Sunday, June 30, 2013

Warm and Sunny

It was warm and sunny in St Petersburg, and that's rare - remember the guide taking pictures of the weather?  And everyone was out sunbathing.  If you've never seen a flock of Russians on the muddy banks of the river in speedos and bikinis, consider yourself lucky.  But there were some more attractive options...
Clearly not Senior Party Members.

I got eaten by bugs taking this picture.  I hope they have lots of anti-itch cream.  Or maybe the vodka repels the mosquitos.

Under My Thumb

In St Petersburg our guides, Helen and Eugenia, talked about what life was like in the Soviet era.  Since we'd walked thru Russian history with them, from the triumphs of Peter The Great to the tragedies of Nicholas and Alexandria, we wanted to know the rest of the story.  And they seemed willing to talk about it.

"I don't remember the golden age of socialism, I wasn't alive in the 60's" Eugenia said.  Funny, I don't remember the golden age of socialism either.  The red menace, yes, but not that golden age thing.

"But I remember the Soviet era," she said.  "One kind of bread, one kind of car.  One school uniform, made of coarse wool, scratchy and smelly.  Everyone has something they still hate from the Soviet era - for me it's that school uniform.  For my mother it's the underwear.  Can you imagine only one kind of underwear?  For the whole country?" And she laughed.

Nope.  The mind boggles.  Our wonderful guide in Berlin told us Soviet underwear came in three sizes: small, medium, and Senior Party Member.  More about him later.

Helen, who was a bit more serious, said "We built the best guns, the best tanks, the best bombs.  But you could not buy a bicycle.  My grandfather, who was a war veteran (WWII) had priority, and so he got on the list to get a bicycle for me.  But it still took many years.  And it would take 20 years of being on a list to get a car.  A Lada, a not very good car.  But at least it was a car."  Funny, I thought we built the best guns, the best tanks, the best bombs.  I guess it depends on who's telling the story.

Remind me not to complain when Lunardi's is out of blueberries.  In December.

In Estonia it was a different story.  Külli, our tall beautiful guide with a face like the moon, said "We have deep, ice-free ports, which other countries covet, and we have been under occupation for many years.  There was Peter I (that's Peter the Great), then the Danes who sold us to the Germans - Estonians became slaves.  And during the communist occupation it was no joke - it was survival.  Many were sent to Siberia.  Farms were nationalized.  No one could own property.  There were long lines for bread, for shoes, for sugar...everything we made or grew was sent to Russia.  We had nothing.
"And there was no incentive to work.  Education was discouraged.  I was trained to to test milk, but I got paid the same whether I did two tests or twenty.  So guess how many tests I did?  None!"

And her bosses did none - they looked at the milk, then went back to eating yoghurt.

Estonians are very reserved, very private.  They don't strike up conversations with strangers.  They don't ask questions.  Privacy is a sacrament.  Makes me wonder how they reproduce.  So I ask about dating.

"Mostly we meet at work, or under the influence of alcohol.  Sometimes in the winter, which is very dark, I am the only one in my local market not drunk.  At 10 a.m."  Remind me not to drive in Estonia. Even in the morning.

Estonia had a singing revolution - thousands of young people took to the streets and sang banned songs (including Külli) and then their beloved President (his office was a bit of a joke under Soviet rule) got Yeltsin drunk and tricked him into signing Estonia's independence.  But not until 1994.  And they're still trying to sort out the confiscated properties and return them to their rightful owners.  We had lunch on a family farm, now returned to the family.  And friends.
It's complicated.  It's been twenty years, and they're still working on it.  But they're thorough, and fair, and they'll work it out. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Start The Revloution

When we visited The Hermitage it was mobbed -  on the busiest day last year they pre-sold 20,000 tickets.  This year it's busier.  We had early admission - along with about a zillion others.   This used to be a private art collection, started by Catherine The Great.  Actually it used to be several private art collections, all nationalized.  Watch out come the revolution!

Kathy said "That's why you buy diamonds, they're a good investment (until the DeBeers monopoly collapses) and they're portable!"

And her husband said "Yeah, but have you ever sold any of the diamonds I've bought you?"

"No, sweetie, I'm saving them for the revolution."

