World in Pictures: 2013 Through the Lens

2013 started with a bang. Surrounded by our loved ones in Nottingham at our friend’s cocktail bar, we enjoyed free-flowing spirits and a help-yourself beer fridge (which is where Matty’s head spent most the night). With a few hours kip I found myself at work covering the New Year’s Day news (also know as murders). My head was banging.

And now we intend to see the year out with a bang… quite literally, as we watch the fireworks over the river from a Ministry of Sound party in our new ‘home’ of Saigon, in Vietnam.

It’s certainly been one of the more exciting years in my young 30 years of life so far. In our mammoth overland journey from the UK to Vietnam we visited 17 countries, took dozens of trains, taxis and buses, and probably ate hundreds of pieces of unidentifiable meat.

So as a fitting tribute to one of the memorable years yet, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures from 2013.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

And so our journey began... Like these fellas our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

And so our journey began… Like these fellas, our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

One of my fondest memories to this day was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

One of my fondest memories was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

.... And fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

…. And many fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got 'stuck at sea'). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got ‘stuck at sea’). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread - I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread – I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Inside one of the magnificent  mosques of Uzbekistan.

Inside one of the magnificent mosques of Uzbekistan.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile...

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile…

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

In China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi'an, China.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi’an, China.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway. Ninh Binh was a personal highlight for me.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular... taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular… taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

More lovely people.... And more lovely people.

More lovely people…. And more lovely people.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

But none of it would have been quite so special if it wasn't for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that's what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

But none of it would have been quite so magical if it wasn’t for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that’s what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

Food and Drink in Central Asia

I’ve delayed writing this post for some weeks… in the hope that things would improve.

As previously mentioned on here, I have been known to travel places purely based on their cuisine – namely India and Thailand – which saw me leave south east asia a stone heavier after three months of scoffing my way across the region.

But there is no chance of that happening here. Well actually that’s a lie, I’m approaching 30, there’s every chance I will put on a stone – but I just won’t have had quite as much fun doing it this time round.

The truth of the matter is Central Asian food just isn’t that great. It’s full of dead-animal-flavoured-meat and huge chunks of fat that appear in all manner of substances. And it pains me to write this because I wanted to love the food here – I wanted this trip to be another worldwide eating odyssey.

Take this short story, for example:

We were staying at a beautiful family homestay in the Nurata mountains, Uzbekistan. The place was a delight, we spent our mornings ambling across the surrounding mountains and our afternoons drinking tea on a tepchan sitting over a gurgling stream and playing with the lambs that roamed the gardens.

image

image

And then suddenly one evening, as the sun was sinking in the sky, we heard the desperate, dying bleats of a sheep, quickly followed by one of the girls carrying its head by its ears down to the stream where we were sitting, leaving a trail of blood and guts as she walked. She meticulously pulled all the brains out, washing them thoroughly in the running water before returning to the house with the sheep’s skull tucked under her left arm, and carrying the brains in a bowl.

That night much ceremony was made over dinner. Following the usual meat broth of potatoes, carrots and mutton, we were told to wait for a ‘special’ dish that was still being prepared. There was a wedding at the house the next day and this dish seemed to create quite a buzz among the family, as if it marked the beginning of celebrations.

About two hours later, after we were quite full and almost ready for bed ourselves, it finally made its appearance. A huge plate of what looked like spaghetti bolognaise was placed in front of us, and while trying to erase the sound of the sheep’s dying bleat from my ears and quickly checking the lamb I’d been playing with was still alive, I politely tucked in.

It tasted of dead animals. The strong stench of cooked flesh reached my nostrils before the fork got anywhere near my mouth. I stopped breathing through my nose and bravely gulped it down. Grainy pieces of unidentifiable meat ground in my teeth before I had the sense to swallow without chewing. I tried to eat some of the wet, limp pasta instead but that too had absorbed the taste of death, like a Chameleon that had spent too long in a graveyard.

The Mongoose took one for the team and ate more than the rest of us could bring ourselves to look at. For this dish, beshbarmak, is a real honour and it would have been a disgrace to leave it untouched. It took us all a few days to eat meat without recounting the horrors of that night.
This is, of course, an extreme. Not every dish has been quite so bad. Some have even been good.

So, in case you are planning a trip to this neck of the woods and are wondering what is in store for you, or are just curious and want to feel smug about your dinner of bangers and mash tonight, here is my comprehensive guide to Central Asian food and drink:

Kebabs

The staple food here is kebab. And I have to say that most kebabs have been very, very good. Matty has even compared them to that of Victoria Kebabs on Mansfield Road, Nottingham, where he would end most nights back home in a sweaty-meat-infused state with chilli sauce dribbling down his chin. High praise indeed.

20130709-114949.jpg

First up are the shashlyk kebabs – minced meat moulded on sticks almost like skinny hamburgers. They are peppered with onions and spices, often juicy, rich in flavour and – in my opinion – the safest bet when it comes to kebabs.

20130709-115024.jpg

I think having my hair tucked into my sunglasses really offsets the meat in this snap.

And then there are the shisha kebabs – chargrilled chunks of succulent meat, served hot off the barbecue (word of warning – these often come layered with chunks of fat between the pieces of meat.)

20130709-115128.jpg

(And in other news Matty has a beard!)

And finally there are the donar kebabs (shudder). But actually even these filthy-abnormal looking lumps of meat, that turn vertically before hot grills, are good here. I know, I never thought I’d say it.

So in short, if you like kebabs, this is the region for you. The kebabs here are great and cheap, you can easily ‘dine out’ on kebabs, salad and bread for about £1.50.

Samsa
Big in Turkmenistan, these pastry parcels of minced meat and fried onions are surprisingly tasty. Almost like a superior Cornish Pasty, the pastry is thin and crispy and the filling is rich in flavour. Wash down four or five of these with a couple of bottles of the local brew and dinner’s sorted.

