Wednesday, 10 April 2013

April 10th - Dracula's Castle

Dear Nigel,

You've been taking your holiday in a cool climate in Kyoto. A cooler climate is more energising than a warm one I think, and gentler on a pale English skin.

I'm staying with a friend north of Aberdeen where the expanse of sky and rolling hills seem endless. It makes my little cleft in the side of the Peak District feel like the top of a curtain - all gathered and tightened by heading tape. Loosen the threads, pull out the fabric and you will discover a piece of fabric almost three times the size.

The Peak District is a small and gathered space. Sometimes it feels remote but this is an illusion. Turn the corner, cross the brow of that hill and you will find an army of Ramblers heaving forth with vigour. Cross the valley and a school party is heading for a day's rock climbing. An area so focused on tourism, and farming, it is well-served by the sort of good local pubs you would want to be in, cafes where muddy boots and dogs are welcome, and places to visit to cater for every taste. It is Centreparks without the bubble, and relatively 'free' of charge at that.

Here, however, in Aberdeenshire, things are not falling over each other to claim your attention. There is plenty to see and do, but space - lots of space - in between.

Yesterday we went to Slains Castle, a forbidding spot. They say that this is the place where Bram Stoker got his inspiration for writing 'Count Dracula' in 1897; it is not hard to see why. It stands impenetrably on the very edge of the cliff face overhanging the raging sea. The stone is pink, and angry as the gulls that wheel overhead. But we mustn't forget that the Slains Castle that Bram Stoker stayed in had been done up as a Scottish Baronial Hall, with gardens laid out only two years previously. This Slains Castle is more menacing and evocative of the spirit hidden deep inside Dracula than any Victorian Gothic fantasy.

Bram Stoker should have stood where I am standing now, inside the ruins, and feel the anger everywhere. It is there in the gusting winds that rip across the scrub land. It is there in the swell and spit of the sea, deafening against the cacophony of gulls. The roof ripped off to avoid taxes in 1925 (-something which might find itself reinvented now with the new council tax rules on empty properties), allows the grey/blue sky to rain down into the round towers in which we stand. I look up to see perhaps two dozen rooks circling round, maybe on a thermal or uplift from the tower, like something from 'The Birds', and shudder involuntarily.

I stay away from the gaping windows lest a hand unseen in the buffeting wind should place itself on my shoulder.

Suddenly I want to leave this place, and I am out and off down the puddled lane without a backward glance. The wind has driven right through the heart me and taken away my anger, leaving me worn-out and spent.

I am reading 'Tender volume 2'. There is an echo of my thoughts from you:-

'I am a winter person, never happier than on a clear, frosty morning. The ash-grey branches of bare trees against a crisp sky; cinnamon leaves and blood-red hips still holding on to charcoal twigs...this is my time, just as others long for the dog days of Summer.' This is why you always choose this time of year to take your annual leave. It is your time.

I find the perfect cake for a blustery day, on page 1174 of 'Tender vol. 2'. It is 'Fig and Walnut cake'. I have been making, and eating, too many tea breads of late, and this will make a welcome change. It is 'a big family cake made in much the same way as carrot cake' with an icing of cream cheese, mascarpone, butter, icing sugar and vanilla. The cake itself is spicy, and fruity and moist (with natural yoghurt). I have used yoghurt inside a cake before and love the creamy, moist texture it seems to impart. The fruit is simply soft dried figs and some shelled walnuts.

You give a very welcome tip that I hadn't heard before:- that when looking for packets of shelled nuts in the supermarket, it is 'worth looking out for those that are light in colour. They will probably be younger and less inclined to the bitterness that can occasionally develop as the nuts darken and dry. An effective way to remove any hint of bitterness is to soak them in boiling water for ten minutes.' I will remember this next time as I probably tend to keep the nuts too long, anyway.

Welcome home, soon,


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