Monthly Archives: May 2015

Campbeltown Loch, och aye!

Just back from a great weekend visiting friend Elaine, who has been sent to Campbeltown for six months by her employer. Campbeltown is at the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, made famous by Paul McCartney who lived there with Linda many years ago. It’s really lovely. And it takes forever to get there. In fact even when you get to Inveraray, at the northern end of the peninsula, there’s still another two hours to drive. So it was good to have a really good reason to visit.

I decided to make a special pie for the occasion, to share with Elaine and Marian and Gavin. Actually, it wasn’t just a pie, it was a project, and here’s how seriously I took it: yes I boiled the bones and trotterIMG_7734 for the jelly. Anyway it was the first time I’d made a raised pork pie, and it was very good but not perfect so I have a few refinements to make before I’m ready to unleash it on the world. Marian, Gavin, Elaine and I enjoyed it with a cider tasting, which I must say was one of my more inspired combinations. On the drive down on Friday afternoon I stopped at the marvellously-stocked Co-Op in Lochgilphead and bought four bottles of posh cider and we gave them marks, along with the pie. As you cIMG_7745an imagine, it just got better and better as the meal wore on!

About 11pm Marian decided she and I would take a wee bedtime stroll  – so off we went, and were intrigued to find a large sign out on the Machrihanish road saying, ‘Drinks Ahead’. We followed on hopefully, till another sign told us ‘Five Miles’. That seemed a bit ambitious so we headed back. Elaine told us it was the weekend of the  Campbeltown Half Marathon – the drinks in question being bottles of water, not finest vintage ciders. Ah well you live in hope.

No more foodIMG_7819ie stories for the present. We got the ferry to Gigha yesterday and had a wonderful walk on an amazing beach, were adopted by two dogs, and met a bunch of local people and visitors out gathering rubbish off the beach, which faces America – stuff just washes right across the Atlantic, apparently. Here are a couple of pictures of Gigha: if you ever get the chance, you should go. And also to Campbeltown of course. Anywhere up and down the west coast, in fact. Scotland isn’t warm, but it’s beautiful.



‘Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about’

My title comes from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘And Bob Dylan Too‘.  We read it in our discussion group after the service yesterday, and like all her poems it shouts out ‘Inclusive! Connected!’ I love Bob Dylan too but I don’t recognise the quote, will have to go seeking. One of the lines in the poem is about the sheep ‘honouring the grass by eating it’, and we had a good wee blether about nose-to-tail eating and not wasting food and being lucky to be so well-fed.

I told them about my previous day’s outing to Loch Leven’s Larder with Hilary. We’d been for a (short and windy) walk along the lochside and then needed sustenance while we caught up with all the news. After said sustenance (egg mayo sandwich, very good indeed) we were strolling back to the car when we spotted a new hut with a big sign outside, ‘Smokery! Welcome!’ (or words to that effect’. In we went for a nosey, and met Andrew Miller who has just started up his business with four shiny new smoking towers and a pile of fabulous fresh Scottish produce. The towers look a bit like gym lockers; I half expected a pile of smelly trainers to fall out when he opened the door to show me – but instead there rested a side of coral pink salmon, quietly absorbing some gentle fumes. I like to think it’s a nice place for such a proud beast to end its days.

I bought some smoked cheese, hailing from Aberdeenshire and nearby Anstruther – Andrew has Scotland cornered – and enquired about the three gleaming salmon he had been pin-boning as we arrived. Well, to be more specific, I asked what he was planning to do with the heads. With a certain embarrassment he said he was just going to throw them out, as he doesn’t have time to deal with all the extras at present. So I offered to take them off his hands, and very generously he filled a bag for me. And here is their portrait.
2015-05-16 17.23.39 I poached them up with some fresh and dried fennel, bayleaves and peppercorns, and came up with a good plateful of salmon-endy-bits which for the present I have frozen and will in due course concoct into some kind of a mousse.

The cheese also was a delight so well done Andrew on having the courage and vision to set up a new business in the tail end of a recession. Your produce is great and I wish you well. So long and thanks for all the fish …

Second-Hand Car Dealer’s Meat Loaf

When I came back from my six-month stint in Zanzibar I needed a cheap and reliable car so my brother took me to his car dealer’s place in Kilmarnock. I got a lovely 7 year old sunshine-blue Citroen C3 with 12,000 miles on the clock for £3,000. That was less than five years ago and I drove it very happily for three years. Now I go back to the same dealer, Alan, whenever I need to talk car.

The-Secrets-of-Selling-Like-a-Skeazy-Slimy-Used-Car-SalesmanHowever there was an unexpected bonus to my customer loyalty when Alan told me he’d been a butcher in a former life. He still makes his own meat loaf, and willingly gave me the recipe. I have cooked it several times (and so has my brother) and it turns out great every time. As you will see, it’s very straightforward and lends itself to variations in flavouring, seasoning, even meat type; and also, if you fancy, some veggie additions (I usually add a grated carrot or courgette or a finely chopped onion). I’ve made it for my Oldies several times and it goes down very well with them – since it hails from an age of thrift and skill and appreciation of proper food. Alan says he found an old-fashioned meat loaf mould (basically, a tall tin cylinder) for maximum authenticity but I just use a loaf tin.