Mantu
Like giant pasta parcels of minced meat and onions, these vary from the very, very bad to the very, very good. In Georgia they go by the name of Khinkali – the dumpling is light, oozing with rich juices and good meat. In Turkmenistan we found the dumplings were thick and rubbery and the meat was littered with small pieces of bone and fat. It’s a gamble… And one I can’t always be bothered to take.

Plov
The national dish of Uzbekistan is a tasty, if not heart-stopping, combination of deep fried rice and meat that on reflection, could easily be responsible for putting on an extra stone on this trip. It varies from region to region, but tends to include rice, carrots and either lamb or beef.

image

When we saw it being made, the meat and carrots were deep fried in a huge vat of oil. The rice was boiled separately before being added to the meat pan to soak up the oil. The dish will leave the plate ringed in a rich, orange oil and is not for the calorie counter, but it is bloody good and surprisingly moreish.

Dolma
This dish of minced meat stuffed in peppers is a firm favourite for me. Often piled into skinny green peppers, the meat is similar to that found in the Samsa but it’s nice to have a vegetable accompaniment for a change.

Fruits and Salads
If you are a vegetarian – be warned, meat comes with everything. Lumps of beef have been found swimming in my mushroom soup and even my puréed lentil soup, nothing is safe.

image
Most soups look like this.

On the other hand Central Asia is blessed with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables so if you’re happy to head to the bazaar and put together your own lunch or dinner, you’ll be spoilt for choice. The tomatoes are giant and juicy, the cucumbers fresh and crunchy and the melons are so good it would be wrong to not get a daily fix. The apricots and plums are often so succulent you feel like you need to eat them over a sink or a bowl.

20130709-123523.jpg

Breakfast… Tajik bazaar style.

Salads of tomatoes and cucumbers often accompany many of the dishes I’ve mentioned here – oh, and most things are also scattered with a generous sprinkling of dill, for better or worse.

20130709-115236.jpg

Snacks

Street side snacks of deep fried meat or potato pies, or even just deep fried bread are readily available but often disappointing, lacking in much flavour other than that of the old oil they have been cooked in.

Alternatively you can pick yourself up some ‘dried yoghurt balls’, which taste like an unsuccessful experiment of leaving a pint of milk out over the summer months. For a more vivid, and horrifying, description of this delicacy please see Matty’s blog post here.

image

Expect lots of individually wrapped sweets to be served with tea at all times. Disturbingly, some say ‘Shrimp’ on them but fret not, they are not remotely fishy tasting.

image

However, the snack to satisfy all of the greatest snacking desires, will surely be that of the fresh bread and biscuits that are readily available across the region. Both justified previous entries in their own right, so click on the links for more details.

Drink in Central Asia
Whether you’re after a can of Coke, a bottle of beer, or a slug of vodka you will never have far to look. If it’s a Diet Coke or water that you fancy, you may have to search a little harder.

Entire fridges of Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite are testament to the wide, gold-toothed grins of Central Asia, while apparently anything with the word ‘diet’ in its title seems to be unmarketable here. I am trying to come to terms with my Diet Coke addiction as I type.

As for alcohol in Central Asia, it is surprisingly plentiful. Despite the large Muslim population, vodka is drunk like water and beer consumed with a robust, healthy attitude. Wine on the other hand should be avoided. After a determined effort to get to know Uzbek wine, I can only urge you to stay away.

The beer is often weak (between 3% – 4%) but after much experimentation, this Uzbek bottle gets the prize for the Best Beer in Central Asia. A picture that the Mongoose has carried around on his phone for the last three weeks, flashing it to every waiter that passes our table.

image

I feel the need to add a slight disclaimer, in that this has been written after spending about six weeks in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I still have Kyrgzstan and Kazakhstan to see – and much more of Tajikistan yet. So perhaps I will discover a culinary delight that will leave my mouth watering and enthusing simultaneously. And trust me, you will be the first to know about it if so.

But in the meantime, I would like to conclude that Central Asian food, while not all bad, is definitely not worth putting on a stone for.

How to Gatecrash a Traditional Uzbekistan Wedding

It was the day after I fell over while climbing down a 2,300 metre peak, landing on my knees in such a way that took my breath away, and the morning before I fell into a river while trying to jump between large rocks in the water. Really, it is a wonder that my feet keep me upright at all.

But anyhow, it was on this morning between calamities, after eating a breakfast of mammoth proportions, that I found myself at an Uzbek wedding in the village of Langar, near Shakribsabz. We had spent the previous night with a family in the mountainous region and that morning our host announced that we would call in at a local wedding before a short trek through the canyon that connects Langar with the next village.

I looked dubiously down at my formerly black, now mud stained, Northface trousers. As mentioned, I had not fallen particularly gracefully and the impact had not been kind on either my knees – or my trousers, which now sported a childlike hole in the right knee.

“Oh,” I said. “Do you have a needle and thread?”

Ten minutes later, with the trousers suitably sponge cleaned and darned, I put on my hiking boots and looked at my greasy, suntan-creamed face in the mirror. I was ready for the wedding.

We jumped into a cramped minibus, where we sat on top of a few other wedding guests, and overtook a few donkeys before pulling over on the side of the road. From there we followed the sound of loud music over a little stream and up to a house where the wedding party was in full swing.

As we walked up the small driveway to the house, which had dozens of tables and chairs set outside, a man with an oversized camcorder filmed our dishevelled entrance. We were warmly greeted and shown to a table, which was lined with food and vodka within minutes. It was 10am.

The Uzbeks are some of the friendliest people I’ve met on this trip. When they say hello (Salam), they do so holding one hand to their heart, nodding earnestly and flashing entire gums full of gold teeth as they do so. Their hospitality knows no bounds and this wedding was no exception.

Tumbler glasses were soon filled with vodka and huge dishes of Plov, their national dish of fried rice and carrots, with slow cooked, tender chunks of beef or lamb, were placed in front of us. We toasted, we drank, we grimaced. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

20130705-150836.jpg

20130705-150908.jpg

We politely but enthusiastically nibbled away at the juicy, fried dish in front of us, hoping our big grins made up for the small mouthfuls, and wishing we had not all gone for a second egg at breakfast.

