What a very enjoyable, but utterly peculiar weekend.
It all started last Christmas... Instead of giving my grandmother a normal gift (she's very hard to buy presents for), we decided to take her away for a weekend. Our original idea was to take her to Glasgow, but on reflection we decided that Deeside in Aberdeenshire would be nicer. So that's where we were for the last couple of days.
Because my parents are away on holiday in Florida at the moment, they are letting us borrow their cars. We've had their Suzuki Vitara in Edinburgh with us for the last week, and we drove up to their house in Murthly on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, we then swapped the Suzuki for their BMW 7-series (a very choice automobile...I highly recommend you try one), and headed up to Aberdeen.
We had lunch at my grandmother's place, and then set out for a nice relaxing drive along the Deeside road. We stopped off in Banchory for a poke around a shoe shop, and briefly entered the car park at Crathes Castle, but decided to move on because it was raining and quite windy. Later in the afternoon we had afternoon tea and a scone in Banchory, and had a wander around the village centre before checking in at the Darroch Learg hotel, just at the edge of the village heading West.
I hadn't known about the hotel before we went there--I had only found it on the web a week and a half ago, as I was calling around places to find out if they had rooms for this weekend. On the web site the hotel looks elegant, and close up it matches that impression very nicely. The outside looks like an old country mansion (though with an regrettably tatty modern extension), and the inside is exactly what you would expect: wood panelling all round, a lounge with large comfortable chairs, coffee tables and a fireplace, and even a separate smoking room with a selection of cigars and spirits displayed in a massive Victorian cabinet. The fires weren't lit, but I could easily imagine walking in there in the middle of winter, brushing the snow from my boots, and settling down with a glass of wine and a good book....
The bedrooms were not quite as sumptuous, but still very comfortable, and came supplied with fluffy towelling robes, which was a nice touch. Grandma's room was a small double, while Abi's and mine appeared to be more like a suite. Its bathroom was certainly large enough to warrant a chair in the middle of it, in case you got tired while crossing from one end to the other.
After we'd splashed some water on our faces and changed clothes, we all went downstairs and had tea in the lounge, while examining the menu for dinner. Although the residential side of the hotel is very fine, it is surely the restaurant on which the owners pride themselves most. Since 1997 they have had three AA rosettes for food each year, which puts them quite squarely in premier league--there are only 20 other 3-rosette establishments in the whole of Scotland. (And, damn it, why is the Plumed Horse not one of them?) Making our choice from the menu was difficult, but we eventually settled on a different dish each, after which we were ushered through into the dining room, which has a conservatory-like sun room extension. As if by magic, some of the day's first rays of sunshine speared the clouds and sparkled down on us as we took our seats.
After a complimentary taster of home-smoked salmon and red pepper, I tucked into some tortellini of crab and langoustine. Abi had a pithivier (a puff pastry shell, as far as we could tell) filled with goats cheese, and decorated with a spicy tomato jam, and Grandma had smoked trout with poached egg and chive hollandaise. My tortellini were large and juicy, perhaps a little too much so. The shellfish filling was coarsely chopped and oozed dribbles of oil into the creamy crab sauce. It was delicious to mop up with some of their home-made granary bread, but the greasiness lost them a few presentation points.
For the main course, Grandma had saddle of local lamb, with tiny mushrooms and a ratatouille gratin on a bed of polenta. I tried a nibble of the ratatouille, and it was sweet and fruity--very nice indeed. Abi had veal on a bed of puy lentils with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash. Her plate also contained a black pudding type thing, about the size and shape of a baby aubergine. I didn't try it, but it looked like an interesting addition to the ensemble. I had been unable to resist ordering the fillet of Aberdeen beef, which came on a bed of creamed celeriac (something I've never tried before, but must definitely do again--it tasted a little like herby cheesy creamed mashed potatoes...), and covered with brashed shin, and some of the freshest peas and green beans I have ever tasted. As for the beef itself, well, I took it rare, and it tasted as smooth as cream, and had the distinctive dairy flavour of top class, fresh fillet.
By this time, we were all rather full, but this didn't stop Abi from ordering a chocolate tart which she described as having "more cocoa butter in a single mouthful than in a whole bar of diary milk." Grandma had a trio of pears in red wine, while I made the (apparently predictable) choice of creme brulee, which came with toffeed apples and apple sorbet. The caramel crust on the creme brulee was thin, but the body was thick and deep, and after I had scraped as much of it out of the ramekin as I could, the bottom was coated with tiny vanilla seeds--always a good sign.
All of this was accompanied by a half bottle of Alsace Gew�rztraminer (Hugel, 1998) and a full bottle of Australian Orange Merlot (Reynolds, 1998). The Gew�rztraminer had an intensely fruity taste up-front, but was a bit hollow in the middle, and Merlot always tastes too oaky for me after a couple of glasses, but they were easily drunk selections nevertheless. After the meal, we retired (briefly) to the drawing room for coffee and sweets (home-made fudge and Turkish delight), before falling exhausted into bed.
