Original sound track

The other day during a long drive my kids were sat in the back watching the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon on DVD. As I was sat in front I couldn’t see any of it but I could hear it. This was not at all a strange experience for me because I’m much more used to listening to that particular film that seeing it (in fact I don’t think I’ve actually seen it for decades).

I remember back in the days before home video (yes, I’m that old) that once you’d seen a film at the cinema you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again until it turned up on TV some time later. And then if you missed it, you missed it, as there was no way to record and preserve it. So what was a young movie fan to do when he wanted to re-live (repeatedly, obsessively) the experience of his favourite big screen science fiction epic in the comfort of his own home?

There were a couple of options. One was the soundtrack album. In the case of movies like Star Wars which have very memorable, expressive and almost continuous music (only 20 minutes of the film’s 125 running time don’t have musical accompaniment) this was a decent alternative. It had the advantage of omitting any creaky dialogue and letting you fill in the images with your memory or imagination. Or you could flick through a visual aid like the comic book adaptation or souvenir magazine while listening.

Later there was a brief popularity for soundtrack albums which incorporated dialogue and sound effects, and Queen’s Flash Gordon album was one of these. In fact it was Queen themselves who proposed this approach, apparently, and for me it made it a much more enjoyable experience to hear “pew! pew!” sounds and immortal dialogue like “Gordon’s alive?” and “I’m flying blind on a rocketcycle!” interspersed with guitar solos.

I also had an album called The Story of Tron, which even added voiceover narration telling the story. This was less successful, as you can hear here:

Which is why I also later bought the music-only soundtrack so as to be able to hear Wendy Carlos’ electronic tonalities unsullied.

And as I mentioned before, there were visual aids available too. I went through a phase of reading novelisations, but usually only for films I was too young to see at the cinema (Robocop, Predator, Aliens). I had a couple of “photo-novels” (paperbacks formatted like comics but using still frames from the movie) of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole. And, of course, sticker albums: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins and more (there’s a good set of photos here). I was always anxious about not being able to collect all the stickers, bought in packs of five or six, and having a complete set. God knows how much money I spent buying packets looking for those last few stickers, and throwing away the free, sickly sweet pink chewing gum that came with them.

In the case of Flash Gordon the stickers came free with packets of Weetabix, and one day in the supermarket I persuaded my mother to buy an extra large packet as it would contain a larger quantity of free stickers. I promised her I’d eat all those Weetabix, even thought it wasn’t my favourite cereal. Imagine my disappointment when we got home and tore the packet open to discover…no stickers whatsoever inside. My mother, who was not the complaining type, felt moved to write them a letter. In response they mailed me a complete set.

4 things to do in Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.

Untitled

Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.

Untitled

When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.

Untitled

This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.

Untitled

Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.

Untitled

Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.

Untitled

Mexico:

Untitled

Ecuador:

Untitled

Japan:

Untitled

And of course there are related movie posters.

Untitled

Untitled

A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.

Untitled

Untitled

Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.

And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.

The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.

Outside the farm you can visite the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.

Untitled

In this form it almost looks appetising.

Untitled

In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:

Untitled

Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, of chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.

Untitled
You can buy small portions to take home with you. I didn’t.

Untitled

The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.

Untitled

They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:

Untitled

Untitled

One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:

But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).

Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?

Moss and Moonscapes

Iceland has a lot of dramatic scenery. That’s kind of the point of Iceland. Glaciers, volcanoes, cliffs and waterfalls; all lovely.

But I actually found myself enjoying more some of the quieter, more subtle landscapes.

For example at one point driving through the hills near Möðrudalur we stopped for a breather in a relatively featureless, desolate spot.
Untitled

The view across the plains, in the direction of our accommodation for that night.

Untitled

Barely any life to be seen.

Untitled

A verdant moss haze filled nooks and crannies.

Untitled

Untitled

Another favourite spot was Mýrdalssandur, on the south coast. Miles of flat plains; we had been warned by a friend that this was likely to be the most boring part of our tour. I loved it.

Untitled

Immense lava fields covered with sparse vegetation. Mossy hummocks as far as the eye could see.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

This was the bit of Iceland I’ll remember. Not so dramatic perhaps, but unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

More photos on flickr.

Water in Iceland

There’s a lot of water in Iceland and it comes in many shapes and forms. Not just the cold, hard kind implied by the country’s name.