20130705-150939.jpg

Then, as we were tucking into our fourth vodka of the morning, Matty’s smile froze. We heard the words “Anglia” and “Germanie” bellowed out over the PA system that seemed intent on keeping the whole village up to date with the latest party developments.

“They are talking about us,” he whispered.

And sure enough the MC of the party, clutching his microphone and prompt cards, made his way over to our table where he talked in an increasingly excited and frenzied manner, giving a grand introduction that would have even done justice to the final Beatles concert.

And then somebody pulled me up, and to the sound of clapping and cheering, the microphone was put in my hand.

“Salam my friends,” I started. Or something like that. More cheers and laughter. I cleared my throat and went on to say my piece, thanking our hosts for the food and hospitality. Or at least I think that’s what I said. Truth be told, it was all a bit of a blur as I tried to ignore the delayed echo on the microphone as my words carried across the village.

20130705-151012.jpg

Next up was Matty, he sent his best wishes to the young couple and wished them a life happiness. Darn, I thought, I’d forgotten about them.

20130705-151220.jpg

And then it was over to Chris, our third travelling companion for these few days, who offered them some words of wisdom in German and was also received with great applause. Sadly the Mongoose was not there to offer them his Irish sentiments as he has nipped over to Afghanistan for a few days. We on the other hand have been denied visas so it was our fate to now take to the dance floor.

Matty tried to refuse initially, a tactic he so easily gets away with at English weddings, but the Uzbeks are as persuasive as they are hospitable and he found he was the first to be dragged to the dance floor. Then one of the women made eye contact with me and I found myself up besides him.

The Turkish and Middle Eastern sounding music bellowed out once more, as deafening as in an Uzbkek taxi, and we found ourselves moving our arms and bodies in unusual ways as we attempted to copy those around us.

20130705-151326.jpg

20130705-151911.jpg

20130705-152006.jpg

20130705-152726.jpg

Notes of 1,000 Uzbek Sommes were thrust into my hands and into the headscarves of other women around me, which Matty has since likened to a really bad strip dance, but left me thoroughly confused while I danced like an unco-ordinated extra in Arabian Nights. And then a baby was thrust into my arms and I really wasn’t sure what to do with that.

20130705-152050.jpg

No fewer than four or five songs later we were allowed to excuse our sweaty selves and retired to a shady spot under some trees with the old men, who had been wise enough to retain their positions throughout the dancing.

20130705-152340.jpg

20130705-152422.jpg

More vodka was thrust upon us. But despite all the food, merriment, booze and dancing I had that nagging feeling that something was amiss.

“The bride and groom,” I suddenly cried. “Where is the bride?”
Inside, I was told. The bride has to stay inside the house today.

“But she’s missing her own party,” I exclaimed somewhat incredulously. Yes, yes, our guide agreed, but she is with all the unmarried girls in the house.

I asked if I could see her and was permitted to do so.

I was led inside a cool, dark room at the far end of the house and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I spied a small girl get up from the back of the room. I went over to her and earnestly congratulated her in English with a few Uzbek ‘thank-yous’ thrown in. She must have been no older than 17 and incredibly sweet.

20130705-152141.jpg
She is, of course, the one on the left.

20130705-152253.jpg

The wedding was actually yesterday, I was told. This was the party for the village and she would not get her ring until the end of Ramadan, which begins in about a week. I couldn’t help but hope she would get more out of the marriage than the wedding party, which sounded like it was still in full swing outside.

As we were seemingly the only guests with a camera, she posed for pictures with her family, which I have promised to send on. And then I was spat back out into the party, where Matty and Chris were holding court with the vodka.

And it was only then that we set off on our canyon trek. And that is why I fell in the river.

20130705-152455.jpg

Armenian Brandy: Visiting Ararat Yerevan Brandy Company

Getting sick while travelling is always a worry. There’s nothing worse than sweating out stomach cramps in a hot, packed dorm room and running to the shared bathroom to find not only is it engaged but two other bedraggled travellers are already waiting to go in. Matty is only too aware of this.

So we have, of course, come away with a fully equipped medical kit… stuff to block, unblock and everything in between. However, we all know prevention is better than cure and fortunately our good friends Gemma and Marco were kind enough to enlighten us before we set off.

“Brandy,” said Marco, looking quite proud of himself while Gemma nodded in agreement.

Lowering his voice, as if in fear that others would hear his trade secret, he added: “We took a bottle of the stuff to Morocco and started every day with a shot of brandy.”

“And,” Gemma concluded, “We never got ill. Not once.”

I saw the pain in Matty’s eyes as he remembered his own Moroccan experience, which largely involved being curled up in a ball in Essouaira, cursing chefs up and down the country for poisoning him. I could hear his mind ticking away, saying: “That could have been prevented by drinking brandy? It could have all been different if I had begun every day with a slug of fine cognac?” He had, in his eyes no doubt, been knifed by a double edged sword.

And so, it was somewhat inevitable that when packing his medical kit for this trip, he did what every good nurse would do and made a mental note to add some brandy as soon as he crossed the border into Armenia, home of Winston Chirchill’s favourite tipple.

“If it’s good enough for Churchill it’s good enough for me,” were pretty much his first words as our sleeper train from Tbilisi, Georgia pulled into Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at 7am.

We were tired, hungry and grouchy after a sleepless night on a particularly loud and unusually chilly train. We spent that morning trying, to no avail, to get Turkmenistan visas as we were warned that relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are so bad that Azeri border officers may prevent us from crossing the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, purely because we picked up the visas in Armenia. There is that little love.

So, it was in these particularly (rare) low spirits, that we began our hunt for brandy. Specifically for the Ararat Yerevan Brandy Company, which offers tours and taster sessions for a mere £7. After all, Matty had been in the country by now for a good eight hours and was growing increasingly concerned about his medical supplies.

Eventually, after much taxi negotiating in pidgeon Russian, we arrived. Perched on a hill like a palace we were buzzed through the large, wrought iron gates of Ararat’s Yerevan headquarters and immediately bowed over by the sweet, unmistakable aroma of brandy.