This may not be my most scintillating post but you've got to see this stuff.
We called this the yearbook hall.  Honor your generals, for it is they who keep you in power.
Wow your subjects with your wealth and power.  It worked for a while...
If you can't buy your favorite hallway at the Vatican, hire Italians and make your own.  And one day the Vatican will come calling because they need to restore and yours looks better than theirs.
Make sure your kids have a room of their own...
...and one can never have too many Matisses.
Especially extra-large Matisses.  This one would not fit in our house.  Too bad.  I think it would look great in the dining room.
And as we left there were some guys dismantling scaffolding (no one seemed to know why as the big party hadn't happened yet) and they were so sculptural:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Still Light at Midnight

This is what it looks like at midnight:
and this is what it looks like at 3 a.m.
Wonder why we're not sleeping?

In Helsinki Wally had reindeer, smoked and dried.  With wild currant jelly.
(don't let the kids read this part!)  He called it Santa's rejects.  Eeeewwwww!  I tried the jelly.  Not the reindeer.  I still believe in Santa.  And reindeer.  With presents and a sleigh, not smoked and dried.

They have the dolls-within-dolls in every shape and size:
They're even for sale on the ship.  I thought I'd hate the ship - too many people, too huge - this is our hallway:
and it's only one side of one of four floors.  But I'm liking it.  

The best things:  not waiting in traffic on the way to the airport, in the airport security lines and at the gate madhouse.  Not checking into and out of hotels, having to do the Walk in the Park because your room is next to the elevator and overlooks the dumpster.  Not having to pack and unpack.  Not having to be out by ten and not into your room until four.

The worst things:  lines getting thru customs (bet they're worse at the airport!) the crabby Russians at immigration - what do you think I'm gonna do, try to stay here?  Because of the weather? the food?  your charm?  One customs lady was not going to let me off the ship because my ticket didn't say I had a multi-day private tour.  Apparently you're not allowed to visit on your own.  And she wouldn't let the tour guide in to vouch for me.  Finally I pulled out an email with the three-day itinerary printed and she let me in.  I could have sent that email to myself! but it was written so official.

The weather has been fabulous.  So good, in fact, our tour guide in St Petersburg took a picture.  Of the weather.  

Seeing all the sights.
So are 6 other cruise ships full of people.  Wally estimates there are 10,000 in town today from the ships alone...and there is a World Economic Forum.  Plus Midsummer night.  And Red Sails, the annual graduation celebration/concert/drunken bash.

The Catherine Palace is spectacular:
and crowded.   All that glitters here is gold - real gold.  With the weather it needs re-doing about every ten minutes.
As we were walking thru our third incredibly ornate palace, Wally said, "If I were a peasant and saw how the Czars were living, I'd have revolted too!"  

Bob just smiled and said "It's good to be King."

Speaking of King...we have lunch in Putin's favorite restaurant.  
Bread spread with sour cream, borscht cold and hot.  Beef Stroganoff (and later we drive past the Stroganoff Palace), chicken Kiev (nope, we don't drive past that.  Too far.)  Later we have Herring In A Fur Coat.  Not such a big hit.

Everyone is talking about Putin's divorce, his gymnast lover and their two sons.  And the fact that for years just gossip could get you sent to Siberia.  Now it's okay - to a point.  We ask about the jailed Oligarchs and are told "Officially, tax evasion.  Unofficially, they pissed Putin off."  There is a line you don't cross - they crossed it.   They shrug.  They're not in jail.

The Palace at Peterhof is immense:
The gardens are ginormous, and packed with Russians enjoying the rare sunshine.  One of these little girls is soaked:
...because Peter had a wicked sense of humor.  He had lots of trick fountains, and he'd say to his guests "You go on ahead, I have an important matter fo state to attend to.'" Then when they were up the avenue, he'd hit the pedal on the trick fountain and soak them.   Ha ha.  

These boys are not getting out unscathed...
There are serious fountains too - this one represents Russia's victory over Sweden.  Sweden is the fish.  
 More tomorrow, we are about to sail.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

There Is No Internet At Sea.

And not much on board ship.  Slooooow doesn’t begin to cover it.  But as most of the people on the ship are about a hundred years old I doubt it’s a problem.  For them.  So I will try to catch you up:

Getting Here

“Bad news” Wally said the day before our vacation was to start.  “On the leg from New York to Berlin they give our seats away 90 minutes before the flight leaves.  So it’s conceivable that we won’t have any seats, and there’s no flight to Berlin until the next day.  Since we still need to get to Copenhagen, and since the ship leaves the day after we arrive, we’re screwed.”

