Our Daily Bread

Here’s a curiosity, still on the theme of bread-baking, prompted by two coins found by the Troubadour in a thrift shop in Perth.

The first one (both sides shown below) has a picture of a wheatsheaf on one side with the date 1795 and the words ‘Bakers Halfpenny’ round the edge. The wording on the other side reads ‘To lessen the slavery of Sunday baking and provide for the public wants an Act was passed AD 1794’. As far as I can figure it out by online research, the 1794 Act was prompted by a desire to support observance of Sundays as ‘the Lord’s Day’, a day of rest – however, it seems, daily bread was still required, and so there was a certain leeway for bakers – they were allowed between 10am and 1pm only!

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The second coin, pictured below, is more of a puzzle to me:

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On one side there is a castle and a lion and on the other, in the middle, ‘Wilson’s Norwich 1839’. So I presume the castle and lion are the coat of arms of the city of Norwich. Round the edge of the coin are the words ‘Confectioners and Bakers’. When I look it up on the Internet I see lots of references to Wilsons of Norwich Bakers’ farthings – i.e. a quarter-penny, in this case from the 19th century – but I can’t see what it was used for. Was it just a commemorative token, or was it some kind of rationing device? Can anybody help with this?

Bread has been such a precious commodity down through the centuries and I’m wondering if my coins are some kind of poor relief. I can’t imagine how bad it would be to be rationed on such an essential item which I take completely for granted. Can anyone throw any light on how these coins were used? Or has anyone come across anything similar? Please advise!

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The Miller’s Tale

Fresh from the sourdough workshop, the Troubadour and I headed south to IMG_1138Dumfries and Galloway for a look around some museums that had been tickling our fancies. This wide, green, rolling corner of Scotland is often overlooked by travellers heading north to south or the other way round – and yet it holds some magnificent rural and coastal scenery, great gardens, and a host of cultural interest.

On the way down we stopped for coffee at Biggar and found, quite unexpectedly, a great wee local museum, run by volunteers, with an amazing collection of artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the 20th century. We especially liked a series of beautifully-crafted models showing cross-sections of local historic buildings like towers and mills and castles. There was also a huge reconstruction of old shops and businesses from Biggar’s main street in years gone by. Well worth the £4 entry fee us bus-pass-holders get to enjoy! And only £5 for the rest of you.

Above righIMG_1162 (2)t is a picture of Sweetheart Abbey, in the village of New Abbey where we were staying. It’s run by Historic Scotland and currently being renovated for safety reasons but dates from the 12th century and has a story about Queen Devorgilla who carried around her dead husband’s heart in a box tied to her waistband. This was seen as an act of great romance and devotion hence the name  given to the Abbey. I don’t get it. I mean – why??? Anyway it’s a picturesque visit with a nice tea shop and great cream scones.

Left is a picture of the 19th century foundations of the stills at Annandale Distillery. It’s a great piece of excavation work, carried out by Glasgow University – you can see very clearly the hearths from the two stills, with the chimney intact at the back. Like many distilleries, it closed in 1918 and then had a number of decades changing hands. The new owners started distilling in 2014 and the newmake spirit and 3 year old, both peated and unpeated, are a delight. ‘Man o’ Words’, the unpeated, invokes our bard Burns who lived and worked in Dumfries for a while, as an exciseman no less; and ‘Man o’ Swords’ invokes Robert the Bruce. In my heart I’m a woman o’words, not o’swords; but I have to confess I preferred the latter in a glass.

Our main intention when booking the break was to visit ‘The Devil’s Porridge’, a museum in Eastriggs near Annan which commemorates the massive armaments factory which was created there to produce cordite for the first world war. Apparently it was the biggest producer of cordite in the world at the time, and whole towns were built to accommodate the 9,000 staff who were needed to run it – 75% of whom were women, under 21, and working class – coming from jobs on farms and in service or other low-paid work. The collection of photos, uniforms, machinery and other artefacts is excellent and there’s a lot of really helpful interpretive information. There are lots of photos of young women delving into vats of cotton fibre, bare hands and up to their oxters in explosive materials. And yet apparently the workers were delighted to be there, earning two to three times their previous wages, enjoying a great social life, and freed from the servitude and lack of opportunity which had been their previous lot. I regret to say that I didn’t take any photos when we were there – partly because it was a bit cramped and the exhibits too big to get a proper viewpoint. But mainly because I had just come from my tasting session at the distillery and wasn’t entirely sober! Great museum though and I thoroughly recommend it.