For example, if you’re into waterfalls, you’ve come to the right place. Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle series of natural attractions just east of Reykjavik, is a pretty spectacular double waterfall.

Untitled

There’s a very flimsy rope barrier keeping those people from plummeting to their doom.

Untitled

Sometimes it’s hard to decide which are more hypnotically compelling: the gushing torrents or the veils of drifting mist.

Untitled

Along the south coast you’ll find another couple of beauties. First, Skogafoss.

Untitled

Untitled

And then Seljalandsfoss, which treated us to a rainbow. And you’ve probably worked out by now that “foss” means “falls”.

Untitled

Seljalandsfoss’ USP is that you can walk around and behind the falling water.

Untitled

Well that’s all very pretty and delicate, I hear you say, but I want a big, thunderous, Monster Truck style of waterfall. Where do I go for that? You go north, I reply. You go to Dettifoss.

Untitled

Dettimoss.

Untitled

You may remember this particular cascade from the opening scene of the movie Prometheus. It’s the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of “volume discharge”.

UVHzN

So that’s the falling water, but what about water that shoots up into the air? Iceland’s got that covered too. Another stop in the Golden Circle tour is Geysir, home of the original geyser. Unfortunately the original geyser no longer works, allegedly because too many tourists threw stones into it over the years, blocking it up. But fear not, because just alongside it is Strokkur, which provides a satisfyingly big, loud, hot spurt every ten minutes or so.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

But of course, it’s called Iceland for a reason. So here’s some ice.

Untitled

These are fragments of glacier which have broken off and are floating in a lagoon called Jökulsárlón. Eventually they drift out to sea to be consumed by the waves.
Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Black striations are caused by volcanic ash.

Untitled

Speaking of waves, we saw some dramatic ones on the Snaefellsnes peninsula over on the west coast.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Loads more photos here.

Foxes and Whales

I didn’t expect to see much wildlife in Iceland. In fact there’s only one indigenous mammal and a few bird species on the island itself, and I was pretty sure that the arctic fox was far too reclusive and man-fearing a creature to ever show its face to tourists. Imagine my surprise then when one evening, after enjoying a bowl of moss soup in the guesthouse where we were staying, I came outside to see what looked very much like a fox cub. We only saw it for a few seconds before it scurried away to hide, but it was there again the next morning at breakfast and it let us get surprisingly close.

Untitled

In fact that morning there were two of them. They’re obviously used to being around humans (and the guesthouse kitchen, hoping for scraps). And in case you’re wondering, yes their fur goes white in the winter, and turns grey in the summer.

Untitled

Hello.

Untitled

The main avian attraction is the puffin, but these were particularly hard to photograph as their nesting areas on the cliffs are fenced off, although that didn’t stop some idiots climbing over the fences and trying to get closer. In fact it amazed me how often people disregarded the signs and stomped across areas of delicate vegetation.

But we had better luck with the marine mammals. We stopped in the former whaling town of Húsavík from where it was possible to get on a boat and spend three hours off the northern coast of Iceland hoping to see cetaceans.

Untitled

We weren’t the only ones out that day. In this shot there’s something lurking in the space between the two boats.

Untitled

Two humpbacked somethings, in fact.

Untitled

Untitled

In this shot you might just be able to make out a light area at right. There’s something even more tantalising and evocative about seeing them through the water like this than when they break the surface.

Untitled

Deep breath.

Untitled

We saw them on and off over the course of about an hour. There wasn’t much else about other than the occasional puffin.

Untitled

And then finally we saw what we’d been waiting for: the iconic whale sight of tail flukes as they went for a deeper dive.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

The Book Of Memory

Sterling Books in Brussels (website, facebook) is one of my favourite places to acquire new books. They have a great selection and friendly, helpful staff, and are perfectly located in the centre of the city. The only thing that could make them any better is if they were to give me free books.

And then one day they did. They posted a photo on their Facebook page of a pile of new novels, with the caption:

“Do you like reviewing books? Do you have a blog dedicated to it?
Then we have just the thing for you!
Here at Sterling we get more review copies than we have time to read and it’s sad to leave them here unread, screaming for attention. (It’s really distracting.)
These review copies are free to a good home, under a few simple conditions:
– Mention (and link to) our Facebook page in your review
– Let us know when the review is up, so we can hear your thoughts and link to your review

I took a look at the pile of books and after a little research made my choice, and went in to collect my freebie (plus one for my wife). I chose The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah, a new writer from Zimbabwe, only a year older than myself. Her first book, a collection of short stories called “An Elegy For Easterly” won her much acclaim and several prizes including the Guardian First Book Award.