Within seconds of inhaling this new, much improved oxygen supply the boys looked better rested.

“It is the angel’s share”, our guide told us, which she added was responsible for both keeping the angels on side and keeping the workers so happy.

20130524-193042.jpg

The tour began. We passed barrels of brandy, learnt all about distillation and the history of Ararat. But it was one story in particular that resonated with me.

It was 1945, Europe was on the verge of peace and Stalin was doing his best to woo Churchill at the Yalta conference, where important post-war decisions were being made. Knowing the British Prime Minister’s soft spot for the fine things in life, he handed him a glass of Ararat brandy (and probably a fat cigar but that’s not been documented as far as I’m aware). After glugging the rich honey-coloured liquor, Churchill smacked his lips and immediately ordered 400 bottles to be delivered… per year, for the rest of his life.

20130524-193217.jpg

However, soon after (while quaffing bottle 567 or something) Churchill declared that something was amiss. So he did what any great British man would do if left unsatisfied by an expensive glass of brandy, and he wrote to the Russian dictator himself. It probably went something like: “Dear Stalin, your brandy’s off. Fix it or I will get all of Britain drinking the French stuff. Yours, parched, WC.”

Somewhat alarmed, Stalin immediately investigated the situation to learn that he (or his minions) had only sent the head technologist of Ararat’s brandy production into political exile in Siberia. An easy mistake for a man like himself to make I suppose. So within days of this discovery, Margar Sedrakyan was brought back to Armenia and reinstated in his role as chief brandy expert, Churchill was happy and all was well in the world.

So let’s have a quick recap – brandy prevents travellers diarrhoea, improves mentality after sleeper trains and saved poor Margar from possible death in exile. But there are higher hopes for the healing powers of Armenian brandy yet.

This little country, with huge spirit (pardon the pun), is nestled between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But tragically it’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed after a dispute over an area of land known as Nagorno-Karabakh, which has an ethnically Armenian population and has been controlled by Armenia following a bloody war in the early 1990s, despite it legally being within Azerbaijan’s borders. Thousands of people have been displaced because of the conflict, soldiers and even some civilians are still killed around the border, and locals seem to believe that peace is an impossibility.

Nevertheless, it feels appropriate that at Ararat’s HQ, taking pride of place in the distillation and fermentation room, sits the “peace barrel”, filled with fine cognac and ready to be cracked open as soon as a solution is reached.

20130524-193329.jpg

Right now it is hard to imagine the Azeri and Armenian prime ministers clinking glasses before enjoying the first sips from that barrel, but given its track record, I can hardly think of a more appropriate drink to seal the deal.

20130526-112053.jpg

So as we held up our glasses, swilling the bronzed 10 year-old liquid in the light, we made a toast… To the peace barrel being opened, and sooner rather than later.

20130526-112124.jpg

And… long live the healing powers of brandy.

20130526-112201.jpg

Travel Tips

Ararat Brandy Company is located on the edge of the city centre, over the Hrazdan River on Admiral Isakov Poghota.

Tours must be booked in advance, and cost 4,500 dram (about £8). The guide speaks excellent English and the tour is full of interesting anecdotes and stories.

It lasts about 75 minutes including time to sample two types of brandy – we tried the three year and 10 year old varieties. Both of which were delicious.

Serving suggesting for Ararat brandy – drink with small pieces of dark chocolate or dried peaches. Delicious.

The Weird and Wonderful things about Georgia

With its fabulous food, stunning scenery and charming ways, Georgia is without a doubt a great place to visit. It’s cheap, very cheap, and – just to top it all off – it has some weird and wonderful oddities, that I thought only right to share.

1) Wine: The Georgians make plenty of their own vino… A lot of it tends to be sweet (even the red wine) but perhaps more surprising than that, is the ingenious lengths they go to when bottling the stuff. It is commonly found in huge vats resembling vegetable oil and in strange little goblin bodies. The Mongoose was determined to drink all the goblins under the table.

20130512-191933.jpg

2) Cheese: Any country where the ‘weird and wonderful’ list begins with cheese and wine is a wonderful one in my book. But nevertheless, the Georgians deserve a special mention here for the sheer amount of cheese they eat. This dish was served, bubbling and sizzling in its deep pan and as it was placed on the table our waitress declared it loudly and proudly: ‘Cheeeeeeeese!’

20130512-191817.jpg

Huge quantities of cheese are seved with almost everything… Their national staple is Khachapuri, which is basically a cheese pie in a deep crust, served with half a block of butter and two fried eggs on top. I kid you not.

image

3) COWS!!! Yes, this list gets better, I hear you cry. Georgia literally has hundreds of cows – and sheep – roaming its streets, causing traffic to stop. They are beautiful and should be worshipped.

image

4) Hygiene: Georgia gets a special mention for its cleaning products sounding downright dirty. Especially its barf cleaner.

20130512-191437.jpg

5) Loo roll: Confession – on my first day in Georgia I went without using any toilet paper at all as I just couldn’t find any in our hostel bathroom. It later transpired that this bandage-like object is actually the bog roll. Yes, it’s a tad scratchy.

20130512-191512.jpg

6) Statues: Georgia has weird and wonderful statues all over the place. They are not shy of a bit of gold and elaborate statues of the golden fleece and whatnot often look fairly incongruous to their surroundings, just like the one at the top of this post which was taken in the coastal town of Batumi. Here’s a few more:

image

image

image

7) Ferris wheels: From the highest point in the crumbling, old town of Tbilisi to the sea level of Batumi, it costs less than a £1 to ride the Georgian ferris wheels which, we concluded, is a delightful way of seeing the surroundings.

image

8) Toasting: Georgian toasts are incredibly long and will leave you holding your glass in the air for long enough to wonder if you should put it down again. But at the same time they are often wonderfully thoughtful and poignant. The traditional feast is called a Supra, and each Supra will have a Tamada, a toastmaker, who will lead the toasts throughout the meal. It starts with a toast to God and peace and then moves onto everything from plans and dreams to absent friends. Oh, and did I mention that you have to down your drink at every toast? One person is always given the role of ‘merrykeeper’ whose job it is to keep everybody’s glasses full at all times. I think it was appropriate to scream: ‘Keep me merry!’ at him throughout the evening.

