Beekeeping for Beginners

So there we were, last Friday afternoon, the Troubadour and I, out for a wee walk with Sammy, our friend Maggie’s ancient-but-sparky fox-dog. Bright sunshine, trees just beginning to turn yellow and red. On our way back, passing the distillery, we met my colleagues Dougie and Charley. Dougie seemed unusually delighted to see me. ‘Helen!’ he greeted me, ‘want to come and see the bees?’ Of course I’d been pestering him for months to get to see the bees, since they were installed. And on this occasion, Dougie (whom of course I admire and respect unreservedly!) was looking for a chance to nip home early to see to his dogs and ease himself into the weekend. Always glad to oblige, I followed them into the field and the story unfolded thus:IMAG0297

Now I realise I don’t know as much about bees as I thought. In fact, my knowledge is next to nil. But I am aware that if we don’t take action to save the bees, they are in danger of dying out; and that if the bees go, so does all their pollination, hence all of plant life is similarly afflicted.

The sceptical (and, presumably, ignorant) part of me wonders why we don’t have an artificial substitute for bee pollination by now. Is all this fuss just hippy nonsense, or is it true? I choose to believe the latter.

So I was delighted when the distillery decided to bring in the hives. Beekeeping is part of the Abbey’s history after all; and you can still see the beehive corner in the Abbey ruins. Our new hives are sheltered right in their lee.

IMAG0298The Troubadour was, incidentally, fascinated by the shed where the bee-suits are kept. Apparently he used to play his guitar at parties there long ago, when it was just a farm amid the Abbey ruins. If you listened carefully you could hear a ghostly twanging in the eaves. So he and Sammy reminisced while I struggled into the suit.

A beekeeping suit is just a boiler suit, I suppose, but with an emphasis on keeping the outside world at bay. Once you’re all zipped in, the helmet flips over from the back and then zips up from back to front of neck on either side, and there’s a tab to go over the place where the zips meet so that the bees can’t get through to your throat. Then there are gauntlets which come right up your arms so it would be difficult for a bee to crawl right down and sting your hands. I was already wearing thick socks over my leggings, and stout trainers, so my legs were safe. I include all this sartorial information because I am not by nature a poster girl! and wouldn’t be seen dead climbing into an outfit online if it weren’t for the pursuit of enlightenment (yours)!IMAG0299

Charley is a student colleague who is undertaking a Science Baccalaureat at school, and using the introduction of bees at the distillery as her research project. The Baccalaureat provides students with an opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from across the traditional school science curriculum. Beekeeping incorporates zoology, botany and chemistry; not so much physics but Charley is bringing that into another part of her research so that’s okay. This is surely a great way to approach learning and teaching in schools – doing a project like this will probably last in her memory for life, and provide a good foundation for wherever her brilliant career takes her next. Anyway she also has the opportunity to show the ropes to old fogeys like me, and that’s not something you learn every day!

We headed down the field with a bucket. The plan was to take off some honey, and I’d have been even more excited if I’d realised that this was the first ever honey they’d taken off. As it was, I was entranced by the whole experience.

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Between them, Dougie and Charley talked me through what I had to do. Actually my contribution was miniscule but very exciting. I don’t have the correct vocabulary for all of this, so apologies to all you experts out there; but what we wIMAG0322ere doing was taking screens out of sections of one of the hives – to inspect them, I think – and replacing them in a spare bit of hive which then went back on top. We kept one screen back, from the middle of the set, as it seemed to have the most honey in it. I had to give it a good ‘aerial dump’ – as if I was hitting it down on something but not actually making contact – to try and dislodge the bees. Once most of them were off, we put the screen in the bucket and lidded it; put the hive back together and strapped it up against foxes, mice, or other marauders, and laid a stone slab on top against the wind.

When I say ‘screen’, I’m referring to a section about 14 x 10 inches with a hexagonal honeycomb framework inside. I think, but I’m not sure, that these are provided for the bees to get started – rather than them having to build it all from scratch. Like everything else in life, the more I learn, the more I realise how ignorant I am. What we lifted out had most of the middle cells bulging and dripping with clear, light golden honey. We stuck our fingers in foIMAG0325r a taste and it was absolutely fabulous. Above is the Scientist and the Clumsy Assistant heading back to the kitchen to examine our wares. You can see the big smile on my face through the helmet.

