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McSteamy 2005–2019

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Goodbye, beautiful boy.

We miss your cuddles, the head-butting so powerful it could almost knock you over, the purring that you learned to do, the insistent meowing for attention that you also learned to do, those deep kitten sleeps of yours, your determined hunting of toy mice, your favorite spot in the middle of everything, your appreciation of sunlight and a warm fire, and even your habit of batting anything in your way onto the floor. Zoë is not so sure that she misses you stealing her food.

But we’re all glad that you’re not suffering anymore.

— Cathy, Jean, and Zoë

Doing what one does best!


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A cat’s life

Spring 2007: Our recently adopted tabby-Siamese cross cat has his first ear infection (at least, with us as his owners). Symptoms are a weird smell from his ears and dark discharge. It’s handled with ear drops (that he is not thrilled about).

2008 to 2014: McSteamy continues to periodically get ear infections, with the usual treatment. (That he remains not thrilled about.)

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Our handsome Mr. McSteamy

2015: The vet starts to wonder if McSteamy’s ear infections are due to an allergy. We trial him on this fairly awful food made with “hydrolized chicken”—and the other two cats, who definitely don’t have allergies, have to go along. None of them starve, but there’s absolutely no improvement to McSteamy’s ears, either. Finally an oral antibiotic clears those up.

And the cats return to their previous diet.

2016: The vet notes that McSteamy seems to have ear polyps—small purple growths in the ear canal. “That’s a chronic problem,” he notes, though that McSteamy’s ear issues might be chronic doesn’t seem like news, at this point.

August 2018: We’re away for the weekend. Instead of the usual “Everything went well with the cats” report, the catsitter emails that McSteamy’s eye “has rolled up into his head.”

Huh. That doesn’t sound good.

We get home to find that the inner eyelid on McSteamy’s left eye is staying shut, giving him something of a one-eyed zombie cat look. He seems OK otherwise, though.

“Is your cat missing an eye?” asks one of the guys working on our bathroom renovation.

Our local vet visit diagnoses it as Horner’s syndrome, wherein the pupil of one eye contracts more than the other, making that inner eyelid think it’s time for sleep, or whatever. The cause of Horner’s is varied: It’s a response by the nerve that runs from the eye to the ear and down the chest, and the issue could originate anywhere along it.

But with McSteamy, the guess is an ear problem, and he’s back on ear drops.

September 2018: The drops have improved the situation enough that the left eye is now just slightly more shut than the right, its pupil just slightly more contracted. But the root cause might be those polyps. These are not overly common in cats, and our vet isn’t well equipped to deal with them. She suggests a referral to a specialist—a dermatologist.

There are cat dermatologists? (“Must be a very smart cat!” says a friend.)

There are, albeit not in Waterloo. When I get the referral, I find that I have to drive him to Guelph, home of a Veterinary College, about 45 minutes away.

The doctor, whom I’ll call Dr. S, is very nice, though. He suggests laser surgery to remove the polyps. But first, McSteamy needs to take medication to reduce the swelling as much as possible. And, just in case allergies are involved, he’s put an rabbit food diet. (No, I don’t mean vegetarian—cats are obligate carnivores. I mean rabbit meat cat food. Which is not cheap.)

I mention the ineffectuality of the hydrolized chicken food trial, but Dr. S says that subsequent studies have it’s not always an effective test for cats with chicken allergies.

At least the cats (now we have only two) seem to like the rabbit food.

We remember that we didn’t get an estimate on the cost of the surgery. We ask for one and… Yowsa. And here I thought the rabbit food and consultation was expensive.

October 2018: Due to our vacation and Dr. S being away at conferences, the surgery isn’t scheduled til November 1. The week before it, McSteamy doesn’t seem great. He’s isolating himself more, and seems to have developed a sneeze. Is he even up for surgery?

But it seems hard to back out now.

November 1: McSteamy had to fast Halloween night, and I have to get him to Guelph for 9:00 AM, which means driving there in rush hour. (I’m able to get some time off work for this; Jean is not.) Both cat and human are stressed on arrival.

I’m told that they will call with how it went. But the hours tick by… 10:00, back home; 11:00, no call; 12:00, nothing; 1:00, 2:00, no call, no call… At 2:30 I call them; no answer, leave message. At 2:45 I call again to say that I’m leaving to go pick him up.

On my way, the phone rings. I don’t have hands-free set up, so when possible, I pull over to listen to voice mail. He’s fine, they say. It went well.

On arrival, they apologize for not calling sooner. Short of staff. And also, unexpectedly, the surgery took three hours. Three!

They put me in a waiting room with McSteamy, who’s bouncing around like crazy cat, still under the effect of the painkillers and anesthetic. Dr. S comes in to go over what was done. The surprise was a very large polyp, deep in the left ear. Somewhat complex to remove, apparently.

I’m sent home with pills to give him daily, things to watch out for, and a plan to bring him for a recheck in about 8 weeks.

November 3 to 4: After initially seeming fine, McSteamy is slowing down. Moving very slowly, sleeping a lot (even for him). Is this normal? I resolve to call and ask about it, if he’s not better by mid-week.

November 5: Home from work to find that McSteamy has been bleeding all over the bed he was sleeping on. We clean up his ear, requiring an alarming number of ear wipes to do so.

Excessive bleeding is one of the things to watch for. We take photos and, as it’s after hours, I email the Dr. S’s clinic with what’s been going on.