And finally to the Corn Mill, also at New Abbey. This is run by HiIMG_1165 (2)storic Scotland, and we were shown round by a really enthusiastic local woman who brought its entire history to life for us. Originally it was built to grind oats for the monks at nearby Sweetheart Abbey; but the mediaeval origins are lost and the mill was rebuilt in the 18th century. It only closed for business in 1948. The interior of the mill shows how successive millers innovated and redesigned to ease the back-breaking burden of hauling sacks of oats around. You have to take your hat off to those informal engineers – the skill and dedication it must have taken to devise ways of, for example, hauling those 200lb sacks of oats from the bottom of the mill to the top. And you also have to spare a thought for the children employed in a lot of the heavy, boring, repetitive and dangerous work of the mill. Phew, phew, so lucky to have been born a century later! IMG_1175 (2)

I found the milling story fascinating in the context of my wider familiarity with barley-milling. At my place of work we use a modern mill which deals with half a ton at a time, yet you could only call it dinky in comparison to the massive millstones used at New Abbey for oatmeal. Also, from the sourdough workshop I was well convinced of the benefits of stoneground flour for breadmaking, and aware that there are very few stone-grinding mills left in Scotland. Now I can see why. The picture below shows a millstone imported from France in the height of the French Revolution – apparently it cost the equivalent of £15,000 at the time, and was shipped in segments; so that the miller had to reassemble it in situ. Otherwise it would have been impossible to shift. It seems that Napoleon put trade embargoes on hold in order to clinch this deal! (Please feel free to insert your own Brexit analogies here, I can’t bear to!)

And so my commitment to stoneground flour is renewed – thank you, Historic Scotland – and today’s tasks include cleaning out the fridge and feeding my little sourdough starters. And sorting out the rest of my Dumfries and Galloway photos; and maybe having a wee nip of Man O’Swords!

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Embrace Stickiness

‘Stop doing that with your hands, Helen!’ Jeff, the instructor was calling at me across the other eight apprentices, from the far end of the table. I paused, Lady Macbeth-like, in the endless rubbing of my sticky mitts. ‘Will these poor hands ne’er be clean?’ I nearly said; but Jeff was speaking again: ‘Look at my hands.’ Jeff has lovely hands – big and strong and gentle. I’m not really digressing, honestly. They were covered in a thin pale crustiness. His hands are perfectly suited to the job. ‘These are seasoned hands,’ he told me. ‘Enjoy getting sticky.’

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So, yesterday I spent at a sourdough bread-making workshop at Breadshare in Portobello, Edinburgh, run by Deborah and Jeff, a pair of cheery Australians who haveIMG_1107 (2).JPG brought back meaning to the ancient guild title of ‘Baxter’ – the baker. I’d read about them in the Press as they have really cooked up a storm. Grace Dent, no less, visited them in her recent tour of all things foodie in Edinburgh, and raved about their bagels. (I would like to be Grace Dent when I grow up – well-informed, great sense of humour, cheeky, has a great job. And, oh well, thin.)

There are many things I have learned by reading books (e.g. childrearing – ask the Wunderkind). Results may vary but still, you do your best. Instinct and common sense obviously play their part, but I’m not all that well endowed with the latter. Anyway, yesterday was a great wake-up call to the fact that some skills are better learned hands-on. Sticky.

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I tried just letting the goo adhere, and do you know, it actually worked? Once I rid myself of my unthinking prejudice towards clean hands, I was fine. It was liberating. And more: says Jeff, ‘the table is your friend.’ You don’t need to peel your dough off cleanly each time you shove it around – the table is holding it in place for you so that you can stretch it more easily. And you should have seen the way Jeff coaxed his little pile of raggy dough into a smooth Botticelli-round pillow – it nearly brought tears to my eyes. But, he showed us, if you keep the edges of your hands on the table, and lightly-quickly whizz it around, we could do it too! Nearly. Sometimes. With practice.