“It’s easy,” he says, “just five ingredients to remember: a pound of best steak mince, half a pound of smoked streaky bacon, an egg, half a packet of cream crackers crushed up, and a good skoosh of broon sauce. Mush it all up, bung it in a tin, and bake it.”

For readers further afield, ‘broon sauce’ is a Scottish staple, sort of fruity, spicy and vinegary, the most famous brand being HP. But I wouldn’t worry too much about getting the exact ingredient – I’m guessing any relish-type thing would do. ‘A good skoosh’ – well, it’s up to you. I don’t measure it but I think I probably put in a couple of tablespoons.

‘Half a packet’ of cream crackers is similarly vague as packets come in different sizes. I use standard size. Again, I don’t think it matters too much – you want to get all your ingredients into a big bowl and mush it up with your hands, and you’re aiming for a good firm mixture that you can easily form into a loaf shape. The crackers of course help the meat stretch further and they give it a nice texture. Make sure you pulverise them sufficiently before you add the meat because recognisable shards of cream cracker aren’t especially appealing.

Line a 2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper, pat your mixture in, lay another piece of paper on top, then wrap the whole tin in tinfoil. Put it in a roasting tin half full of boiling water, and bake at 170 (fan oven) for about an hour and three quarters to two hours. It slices better if you leave it till the next day. Keep any juices/jelly as it comes out of the tin and use them to make gravy, if you like it that way, and serve with mash and some simple veggies. Leftovers are nice served cold with a bit of pickle and some crusty bread.

Cooking for Oldies

New job … or at least old job but newly full-time. I’m cooking for a little group of older people in an Abbeyfield Society house, just five minutes from home. Three old boys and two old girls, and one more coming soon – lunch and supper, five days a week. What could be better?

Baking is actually in my job description. I was standing in the kitchen last week grating carrots for a cake, happy as a sandgirl, thinking to myself – ‘and they PAY me for this?’

There are lots of good things about this job. One is, it’s very sociable. Two, I get to do what all the good old-fashioned cookbooks tell you to do, i.e. ‘build a relationship with your butcher’. Lucky butcher! Does he know what he’s in for? Three, the Pittenweem Fish Van comes round every Friday. Four, there’s lots of space at the back door, just begging for a herb garden. Five, the key task in this job is to help build community. My friends know that I’ve been harping on for years about setting up an ‘ageing hippie community’. Because surely as we age, the most important thing is to be spending time with people you like and can get along with and have some fun along the way. The care system is the archetypal curate’s egg – good in some parts but dreadful in others. It’s all propped up by underpaid carers with big hearts. However even in the best of places old people can feel lost. My experience is that if you only have friends, you’re okay. More than okay.

So – lucky me, surrounded by my own amazing friends; and lucky me, getting to do important, meaningful work.

Today’s lunch was mushroom soup. I wasn’t sure if they’d like it or not but it went down very well. Our oldest and most discerning resident, aged 95, let’s call him Denis, is a bit of a barometer as to culinary success and he doesn’t hold back if he’s not impressed. ‘Helen,’ he told me a while back, ‘your biscuits taste like Portland Cement.’ Ouch. Today however it was ‘Helen, your soup is lovely.’ Yahoo! Praise indeed. Here’s how it’s made:


(Although I’ve specified amounts, I’m just trying to be helpful – measure up or down if it suits you. This is what I did today and it worked out really well).

mushrooms1 tbsp rapeseed oil

2 large onions

2 fat cloves garlic

3 medium carrots

4 stalks celery

500g mushrooms

1 litre chicken stock

1 tbsp sherry

Salt and pepper to taste

Swirl of cream and pinch of fresh parsley to garnish

Chop all the vegetables smallish. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onions and garlic together for 5 mins or so till they’re translucent – don’t let them burn. Add the carrots and celery and put the lid on and let it all sweat together for about 10 mins. Add the mushrooms, lid it again and let it sweat for another ten. Add the stock, bring to the boil and let it simmer for maybe 15 mins. At this stage if you think it’s too thick, add some boiling water. I added about half a litre (I had some excellent stock from the butcher’s chicken which was served for Sunday lunch, and it was well able to stand being ‘watered down’).

(If on the other hand your soup is too thin, you’ve probably added too much stock. You could thicken it with rice; or a cupful of milk with a tablespoon of cornflour blended in. Put some hot soup into the cold milk/cornflour mix first, stir it together, then return it to the hot pan and bring it back to the boil then continue simmering).

Taste it and see if it’s cooked enough. If so, take a stick blender to it, and puree it all down so that it’s quite smooth. You may want to leave a bit of texture in it – I usually do – but with Oldies you have to make sure there aren’t any choking hazards. (I once thought I’d killed my dear late mother-in-law, then aged about 80, at my own kitchen table with a particularly chunky soup featuring cabbage … it looked for about ten seconds as if she had breathed her last but fortunately managed to cough the offending shred of Savoy right across the kitchen, clearing her tubes in so doing. It made me nervous for a while.)

Add a slug of sherry – somehow its fruity fustiness goes beautifully with mushrooms. Then taste again and add salt and pepper to taste. No more salt than you have to. Then serve it all up with a nice wee swirl of cream and a scattering of chopped parsley. Repeat five times. Put all the plates on your trolley, push it up the corridor and set down before your appreciative audience. Hold your breath and wait for the verdict. But you already know that bit …