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That’s a lot of blood…

November 6: McSteamy and I have a ritual: Every morning, he jumps on the bed for a cuddle and purr session. (He’s better at purring than I am.) He’s not Mr. Punctuality, so if I’m already up when he shows up for cuddle time, he insists I get back in bed. Really, not a bad way to start the day.

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It’s so nice, we sometimes do this later in the day as well

But this day, when Jean has to be up early for a work trip, he sees McSteamy start up the stairs for the cuddle… Then give up and head back to his hiding place in the basement.

Uh oh.

I make this a “work from home” day. McSteamy seems miserable. He’s withdrawn, lethargic. I’m thinking he’s dying.

The clinic calls around 10:00 in response to the email. I give the update. They want me to bring him in the next day. In the meantime, he appears to be in pain, so they prescribe opioids, which I can pick up from my local vet. I give him some that evening.

November 7: McSteamy jumps on the bed for a morning cuddle, seeming completely himself. Yay, opioids!

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Terrible picture, but very nice to see him happy that morning!

Jean’s still away, so I’m off to Guelph again. (At least not in rush hour.) On arrival, they take him into the back room. Eventually, the bring him back. “That was much more bleeding than I was expecting.”

But they’ve cleaned him up, and re-cauterized his wounds.

“Can you bring him back Friday?”

November 8 to November 28: With all the trips to and from Guelph, I’ve done more driving this month than I typically do all year. Google seems to suggest a different route each time, so I’m not even really learning the way.

I has to be said, though, that Dr. S has been great, giving up his lunch hours and such, and not charging me for his time, only for materials (and sometimes not even that).

But McSteamy is in a bit of cycle: The wounds heal, dry up, fall into the ear (they call that “necrotic debris”), which gets itchy, so he scratches, thus wounding his ears again. They suggest an e-collar, but I can’t bring myself to make him wear one of those all the time. (How will he eat? How will he groom?)

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Except for this photo op, we didn’t make him wear this

But I’m also fearing he’ll never heal up.

I Google. I find a suggestion: Gluing Soft Claws—little plastic caps—on his back claws. This is no easy task, even with a fairly placid cat like McSteamy, but in the interest of de-stressing his wife, Jean gets it done (while I hold the cat), with tweezers and crazy glue. McSteamy looks pretty cute with his sparkling toes.

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Some other cat in soft claws

These caps are supposed to stay in place for six weeks. I’d say it was more like one week. But, it worked! That seemed just enough time to get the ears to heal.

The visits to Guelph get farther apart. McSteamy seems to be recovering well.

December 6 to 14: Zoë, my other cat, is in for a routine checkup. She seems fine, but she is 14. And the vet notes that she’s been losing weight.

Zoë likes variety, so eating only rabbit meat hasn’t entirely agreed with her. But also, the blood work says, her liver values are “off”. She’s prescribed antibiotics and supplements.

But of course.

I’m expecting more pills, but am handed two liquid antibiotics. When we give the first to Zoë, she starts foaming from the mouth as though poisoned. Then she has to get another. I call the vet.

“Normal”, apparently. Medicine is very bitter, and that’s how cats react to bitter.

She has to get this stuff twice a day, for five days with one, seven with the other (which isn’t quite as bitter but apparently still not a treat).

Oh, and Jean, who was supposed to get a break from work travel in December… Suddenly hHas to go away on work travel. All week.

I am not coping well. But at least Zoë forgives me for poisoning her twice daily. Maybe because, with Dr. S’s blessing, I also expand her food horizons to other low allergen foods: venison, duck, pork, kangaroo (!).

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Zoë will only lie on you if you have a blanket barrier

December 26: Christmas break was excellent, and much needed. On our return, McSteamy seems in great shape, very active and playful and happy to see us. Zoë is also fine; well done her with meds now and enjoying the food variety.

December 27: “Don’t mean to alarm you,” says Jean. “But feel this lump on McSteamy’s jaw.”

December 28: I bring McSteamy to the local vet. She notes that the lump is exactly where a lymph node is, but that none of his other lymph nodes seem affected. She does a needle aspiration to send to the lab. But with the holidays, we won’t get results for four days. McSteamy is put on antiobiotics—just pills, not nasty liquid.

January 4, 2019: McSteamy still seems fine, but the antiobiotics have had no effect on the lump—in fact, it seems to be spreading. The lab results are that it’s a “reactive lymph node”, but what is it reacting to? We see a different vet at the local clinic, who says to consider that this could be cancer. We’d have to get a biopsy done to find out more. That’s an expensive surgical procedure—also painful.

McSteamy has an appointment with Dr. S the following week, but this vet seems doubtful the ear has anything to do with this. She suggests postponing that appointment.

Dr S’s office is closed til Monday, but I email them about the situation and ask if it makes sense to bring him in, and that if not, that we’ll cancel (and give Dr. S his lunch break back).

January 9: We decide against putting McSteamy through another surgical procedure (the biopsy), and instead try upping the dose of the steroid he’s been on since his ear surgery. No reply to my email so I call Dr. S’s office, but I just get the machine.

I don’t bring McSteamy to his appointment.

January 10: By email, I hear from Dr. S’s office, a day late, that it would have been good to bring him in for a check. That’s unfortunate to find out now, I reply. When I get a new appointment?

Not til January 23.

January 11 to 12: McSteamy is slowing down, the swelling spreading. The steroids haven’t really helped; the local vets seem out of ideas. I’m thinking it’s cancer, he’s dying. (The cancer treatment options for cats aren’t great.) We’re wondering how long we can keep him comfortable. Every time I suspect he’s nearing that point, I fall apart.

Just in case, I pick up more cat opioids from the vet. Maybe that will buy more time.

January 13: McSteamy’s behavior on opioids is odd this time. He seems skittish, hyper, confused.

January 14: I talk to the vet. McSteamy seems to be experiencing “euphoria”. Try him on half a dose of the opioid, she suggests. We do, and that’s better, but then we figure… Perhaps he doesn’t need a painkiller at all (yet). True. That is good.

However, now he’s having trouble eating dry food, and he’s starting to lose weight. His left ear has developed a weird smell, and some bleeding, possibly from him scratching at it again.

January 15: Bring both cats to the original vet. Zoë seems great, gaining weight. McSteamy… not so much. The vet doesn’t know what else to suggest. She says she’ll write up a full report for Dr. S, and see what his advice is. She hopes to hear back in a day or two.

Thinking comfort, I ask for ear drops and for high-fat “recovery” can food typically given to sick cats. The drops (which McSteamy remains unimpressed with) do seem to help the ear somewhat, and both cats like the food.

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McSteamy, hanging in there

January 21: No word from Dr. S’s office still, but Jean suggests that I bring McSteamy there anyway. I contact them to confirm the appointment, and they say they haven’t heard from my vet, but will ask her to send the report again.

January 23: Weather is dodgy, so I take an Uber to Guelph. The driver is very friendly; turns out his wife is a catsitter! The driver wants the job of driving me back to Waterloo, but Uber doesn’t make this easy to arrange. We eventually figure it out, and he waits around at the clinic while I take McSteamy in to be seen.

Turns out the local vet did send the report on January 15, but due to a fax malfunction (fax?!?), they didn’t get it until the following week.

McSteamy has lost over 1 kg of weight. And the swelling in his jaw is… significant.

They take him into a back room to scope his ear and do a needle aspiration. The results:

  • There is new polyp in his left ear, where the lymph node reacted.
  • It seems to have caused an abscess (the swelling) that can be treated with an injectable antiobiotic.
  • While not definitive, the needle aspiration showed no sign of cancer.
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Texting Jean from Dr. S’s clinic

January 25 to 27: Planning to be away for the weekend, and I’m beside myself on how to get McSteamy to eat enough given that he’s only eating can food, which dries up quickly once left out. We arrange to leave later on Friday, and get back earlier on Sunday. I hire not one by two catsitters so he can get three visits a day, and I leave them crazy complex instructions on how to encourage eating.

Both catsitters assure me that he eats at every visit.

January 27: Back home, McSteamy’s jaw swelling seems to have shrunk somewhat, though certainly not gone. I Google “Best dry food to get cats to gain weight”. The suggestion is Iams kitten food. High fat, high protein, with little tiny kibbles (“for tiny mouths!”). That might work.

And hey, they sell it at Walmart, which is open Sunday night.

January 28 to February 1: It’s a relief when McSteamy takes to the kitten food (and Zoë likes it, too). I can happily refill their dishes at will, with food that will stay fresh all day. McSteamy still seems awfully thin, but has regained some energy and resumed imperiously walking around the house, meowing for attention.

And continues jumping on the bed for cuddles.

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Zoë, meanwhile, continues to gain weight, and a new blood test shows that her liver values have improved. Who would have thought that a liver condition is so much easier to deal with than ear polyps?

Up next: McSteamy gets a repeat of the injectable antibiotic and an ear treatment next week.

The week after that, another consult with Dr. S. One decision to make: Whether to do more ear surgery, to remove the new polyp.

(What could go wrong…?)


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New Year’s Eve 2018

With The Berlin having changed to a tavern format, we weren’t sure where to go for New Year’s Eve dinner this year. We strongly considered The Bruce in Stratford, which had a dinner, dance, and room option, but that would have been rather pricey—they charged more than usual for rooms that night—and likely not worth it giving that Jean had to work til 5 on the Eve and had to plans to canoe the morning of New Year’s day.

We then considered Swine and Vine, but weren’t entirely bowled over by the set menu. We’d earlier in the year been a little underwhelmed by Loloan Lobby Bar, but a friend who’d been more recently had been very impressed. They were offering a 9-course menu. We decided to go with that.

As per tradition, to get there we took Grand River Transit up on their offer of free transportation, despite it being a miserably rainy evening. We had one connection, which worked out well, and arrived slightly early (as the route planner predicted), which wasn’t a problem for getting seated. Unsurprisingly, given that Loloan’s dining area isn’t all that big, they were sold out for the evening.

Starters

the mighty bouche

grilled spiny lobster, wing beans, black trumpet mushroom & sea buckthorn berries, green curry

sous-vide and seared mcintosh farm goose breast in ‘gaeng som’ nage, young papaya paysanne

Matching wine: 2016 Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay Watson Ranch, Napa Valley, CA

The Amuze!

If I recall correctly, the amuse featured cucumber and papaya with various flavorings. I do know that it was an auspicious start.

The wine arrived next, in rather generous 3 oz servings. Chardonnay can be tricky, but this was a really lovely, unoaked one. We weren’t completely sure what it was meant to match, but it was indeed both of the next items, the lobster and the goose.

Lobster Bits :)

We always get a bit skeptical of lobster in our far-from-the-sea location, but I’m not sure why, since lobster is usually cooked from live? At an rate, the lobster was very good, and this was a lovely combination of flavors.

The best ever Goose sous-vide!

The goose, though, was possibly the highlight of the evening. It kind of tasted like duck. Unusually delicious duck (and duck is usually pretty delicious). The broth was salty, but not too salty.

Mains

kashmiri chili oil roasted salt spring island sablefish, tomato, lemongrass and turmeric ‘shan state’ glaze, jasmine rice and organic potato saffron croquette, northern divine caviar

Matching wine: 2015 Bergstrom Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon

passionfruit calamansi sorbet

dark west sumatran grass fed beef short rib curry and medium rare striploin in classic ‘padang’ style with duck fat jerusalem artichoke, aromatic creamed greens, red cabbage ‘achar’ and black truffle

Matching wine: 2015 ‘Banshee’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA

2015 was a warm year in Oregon (we found out from the sommelier), so the Pinot Noir was fruitier and fuller than they often are. Quite lovely.

The main course serving sizes were quite modest, as you can see, making it entirely possible to get through nine courses without feeling stuffed. The sablefish was nicely cooked, very moist. The croquettes were a highlight.

The Cabernet Sauvignon was of course a fuller wine. It was a great example of the style, but it’s not our favourite style, so we actually didn’t finish these glasses.

We also aren’t big beef people, but this rib dish was also nice, and we did finish that.

Dessert

croquembouche: the classic french festival pile. *pandan *tamarind *chai *blueberry ginger *lime curd

cheese

chocolate

Matching wine: 2016 Stratus Botrytis Semillon, Niagara, ON

No photo of the croquembouche, but they were little balls of light pastry with the listed fillings, which was fun.

The “boytritis semillon” is less-appealing sounding name for the same grape and process that French Sauternes wine go through. So this was a pleasant, complex sweet wine, but it would have benefited from more aging.

The cheese course included three types of cheese, along with naan, honey, and other accompaniments. I can’t remember the details, four glasses of wine in, but it was a creative and tasty assortment.

Looking beyond the Chocolate

The chocolate was single, house-made truffle each.

So yes, each course was a hit, and the wines were very enjoyable. (Should mention that matching wines were a choice, and that they could have been done with just a choice of three instead of four. Which appears might have been smart for us.) Service was excellent throughout, also. It wasn’t a cheap night out, but it might have been worth it.


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Advantages to spending Christmas in Timmins

Not everyone comes from an exciting home town, but home it is, and that’s where we typically head for Christmas. Of course, the biggest bonus is getting together with family, since we are now disbursed and rarely all in the same room. (“I really enjoy these leisurely McNair breakfasts, with conversation,” Jean commented, on about day 3. “Doesn’t really happen with my family.” Of course, other good things do happen with his family, I feel I should add!)

My brother and niece unwrapping gifts Christmas

Overall, it was a lovely Christmas, with most everyone up, no travel problems, delicious food, and no one with serious ill issues.

But I also realized there are other benefits to Christmas in Timmins.

Snow

Sometimes it’s only a little snow, sometimes it’s a ridiculous amount of snow, but there’s always snow in Timmins in December! If you live in some beautiful, sunny, and warm part of the world, not having snow at Christmas is not much of a tragedy, despite its traditional association with the season. But in southern Ontario, where we now live, no snow typically means gray, coo, dreary, drizzly weather. It’s just depressing. (And thanks to climate change, it’s what we can expect for one of two Christmases from now on.)

Me in a snowy landscape, full of natural Christmas trees

Taking care of (government) business

This one applies only to those living in Ontario, but… Are the lineups to take your driver’s test just too long in Toronto? Have you been putting off replacing your old red and white health card? If you said yes, then you’re probably related to me.

Having been discouraged by the Toronto crowds, on December 24, my nephew went to the Ministry of Transportation office in Timmins, and passed his driver’s test! Same day, his father went to Services Ontario and got himself a proper photo ID health card. In about five minutes.

Same province, fewer people, faster service!

Shopping!

Of course Southern Ontario has more stores, but is more always better? No running around to different LCBOs to get the wine you want; you just go to the only one there is and make do with what they have. And at the only men’s clothing store downtown, you might just discover, as Jean did, that custom-made shirts are much cheaper there, and that they’ll ship them to your house.

Grosbeaks

The blue jays, cardinals, and eagles we have around here are cool, but dig these red and yellow grosbeaks. (The pileated woodpecker also made an appearance.)

Wherever you were for Christmas, hope you made the best of it. In Timmins this year, that wasn’t hard.

 


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Hey, ho and away we go! Donkey riding in the Douro

The original choice for our Fall vacation was the Exodus trip Walking the Prosecco Hills, but when we went to book it, they had only one spot left. So we switched to Portugal: Walking and Wine. This was classed as a Premium trip, meaning 4- and 5-star hotels, and was rated a walking level 1, suggesting easier walking than our previous level 2 Exodus trips. We were a bit concerned that October in the Douro region could be somewhat rainy, but we figured we’d just prepare for that possibility and hope for the best.

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The area we’d be visiting

Day 1: The Canadian invasion

A definite plus for this trip was the direct flights from Toronto to Porto, even though the choices were two budget airlines: Air Transat or Air Canada Rouge. We went with Rouge, as it had a better itinerary.

Though it was (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, things went really smoothly at Pearson: Baggage drop, check-in, boarding… We even had time (before boarding) for an unusually good airport meal at Lee’s (as in Chef Susur Lee). The flight itself took off on time and actually arrived early. Rouge does have older planes without back-of-seat screens (there’s an app you can use to watch movies on your tablet), but at least we were in a row of just two seats, on the side, which was nice.

We had a bit of wait until our Exodus transport would show up (timed for the British flight scheduled for a couple hours later), so we had some lunch and picked up a local SIM card: $30 for 5 GB of data, baby! Great service at the Vodaphone booth, as well.

The British flight ended up delayed by an extra hour, but by then the Exodus people were there anyway and agreed to drive us and one other person who’d already arrived to the hotel at the original time. We faced a long, slow lineup to check in at the hotel, but once we got to our room, we found that it was fine.

The group meeting was at 5:00. We met our two guides, Ricardo and Luis, and the rest of the group. We’d been expecting mostly Brits, as on previous tours, but of the other 14, only three were British (one of them currently residing in California, which left her with wicked jet lag). There was an Australian couple. And everybody else was Canadian! 11 strong. Other than the Brits and us, everyone else had been doing other touring around Portugal before joining the walking trip. (We did have an extra two days tacked onto the end.)

No organized dinner this evening, so we walked Porto’s twisty streets and found a small (literally, the width of an aisle) tapas restaurant to eat in. We tried a few different dishes that were all good, especially the goat cheese melt, and each had a glass of white vino verde. Jean also had a bit of port with dessert.

Church in Porto (photos by Jean, unless otherwise noted)

Day 2: Walking in the valley

In the morning after breakfast (breakfast was included with the hotel each day, all of them offering a very nice buffet), we left our hotel for the Meso Frio region, a couple of hours’ drive away. Our first stop was a coffee shop, and then we embarked upon one of the more strenuous hikes of the trip, in terms of elevation change. (In length it was 7 km.) It was still easier than many on the other Exodus trips we’d been on, but a vigorous start to this trip. The day was gorgeous.

The scenery wasn’t super spectacular on this one, but we saw a lot of agriculture products growing (walnuts, kale, lemons, grapes…), and some sheep.

We had a bag lunch on the trail, then after the hike (which was a definite challenge for some in the group), we were driven to our new hotel. It was in a vineyard, and was very fine.

Not exactly roughing it in Portugal

Dinner was at the hotel. The food was palatable but not outstanding. It was becoming clear this would be a fun group, though.

Day 3: Going to market to learn about port

This day’s walk was only about 4 km, and all on winery grounds. It was another beautiful day, and we got some great views of the just astonishing terraces of the Douro region. They are just everywhere, and so elaborate!

Terraces in the background

And terraces in the foreground (photo by Helen)

Mid-point through the hike, Ricardo said that those who wanted could go off on an extra little jog to see something special. Many on the trip thought he was saying that it was a market we were going to—though that was a bit confusing, as it was in kind of an isolated, rural place that required some climbing: How were people going to get their wares up there?

Then we arrived a rectangular rock. What Ricardo had been actually saying, in his Portuguese accent, was that we were going to see a marker. Basically, a stone signpost demarcating the official Douro wine region. The placement of these–there are some 300 in total–were an important phase in the development of this wine industry. But a lot of the group was in giggles at their thought that we were going to market.

Ricardo and the marker of the Douru region (photo by Helen)

Our lunch at the end of the hike was at a winery called Quinta do Tedo. It was a buffet with cheese, quiche, cod cakes, chutney, and of course, wine.

We then got a tour and a bit of a primer on the port-making process. At this particular, relatively small, winery, they still used foot crushing for the port-destined grapes. (At least, I don’t think he was kidding about that—our guide here definitely was a kidder.) Though it should be noted that they use the same grapes for port as they do for red wine—just process them differently. Tawny port is aged in much smaller barrels than ruby, imparting more of the wood taste into the drink. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years. They keep aging in the bottle, but must be drunk pretty quickly once opened. The non-vintage do not age after bottling, but once opened, can be kept for up to year without deterioration.

We then tasted the port: A rose (a type I’d never had before), a tawny, and a ruby. All of them were good and smooth, but the rose was the sweetest, and the tawny was my favorite overall.

Our next stop was the Douro museum, dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region. We got an interesting guided tour of it. Wine-making in the past was extremely labour-intensive!

Back at our hotel, we found a bunch of MG’s in the parking lot. Sadly, they weren’t for us. An MG hobby group were holding a meeting here.

Just a few of the MGs in the parking lot

For dinner that night, we drove into the nearby (15 minutes) town. Big group dinners are always a challenge, but this restaurant managed it pretty well. Ricardo warned us that the entrees were quite large and best shared. Jean was insistent on having veal stew, while I tend not to eat veal, so I shared a salmon dinner with one of the singles on the trip. It was prepared very nicely, and served with good potatoes and cabbage/carrot mix. Jean did a masterful job on his generous serving of veal stew.

Day 4: Vertigo on a rail line, and death at a funeral

We were moving on again, but a full day of activities before arriving at the new hotel. Today’s hike was the longest of the trip, at 10 km, but was mostly flat: a former rail line. The day was once again gorgeous.