In the picture above you can see our pizza doughs resting under clear plastic bowls. We IMG_1111.JPGlet them rise a bit, slapped them down and around, loaded them up with goodies, and baked them for lunch. There’s a tricky point where you have to get them off the tray via a long paddle, or peel, and into the oven. I’m sorry to say mine didn’t survive that process too well, and the toppings sort of fell through the dough onto the oven floor – you could hear the sizzle. It tasted okay but it was definitely at the bottom of the class, looks-wise.

Everything else though was a triumph. Here’s what I brought home at the end of the day:

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a Borodinsky Rye, with 40-year-old Russian sourdough (oh the delight of copious coriander seed!); a seeded sourdough cob; a lovely little square batch; a cob with walnuts and another with walnuts and big fat sticky dates. What a haul. Everything organic. Nothing added. Flour, water, yeast and a few well-chosen goodies. And a tub of rye sourdough and a slightly bigger one of wheat leaven starter, with all the info we need to repeat, at home. Breakfast will never be the same again.

In the Kailyard

IMG_0945 (2)I have a group of wonderfully green-fingered veggie-gardening friends, and every so often we get together with a pot luck supper. In my diary these events are referred to as ‘The Kailyard’ – an old Scottish word for the kitchen garden (because even in coldest, windiest parts, you can always grow kail, or kale). To avoid confusion I will add that there is a somewhat derogatory use of the term kailyard, applied to a school of writers who indulge in sentimentalised renditions of Scottish life. I want to rescue this lovely old word ‘kailyard’ from such snobbery, and apply it in its traditional sense. Rant over.

At our last meeting in the first half of June, with the gardens just about beginning to produce the goods, we had a lovely buffet with some homegrown produce, some from the shops. The menu included smoked trout pate; a couscous salad with broad beans, herbs and lemon; a sourdough focaccia with green olives; a mushroom salad with pumpkin seeds; green beans Provençal; and for dessert, some chocolate pistachio fudge.

However the absolute piece de resistance was produced by Caroline and Robin who brought their portable smoker, and after the ‘first course’ (above), demonstrated the smoking of their own catch of rainbow trout and cod before we gobbled it all down with delight.

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The principles of smoking are quite straightforward and low-tech – after all, this is a process that has been used for centuries if not millennia as a way of preserving the summer’s catch for the winter larder. Having said that, it’s not something I’ve tried myself – yet! Robin carried his smoker in his rucksack, and as you can see from the photos, it consists of a 3-burner gas stove with a smoking box on top. There’s a trivet inside with a grill above it, on which you lay the food, with a narrow gap round the edges of the trivet to let the smoke through. Under that, on the floor of the box, you sprinkle some sawdust and set light to it. Then you put the lid on and wait awhile – depending on how big or dense your piece of food is. Our pieces of fish took about 20 minutes.

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I can barely describe how delicious this fish was to eat. Partly of course because it was freshly caught – the cod from about 25 miles up the coast and the trout from the loch at the top of the hill, a mile away. But the smoking imparted such an aromatic, slightly salty flavour and the texture was beautifully firm-tender. I unashamedly took home a doggie bag and had it in my sandwich at work the next day – and enjoyed it even more than before, bringing another wave of home-wrought delight into the world of the stills. (Every time I do a tour I talk about the impact of peat smoke on malting barley; it’s the same process.)

It matters what kind of sawdust you use – obviously you don’t want anything with chemicals in it, but otherwise you can experiment with different types of wood. Fruit tree shavings of various kinds apparently work beautifully, and we have no shortage of those in our area. The best online guide I found was provided by Wikipedia – with clear info about food hygiene as well as different types of cooker. These come in a wide price range, from about £25 up to silly realms. But you can also improvise with an old biscuit tin over a low fire, and that’s what I intend to do.

Other types of food and drink to try … tea, peppers, prunes, beef, pork, turkey, chicken, sausage, fish and seafood of all kinds, eggs, cheese, nuts, tofu, paprika, salt … as suggested by Wikipedia. Happy Smokin! Smoke responsibly.

Stornoway Black Pudding

Image result for stornoway black puddingIn Ullapool en route for Stornoway recently we found the great West Coast Deli/café to while away the time till our ferry departed. I knew we were onto a good thing when I spied delivery boxes marked ‘IJ Mellis‘ sitting out front. In fact I could hardly believe it. It’s several decades since last I was here, and my memories while rosy aren’t exactly gourmet-inclined.