9617434

The Book Of Memory tells the story of an Zimbabwean woman called Memory whose parents sold her to a white man when she was nine. She relates her tale in flashback as she sits in prison, having been convicted of the same white man’s murder. I won’t spoil any more of the story (personally I’m not interested in book reviews which discuss the plot in too much detail) other than to say that we do finally get some answers to the main mysteries: why did Memory’s parents give her away, and how did the white man, Lloyd, really die?

But this is not a murder mystery or a thriller. It’s a story about identity and belonging, and how various characters, for various reasons, are marginalised by society. Memory is an albino, meaning that rather than play out in the blistering heat of the sun all day she prefers to stay indoors and read books or retreat into her own imagination. She becomes educated and has little time for the witchcraft and superstition so fervently believed in by many of her compatriots. She’s witty and thoughtful, generally a fun and stimulating character with whom you’re happy to spend time. Her story splits almost equally between childhood memories and present day descriptions of life in the women’s prison where she’s being held. Both are described equally vividly, with telling details such as sounds and smells.

But finally this is a surprisingly mature story about acceptance, both of yourself and of your circumstances, and about the sometimes futile search for “meaning” in life. It’s a very impressive novel and I expect to hear a lot more about Petina Gappah in the future.

Barcelona: Three restaurants

We recently spent a gastronomic weekend in Barcelona (big thanks to the grandparents who volunteered to keep the kids while we crossed the continent to stuff our faces). This was prompted by the fact that we managed to secure a table at Tickets (more on that later) and so we planned the whole weekend based around that. Now, I’ve mentioned before that, as much as I still enjoy these dining excursions, I’m losing interest in photographing and documenting them. Pointing my camera at my plate is starting to get in the way of my enjoyment of the meal and writing up a report about it afterwards feels like a chore. I wasn’t intending to do any of that on this trip. I did end up taking some shots but I think it’ll probably be the last time.

I’ve also, in order to save space, combined three restaurants in one post and just shown some highlights from each rather than an exhaustive list of everything we ate.

We arrived on Friday and had a spot of lunch in Barcelona’s amazing Boqueria market. Dinner that evening was at Pakta; one of a range of new bars and restaurants (known collectively as “El Barri“) owned and managed by the Adrià brothers of El Bulli fame. Pakta offers “Nikkei” cuisine which the website explains thus:

“The term Nikkei is used to refer to emigrants of Japanese origin and their descendants. Peru was the first South American country to have a diplomatic relationship with the Empire of Japan in 1873, and also the first to receive Japanese workers. In the mid 80’s the name was used as a reference for all Japanese cuisine that is prepared outside Japan using indigenous products, however, for most, the term has been accepted and defined as a mixture of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, that combines the tastes and techniques of both cultures.”

We arrived at 7pm, just as they opened.

Untitled

It’s pretty small but cosy.

Untitled

Here’s our full menu. There were only two menus offered and no à la carte option. We chose the shorter of the two because this one already looked like quite enough, and the other had basically the same stuff but with a few extra dishes like sea snail and t-bone steak.

Untitled

This is the first dish described above: the “honzen ryori”. The cherry in the centre, dipped in kimchi, was pretty good.

Untitled

Tuna tartare with crispy nori:

Untitled

These are mini “causas“, which are essentially mashed potato filled with meat or fish. Very moreish.

Untitled

Xiaolongbao, which is a kind of Chinese steamed dumpling. These were filled with suckling pig and once popped in the mouth they just dissolved/melted/exploded, filling your mouth with fatty porky deliciousness.

Untitled

Fried fish.

Untitled

Dessert selection. One of the sticks is edible. Can you guess which one?

Untitled

Everything was delicious, and although we were full by the end we did wonder whether we should have gone for the longer menu just so that we could have tried everything. It’s also made me keen to seek out some genuine Peruvian cuisine, especially if we can find some more traditional causas.

