In 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.
In 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.