20130524-100903.jpg

Georgian Wine: The Best, the Worst and the Rest

There aren’t many places in the world where you walk into an off-license to buy wine and walk out with a belly full of moonshine. But that’s Georgia for you.

We learnt of the country’s booze loving ways before we even set foot on Georgian soil. A lovely French jewellery artist, who we met in Turkey, gave us ample warning. Cooing about monasteries and the rolling countryside, she raved about Georgia – but in a more cautious tone, added: “They are big drinkers, they often put pressure on you to drink when you don’t want to.”

Matty’s eyes lit up. The Mongoose rubbed his hands in anticipation, and I was delighted to learn that the Georgians are also big wine makers. On a trip where I thought we may have said goodbye to decent vino after leaving Paris, I was keen to sample as many large glasses of rich, red stuff as possible before begrudgingly moving onto the gurn-inducing vodka that no doubt awaits us in the ‘stans.

So it was perhaps fitting that the first thing purchased after crossing the border from Turkey by foot, was a bottle of wine. We had to break into a 100 Lari note to get a few pennies for the marshrutka into Batumi and this seemed like the most appropriate way to do it:

image

But, I won’t lie, it did not taste half as good as it looks. In fact, it tasted little better than an elaborately bottled glass of Ribena. Sweet and sickly, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone had picked it up in the fruit juice section before swapping it for a bottle of the stronger stuff in the wine aisle, leaving it for a hapless tourist to pick up minutes later.

The Mongoose made dark mutterings about finding the wine maker and dragging him out of bed in the middle of the night, to ensure others never again experience what we went through. And Matty wrote a rather twisted blog about its sinister ways.

Georgian wine, it transpires, is often sweet. Or dry. And a bit like girl with the curl, when it’s sweet, it’s very, very sweet and when it’s dry, it’s very, very dry.

It marked the beginning of what was to become a long journey to find the perfect Georgian wine. Our vino odyssey took us into supermarkets where we were watched like hawks as we cluelessly stared at bottles of funny-lettered wine, into basement bars where it was served out of large plastic bottles resembling sunflower oil, and into cosy little restaurants where the unidentifiable juices flowed from battered terracotta jugs.

image

image

But somehow, somewhere along the way, we concluded that we quite liked Saperavi. This robust, red grape has bags of potential and was by far, the tastiest red wine we sampled in Georgia.

Produced by dozens of wine makers all over the country (but mainly in the Kakheti region), it was occasionally a tad too dry, tasting as if it had been stripped of all flavour, and other times still a little too sweet, but by and large we found it was, in the words of Goldilocks, just right.

image

Many Saperavis remind me of the Merlot grape, a ruby red with subtle fruit flavours but plenty of tannin. And I guess like any grape, you get the good, the bad and the downright ugly depending on how much cash you’re willing to flash. As wine-loving budget-backpackers we found one of the best buys was the Marani brand of Saparevi, which ranged in price from 9 Lari (£4.50) to 14 Lari (£6.50) depending on the retailer.

image

But it is the purchasing of the wine that really makes Georgia stand out from its continental cousins. A far cry from the safe, reliable Thresher wine stores that once stood proud on every British high street (before the recession even managed to have a stab at wine), the Georgian off-licenses are as much as a place to drink as they are to purchase drink.

The centrepiece of every store is a table laden with half-empty bottles of wine and often a couple of skimpily clad ladies offering tasters to the boys. As we walked into our ‘local’ for 48 hours in Tbilisi, the Mongoose gave the man behind the counter a familiar smile and sauntered over to the tasting table.

“We’re back again,” said the Mongoose. “Last night’s recommendation went down a treat.”

The man looked at him blankly.

“You know,” the Mongoose continued, “I was in last night, you gave me some cha cha.”

Still no recognition came from the man, who was by now pouring us small glasses from a red-labelled bottle of Saparevi to try.

Eventually, he looked up and said: “I’m sorry, last night I was very drunk, I remember nothing.”

We nodded understandingly, glancing over to the two round-bellied men currently propping up the counter, which on reflection was more like a bar, drinking cha-cha with the other shop assistant.

So it was in that fashion that we sampled a few more Saperavi’s, before moving over to the bar to ‘taste’ no less than three varieties of cha-cha, a homemade fermented grape number which comes in a varieties of potencies. Most of which are potent.

And with a belly full of moonshine we eventually walked out with what we declared to be the finest bottle of Superavi yet.

image

But if truth be told, by that point we probably had just as much of a clue as we’d had the day before when we accidentally ordered non-alcoholic beers and got half way through them before realising. Or just as much as the tramp who gladly took them off us, swigging the booze-free beer from the bottle as she swayed down the street. But that’s Georgia for you.

Getting cosy Under the Stairs, Edinburgh

Sometimes you just have to eat somewhere that has a fish tank built into its fireplace.

20130401-134313.jpg

It was a cold, sorry – I mean a BITTERLY cold day in Edinburgh – when I found myself desperately googling ‘warmest pub in Edinburgh’ and ‘warmest place to eat in Edinburgh ever’ and ‘make me warm in Edinburgh NOW’, when I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and Google hadn’t provided. So I did what we used to do a few years back and looked around frantically for somewhere to hibernate.

For those of you in Northern Europe who are currently suffering a similar fate – how are you coping and what survival strategies are you employing? For those of you elsewhere or reading this in the future I am writing during the period of time that I am sure will be known as The Great Easter Freeze of 2013… I mean, let’s be honest there is no way Jesus would have risen 2013 years ago if the weather had been like this.