The next day we had lunch at Tickets, which is just around the corner from Pakta. Tickets is basically a tapas bar, albeit a fairly fancy one which you have to book months in advance, so you’re unlikely to just pop in for a glass of wine and some patatas bravas. The decor is fun and circus-themed.

Untitled

We had a seat at the bar facing the kitchen.

Untitled

Tickets tapas tongs. Available to buy for €12.

Untitled

We could have chosen individual dishes but ended up letting them choose a selection of 15 for us. First was a famous one previously served at El Bulli: gel spheres containing olive, cinnamon oil, black pepper and lemon.

Untitled

This one had probably the weirdest presentation. It’s basically a cherry with a foam “beard” of lime and kimchi powder. You had to use the little scissors hanging on the lower branch to snip the cherry off and eat it whole before the foam dripped everywhere. Nice, but maybe a little too fussy. At the base are watermelon sangria and Iranian pistachio with crispy rice.

Untitled

I came all this way from Brussels and what do they give me to eat? A waffle!
Ok, admittedly it’s a very nice basil-flavoured waffle filled with scamorza cheese and pine nuts.

Untitled

Pizza. Kind of. Wafer thin, dotted with olive oil jelly spheres and tomato powder.

Untitled

Shrimp, chicken skin, tarama fish eggs. This is the only one I saw which looks like the original “tapa”, which was a slice of bread used to cover your drink like a lid.

Untitled

Nordic landscape. Kobe beef, shallots, vinegar powder, dill. This one was amazing, at least in part due to the vinegar powder.

Untitled

Alaskan salmon, skin and wakame salad

Untitled

Spaghetti! Only not. Actually made from shredded mushroom instead of pasta.

Untitled

For dessert we moved into a separate area behind the bar. Over-sized plastic fruit hung from the ceiling and one wall was covered with screens showing scenes from foodie films like Ratatouille and Willy Wonka.

Untitled

Another tree, this time with spoons held on by hidden magnets. On the rose was a blob of some kind of sweet goo.

Untitled

This nice lady made us instant pineapple sorbet with liquid nitrogen and pink pepper.

Untitled

Served in half a pineapple, obviously.

Untitled

There I am, taking photos when I should have just been eating. I can take comfort in the fact that many other diners were more obsessively taking photos and notes than me.

Untitled

The bill was surprisingly reasonable considering the stature of the chefs, and I’d be keen to go back some day to try all the other stuff on the menu.

Finally, we added a restaurant we hadn’t planned to visit. I knew that there was a Michelin-starred restaurant connected to our hotel, but we only asked about a table on the day we arrived. Fortunately they were able to squeeze us in on Saturday night. Here are the kitchen staff resting outside earlier in the day.

Untitled

The restaurant is called Dos Palillos and we didn’t know anything about it before going in. It’s run by a guy who was head chef at El Bulli for six years, which was a pretty good sign.

We had seats at the bar, and we could see the staff prepping and plating dishes all evening, which was fascinating to watch, not only for the technical aspects of putting the food together but also to see how the staff worked together (one guy was obviously new and inexperienced, and was being shown the ropes by a colleague).

Untitled

Here’s the menu we chose. It turned out to be primarily Japanese-style food, which was fine by us. I didn’t take any photos but my wife took a few with her phone.

Untitled

The first one looks a mess but was actually one of the highlights. Small fried fish “trapped in a fishnet” made of dried seaweed.

Untitled

This is the “crispy canapé of bone marrow”

Untitled

Laughably phallic asparagus.

Untitled

I actually don’t remember what this one is. They were slightly gloopy ravioli-type things.

Untitled

Chicken sashimi and some kind of fish roe. Yes, that’s right. Raw chicken. One of the other dishes was nare-sushi, which is basically old, fermented sushi. This is not food for the faint-hearted.

Untitled

Red mullet sashimi.

Untitled

One of the desserts was covered in shaved ice, which was perfect for a hot summer evening.

Untitled

Untitled

Overall a very nice surprise. Recommended.

The next day we took it easy foodwise but we did stop in a tapas bar in the centre of town.

Untitled

If you fancy a foodie weekend away Barcelona’s a very good choice, as far as I’m concerned, even if you don’t fancy arty Japanese fusion stuff. The tapas alone would keep you happy for a week. There’s something for everyone, and I think we should come back soon with the kids.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers

%d bloggers like this: