Friday, 12 August 2011

This Is What Latvian Woodlands Sound Like In August

I don't know what makes that noise - it must be a grasshopper. Whatever it is, I like it!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The West London Connection With The National Bird of Latvia

The bird I was most hoping to see on our long weekend in Latvia was the White Stork.

We were there for Vince and Daiga's wedding. Vince, who's no bird watcher, had reliably informed us that the Storks would still be around in August.

They're like our Swallows to the Latvians. Their arrival from Africa in the spring signals the end of the bitterly cold Baltic winter and the start of longer and warmer days. People tempt them into their villages, farms and gardens by erecting columns with wide platforms at the top - ready-made for the welcome visitors to build their massive nests out of piles of sticks.

And the birds don't disappoint. They seem to like being near people and happily raise their young very close to farms and houses - very often on the top of pylons. Daiga told us that many people thought it was very lucky to have one nesting close by.
We got our first glimpse of them on the two-hour bus ride from Riga to Talsi. The first one was only ten minutes from the centre of the capital - strutting around in a bit of greenery near a shopping centre.

And as the packed bus sped along the arrow-straight road lined with mile after mile of pine and silver birch trees, the Stork numbers kept on rising.

So you'd think they'd be a shoo-in to be the nation's national bird. But bizarrely, they're not.

That honour goes to the slender, graceful, yet comparatively humble White Wagtail - another summer visitor virtually identical to the Pied Wagtail familiar to everyone who's ever been to a playground or shopping centre in England.

The national bird of Latvia

I snapped this young one in the fabulous Laumu Dabas country park near Talsi where the wedding celebrations took place. It was chosen as the national bird in 1960 by the International Bird Protection Council. Fair enough - it's  a nice bird. Not as striking as the bandit-masked Red Backed Shrike or the charismatic Spotted Flycatcher, which were both showing well at the weekend, but very cheerful and eye-catching nonetheless.

Young Spotted Flycatcher. Old wooden Tortoise.
And when it calls it sounds like it's shouting, "Chiswick, Chiswick", over and over again. A little bit of West London in the bright and sunny heart of Latvia.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

How The Americans Hijacked The Great British Beer Festival

Perhaps sad but true - the best beer by far at the Great British Beer Festival this year was made in the USA.

Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA smells like a freshly halved grapefruit, explodes with American hoppiness and has a taste so vivid you can still feel it the next day. It's also 7.2% so needs approaching with some caution - but it's what those third-of-a-pint markers on the glass were made for.

I've been making the annual August pilgrimage to the festival for more than a decade. I've stood ankle deep in water when Olympia failed to cope with a thunderstorm; I've made quick dashes to Earls Court after work when I couldn't get the day off; I've been reunited with old friends and chinked glasses with  friends who now flee to Thailand for the summer; I've been with my dad and my brother - last year my brother and I raised a glass in the direction of Manchester Royal Infirmary where my dad was having a heart op. (Probably a lesson, there.)

It's always the drinking highlight of the year.

And the Americans have been getting better every year. Now their IPAs set the global standard. A beer named after the British pale ale exports from Burton to the Indian bit of the old empire has been transformed and modernised by a brewer in California.

Camra legend Roger Protz startled a few British drinkers some years ago when he named Goose Island IPA from Chicago as the best beer in the world. He spotted something early on. Now there's no denying that the US of A is making the globe's best IPA.

The Summit IPA from Minnesota was also a belter and more approachable at 6.2 per cent.

Are you sure you want another, sir?
The festival judges might be making a statement with their current fondness for unique British brews; they seem to hand out the majority of the pump rosettes to those dark stouts, milds and old ales that are an acquired taste for most people.

But even though I love a British bitter as much as the next man, I'm increasingly drawn to the Bieres Sans Frontieres bar at the festival.

Other notable beers sampled this year (from memory due to lost notes and programme):

Tomos Watkin's Cwrw Haf - citrusy from Swansea; Chiltern's Chiltern Gold - bit bitter; Bollington's Best Bitter - bronze medal winner from Cheshire; Houston's Peter's Well - gold medal-winning best bitter from Renfrewshire; Rudgate's Ruby Mild - silver medal-winning mild; Reigate's Pilgrim's Porter - sweet and dark; Holden's Golden Glow - bronze medal winner from Dudley; Triple F's Alton's Pride - familiar  bronze-winning bitter from Hampshire; Skinner's Heligan Honey - Cornish sweetie; Great Oakley's Abbey Stout - the taste of darkest Northants; Widmer Brothers Okto Festival Ale - Bavarian-style American brew from Portland, Oregon; Windsor & Eton's Knight of the Garter - a dashing golden ale.

Mexico was well represented this year