Turns out we needn’t have worried about October weather in Portugal

There wasn’t too much drama on this trail, except that to save time, we were encouraged to cross a bridge with openings looking down on a fairly big drop. There was a railing and all, so I thought it would be OK, but once I got on it, the vertigo set in and the heart started racing. I couldn’t get across it fast enough, so every time the group stopped (probably just twice) was kind of torturous. But we all survived it without any obvious panic attacks. (One group member, Carolyn, did so by taking an alternate route down and around the bridge instead, with the second guide.)

The scary bridge (photo by Helen)

After the walk, we were driven to Casa de Mateus, a beautiful property belonging to a member of Portugal’s royal family. Its association with the Mateus bubbly rose wine from Portugal is tenuous: that winery just got permission to use the image of the estate in its branding.

We got a tour of the chapel and the lovely rooms full of art, including the very impressive library, then had some time to wander on our own through the beautiful gardens.

One of the more stunning pieces in the Mateus collection

The goal here was to make a mini Versaille

Our next stop was at the waterfalls in Alvao Natural Park, but they really aren’t that impressive this time of year. Not much water falling.

A more interesting view than the waterfall

Dinner that night was at our new hotel, which was also lovely, and, it turned out, served some of the best food we had on the trip (goat cheese on croute, sea bass or lamb main, creme brulee… All very well prepared). Making it easier to forgive the sometimes choppy service. One thing we learned on this trip was that vinho verde comes in red and rose as well as white. We shared a bottle of the red with the Australian couple. It’s definitely unusual—tastes kind of like a fresh white, but with extra tannin—but when else are you going to be able to drink it? [Red green wine: very Canadian!]

The group was in great spirits, and one point everyone within proximity was in hysterical laughter over Cheryl’s descriptions of scenes from the movie Death at a Funeral—even though most of us had never seen it. It was just contagious laughter. That only accelerated when her acting out of one scene had her backing into another table. Fortunately, the couple sitting there were good sports about it. (I guess I need to watch Death at Funeral now. It is on Netflix. I was warned to watch the British version, not the American.)

Day 5: Winery, oui oui oui! Octopus, non non non!

Today’s walk was through another winery, Quinta das Escomoeiras, which offered longer and more challenging terrain than our previous winery walk. And it was lovely weather again.

We then got a tour by the winery owner, who purchased the vineyard 24 years ago, after a career as an economist. It required a lot of rehabilitation before becoming a going concern. He explained where the name vinho verdo (green wine) came from. In the early years, they planted the grape vines too close together, and therefore didn’t produce a very good quality product. It was low alcohol and actually had a bit of a green tinge. They improved the process and the product later on, but the name stuck.

As vinho verde is a food wine, instead of a tasting it on its own, we had the opportunity to try the white, rose, and red with a delicious buffet lunch. It was a leisurely meal on the patio, with a distinct feeling amongst the group that we could just stay here all day.

Roughing it in the bush

Our favourite wine was the rose, which I considered purchasing, given that I don’t know that we can get anything but white vinho verde back home? (A Google search says that yes, I can.) But ultimately I decided against carting a bottle of wine around for the rest of the trip, and instead bought a small bottle of dried stevia. (Fernando also grew a number of herbs on his property.)

We were eventually convinced to get back into the vans for a ride back to the hotel, with a little stop at a grocery store on the way. We agreed to go into town for dinner this evening. It was a small, family-run restaurant (not a big town, so not sure what else they’d have there), with a somewhat limited menu, but fine for us (and not so much for those who aren’t into fish, seafood, or pork). Jean, I, and Cheryl, sitting next to us all decided to try one of the specialties: octopus in olive oil. It arrived in the form of a large tentacle on the plate (with veggies on the side).

Helen, sitting opposite us, could hardly stand it. She was totally turned off by the look of this food, and was facing three plates of it! (It was actually quite tasty and tender.) Unfortunate, but kind of funny, from our perspective.

I believe that it’s about this point in the trip that we started doing singalongs in the van. (Wine might have played a role in all this.) One song that kept making everyone laugh was “Donkey Riding” (which I think of as a Great Big Sea tune, but it’s actually an old sea shanty). Apparently some people in Alberta used to sing that song in school. “It’s so stupid!” said Cheryl. “Was you ever in Quebec, riding on a donkey? What…? Why did they teach us that?”

Some questions have no answers.

Another one, courtesy Jean, was “Chevalier de la table ronde”, with everyone joining in on the “Oui, oui, oui!” / “Non, non, non!” parts. Kind of an appropos song for this wine-soaked journey.

Day 6: A little rain and a near-death experience in California

The first rain of the trip occurred overnight, but mostly petered out by the time we started the day’s 8 km walk, along a waterway. There are a few tricky bits through some water-covered parts, but nothing we couldn’t manage (though a couple of group members did opt to skip this one, and Helen got a minor injury from slipping on a rock).

The waterway walk

Afterward, we drove up to a chapel on a (small) mountain that we’d been able to see from our hotel. Driving up there, on twisty roads near the edge, Caroline rather casually told us about how she’d been on similar roads in California when the bus driver had a massive heart attack and died, causing the bus to lurch over the edge. Thanks to fast action from one passenger, greater disaster was averted, and everyone ultimately managed to evacuate with only minor injuries.

But I can see why Carolyn isn’t so fond of heights and was rather tense during this drive.