So a little advance shopping for our self-catering holiday was indicated, and that had to include a fine big Stornoway Black Pudding. In due course it was consumed with relish (and with Bubble and Squeak and a wee grilled tomato – excellent) but as we wandered around the island, I had to ask myself – where were all the pigs?

As far as I was aware, the stand-out ingredient in black pudding is always pigs’ blood. You often read accounts of pig killings across various peasant cultures – Antony Bourdain’s ‘Cook’s Tour’ gives one of the best – and the saving and stirring of the blood as it gushes from the just-slashed pig’s throat is one of the most important processes. But pigs on the Hebridean machair? not a sight of them. Plenty sheep and cows of course. I checked the label on my SBP but all it said was ‘blood’. So I’ve had to do a bit of investigating.

Peter May’s Hebridean crime trilogy makes for a good orientating read of life in Lewis and Harris; and he has also more recently published this book, ‘Hebrides’, with magnificent pictures and stories of his experiences while writing the novels. In this book I found an account of how long ago, in the depth of the harsh dark winters, the desperate islanders would bleed their cattle to mix with oatmeal and suet and add a little protein to their meagre diet.

Poverty is responsible for some great food across the world but I must confess I found this explanation tugged at my heart. To be so hungry that you had to actually bleed your (no doubt) skinny cow?

Nowadays of course it’s a different matter. PGI status was granted to Stornoway Black Pudding in 2013, and over 90% of the island’s production is in fact exported – a great business success story in a part of the world where resources are strained and deliveries from the mainland are restricted.

IMG_0903.JPGIn the shop at the Callanish standing stones visitors’ centre I found ‘The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible’, with recipes by Seumas MacInnes of Glasgow’s Café Gandolfi. Finally I learned that while most black puddings are made with pigs’ blood, those in Stornoway might be made with the blood of pigs or sheep or cows (nothing more specific than that, I’m afraid!) – and also beef suet, oatmeal, onion, salt and pepper. That’s all. Fresh and wholesome. As with all the Birlinn food bible series, the illustrations (by Bob Dewar, cartoonist) are fabulous. The recipes in my opinion are a bit over-elaborate; but you may be a fancier cook than me. Stornoway Black Pudding is great just on its own without any fussing around.

And here are some cattle wandering between the peat bog and the shoreline in the afternoon sunshine. It was a charming sight, the cows and their calves; and good to know that they’re no longer in danger of being bled during their lifetimes for the survival of the crofters.

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Westering Home

Little bit of timelapse here – going to tell you about the food and drink on my recent holiday in Harris, from which I returned two weeks ago. Have needed time to digest!Image result for map of outer hebrides

Harris is joined on to Lewis – something I didn’t realise until I read Peter May’s great Hebridean trilogy a few years ago. I’d never been there – although the epic journey taken by my friend Marian and me, aged 18, took us quite close – Skye and the Uists back then, by bike! This time, 45 years later, three of us drove four hours to Ullapool then got the ferry for Stornoway, and then drove on down to join our friends in a lovely holiday home in Scarista Bay, down the west coast of Harris. That is to say, the coast with the turquoise waters, golden sands and crashing waves. And lowish temperatures! But hey, this is not just Scotland, it’s the Outer Hebrides! No such thing as bad weather, if you’ve got the clothes right.

The UllapoolIMG_0800-Stornoway ferry takes about three and a half hours, and on our way out it was pretty choppy. As in, emergency lifeboat drill being undertaken by staff on the poop deck (there’s a special seated section on board for dogs and their owners; I know that’s not the original meaning of poop deck but it seems appropriate). Any chairs which had escaped being tethered were sliding across the floor. Many passengers went ashen, and some were throwing up. Despite all that, the cabin crew managed to provide a range of hot meals including a couple of vegetarian options: this is mine, pictured left. Now it might look like your standard Scottish fish-and-chips, but I must point out that the fish is Isle of Barra hake goujons, no less, with a light crispy batter and a sweet chilli dipping sauce. It was tasty, and being a hale and hearty passenger, I enjoyed every last morsel.