“Great news” I said.  “So let’s go tonight.  We can grab a hotel near the airport in NY and get half a night’s sleep...”

Half an hour after I got home we were on the way to the airport.   At warp speed.  We made all the flights - barely.  

Maybe we do live a charmed life...  

Disneyland With Beer

It stays light in Copenhagen well past eleven.  We were enchanted with the evening, strolling through Tivoli Gardens, listening to the Danish Beyonce, riding all the scary rides (you should see the bruise on my arm from the roller coaster.  Safety tip: never take the outside seat.)

Try the Star Flyer - it’s like a swing set in the round.  At 500 feet up.  The guy behind us chickened out. Not us - Whee!!!

Wally downloaded my photos to his ipad and erased them, so you'll have to check with him for a really cool photo.

There are little white kiosks sprinkled thru Tivoil, about the size and shape of a fridge.  There’s an indentation about five feet up, it looks a bit like the water-thru-the-door thingie at home.  But these are beer kiosks!  No ID required - if you can reach the indentation you get your cup filled.  What a country!

Off To A Good Start

There is this delicious Danish yoghurt-ish stuff called tykmaelk.  We have it with organic, local, biodynamic, blessed-by-the-reindeer granola.  Yum.  Remind me to put pumpkin seeds in my granola.  I am addicted.  

Danes are the happiest people on earth thanks to three things: Political freedom, lack of corruption, and they don’t believe in decaf.  

We walk the pedestrian streets:
And check out the sights.  You can’t get near the mermaid except by sea:
Cupcakes are king here too:
We go to Nyehavn to take a canal tour.  One company has an open boat, nearly empty as it has been pouring off and on.  We go to the company with a covered boat: full.  We buy tickets for the next boat, and hot dogs:
And when the next boat arrives, the one we have tickets for is open.  And the one we don't have tickets for, the one that had the open boat before, has a lovely covered boat.  We dash for the covered boat.  Bob and Nancy take their chances in the open boat and come back looking like blue condoms - they bought ponchos on board - for the same price as a ticket on the covered boat.  

From the boat we see beautiful buildings with twisty towers:
Some you can even walk up:
More Copenhagen later, this glacial internet is making me crazy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Overheard On The Street

Walking by the fish department at Lunardi's today, I overheard a woman asking a man, "Oh, I've always wondered about that.  How do you cook it?"  No idea what the food was, if it was fish or fowl.

And he replied "I don't.  I feed it to my turtle."

On so many levels.  Turtle?  Exactly how big is your turtle?  And feed it to him?  Is he a snapper?  a gentle soul?  How long have you had him, how old (the turtle not the man), is he your first?

I envision a painted-shell turtle from a childhood birthday now the size of an ottoman, the paint long ago worn off,  lumbering around this man's apartment, he having given up his dreams of marriage and children for the care and feeding - and companionship - of the turtle.  And perhaps he considers it a fair trade...I know a fair number of women, some married, who could not hold their own against a turtle.  Perhaps not even during its hibernation.

I love Leah Garchik, love the Public Eavesdropping shaded box in the middle of her column.  My current favorite, yellowing and taped to the kitchen wall:  "My parents didn't really raise me with manners.  They didn't want to stifle me as a person."

A little more stifling, please God.

From a recent Leah Garchik column:

Public Eavesdropping

"She's really smart, she just can't handle nonstructured situations. Like life."
Man to woman, overheard at Southpaw BBQ on Mission by Clint Wilder

What's the funniest thing you've overheard lately?

Friday, June 7, 2013


Have you ever felt this way?
It's Friday.  In your life.  No one's going to do it for you, you're in charge.  Enough with the emails, get yourself down to your local independent bookstore (like Rakestraw) and buy yourself something.

And a final thought for those of you who are saying "I don't have time, I don't read fiction, I don't have time to read anything"...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Marriage Made In Heaven

I’ve been making jam since Neva Westfall taught us how in 7th grade Home Economics class (another time and place, dear).  The boys took wood shop and I’m pretty sure they’re not still wood-shopping their little hearts out.  At least for the sake of their home decor, I hope not.

But I still make jam and jelly - cranberry and pomegranate jellies in the winter, peach jam with a hint of nutmeg at the height of summer.  Blood orange marmalade from the oranges we grow  - organic, of course.  (See my post on marmalade for the recipe.  And the how-to.)  