In less death-defying news, the clouds had cleared enough by this time so we were able to take in the views from there. (Those who skipped the hike also joined us here.)

The chapel

The views

Given a choice between the hotel and the octopus restaurant, the group almost unanimously selected the hotel. Jean and I both had a duck with rice dish called arroz de pato that I’d like to find a recipe for. (And also of the caldo verde we had a few times—a kale-based soup that is really nice.)

Day 7: “An air of melancholy has settled over the group”

The morning before leaving, Jean took some lovely photos at our hotel. People were a bit more subdued this day, as the trip was drawing to a close. “An air of melancholy has settled over the group,” Carolyn observed.

We headed back to Porto, and the original hotel. On arrival, we put our luggage in storage, and Ricardo gave us a bit of a city tour: the train station, Cafe Majestic, Se de Porto, Dom Luis bridge… We crossed the bridge and ended up in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister city.

This is where all the famous port is made: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Offley, Fonseca, Sandeman… Here we got another tour of one of them (not the biggest name), which provided a somewhat clearer explanation of the whole process than we’d received in Quinta do Tedo. (One more tidbit: late vintage ports are those they had thought might become vintage, but then decide aren’t quite good enough, so they stop the aging process by adding alcohol. So they become another that last a good while after opening. And are generally pretty nice ports.) Here they made white port as well as the other types. We warned that extra dry white port—still isn’t what most people would consider a dry wine.

We tasted a white and a tawny here. In this case we preferred the white.

We then had free time til dinner, so Jean and I wandered off in search of lunch. It was very busy in that area, but we did eventually find a recommended place to eat—a bit tricky to locate using Google because it was upstairs. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were offered white port. Sure, why not. The food was also good, a few tapas followed by a dish called Bacalhau à Brás (I think) that is quite popular in these parts—a mix of cod, potato, and egg.

We did some random ambling before checking in to the hotel and meeting the group for dinner, which was at a restaurant across the street. And was kind of a shambles! Orders mixed up. Bills incorrect. Timing way off. We ended up with two mini-bottles of wine after ordering one, and I believe we were over-charged for appetizers. But at least the food tasted OK.

We said our good-byes to everyone at the end, and then we had two days on our own.

Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane

To start, we changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper than the one included in our tour. It turned out very well. The room was a little smaller, but the location somewhat more convenient, and it had bathrobes! (I’m a sucker for getting a free bathrobe.)

We took a little stop at the local McDonald’s, which seems wrong, but this was very attractive one. (Also, the coffee there is pretty good, and I needed the restroom.)

Not your average McDonald’s

But the Ribeira / Vila Nova de Gaia is a very crowded area of town, so this day we decided to head to the Malagaia area.

Porto's tiled Church

Jean took a few photos on the way. This tiling is very characteristic of Porto

We visited the free Museum of Photography which, apart from exhibiting some photographs, also showed photographic equipment from years past, which was quite interesting!

Photography Museum

Photos in one minute! It’s easy! (That was a bit of an exaggeration, if you read the fine print…)

For lunch, we happened upon a Michelin-recommended restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of the trip. Highlights were Jean’s sea bass and my strawberry soup with basil ice cream for dessert.

Carpaccio of Pinnaple was terrific!

This pineapple dessert with port ice cream was also nice

Jean then agreed to go on a tour of the Casa de Musica, or music hall, that is a fairly recent addition to Porto. No photos, but it’s an architecturally interesting building with all sorts of nooks and crannies to tour—VIP rooms, babysitting area, floating bars in the window, acoustically perfect concert halls… Definitely worth the 8 euros and 1 hour to learn about it.

Rain was predicted for the evening, as Portugal was expecting its first-ever “zombie hurricane” (Hurricane Michael, rising from the dead). The epicentre of high winds wasn’t Porto, but certainly it got heavy rainfall. So we didn’t go too far for dinner. We found a slightly pricey but quite decent restaurant nearby to suit our needs.

Day 9: Potted Potter

In Porto, people line up to get into a bookstore called Lello. One reason they do this is that it’s a gorgeous building. The other is that JK Rowling was inspired by Porto to write Harry Potter. And I expect it’s the latter that really explains the crowds, as Porto has a lot of nice buildings.

We decided to do it. We got there at soon as it opened, at 9:30. There was already a line. You have to buy tickets to get in (credited against any book purchase), so we did that. After about 20 minutes in line, maybe, we were let in.

But it’s crazy in there. It is gorgeous, but so packed with people, it’s hard to appreciate. And forget about calmly perusing for something to read. They tell people not to be too loud in there, to not disrupt people trying to think (or whatever). As if anyone could get lost in thought in here! But at least, now we know.

After that, we decamped to the Museum of Art. It’s not a very big one, but did have some nice works, particularly sculptures. And it wasn’t crowded at all.

One of the gorgeous statues on display

After lunch at our new favourite restaurant in Porto, we did a little shopping. I got a purse made of cork (yes!) and a cute top. Jean bought a bag. Then it was a bit more walking, and a final dinner at a restaurant with a Madeira focus, that was quite pleasant.

The Catholic Glow!

Last day photo, and one of the best

The flight home, in contrast to our smooth departure one, was rather chaotic, with people lining up all over the place and impossible to hear announcements. And once on, we ended up having to wait an hour while they located and removed the bags of six people who didn’t make it onto the flight, for some reason. But then the flight generally went as well as can be expected, until my luggage didn’t show up.