Et voila! The first ever Lindores Abbey Distillery honey; and probably the first honey on this site since the Abbey was sacked about 460 years ago, at the Reformation. Charley was deservedly delighted by the fruits of her labours; Dougie had left the building; and we proudly took a bowl of our amber nectar around for everyone to have a taste.  Afternoon Tea guests may have found it a bit strange to have this little pot of gorgeous golden goo dumped down alongside their dainty teatime treats but hey – how unique could it be?

I have to confess that I buy cheap honey from Lidl – Highgate Fayre, £1.15 (and I like it well enough). Good honey is so expensive, and I’ve never known enough about honey to be convinced that £7.99 (Lidl’s Manuka Honey, much cheaper than elsewhere) is a reasonable price for an artisan product. Again, my inner sceptic comes to the fore and I will organise a blind tasting, comparing the beautiful product of our hives with Lidl’s two offers. Surely, surely, the difference will be obvious. The labour alone makes our own worth the premium. But this is the real world and I want to know for sure. Meantime, the experience was absolutely priceless and I am indebted to Dougie and Charlie for a fabulous afternoon. And to the Troubadour for great photos!

 

 

 

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Waste not Want

Yesterday the government pledged £15m to support the redistribution of waste food – mainly fresh food which is most vulnerable to spoilage. The Grocer reported fully on this and on their successful campaign to bring it about. I’m delighted to hear it – although where, I wonder, are the headlines in  the mainline press? It seems that this essential development isn’t newsworthy.

DSCN0052 (1)Up to a third of food is wasted in the UK each year; food prices are still rising; many people are still going hungry. If there were easy solutions, no doubt we’d have cracked it: so I don’t mean to be glib. The national charity Fareshare does a great job in redistributing supermarket surplus; but they do it on a shoestring, working with volunteers to carry out the laborious processes of sorting and delivery. This extra government funding might, I hope, mean some proper paid jobs to underpin the ongoing work and to ensure volunteers are well trained and supported.

On the domestic front there is a wealth of online information to help us all be more efficient. I must say I find it a bit of a challenge to avoid another hazard, i.e. excess use of plastic, in using up leftovers. What would I do without clingfilm? Well, actually, quite a lot if I just make the effort. Will report back further on this – meantime there are lots of suggestionHow To Roast Tomatoes or Oven Roasted Tomatoes by @SpicieFoodie | #tomato #roasted #tomatoes #howtoroasttomatoes #summer #fruit #tomatorecipess here and here and here. Many suggestions are just what our mothers used to do – e.g. put a plate or a tea towel over a bowl. But there’s also some info about beeswax wraps which bear a bit of investigation.

Leaving you on a cheerier note, I have just found an amazing use for another autumn glut  – Bloody Mary Slow Roasted Tomatoes. This is on the Love Food Hate Waste website, a regular source of thrifty gourmet inspiration. Definitely on my to-do list.

 

A lot to be thankful for

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Our corner of Fife, bordering onto the Tay, is very fruitful and there’s been a lot of pickling and potting going on. Above is a bowl of windfall pears I was gifted, and made into chutney. More on that later. Meantime, over the weekend, I’ve enjoyed a bunch of events which were set up as fundraisers so here, for the record, are some details:

At work (Lindores Abbey Distillery) we joined in ‘the world’s biggest coffee morning‘ and raised £250 for Macmillan Cancer Support. Lots of people brought in some home baking and our visitors put a wee donation in the box.

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In the TICC (Tayside Institute and Community Centre) there was the usual Saturday coffee morning which on this occasion was to raise funds to fight our cause to have our railway station reopened: and we raised £600. A couple of weekends ago a small group of us also put on a wee music-and-words event, with the support of the artist in residence, and raised £150 for the same cause. It would be brilliant to have the line open again. The picture below is of a hamper put together by small individual donations – just normal day-to-day stuff that makes all the difference.

