Tuesday, July 08, 2014

even slower

Can you believe it -- I am slowing down even more. There is a coastline to walk (Islay has a 120 mile circumference). There are a handful of villages scattered throughout. (I'm in Bowmore -- one of the larger ones at 300 inhabitants. Large enough to warrant a school. And by the way, don't be like me and give it a mainland pronunciation. The right way to say it is Boh-more -- it's Gaelic for sea rock, of which there are many.) But this morning, I linger. I stare out the window for a good bit. Ah, there's rain out there across the bay. Is it heading our way?


Breakfast? I ask for my home stalwart -- oatmeal, called porridge here, with fruit and honey.


Yesterday's dinner was an eating indulgence. I need to scale it down for a few days.

My hosts leave me interesting reading materials each time I come down for a meal. For instance, there is the Islay newsletter. Even for this small island where surely everyone knows everything about everyone, there is a "letters to the editor" section where people opine about the forthcoming referendum on Scotland. They feel the editors have made assumptions (that Scotland will stay part of the UK; I myself have heard this before -- Scots are slow to embrace change and when given a choice, they inevitably pick the tried and true). The readers want to correct this. One person writes:

The independence referendum is the most important event in Scottish history in the last 300 years. (We should) allow Scotland's wealth to improve the lives of ordinary Scots rather than propping up a failed British economy, run for the benefit of a small elite in London.

(She then goes on to say that everyone she knows is voting for independence.)


This, of course, is the standard argument for all breakaway movements. Substitute Catalonia for Scotland and Madrid for London and you've just made a speech I've heard many times in the south of Europe.

Eventually I decide I should take in a distillery today. There are three I want to visit and Andrew, my host, tells me it's better to spread them out. So today it will be the one with the best (I'm told) tour -- Laphroaig (pronounced La-froyg).

I'm sure you don't know the lay of the island, so I'll give you a quick island tour: Bowmore, is on a bay, to the west. To the south, you'll find Port Ellen and three of the big distilleries are just up the coast from Port Ellen. One other significant port is to the east -- Port Askaig, from where you can board a ferry to the neighboring Jura Island, or go full blast and travel to the mainland. People who come by car always come in this way.

Two of the distilleries I'll likely pop into are close to Port Ellen. And luckily, the bus connections to Port Ellen are moderately good. I am able to say "no thank you" to the ever obliging Andrew and tell him I don't need any lifts today: I'm riding the buses.

I thought myself to be oh so clever in fitting in a modest hike before the distillery tour. We all checked the weather forecast  and it assures us that it will not rain. Fine. I take my pack and set out.

I don't know if it's the love one has for one's own turf or whether I am indeed objective, but I have to say, Port Ellen takes a backseat in my eyes to Bowmore. Not that it's not pretty -- it has that island look that your grow fond of here.


And when I gaze out across the small harbor, I like that single row of white houses. Very dramatic, with very imposing clouds rolling in today! (Gulp...)


But I've become attached to Bowmore. Though why compare? Let's just say Port Ellen is different: more somber. Or am I influenced by the weather?

The clouds keep coming and sure enough, within a few minutes the rain comes down. I hide in a covered alley and dig into my pack to retrieve the rain jacket.

And I continue on the hike. Up a narrow road, then veering into a path through the woods. Spooky woods! Wet woods, overgrown with ... oh I don't know. Stuff. I do later identify the foliage of what they locally call a trinity flower -- a lily of sorts. It's not blooming now, but the clumps of leaves are quite striking. Unexpected, here on a very northern island of Europe.


Eventually I come out to a strip of sand. They call it Whispering Sands. It's drizzling a bit and perhaps I am influenced by that, or maybe it just doesn't stand up to Machir Bay -- the sands from yesterday's outing. I look out, snap a photo, turn back.


And now it's time to walk to the distillery -- some 40 minutes up the coast from Port Ellen. A nice path takes you along pastures spilling out into the northern most part of the Irish sea.


It's newly built to accommodate visitors, though today, I am the only one on it there and back. Free samples of whisky notwithstanding, everyone else drives.

The tour of the distillery is fairly interesting. I have in my life been on tours of beer breweries, wineries, liquor distilleries, bourbon distilleries and now scotch distilleries and that's all rather curious since, with the exception of wine, I drink none of the above. And yet, I almost always like the tours. There is a great deal of local pride that's quite evident when you visit these places. Today's tour guide is a woman born and raised in Islay. It's probably part of the job description that she be that. (She tells me -- I worked as a social worker and for years no one wanted to listen to me so I quit and now I do this and it's so much more rewarding to talk about island history to a group that really is curious about it) She is quite good. Knows her stuff, speaks enthusiastically, projects well.

You dont really want to know the ins and outs of scotch whisky production. Get barley, allow it to sprout, smoke it with local peat, mash it, ferment it, store it in barrels imported from bourbon country (that would be Kentucky!). There you have it.


Of course, the story is finer in the detail. It's when you consider, for example, the relationship between the peat -- which is nothing more than compressed heather, grasses, moss, whatever grows in these parts -- and the barley that is smoked in it that you begin to realize how truly unique the final product is going to be. I mean, this is Islay scotch for you -- that smoky taste, the hints of a landscape that runs down to the sea.


At the end of the tour, I buy nothing. Not even as a present, though I have some Scotch drinkers back home who may have liked any number of the whiskys I sampled (a person on the tour asked her boyfriend -- why is it that only men like whisky?  Curious, isn't it, how the vast majority of people you know who drink it will indeed be male). My nose tells me that I will do even better along the smoky peaty continuum at the other distilleries.

And indeed: I walk back to Port Ellen and catch the bus back to Bowmore, where I go straight to the Bowmore Distillery, sample their scotches and purchase gift bottles there. I tell myself that the notes on the Bowmore batches are much more pronounced than in the earlier samples from the tour. But is it that, or is it that I favor something coming from the village which is much closer to my heart?

Dinner: eating in Islay is not easy. There is a good sandwich place  but it's closed today for a private event. There is an upscale restaurant -- reluctantly I go there, only to find that it's fully booked. That only leaves me  with the place I ate the first night here. Pub like food. With lots of boiled vegetables on the side. I ordered Scotch broth (a dense soup with lots of barley in it)...


... and a slice of Scottish salmon. All fine, though last night I swore to myself I would never eat seafood again and here I am eating fish.

The skies cleared tonight. If I stay awake long enough, I may finally see a classy and classic sunset. Oh, it's 10:00 o'clock. Here it is! For you. With good wishes for a sweet and restful night.