The Air Canada attendant explained that my suitcase had ended up with the “connecting flight” ones—likely moved during that search for the bags to remove, one supposes. After 2 hours of waiting, it hadn’t make it onto the carousel, so they agreed to have it delivered to me. It did arrive on my doorstep by 6:00 AM the next day. (And that way we did beat the worst of rush hour traffic driving home from the airport, as Jean pointed out.)

A final song to finish, in salute to Carolyn, who seems to have played a rather prominent role in this blog post!


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Renovation

Our master bedroom / main bathroom renovation, originally estimated as a 4- to 5-week job, actually took about 11 weeks. But now, it’s (basically) done!

And we are happy with the results. This was the starting point for the bathroom:

And this is how it ended up:

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And, OK, we aren’t completely sure about that blue shade for the wall colour, but that’s easy enough to change later. But to take in what happened here:

  • Complete tear-down and replacement of walls and flooring
  • Room made smaller, to accommodate a closet in the bedroom
  • Entrance from the bedroom closed off
  • Separate shower and bathtub combined into one new unit
  • (Toilet is not shown, but it is beside the bathtub)
  • One sink replaced with two
  • New sink cabinet with seven drawers
  • Mirrors above the sink with shelving behind them
  • New countertop, flooring, lighting, tile, and ceiling fan

So generally, despite less square footage, we have more storage space, and all new stuff. The new flooring feels nice under the feet.

As for the bedroom, this where it started (except it normally had furniture in it):

And this is how it ended up:

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Here we are pleased with the paint colours! And with getting the yucky carpet replaced with cork flooring; having a bigger closet; the extra space in general; the cool barn door; and the overhead new light (not pictured but it is installed).

Work by Schweitzer’s Plumbing. Though it did take longer than estimated, they did seem to do a good job on each phase of the project.


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Annual expedition to Lake Erie area

We seem to have made it a habit to visit the Lake Erie wine region about once a year. We’ve been liking it partly because it’s less crowded than the Niagara and Prince Edward County areas. But, seems that it, too, has been increasing in popularity recently. Though we didn’t wait til the last minute, we basically couldn’t find anywhere to stay in Kingsville. We ended up at a fine but uninspiring motel in the uninspiring nearby town of Leamington. We slept there but spent our days elsewhere.

Activities

The initially rainy forecast fortunately changed, and we had mostly sun on Friday and Saturday (though an incredible thunderstorm overnight Saturday) and just intermittent rain Sunday. Kingsville was having a Folk Festival, with Alan Doyle as the headliner. (That might have explained the difficulty finding a place to stay.) We decided not to get tickets for that, but did walk the grounds around there Friday night.

On Saturday, we did some hiking at Point Pelee park again. There were signs up that the stable flies were out (see: Be aware of the Stable Flies on Trip Advisor), so we stayed away from the tip, and we didn’t particularly notice them in other parts of the park.

We did see some less annoying wild life.

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On Sunday we spent some time in Amherstburg, particularly at Fort Malden. We hadn’t been before, and it was an interesting visit. The fort was placed there by the British to defend against the Americans—not always successfully, as it was also the site of the “longest American occupation on British soil.”

We were there in time to a see (and, especially, hear and feel) a canon firing by the staff. And as you see, there were also certain interesting canon-related statues.

Wineries

We did “official” tastings at three—Aleksander Estate, Muscedere, and North 42—and had lunch at Oxley Estate. The winning grapes across several wineries seemed to be the Pinot Gris, Rose (from either Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc grapes), and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aleksander had a Chambourcin, which is unusual—and a nice light red. North 42 were sadly out of their delicious Sauvignon Blanc sparkling, but did have a really interesting dry Gerwurtz. Muscedere had some very cute goats helping to tend the grounds; the Vidal named in their honour was nice and apple-y.

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We previously weren’t that impressed with Oxley’s wines (unlike their food), so weren’t going to bother doing a wine tasting there, but they did offer “wine flights” with lunch. That meant you got 2 oz. of any three wines of your choices. I did that, and along with Jean’s one glass, we found that their wines had quite improved. We especially liked their Pinot Gris and Auxerrois, both more complex fruity whites.

Restaurants

The guy doing the wine tasting at Aleksander suggested Merlis to us for dinner. We decided to try it. The owner was super chatty and loved to explain how he sourced all his ingredients as locally as possible and changed the menu up regularly. To help us decide what to eat he first for a hunger assessment on a scale of 1 to 10. As I was more of a 3 or 4 I was guided to the eggplant Parmesan—it was actually pretty light and quite tasty. Jean was hungrier had the meatloaf special (along with helping me with my side gnocchi).

We also discovered an incredible chocolate shop in Kingsville, by the simple name of Old Dutch Guys Chocolate. Some of the best truffles I’ve had in ages.

North 42 had opened a bistro restaurant that we looked forward to trying on Saturday. Unfortunately, the service was kind of choppy, and while the food wasn’t bad, it didn’t really blow us away. Nice room, though.

Overall best this time (as we didn’t make it Mettawas Station) was probably Oxley Estates. We arrived right a big rain storm had sent them scrambling (much of the seating is outdoors), but they were able to accommodate us promptly nonetheless. And our meal of a cheese platter for me and pickerel for Jean was quite nice.