But I have never had the reaction to anything I make that I get to the strawberry rhubarb jam.  

“Best Thing I’ve Ever Put In My Mouth” a dear friend says.  “Awesome!” says Liberty, my youngest cooking pal.   I’ve had calls from friends, from 8 to 88, asking if there is any left, if they can have just one more jar.  

Fat red strawberries, sweet with a hint of tartness to keep them from being sappy, and thick red stalks of rhubarb have been at Lunardi’s (and in the farmer’s markets) for a few weeks, but they’re almost over.  And while you can find strawberries (of uncertain quality) later in the season and in the freezer all year, rhubarb is leaving.  You can’t make this jam without it, and I was disappointed with the quality of jam made with the rhubarb I chopped and froze last year.  Thought I could outfox mother nature.  Not.

I dare you not to eat it with a spoon.   Double dare.

So before Strawberry and Rhubarb seasons are over (and isn’t it nice the seasons coincide?) I am making enough strawberry rhubarb jam to have on my toast, and to share.  And just because I think it would be great over ice cream, but the jam sets up hard and fast, I am making a strawberry rhubarb compote.  Inspired by David Lebovitz’s blog.  Check it out.  His recipe is way more complicated, I am in love with mine.

It’s basically jam without the pectin, and since I’m not worrying about it setting I cut back on the sugar - part of rhubarb’s charm is its tartness.  I’m thinking over home-made vanilla ice cream, or a spoonful stirred into a  tall glass of soda water on a hot summer day, sipped by the pool (or in the pool if it’s really hot).

So here are the two recipes:

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

You will need half-pint canning jars, a water-bath canner and a canning rack (or a towel on the bottom of the pot, but that's complicated) for this recipe.  Jar tongs and long silicone potholder/gloves help too.  Check out the photos on my marmalade post.  Oh, and a heavy-bottomed pot to cook the jam.

4 cups diced rhubarb - just the red part, not the leafy bits
4 cups ripe strawberries, hulled (that means cut off the top leafy bit)
4 cups sugar, divided
1 box Sure-Jell No Sugar Needed Pectin (pink box)
1/2 teaspoon butter - not margarine.  Throw that stuff away.

Before you start, wash and sterilize (I run them thru the dishwasher) 8 or 9 half pint jars with two part lids - canning jars.  Separate the lids and rings, cover the lids with boiling water.  Set the rings aside.  And put your water-bath canner on to heat.  I start with the hottest tap water I can get, you're not cooking pasta, you're not eating the water, so who cares?   And it cuts down on the time it takes to come to a boil.  
I start the canner before I start chopping fruit.  Don't start cooking the jam until the water in the canner is boiling!!!  It takes a lot longer than you think, and you don't want the jam to cool or it won't process properly.  Plus you could end up with one huge congealed mass of strawberry rhubarb stuck in the pot.  Not pretty.
Chop the rhubarb, hull the strawberries (see the little leafy tops? Cut them off and throw them in the compost.)

In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the sugar into the pectin.  Put this and the strawberries and rhubarb into a big heavy pot (Dutch oven sized, this will boil up), mix in the pectin and crush the strawberries a bit with a potato masher.

Add the little bit of butter - this will help keep the jam from foaming.  With apologies to Ferran Adria of El Bulli, I'm looking for jam, not molecular gastronomy.  
Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil - a boil that can't be stirred down.  Pour in the remaining sugar, bring back to a rolling boil and boil for Exactly One Minute.  No more, no less.
Immediately ladle into hot clean dry jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space.   Wipe the tops and threads of the jars, top with lids, screw on the rings and hand-tighten. Firmly.  

Put jars in a canning rack and lower into water bath.  Process for 10 minutes.

Remove jars, place on a towel (if you put them on granite or marble they may crack). and let cool.  The lids should suck down with a ping!  Store any jars that don't seal (there won't be any) in the fridge and use them first.
Eat.  Share.  Make more.
Makes about 8 half pint jars

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

4 cups diced rhubarb - just the red part, not the leafy bits
4 cups ripe strawberries, hulled (that means cut off the top leafy bit)
3 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon butter - not margarine.  Throw that stuff away.

Prepare jars and water bath as above.  

Put strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot.  Bring to a rolling boil, boil for about 5 minutes or until slightly thickened but still quite runny (it gets thicker as it cools) and remove from heat.

Fill jars and water-bath as above.

Makes about 8 half-pint jars.