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And last night the Troubadour and I attended a concert in Dysart, near Kirkcaldy, to support our singing friend Alan.  We were entertained by two great community choirs – Healthy Harmonies, an NHS staff choir; and Capital Voices, from Edinburgh. The minister made a few introductory comments about having attended ‘Food Crisis Summits’ over the last 20 years – her first was in Botswana in 1998; the most recent in Kirkcaldy. I honestly don’t know what to say about people going hungry in this day and age, either in Africa or in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter. It’s not just about poverty, it’s about politics. We could all be doing far better in sharing out the bounty. Anyway for the record, those two choirs last night raised £1,200 for the Kirkcaldy Food Bank, and that was a brilliant result.

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Finally – here is a beautiful loaf, handformed and baked like a sheaf of wheat – complete with wee mousie having a nibble. It was made by Barry and his staff, of the Wee Bakery, and gifted to the church for Thanksgiving. I’ll use the words of Robert Burns to sign off and wish you always enough food to enjoy and share:

May the moose ne’er leave your girnal wi’ a tear-drap in its e’e’

Juicing for Beginners

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Perfect autumn weather this weekend; so we went down to the community orchard yesterday morning, and gathered in a big pile of apples – lots of varieties, and we didn’t even have to pick them off the trees as last week’s winds had shaken them right down onDSCN3374 (2)to our path. They were just lying there waiting to be chosen. I’d helped friends recently and they’d shown me how to work the scratter and press, so this was my second juicing session this year – which is to say, my second juicing session in 62 years.

There’s a certain amount of prep you have to do if you’re planning to juice, so let me just tell you something which should be obvious but wasn’t to me: start collecting your empty wine bottles, with screwtop lids, now (or preferably six months ago). Scrub the labels off them (I’ve just been told off for not taking a Brillo pad to the leftover label glue so, depending on how much your juicing partner nags you, you might wish to be more thorough than I was). Then sterilise them. I used Milton fluid which is usually used for babies’ milk bottles – I wouldn’t know as the Wunderkind was fed on draught, and one’s boobs don’t need sterilising. You just put a capful of Milton in a sinkful of water, and soak your bottles and lids for 15 minutes.

IMG_0135Because I live in an orchard town, we have a community-use scratter and press. A scratter is basically a big chopper – you feed the apples in the top and they go through a couple of blades, reappearing in a bin below as not-quite-mush. You empty the NQ Mush into the press, which is round and wooden with slatted sides, lower the bar and turn the handle, and beautiful amber juice flows out into your bucket, over which you have placed an old net curtain to catch any bits of escaping flesh. You have also added a teaspoonful of citric acid, or vitamin C, to the bucket, to preserve the juice and prevent it browning. Today we juiced three boxes of apples and got about 24 bottles of juice – so that one teaspoonful of citric acid is the only thing in the entire batch that isn’t apple. It’s an incredibly pure product, and tastes wonderful. So sweet and fresh!

Finally, assuming you aren’t going to drink all that juice in the next 72 hours or so, you can pasteurise the bottles – either in a custom-build pasteuriser which is just like a big boiler with a thermostat, or just in your biggest pot on top of the stove. Our pasteuriser fused today, so I brought mine home and went stove-top. It only took an hour, and I believe the juice will now last up to a year.

I had been thinking I might try making cider but I found this really informative article by George Monbiot in the Guardian which gives further detail on how to juice your own apples – and was very entertained by the cautionary tale about the risk of turning your gorgeous juice into Toilet Duck. It seems that cider making is a special skill all of its own. So I’ll just stick with gorgeous juice, and buy my cider (and Toilet Duck) from the Co-Op as usual.

 

Scotland’s other drink

Not Irn Bru; not Lindores Aqua Vitae; and not, of course, Scotch Whisky, single malt or otherwise. All of these are magnificent in their own way and at the right time, but for the moment I’m talking about gin.