This theme of locally-sourced, with good vegetarian options, was a standard feature of the fare mIMG_0814 (2)ade available to us on our week’s holiday. That’s not big news in normal (i.e. mainland) life – but it takes the long drive to Harris to realise how very isolated this community is. All too often across Scotland, lunch menus are very samey and unadventurous. So Harris’s offerings are noteworthy and to be applauded. Take this little hut for example – ‘Croft 36’ – it’s an open shed with some shelves and fridges and freezer space inside, loaded in the morning with home-made produce and an honesty box. The sign inside tells you that the bread is baked daily; the lamb comes from the island where the sheIMG_0813 (2).JPGep graze by the shoreline on the machair, or salt-marsh; and the rabbits are shot to keep them from ruining the crofters’ hard-earned harvests – and as such, are a completely sustainable source of meat. We discovered that if you don’t get to Croft 36 early in the day, your choice is limited – even though the honesty box is still awaiting collection. Since most tourists camp or self-cater, this kind of venture is obviously very popular. There aren’t many places to eat out and once you get snugly home at night, you might not want to go back out again. Especially if you fancy a dram or two, because pubs are few and far between and Scotland’s drink-driving laws are a bit fierce.

IMG_0837 (2)Here’s another honesty box – a little sentry box by the roadside, selling mustard and mustard-related craftworks like little wooden spoons and pottery jars. Again, a handy additional source of income for ingenious crofters, and a money box bulging with notes and coins. No doubt it wouldn’t be worth paying someone, or using your own precious time, to stand there all day waiting for the odd customer. And I have to say I might not have stopped to look, or been so ready to part with cash, if a bored shopkeeper were standing on guard. But it was so charming and trusting, and made you feel very welcome as a tourist. You knew your contribution would be making a difference to island survival.

Having said we self-catered, very enjoyably, we also had some excellent lunches out. Firstly there was The Anchorage in Leverburgh, where we had some great vegetable IMG_0932 (2).JPGtempura, a great Cullen Skink, and a delicious monkfish with garlic mussels. Then there was The Temple – the only place open on a Sunday! I had my first sirloin steak in many years, and it was tender and altogether delightful. Then there was the ‘Taste’n’Sea’ fish truck, parked at a viewpoint on the road leading up from Tarbert into Lewis, where we had a great mixed fish box with chips for £12. And IMG_0866 (2).JPGanother fish truck down towards the bottom of the island by St Clement’s ruined mediaeval church, where we had battered anchovies and a fresh lobster sandwich, with potatoes roasted with sea kelp.

I’m not being sponsored by any of these outfits – I wish! – but again and again I was struck by how well they managed to provide given their northern isolation.

The realities of isolation were well illustrated, and addressed, by the Harris Distillery‘s IMG_0860.JPG1916 Club. It seems that in the most recent census, the island’s population was 1,916 – half that of sixty years previously. And so the funds from the distillery’s 1916 club are used to enhance facilities which might, just, give youngsters the opportunity to stay at home. Since I work in a small independent distillery as a tour guide, I’m always keen to see how others do it; and I was charmed by this one. There’s no doubt that it is providing local employment and encouraging tourism and other business to the island, anIMG_0940 (2).JPGd doing this with great style. I hope my purchase of the magnificent Harris gin contributes to the 1916 Club’s worthy aims; it’s a tasty drop of stuff!

After a week I felt I hadn’t been in Lewis and Harris nearly long enough, and do hope to get the chance to return. I see the local college in Stornoway – Lews Castle – does creative writing courses so maybe next time, that’ll be my excuse. It was raining when we left, and this herring girl was patiently standing by the harbour, getting drookit, waiting for her boat to come in. I share her hope for a safe return.

 

Girls of Slender Means

Muriel Spark is a Scottish writer best known for her ‘Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, a fabulously ironic take on Edinburgh, 1950s education, art, class and politics. The lead role in the film version is lavished on us by Maggie Smith, only one excellent reason for watching it all over again.

Image result for images 2ww food rationing ukI’ve just finished Spark’s 1963 novel ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, only 117 pages long in the Polygon edition, and loved every comma of it. The story is set in a sort of young ladies’ boarding house, in the summer of 1945 – just at the end of the war and with London bombed to bits, and shortages of every kind set to continue for years to come. Spark sets the scene on page 2 with a view from the top storey of the boarding house down onto the street far below – little dots of people pushing little dots of prams, carrying little dots of shopping bags and this – “Everyone carried a shopping bag in case they should be lucky enough to pass a shop that had a sudden stock of something off the rations.”Image result for images 2ww food rationing uk

All of this resonates with me considerably. My mother had strong memories of wartime rationing and frequently referred back to it when she was bringing us up in the 60s. The real lived experience of shortages and hunger had got into her bones, and she passed this on to us in case we were ever foolish enough to act as if money grew on trees, or food arrived on the plate from thin air. Food historians acknowledge the UK’s rationing arrangements as a major success, with rich as well as poor forced to get by on a restricted diet –  and many people being in better health at the end of the war than at the beginning. It seems this ‘war on the home front’ was also a factor in the UK’s ability to support the war till its end.