Anyhow, I digress. So with numb fingers and a distant memory of feeling my toes, I headed down Merchant Street in Edinburgh (just behind the lovely statue of Bobby, the bonniest dog of Scotland who sat on his master’s grave for 14 years after he died…. Ahhhh!) And it was down that little road that I spied some railings with a sign reading ‘Under the Stairs’ and in the window below, a big comfy looking chair.

I shuffled my frozen feet down the stairs and tentatively pushed open the door. Immediately I was greeted by array of retro sink-into-me armchairs and the fire place/fish tank feature. I knew I had struck gold.

Glancing around, I realised this was one of those rare places that doesn’t really have a ‘bad table’ in the house. Table picking can be a tough gig. Too often when walking into a restaurant you immediately spy the two good tables – perhaps by the fire, with the comfiest seats etc – which are always taken, leaving you with the remainder of the room and its cold, drafts tables packed too closely together, by the door – the loo – the mad woman muttering to herself.

Under the Stairs offered no such predicament. The large cosy room, with its thick and battered wooden floor boards, offered a plethora of mismatched, cobbled together tables and chairs – each as lovely as the next.

The man behind the bar greeted me in a warm, Scottish drawl and told me to sit wherever. I immediately wanted to try out a few tables before settling on one – they all looked so good.

20130401-140711.jpg

In the end I settled for one that boasted both a fabulous old armchair (they just don’t make them like they used to, do they?), and an old lampshade that gave off a warm, orange glow. Feeling very pleased with myself I perused the menu.

20130401-145052.jpg

This is where Under the Stairs gains a few more brownie points. It has a fabulous selection of sharing plates… Anti pasti, cheese boards, breads and dipping oils etc that can be ordered until midnight. I am constantly seeking establishments that will cater to both my food and wine needs at all hours, if only I lived a little closer.

The rest of the menu also appealed – from the imaginative twist on a veggie burger (black bean, spring onion an mushroom burger), to the venison casserole and salmon and cous cous fish cakes, I was torn.

With most dishes costing about £8.95 it’s definitely a cheap lunch option in Edinburgh.

But it was this sign that caught my attention:

20130401-142157.jpg

And this one:

20130401-142311.jpg

Two things. One, they had my sandwich and soup and I needed them back and two, red wine must always be pondered.

So I pondered and I ordered and I sat in my Grandad’s chair, listening to David Bowie, plotting how to steal the Scottish Crown Jewels over a large glass of Rioja. I’m joking, I’m joking… I was drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.

The food arrived and I decided it was definitely the best use of £5.95 that I have put the pound to for some time. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to my soup and sandwich.

20130401-143018.jpg

Aren’t they lovely? Divine? As soon as we were ‘reunited’ I realised I had unknowingly missed them my whole life.

The soup, a spicy parsnip and puy lentil number, was delightfully coarse and rich with a heart-warming chilli kick to it. Meanwhile, the sandwich was door stopping – huge slices of granary bread were filled with Cajun marinaded chunks of chicken breast, accompanied by a sweet, caramelised onion garnish and garlic mayonnaise. There was no corner cutting.

As I finished my lunch, the tank cleaning man came in to tend to the fish. As I watched him remove water, add water, and do his thing, I couldn’t help but feel they definitely have the best spot in town. If I was a fish I would want to be by the fire, swimming around Under the Stairs.

Food Facts

My soup, sarnie, and large glass of Rioja came to £12.80.

If you want to get involved you’ll find Under the Stairs at 3a Merchant Street. Bell them on 0131 466 8550.

Giving up Alcohol: The Diary of a Gin Lover

So after two rigorous days of flipping tyres, swinging off ropes and generally grunting a lot, I am back from boot camp. On the last night our lovely trainer Kyle offered to buy us a glass of wine. It was the third night of abstinence (boot camp rules) and we all looked at each other unsure of whether we were ready to slip back into our boozy ways.

‘Nope, I’m going all the way,’ cried Lucy, one of my co-boot campers, which prompted some sniggers from the boys. But I knew what she meant, we had been healthy for two days now and surely it would be easy to just carry on, the hard bit was done, the camel’s back was well and truly broken, or whatever the phrase is.

‘Me too,’ I cried, inspired by Lucy’s passion. ‘I’m giving up alcohol!’

Well this got a few looks.

‘For how long?’ asked Simon, another lovely co-boot camper, from Sheffield.

‘Until my mother’s birthday and I go to Bali,’ I declared boldly. ‘Next Saturday,’ I added.

People started laughing and shaking their heads. I was confused, that included one and a half weekends, I had never gone without booze for so long. Turns out a week and a half isn’t very long according to a lot of people. But this was my Everest and here’s how I got on…

Friday

I won a bottle of wine at work. How’s that for a bit of irony. And to make matters worse it was a bottle of Tempranillo, my favourite. Or at least one of. I looked at it a lot today, wondering if because it was free, and in fact a prize, perhaps it didn’t count. I left it at work.

20120902-141231.jpg

I’ve had a long day, 12 hours in the office, tackling a challenging story. I could murder a G&T… We have a beautiful gin in our cupboard. So beautiful you could, and should, drink it without tonic. Although it also goes beautifully with a Fever-Tree tonic water and a slice of cucumber. I touched it, just so I could take a photo you see.

20120902-142436.jpg

Matty was cooking a delicious daal when I got home, with a beetroot and yoghurt raita and everything. He casually broke the news, while chopping coriander, that he has been given a promotion. Currently working as a district nurse he has been promoted to matron for the Hucknall area. ‘Oooooh, Matron,’ I cried, ‘We must drink some champagne!’

It was an empty offer. I poured us a glass of sparkling water each. (He’s working tomorrow and says he doesn’t mind, I feel guilty.)

Saturday

It helps that I am skint this weekend. I can’t really afford to go out. Instead my good friend Gemma blagged me a day pass to her Virgin Active gym in Nottingham (much posher than mine – it has air conditioning, lanes in the swimming pool, conditioner in the showers and get this, make up remover in the changing rooms, not to mention the plastic bags they give away for wet swimming costumes). I am impressed. If I was rich I would join this gym. Or if I gave up drinking forever I could probably join this gym and have personal trainer sessions. I thought about this while I swam in the gym’s beautiful pool, which I think must have been the main lobby of the former Great Northern Railway Station, with it’s impressive architecture and high ceiling. I pretended I was an Olympian athlete for a while and attempted a length of butterfly. A lot of the water left the pool and I didn’t quite finish the length. I am better at drinking gin.