There are over 50 gin distilleries in Scotland and some of them are good to visit.  I had the pleasure of a couple of days in St Andrews recently with good friends, and we partook of a little tasting to while away a quiet Monday afternoon. If you look up ‘gin St Andrews’ on social media you will probably find Eden Mill first – and I have to say, that is also a delightful set of gins with a good tour. However we were on foot and strolled into the St Andrews Gin Company‘s bar on South Street. We had booked in advance and our table was waiting for us.

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Our delightful and knowledgeable host Mike conducted us through a very pleasant tasting of their three gins – Pink Grapefruit, Lemongrass and Ginger, and Orange, Cardamom and Tonka Bean. Each was paired with a different Fevertree tonic water; wedges of citrus; and we also had little jars of sprinkles to add as we pleased. These included black peppercorns and cardamom pods. 

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I would never call myself a gin expert but it was really pleasant to take a relaxed and no-pressure hour or so to sample the gins, pay attention to what I was tasting, and try the different additions. I’m pretty sure that as soon as you start sipping, you lose 90% of your faculties to spot any differences – but it’s a very enjoyable way of losing! I liked the grapefruit version very well – it was light and refreshing and knocked back beautifully. Then when I tasted the lemongrass and ginger, I thought that was better – it had a little extra layer of spiciness which I really enjoyed; and the black peppercorns gave it a grand wee bite. By the time we came to the final gin, the Orange, Cardamom and Tonka Bean, my taste buds were confounded by (a) obviously, the fact that I already had two good measures inside me; and (b) Mike’s comment that this was his personal favourite and in the company’s view, the most sophisticated of the three. Now you’re not going to sit there in your middle-aged bliss and argue the toss with a fine young man dispelling good cheer, are you? Shallow, I know. A couple of weeks later I couldn’t say whether I preferred the lemongrass or the orange, though I think I liked them both a bit better than the grapefruit. They were all lovely and this is why I will never be a sensory expert!

After our tasting we had a first-class haddock and chips and mushy peas, chosen from a good fresh bar menu; and our whole afternoon – tasting and lunch – cost £19 which we felt was excellent value.

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We’d had a great walk on the beach before the tasting, with Rosa the cockapoo-wannabee-mermaid; and afterwards we hit the charity shops which are definitely a cut above – it comes of having the most affluent students in the land living there half the year and clearing their wardrobes out at the end of every term. So you see, it’s not all golf, Wills and Kate in St Andrews. Other flavours are available.

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Scottish Sizzle

… and we’re not talking about sausages.

30 deg in Scotland? Most unusual; some summers we barely get 20. But 2018 is it, and it’s been a busy busy busy one for me. Too hot to be busy AND remember to post, so sorry for gap. Here’s a brief catch-up:

17th June – Hidden Gardens of Newburgh – brilliant first event which we hope will go on for years. Seven gardens opened and nearly £2,000 raised for charities, with the major part of it going to Newburgh Cub Scouts.

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5th July: my graduation! Seem to have mislaid all my photos but had a brilliant day, with piper in the square outside the Caird Hall in Dundee serenading us all as we spilled out afterwards. The Wunderkind and the Troubadour and I had a moment of mirth when we were posing for photos outside the magnificent Braithwaite’s and two Dundee wifies gasped in admiration – ‘it just goes to show,’ they beamed, ‘how you can achieve things NO MATTER HOW OLD YOU ARE!’ It was a hoot.

We got the bus back over the Tay Bridge and had a wonderful meal in the Newport – a restaurant I have lusted after for some time but always been too skint to afford. It’s owned and cheffed by Jamie Scott, who won MasterChef about three years ago. The food is all very local and beautifully presented; the service is great; but the building itself is fantastic, looking right out over the Tay, and with the whole windowed wall folded back to let the summer in. Like I say, it’s not every summer you could do that here.

Two days a week since April, now hotting up to three, as tour guide at Lindores Abbey Distillery – great fun and keeps me out of mischief.

Lots of gardening and nice seasonal gifts from gardening friends:

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One week at end of June looking after Rosa, the cockapoo who taught us her fetch and throw ball game.

My birthday on Broughty Ferry beach, with the troubadour and his 11, nearly 12 year old granddaughter, on whom I’m conferring the honorary title of Bendylegs because she is so amazingly supple. We took her up Dundee Law and she did a series of entirely spontaneous cartwheels and variations thereof. Joined on the beach by Rosa and her mum and auntie; gin and tonic flavoured cake afterwards, what’s not to like?