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Also resonating with me from Spark’s novel is the boarding house. For my first year at university, aged 18, I stayed in a YWCA hostel in Glasgow, presided over by two lady wardens who might have been as old then as I am now, and whom we saw as utterly ancient. It was a very old-fashioned arrangement and there were lots of large and small covert subversions of the rules. In Spark’s boarding house there was an eccentrically varied collection of personalities with life pouring out through every pore of their being. It makes me think I didn’t pay enough attention to the other girls in the YWCA; but then, actually being young and living the life took up all your energy. It was a fabulous time of my life. The YWCA’s soggy potatoes and stringy stew just went down the hatch; it was fuel for the rest of life.

Image result for images love food hate wasteOver recent decades, across the developed world, food shortages have become a resounding reality for far too many people. All this in the world’s most developed economies. The latest UK figures on Food Bank usage were released the other week: 1.6million food bank parcels were given out in the year April ’18 to March ’19. The national campaign Love Food Hate Waste has addressed this on the domestic front, and for anyone listening, there are excellent suggestions for how to eke out today’s food ration. Yes of course it’s a disgrace that politicians across the world have allowed this to happen. For myself I will try to address this through the democratic process, but it all seems very remote. It’s much more immediately meaningful to adopt good waste-free kitchen habits.

There is a beautifully understated passage in Spark’s book about a seduction scene, in which the most beautiful of the boarding house girls wakes up in a handsome young airman’s bed. She wants to know what’s for breakfast, and he brings out his rations. Selina, we are told, ‘was accustomed to men who got food from the black market.’ That’s all that’s said; it tells us volumes about the whole ethical approach to obtaining food; her carelessness and his care. She’s just biding her time till she finds a rich husband. He is the one with the greater needs of the community at heart.

I wish I knew how to feed the world. Maybe reading and writing is as good a way as any. I applaud Muriel Spark’s thrifty way with words: no waste here.

 

Wild Garlic and Preserved Lemons

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It’s that time of year again. Hardly anything homegrown in the shops yet, so we’re still dependent on stuff we have stored away, or foreign imports. I’ve been given some lovely little foodie gifts while I’ve been stuck in with my sore foot – smoked salmon, shortbread, oatcakes, homemade sauerkraut – and last week, a gorgeous jar of pesto, using the wild garlic which grows abundantly round here. So, not to be left out entirely, we set off yesterday to Ingin Brae, and the Troubadour got us our own nice supply while I sat in the car with the window open and breathed in the aromatic pungency.

Last night I used the gifted, prepared pesto in a recipe which Mary Berry demonstrated on TV last week. I don’t often watch her programmes but I’m always on the lookout for a veggie sausage roll, and she had what looked like a good one. So I adapted it, and really you don’t need a detailed recipe. Just mix some chopped, roasted red peppers with a few tablespoons of ricotta cheese and a little less of a strong hard cheese like parmesan. At this point, Mary Berry added basil – I used the pesto instead. Give it a good mix. You don’t want it too soft. Meantime you will have heated your oven to HOT and rolled out a packet of ready-made puff pastry. Cut your pastry into long 4″ wide strips, and pipe or spoon the pepper/cheese mixture down the length of the strips. Beat an egg and paint one edge of the pastry strips. Roll over and seal in the mixture, and pinch the edges to keep it from leaking. Paint the tops with the rest of the beaten egg, chill for 25 mins and bake for same. They were very good indeed and were scoffed before I remembered to take their photo – sorry!

