening. Lots of subtleties on the tongue. Still, it has a texture similar to what you’re used to.  The flavor will make you tell yourself, “Just one more bite,” right after you’ve already told yourself, “Just one more bite.”  Note the dark, pickle relish, with its combination of sweet and tart.  Goes well with the cheese.

Notice that the English cheddar is not a bright yellow?  That’s because the Brits don’t add coloring to their naturally aged cheddar.  Has a mellow, more rounded, less industrial flavor than it’s U.S. cousin. 

No need to stop here.  Might as well have dessert.  Try the crusty bread pudding with a scoop of the famous Devon clotted cream.  Or perhaps some apple crumble, with vanilla cream sauce.  Either way, you can’t go wrong and either way, you’re going to need a long, postprandial perambulation.   Been waiting a long time to use those words, meaning an after supper walk!

Apple Crumble with Vanilla Cream

Bread Pudding and Clotted Cream

And, what a walk it will be in the fading sunlight, along the waterfront, with boats of every description floating on their idle reflections in the River Dart.

Visit The Floating Bridge Inn once and you’ll come back, for excellent beer in the bright sunshine, or a tidy supper in the lull of the evening.