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Lovely lunch in Glasgow yesterday with oldest (in one sense) friend Marian at Urban Brasserie, our second visit so it must be good. She has inspired me to have one more go at becoming merely ‘overweight’ by dropping a few BMI points …

And today it’s the Troubadour’s birthday and we’re off to the Smith Institute in Stirling.

Menu planning

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Bananagrams is a daily routine for the Troubadour and me, usually after breakfast. If you like Scrabble, you’ll like Bananagrams even better, or at least you will if you prefer creating  good words to thrashing your opponents! Some of my friends (she knows who she is!) find the whole competitiveness thing utterly alluring. Getting a two-letter word onto a triple words score is all that matters even if you have no idea what that word means … not me, my friends, I’m rubbish at Scrabble.  But cast your eye on this picture – such fun!

Not enough Cs in the pack though – I wanted to add avocado, garlic, coriander and Mexican (we allow ourselves one proper name each per game! So adaptable). C’est la vie. I got round ‘rocket’ by going francaise. Pretentious? Moi? Will try and remember to take some photos of the finished dishes and post them on here. It’s dinner for twelve hungry potters so let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Here’s a cautionary tale however:

DSCN0504Before you promise chocolate pistachio fudge (an old Nigella recipe, very easy and good), check you have a shop where you can buy ready-shelled nuts. I didn’t. I searched around and eventually had to buy pistachios in shells. My recipe called for 150g nuts and each of my packs had 200g (I bought two as I had no idea how much weight would be lost in the shelling). But now I do. Let me tell you, dear friends, that 200g of pistachios in shells amounts to 103g shelled nuts, a vast pile of debris for your compost heap, and two shredded thumbs. I have half a pack left but can’t face them. The troubadour can have them with his beer as a reward for going out, uncomplaining, to the shed to fetch the ladder for my aerial view photographs!

Food that gives you a hug

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Friends who don’t live here probably get sick of me saying what a great place Newburgh is to live. However – look at this picture – it’s only celebrity chef Tony Singh, making burgers at a WI meeting in our own church garden! And assisted by Rosie, our soon-to-be Cub leader and herself a chef lecturer. Tony had been invited by the Rural, and set up an unassuming stall with his lamb burgers, veggie kebabs, seared salmon and loads of lovely salads. I thought I might be hallucinating but no it was definitely him. Who else sports a turban and kilt with such panache? We had a great conversation about Sikh hospitality, food poverty, and personal identity. What a warm, friendly, down-to-earth guy.

I liked him so much that I bought his book and he signed it for me – ‘To Helen: Keep it tasty’ or words to that effect. I reckon I’m going to work my way through his recipes, a bit like Julie and Julia. Well not quite – Julie cooked a new recipe from Julia’s book every single day for over a year, and I couldn’t keep up the pace. But I feel a change of style would be good for me – I’ve been so at home for so long with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, especially the vegetarian recipes, that I’ve maybe grown a bit complacent. So now it’s time to spice it up!

As soon as ‘The Hidden Gardens of Newburgh’ is done and dusted, I’ll be getting close and personal with the aubergines, the coriander and the ‘Holy Trinity’ (his words) of ginger, garlic and chilli. Tony Singh’s view of food poverty is that all the government policies are too unconnected, and the people who write the policies don’t have enough personal experience of going hungry. And unfortunately he doesn’t have the answer – no nice wee projects that I could hitch a ride on. So I think I’m going to do some kind of ‘Feed the World Buffet’ – in the generous-hearted, lively and tasty Sikh way – and I’ll be looking for people to join in  the fun! Maybe end of August? Watch this space!

 

Dinner Lady

School dinners – they’re never far from the news, and not often for the right reasons. My mother was a dinner lady, and back in the day, as I remember it, we were fed the best of stuff. I remember mutton stew, cold roast ham salad, beef olives, Scotch Broth and other bone-building delights. I wasn’t so keen on the desserts, especially the jugs of pink custard; or that horribly oversweet fudgy tart thing they used to bring out. I’m in a minority there – whenever I find myself in school-dinner-reminiscence company, that tart gets rave reviews. Can’t expect to like everything. (Although check here for an entirely different appreciation of the Pink Stuff!)