Image result for images preserved lemonsLast year I preserved some lemons (in a Kilner jar with loads of sea salt, extremely straightforward) but I hadn’t used them as I wasn’t sure how to. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall came to my rescue as usual with a recipe for a spicy potato soup. This involved onions and potatoes, garlic, chilli, coriander and cumin, smoked paprika, and a spoonful of preserved lemon. In other words, a brilliant austerity recipe and it tastes fantastic. The preserved lemon imparts a salty, bitter flavour and melds beautifully with the spices. Just the usual method – chop the onions and sweat them for a while then add everything else, including a litre or so of water. HFW recommends cutting the potatoes into large chunks for the cooking, and removing them before blending the soup – because blenders maLamb and dates and lemonske cooked potatoes go gluey. Then mash or rice them and stir back into the soup. Delicious. HFW also has a delightful-looking recipe for roast lamb breast rolled around a stuffing featuring preserved lemons – sort of middle-eastern in its inspiration, and perfect for Easter – not sure if I’m going to be able to get hold of the right cut of lamb but will try, in honour of the Wunderkind and his lovely fiancé coming home for the weekend.

I haven’t, in the past, made much use of roasted red peppers in a jar, but have decided Recipe photo: Spicy roasted red pepper houmousthey are probably a good buy. So I have half a jar left from my veggie ‘sausage’ rolls, and am going to use them to make Roasted Red Pepper Hummus – follow the link for the full recipe. Interesting to see that there is no oil in the recipe, just an optional drizzle at time of serving. I’m not one for cutting out all fats from an otherwise healthy diet, but will be intrigued to see how this works out. I’m guessing the flavour and moisture of the peppers substitutes for the unctuosity (!) of the oil.

Finally – I have won second prize in a national competition for the first draft of my foodie memoir ‘A Life in Mouthfuls’ – so am busily editing and looking into printing costs, cover design etc. Hopefully will be looking to publish later in the year. Exciting!

 

Early Spring

ruta bagaI had an operation on my foot recently (a million thank yous to our brilliant NHS and to the staff of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank, in particular.) So I’m wearing a giant black foam and Velcro shoe-thing, and getting around on elbow crutches. The Troubadour will testify that I’m not the most patient patient in the world; but I have to say it’s been (mainly) lovely to lie back and relax. Doctor’s orders! Toes above nose is the advice, ie foot elevated at all times. I decided not to gross you out with a photo of my foot but instead offer you this delightful rutabaga, which bears a striking resemblance.

Anyway, by week three I was looking for some simple foodie distraction and, needs must, ordered a Tesco delivery which arrived on Saturday morning. I can hirple a little, and squat somewhat; and pivot between the sink, cooker and fridge for short periods. So my little Tesco stash has saved me from frustration meltdown.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fruit’ book has been inspiring. There’s nothing seasonal in the fruit line at this time of year in Scotland; but of course there are certain staples which never grow here at all, so if I have to spend food miles, that’s the way to spenImage result for images mangoesd them. I’d always recognised this for citrus fruits and bananas; but of course mangos also count.

When I did my volunteer stint in Zanzibar we arrived in the fresh mango season. We were advised not to eat fresh fruit (you can imagine my dismay) because of the risk of malaria and various other tropical diseases. Soon enough I decided my natural immunities would have built up a bit, and gave them a try. Fabulous! That almost sherbetty, tart edge to the voluptuous sweetness! The street vendors sold them ready prepared, so you didn’t have to wrestle with the awkward stones; and they offered you an optional sprinkle of a reddish powder which I eventually managed to understand was a mix of chilli and salt. It was sublime.

HFW recommends the Mango Lassi – Indian in origin although the mango is optional. So I followed his instructions, apart from using ready-prepared mangoes instead of the fresh whole fruit. My justification is that at the best of times, those pesky stones drive me nuts – it’s so hard to separate them from the clinging fruit. Just now, with my crutches, the wisdom of wielding sharp knives on recalcitrant objects is obvious even to me, the original (and clumsy) Health and Safety Refusenik.

Ready-prepared mangoes are brilliant. Neat juicy cubes. But they do bring with them a regrettable amount of plastic. So when I’m up and running again I’ll have to find some nifty tool or whatever. Online I found a blog by Elise Bauer, which suggests canned mango pulp or frozen mango as alternatives. However she goes on to say the canned version is probably sweetened and I definitely want mine salty. I’ll look out for frozen mango, which no doubt also arrives robed in plastic, but probably less so. I find frozen fruit and veg very good in terms of avoiding food waste, so I can compromise with the plastic.