Afterwards, Gemma suggested a drink at our favourite bar, the Jam Cafe in Nottingham(that’s my review for the Nottingham Post). I am worried, they have the wonderful Kwak Belguim beer (8%) you see, a heart warming brew that’s deliciously strong. Gemma even offers to buy me an alcoholic beverage. I watched her drink her Sauvignon Blanc, while I sipped my sparkling water. I was not bitter.

I was however, appeased by a delicious board of warm, crunchy bread served with a beautifully nutty homemade pesto and a hummus that had a wonderfully sweet flavour. We also munched on a reassuringly large bowl of olives. If you have never made it to the Jam Cafe you must go, I don’t care where you live.

20120902-144546.jpg

Check out Gemma with those olives.

We moved on and had a drink in the beer garden of The Lion in Basford. I upped my game, had a diet coke and a water. Crazy times.

Tonight is actually fine. I am writing this, organising photos, doing ‘stuff’. Matty is working and it’s just me and the kettle. I’ve had about five cups of tea so far, but hey, who’s counting?

Sunday

I won’t lie, I feel smug. The rest of the world woke with banging heads this morning but I woke feeling refreshed and did something I have never done on a Sunday before… and may never do again. I went to the gym. I barely recognised myself walking in and I’m sure even the staff even raised their eyebrows. As the receptionist swiped my membership card she gave me the why-aren’t-you-in-bed-with-a-raging-hangover look. I felt the need to tell her I wasn’t drinking. Must get over this desire to tell everybody who crosses my path.

So I went and pumped some iron, or something like that. Went to a ‘super circuit’ class, and if I’m honest now it hurts to pick up a full pint of water. A wine glass would be much lighter…

Monday

Mondays have never been a drinking day for me. The day of rest and recovery, it’s how the Big Man planned it. However this Monday was a bit different. Firstly, I was definitely perkier at work (was chatting to colleagues before even 10am) and secondly, I started craving beer and cheese at about noon. That’s strange, even by my standards and I can’t really explain it.

I went to see Michael McIntyre tonight, a funny man who is funnier live because he swears and is slightly less ‘prime time’. The interval was a strange affair, without a belly full of beer the was no need to queue for the loo, and with my water bottle only half empty there was no need to go to the bar. Intervals are a boring affair for tee-totalers.

Tuesday

Tonight as I cycled home from work I was greeted with perhaps one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in Nottingham yet. Like a child I threw my bike down at the Forest Recreation Ground and excitedly took some photos. Every few minutes the colour of the entire sky shifted, it was as if buckets of paint had been poured down on the clouds, and they were slowly mixing the colours together as they glided across the sky. I do love an urban sunset.

20120904-231421.jpg
And this was just taken on the manual setting with no Photoshopping…. beautiful.

Saturday

So I’ve skipped a few days. I was worried it might turn into a ‘Dear Diary, today I drank water. It was sparkling’ kind of journal if I wasn’t careful.

To summarise, Wednesday was tricky. Have you ever gone to a Chinese BYO and not drunk? I wasn’t even sure if that meant you also had to bring your own soft drinks. I fought the peer pressure. Thursday, I don’t even remember Thursday.

And then suddenly it was Friday, aka the-day-before-the-night-I-could-drink. I bounced home from work, I was extremely excitable, not just because it was the-day-before-the-night-I-could-drink. No, I was excitable because this weekend we go to Bali for our long awaited three week holiday.

I wanted to celebrate. I wanted toast the backpack, I wanted to toast my flip flops, my bikini, my passport. I wanted to toast the sun, which has not been out to play all that much in the UK this year. I wanted to toast my list of things to pack. You get the idea, I very much fancied a cheeky tipple, I was in holiday mood.

Matty did tell me that he wouldn’t tell anyone if I shared his can of Boddingtons. I’m not sure if it was my morals or my distaste for Boddingtons but instead I treated myself to some sparkling elderflower juice instead. And wow, I was a productive packer. No trying on random stuff that I always believe I will look nice in after a few drinks, no temptation to pack that thong bikini from Tenerife circa 2000 and no spilling wine on my clean holiday clothes. I was efficient.

And finally, at about 5pm today, after one week and six days of not drinking a single drop of alcohol, the time had arrived. It was time to break my sobriety. It’s my mother’s birthday so I had already decided that bubbles would be appropriate. A nice cold flute of Prosecco. For her you see, not for me. She couldn’t start her 63rd year any other way, I insisted. We held our glasses up and toasted to her good health and as I lifted the flute to my mouth I could feel the bubbles breaking against my nose.

20120910-081356.jpg

It was perfect, the sun was setting and all the family was there. A chilled wind ran over us and I shivered.

‘We’ll be alright,’ said my brother’s girlfriend Becky.

‘We’ll just get our champagne jackets on.’

I nodded happily. My favourite jacket.

Best pubs in Nottingham for Sunny Nibbles

This summer I vowed I would sample every single sunny terrace, garden, bench and patio that Nottingham’s pubs have to offer. Often disappointed by the lack of sun traps that serve beer in the city I think this is an important task that must be carried out so we know once and for all where we can chase the sun with our favourite tipple.

Unfortunately we haven’t had that much sun. This means when he does come out, with his hat on, I run to my two favourite sunny retreats, too terrified that I may stumble across a terrace of shade if I try elsewhere.

These staples are, my friends, The Lion in Basford, with it’s large, sunny beer garden and ample seating, and the Golden Fleece, with its sun-kissed inner city roof top terrace. The Lion, which is nestled in the heart of Nottingham’s old factory quarter, has a fantastic range of ales and is the sort of place where you can take a blanket and throw yourself on the grass for the day. Don’t be surprised if a group of Morris Men rock up for a dance.