So much for the first day. Everything was fine up until then: we were all having a great time chattering away in the lovely surroundings, and enjoying the excellent food and the luxury of the hotel. When we got up this morning we had no clue, either. We went downstairs for a large cooked breakfast (delivered to almost the same presentational standards of the previous night's dinner--one wonders if the chef just pulled an all-nighter), and then drove off into a gloriously sunny morning. Our plan was to head to Braemar, then turn around and loop through Speyside (Tomintoul, Dufftown) and back towards Aberdeen.
Well, we got to Braemar. We parked the car and took a walk down out of the village centre towards the royal grounds, where the Braemar games (one of the best-known Highland Games--the one the royals attend) are held each year. The weather was glorious, the sun fair burning down on us, and we had happily snapped off almost a whole roll of photos. There was still plenty of day left, though, so on our way back up into the village, I popped into the Alldays shop and got a pack of Fuji "Multi 400" film. On my way out of the shop, I read the back of the pack, which explained the "Instant Win with Foolproof Colour" competition. Some packs of film come with enclosed colour-coded slips: a "blue" slip means you've won one of 1000 quicksnap cameras, "green" gives you one of 50 mobile phones, "red" is one of four iMac computers, and a "cyan" slip means you've won one of four Toyota Picnic people carrier cars.
"Just like a lottery scratchcard," I said to Abi and Grandma when I left the shop, and I showed them the pack. I started to open it, prying open the side, and then saw the little slip inside with a bright cyan dot with the word "cyan" printed on it in big letters. Curious, but not quite believing it, I pulled the rest of the slip out of the packet, unwrapped it, and read the words "Congratulations-You're just won a Toyota Picnic!" To make it even more real, the slip was signed on behalf of Fuji Film by a real person, in genuine blue ballpoint.
"Bloody Hell," I said, "We've won a car."
I think Abi may have looked at me in disbelief at that point, but I'm not sure. I started feeling a little blurry and excited. I read the small print a couple of times, showed to it Abi and Grandma, and they both agreed that we had, in fact, just won a car.
Wow. Still feeling light-headed, I went back into the shop, and in a trembly voice told the woman who had sold me the film that she had just sold a winning packet. I showed her the winning slip, and was reluctant to even let her touch it--I was so worried that she would take it, or that it would evaporate into thin air, or that I would just wake up, but none of that happened. I went back outside, and with the last few snaps on the old roll of film, Abi took photos of me standing in front of the shop with, holding the winning ticket up in front of me. (I'll scan the photos and put them up here on the site as soon as we get them developed.)
Just to calm down a bit, we went next door into a big hotel, where Abi and Grandma sat me down and fetched me a diet coke and a piece of millionaire shortbread. I think that that this point they were a bit concerned about my ability to drive them safely back to Aberdeen. I got over the shock eventually, though, and then went through a phase of the giggles. I mean, we'd just won a car. It seemed incredibly funny, and still does. On the drive towards Braemar, we had even been talking about how much we were enjoying not owning a car, because it was too much of a drain on our finances, and then suddenly we're just handed one. Even as a good little atheist, I had a brief moment of doubt about the random nature of the Universe... (But only a brief one :-)
So then we got back into the car, and tried to behave like normal. Failed, giggled for a bit more, then drove on.
And as if that whole episode wasn't bizarre enough, just after we'd turned onto the Tomintoul road, we turned round a corner and found an enormous horse bearing down on us at a full gallop. It had its head down and its dark determined eyes looked like they would shoot lightning bolts at anyone or anything that got in its way. "Oh crap," I thought, "it's going to run straight at us and stomp all over the hood of the car..." At that point I also wondered if this really was a dream--it seemed so unreal. Maybe that's why I felt relatively calm as I steered to the side of the narrow road. The horse just stormed straight past us, though, completely uninterested in anything but going straight ahead as fast as it could.
The rest of the drive was blissfully uneventful. We got back to Aberdeen at about 5 o'clock, dropped Grandma off at her house (with a whole bunch of new stories to tell her neighbours), and then drove back to Edinburgh, stopping off at Murthly to drop off the Beamer and pick up the Suzuki. Bit of a let-down, that was :-)
(Okay...so we also stopped off at a nearby Sainsbury's and picked up a copy of "Top Gear" magazine so we could see what kind of a car the Toyota Picnic is, and how much it is worth.... Wouldn't you?)
So now all we have to do is claim the damn thing. The claim ticket says to send the ticket to Fuji via recorded delivery, but I'm suddenly developing a deep mistrust of the postal system and everyone at Fuji who stands between us and the person with the actual keys to the vehicle. Part of me wants to hop on an EasyJet flight tomorrow and deliver the ticket in person. The more rational part of me is saying that I should call them up tomorrow morning and ask them for advice. I've never had to claim a prize before, so I don't know just how paranoid I should be. (The answer is probably "not at all", but I'm still feeling too hyped up t be able to think rationally about it.)
Am I going to be able to get to sleep tonight? Is this really a winning ticket, or just some kind of elaborate hoax? What kind of Toyota Picnic is the prize? Is it the bottom-of-the-range 2.0 GS, or the top-of-the-line 2.2TD GLS with all the trim? How long will it take for them to deliver it? Will they want to take publicity photographs, and if so, could this be the breakthrough into modelling I've been waiting for?
All these questions, and maybe more (who knows...who really cares?) will probably be answered on this here web site, sooner or later.