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Put a packet of mango cubes in a liquidiser goblet; add 3 large tablespoons of natural yoghurt, along with a little less iced water. Add a good pinch of salt, and the bashed seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods. Whizz. Job done. Pour into two glasses and enjoy with a friend if you haven’t got a Troubadour.

 

HFW gives specific amounts but it’s pretty obvious you just have to adjust to your liking. Also I discovered that a food processor doesn’t work; I’d assumed they do much the same thing – but you need a liquidiser to – er – make it liquid! Funny how that little gem of knowledge has eluded me all these years. Slainte, everyone! Now I’m away for a wee lie doon.

 

You say tomato. Me too.

Heilroom Tomatoes

This gorgeous collection of tomatoes comes from website ‘The Spruce’, with an excellent article on how to grow tomatoes from seed. I wish I could say they were the well-deserved fruits of my labour, but that would be to pre-empt all kinds of things. After all, this will be my first year of growing tomatoes and I don’t think beginners’ luck comes into it. Instead, I’m relying on the good advice and little gifts of plantlets from my many talented gardening friends. And the Troubadour’s gift of remembering to water and feed. Actually when I write it all down, it doesn’t seem like I personally have much to offer in the tomato-growing field. But hey, I’m keen and will shower them with love and affection, and take lots of nice photos of them as they develop. And serve them with pride.

So why am I planning to grow tomatoes this year; and why am I even thinking about it right now, in the depth of a Scottish so-called winter?

Two reasons: Firstly, let’s get it over with, eeek B****t. Who knows how our food supplies will be affected? It’s all a bit chaotic out there.

Secondly – you can hardly find a home-grown tomato in the shops these days.

There’s a full and fascinating account of the fall of the Scots tomato industry here, by Gordon Davidson in the List – 10 years ago! He finishes by saying ‘if there’s ever going to be a Scottish tomato revival, I doubt I’ll be here to see it.’ How bleak; and prescient.

Various attempts have been made since then and it’s not all doom and gloom. Scotty Brand have set up in Hawick in the Borders, with some success in a range of veggies, including tomatoes. I have actually tasted their tomatoes, weirdly perhaps, through a vodka experiment at the Borders Distillery, also in Hawick. Most laudably, this recently-opened distillery is trying out local produce in combination with their fine new-make spirit. The link above tells the Scotty Brand story in which the sadly recently departed Andrew Fairlie takes a leading role. Rest in peace, Andrew; your legacy lives on.

So for 2019 – I’m going toIMG_0557.JPG avoid Dutch and Spanish tomatoes if I can. Not just because they might stop sending them to us after 29th March! But because, frankly, there’s not much flavour to them. I’m hoping to do better. So I’m spending a lot of time doing this (left) just now – blethering, sorry researching, scribbling things on the back of envelopes and bemusing seasoned tomato growers with the most glaikit of questions. And I’ve bought a frame thingie for the back garden to keep my tomatoes sheltered against the wash-house wall. And I’ve been out there hoeing away the weeds in our freak early spring which we know won’t last. It’s been lovely but I gather it’s not really a good thing. I was charmed to find the ladybirds already out and about among my greenFruit and Vegetables for Scotland: What to Grow and How to Grow It (New Edition)ery, but then chilled to read that this will likely be their undoing, when the normal frosts return.

Finally as usual, I have been reading: I bought a great book which addresses itself to the growing of fruit and veg in our climate – it’s brilliantly detailed without going all techy and nerdy and I’m loving it. [I’ve also bought a much simpler, more basic book called ‘How to Grow Stuff‘ – this one urges everyone with space on a window ledge to get on with it and see how easy it is. I’m reserving judgement on this – being easily distracted, I’ve started many gardening projects in my life with enthusiasm and then forgotten about them so that everything shrivels up and dies for lack of love. It’ll be different this year because the Troubadour and others will help. That’s the plan.

And nothing at all to do with tomatoes, but I was at a postcard fair in Kinross a couple of weekends ago and found this lovely card – below. I believe it is thanking British air crew who dropped food parcels on the Netherlands at the end of the second world war, when thousands were starving during the last bitter months. This I know because I used to cook for a former airman of the bomber command, and he told me about his involvement in these food drops. He was visiting Amsterdam on holiday 40 years later when a woman in the street stopped him, with tears in her eyes, to thank him. And look at the performance of the Dutch veg industry now, notwithstanding my rejection of their tasteless tomatoes! I guess we all need each other.

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