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Nowadays though, it’s a different story. There’s been another wave of publicity around school meals. Some local authorities are pledging to make improvements to their verging-on-pathetic offerings, and doing something about the school-gate chip van. I know I’m old-fashioned in my sneery attitude to chips and pot noodles. The Wunderkind used to despair, oh fifteen years ago now, at this intractability, and the emotional blackmail regarding being one-of-the-crowd was a challenge to resist. But usually, I managed. Was he damaged for life? Surely not!

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(Bronze pie and bridie by Tony Morrow)

A few years ago, a nine-year old child in Argyll blogged about her school meals to brilliant effect. The local authority was furious and tried to block her site but the publicity generated brought (grudging, perhaps) improvements in its wake. All she did was take a photo every day of what was on offer; and it wasn’t inspiring.

One particular angle on this caught my eye recently. Edinburgh City Council are introducing ‘meat-free Mondays’ in their schools; and it seems this is not only about health claims but around concerns re livestock welfare. Quality Meat Scotland has challenged this, calling for a better informed understanding of the realities of red meat production in this country. It seems the Council has put their reasoning in a press statement; but when I google ‘Edinburgh City Council press releases’, I find the message, ‘Sorry, there are currently no press releases.’ Really? I double-check, and try the archives – still no press releases. Amazing.

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Anyway, I think Quality Meat Scotland has a real-life challenge to respond to here. They need to get better at communicating their animal welfare credentials; we all need good information to lend to this debate. And in my view, they should be helping butchers to engage more proactively with the healthy eating debate. How about selling stew and soup packs with all you need inside – meat, veg, barley or beans, parsley, chillis or whatever else, packaged up with a recipe – so that customers can reach beyond the inevitable burgers and pies? If children ate better at home – if we all had higher standards – surely in due course education authorities put more money into the pot for school meals.

But please – no pink custard.

 

 

 

 

First shift

Just done my first stint as a tour guide at Lindores Abbey Distillery. It was brought forward because my colleague, John, cracked a hip immediately after delivering some training to me on Thursday afternoon. (I definitely did not push him!). Otherwise I’d have been starting next Saturday. There were to be six people on the tour today, but it was a busy morning and we ended up with seventeen.

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There’s quite a lot to remember – significant points in the history, details of the barley, water and yeast, the equipment, the timescales, the temperatures, the ABV, what the codes on the barrels mean, where the toilets are … on the whole I think I did OK as a first-timer, but I’m looking forward to having a more fluent grasp of the story.

Above is a picture you won’t see very often – it’s the very first cask of new-make spirit, which was filled at the end of last year. Distilling started just before Christmas so there are just a few casks marked 2017, and as you can see, this is Cask 01, with the signatures of the Distillery Manager Gary, the owners Drew and Helen, and one or two others I haven’t identified yet.

The timing of this is both good and bad for me. Good, because my studies are about to end and I need some gainful employment; bad because I’m still writing up my dissertation and could have done with just another week or two of no extra duties. However it’s only a few tours before the magic dissertation hand-in date so I’ll manage. It’s been most timely that my research project is also about distilling – learning for each has reinforced learning for the other. Distillation is such a rich, fascinating field of enquiry however, that the more I learn, the more ignorant I feel! i.e. the more I know that I don’t know … Maybe that’s a good thing and it certainly keeps me on my toes. Here’s a picture of our low wines in the sensory lab at Abertay – after testing these five, we chose the best and gave it a second distillation and another testing. STV came and filmed us on the job last Tuesday; it’s been a week of brass-necking it.

FSCN0356.JPG That’s all for now; back to the chapter on ‘potential for commercialisation’. Only another week and a half and phew, phew, phew, it’ll all be over. And I’ll have time to learn more thoroughly the history, culture and provenance of my new place of work. And John, here’s wishing you a quick recovery!