20120811-103755.jpg

However, this summer I have discovered a wonderful addition to the summer dining scene. It’s called called Tapas Tuesday and can be found at the trusty Golden Fleece.

It was any other Tuesday afternoon, except it was sunny, so Matty and I abandoned our shopping trip and made our way to the Golden Fleece (Mansfield Road, Nottingham if you’re not a local). We were actually the first people there (note the Golden fleece opens at 4pm on Tuesdays and not 11am, I promise) so we easily bagged ourselves one of the large wooden tables that adorn the roof terrace.

With large planters of colourful flowers sitting on green painted wooden panels around the terrace, it has a bit of a secret garden feel to it. Feeling smug with ourselves (warning – you can’t always get a seat), we were delighted to learn it was Tapas Tuesday. This not only means they are serving an exciting range of tapas dishes that are not normally on the menu, but you can have four dishes for £10 – and a bottle of wine for £7.50. Folks, it does not get much better than this. Especially on a Tuesday.

The chef was still writing the menu and preparing the food but at 5pm, with the ink still wet, we were handed the first-printed menu of the day. On it was a delicious selection of mouth-watering dishes, which we inevitably failed to narrow down to four.

Sipping our £7.50 bottle of wine (which admittedly is not the finest wine available to humanity but nevertheless is an adequate bottle of plonk that comes with an ice bucket) we eagerly awaited our dishes. Slowly they were laid out in front of us.

20120811-103428.jpg

The chorizo slices came in narrow strips, perfectly fried so their juices and flavours were contained by the crisp finish but oozed out as you bit into them. The king prawns were just that, king of the sea world, and beautifully marinated, while the patatas bravas resembled sliced, roasted new potatoes with a tangy tomato sauce. Perhaps the star of the show for me was the slices of halloumi cheese which were served piping hot and melted in your mouth, alongside a sun blushed tomato salad.

20120811-103508.jpg

It was a feast that would not have been out of place in Spain, and as the sun beat down, you could almost, almost imagine the alleyway below was an infinity pool and that the distant hum of cars on Mansfield Road was actually the waves of a far away ocean lapping the golden shores. Almost.

BrewDog Nottingham – A Must for all Beer and Cheese Fans

Having lived in Nottingham for the best part of 10 years now I tend to get quite excited when something new opens that is a little bit different. I did it about Coco Tang (shotlived), Tilt cocktail bar (go!) and Spanky Van Dykes (thoroughly recommend). However, I think I might have just made the most exciting discovery yet. And its name is BrewDog.

A couple of people had mentioned it to me and there were excited whispers running around the office this week: “New bar’s opened. Makes its own beer”, that sort of thing. And so yesterday, on a cheeky afternoon off, Matty and I went and checked it out.

I found it on my favourite Nottingham street (Broad Street) in the old Shaw’s building, which is a pretty cool building in itself. The interior has a funky minimalist feeling with exposed brick walls, wooden floors and traditional 1930s style filament light bulbs, hanging naked from the ceiling.

Enough about the decor. We made our way to the bar to be greeted with a very impressive selection of beer. Rows of uniquely labelled bottles lined the fridges while a big chalk board on the wall above listed the ales on tap. My eyes flicked around like a magpie that had accidentally flown into a jewellery shop.

I have to confess I don’t know a great deal about “proper beer” – despite the fact that my work once sent me on a beer tasting course in a desperate bid to culture my lager-loving ways. Determined to keep a lid on my Stella and Sauvignon Blanc habit, I just meekly said: “Do you have anything golden?” Well that brought the bar man to life. His eyes lit up and he said: “Everything we have tastes golden” and I knew then, me and the BrewDog, we were going to work.

He went on to explain that all the beers are very “hoppy” with more hops than your average beer to bring out the different flavours. A consequence of this is that some of the beers are very strong – ranging from about 5% right up to the Anarchist Alchemist which is a whopping 15%. Our Aussie bar man explained the beers were brewed for flavour – not for the strength, and that was just a mere consequence of the process. Skeptical, that anything that strong could really taste of anything but Special Brew, he proceeded to give us a sample. And wow, it was wonderful. Resembling something more like a liqueur than a beer, it was sweet and bursting in flavours, and left my chest with that warm glow not dissimilar to the brandy-effect. Nevertheless it was only 4pm on a Friday so after sampling a few of their best sellers, I opted for the 5am Saint (5% ABV) while Matty went for the Punk IPA. Mine was a delicious rum coloured number – and please excuse the lack of appropriate beer tasting prose here – but it almost tasted fizzy, it was the perfect temperature (colder than normal ales) and had a bit of a sweet aftertaste to it. Yum. Matty’s was more of a pale ale, which was slightly drier.

We took our drinks over to a little booth and started planning what we were going to have next. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to sample everything on offer. Perhaps due to the strength of the beers, they were served in schooners (an Aussie sized beer which is about 2/3 of the size of a pint) and later, when I ordered the New Zealand Hardcore (9.2% ABV) it was served in a half. But the drinks are so rich and flavoursome that actually you don’t drink them half as fast as you would a lager or a pale ale, so the size is perfect. Personally, I love a good schooner – often think a pint can feel too big, going a bit flat at the end if you don’t drink fast enough, while a half is little more than a thimble. Yes the Schooner is the Goldilocks of beer glasses for me.

BrewDog also offers food matching advice for all of its beers and sells a selection of small bites. Feeling peckish we ordered a small cheese and meat board (£5) and were not disappointed. A far cry from the regular board of cheddar, stilton and brie often served at fridge temperature, this board was a little bit special. Yes there was a soft French cheese, which may have been brie, but it was so beautifully mature and so “ready” that it was oozing a little bit. It was joined by two other deliciously mature cheeses that shamefully neither of us could recognise but were wonderfully nutty in flavour.

So there you have it. A winning combination. Oh and girls, if you’re single, it seems to have a rather large male clientele – that weren’t all bad looking either. Right, I’m off for a beer.