Category Archives: Food

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!

 

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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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Poetry in Motion

 

Last night we attended the magnificent untraditional Burns Supper at Giffordtown Village Hall. It was every bit as good as anticipated. For readers from afar I should point out that the point of a Burns Supper isn’t really the supper itself, but the celebration of the bard’s contribution. As I have said before (see my last post), I think the celebration tips over all too often into adulation, and the formula can become tired and boring.

Doug and Jan Wightman and the Giffordtown Village Hall committee put a marvellous event together. What I’m going to do in this post is perhaps a little cheaty; but it was so good I want to share the joy! This is a selection of the inspired ‘slides’ that went into their shadow puppet rendition of Burns’ epic poem, Tam O’Shanter. Doug read the poem, Jan made the puppets, unseen helpers backstage manipulated the puppets and Steve Gellatly (silent movie pianist) did a dashing accompaniment on the keyboard. The poem title link takes you to Brian Cox reading the whole poem. This will have to do you until Doug gets a recording contract!

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When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate ….

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While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy …

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O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi’ the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin’ fou on;
That at the Lord’s house, ev’n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown’d in Doon,
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk.

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… And at his elbow, Souter Johnnie,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony:
Tam lo’ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi’ sangs an’ clatter;
And aye the ale was growing better …

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… Weel-mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet,
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet,
Whiles glow’rin round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares;
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry …

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… The lightnings flash from pole to pole,
Near and more near the thunders roll,
When, glimmering thro’ the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem’d in a bleeze,
Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing …

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… As Tammie glowr’d, amaz’d, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The Piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit …

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… To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een enrich’d …

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Now, do thy speedy-utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stone o’ the brig;
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross…

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For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump…

 

The performance was ace. So were the haggis and neeps and the Tunnocks Teacakes and the alternative address to the haggis; and all the music; and finally, as if we hadn’t had enough pleasure to last a fortnight, a wee dram gifted by an absent friend. Matured in sherry casks so less peaty than you’d expect of a fine Islay. Bliss. Happy Bardic Celebrations, everybody. Keep it fresh.

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Jean Armour Supper

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This is the time of year when everyone in Scotland starts honing their recitations of Tam O’Shanter and the Address to a Haggis, Holy Willie’s Prayer and the like. It hardly seems a year since we last celebrated Robert Burns’ birth. And if I’m honest, I’d say a year is perhaps not quite long enough. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Burns’ work (most of it anyway) and a good plate of haggis and neeps is a fine thing on a winter’s night. But in my humble opinion, we should all be showing a bit more creativity in setting out our Burns night parties.

The standard programme (Selkirk Grace, Toast to the Haggis, Immortal Memory, Toast to the Lasses and Reply etc.) certainly offers a good dose of the Bard’s best work. But it’s a hard thing to keep fresh year after year. So for Burns Night 2019, I’m delighted to say I’ll be at Giffordtown Village Hall watching a shadow puppet rendition of Tam O’Shanter and raising a glass as various musicians and poets give us their best. By order of the organiser, there are to be No Speeches. Sounds good to me.Image result for burns poems

A good number of years ago, I helped devise a Jean Armour Supper. Jean Armour was Burns’ long-suffering wife and it seemed like a good idea to give her centre stage for a change. Sadly I haven’t kept any record of those proceedings but I do remember it was a great event, in the best Harpie tradition.

This year I’m thinking cocktails, having read an inspiring book recently entitled ‘Free the Tipple: Kickass Cocktails Inspired by Iconic Women’. What would JA like to drink to enhance her enjoyment of her supper? Well I have a few suggestions and will be glad to hear yours too. How about:

tomato breakfastBLOODY MARY: Basically vodka and tomato juice with a bit of spice, and maybe a dash of dry sherry. It’s one of my favourites as it feels so healthy! Especially with a nice long stick of celery to stir it with. It feels like at least two of your five a day, with a good alcoholic undertow to brace you for whatever life has in store. Obviously Jean Armour had a lot to contend with, and I reckon a good Bloody Mary or two would help her put her philandering husband in his place. All those vitamins!


ESPRESSO MARTINI: Coffee was well known in Scotland by the late 18th ceImage result for espresso martini images�ntury. Many coffee houses had a No Women rule, but our Jean I’m sure would have challenged this absurdity. Or she might have taken the opposite tack, as a 1674 ‘Women’s Petition Against Coffee’ complained that

… the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE …has…Eunucht our Husbands…

In Jean Armour’s shoes, a eunuched husband would probably have been a better behaved husband. A difficult call to make? Sex or loyalty? Nowadays of course we know she shouldn’t have to choose. In any case, a smoothly bittersweet blend of Aqua Vitae, Kahlua, cold espresso and sugar syrup would lend a sophisticated edge to Jean’s revenge.

SILVER BULLET: the only kind of bullet effective against a werewolf. Or any other howling macho  charmer. The sort of thing that might prove useful in your handbag when you read in the paper that your husband has written a prizewinning love poem for some other floozie. Or meet the mother of his other brace of children down at the school gates. The Silver Bullet cocktail takes no prisoners – a bracing mix of gin and whisky with a wedge of lemon, shaken with ice – and that’s it. No mixers. No messing.

 

Some new, some old

And that’s just the resolutions! Happy new year everybody, I hope you had a good Hogmanay and are poised for a bright new year. Here’s a cheery grin from a couple of ne’er-do-wells I encountered on a Victorian time travel night just before Christmas:

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My favourite thing about this time of year is looking backwards and forwards at the same time. As if with a double-ended telescope and rear-view mirrors – it’s probably already been invented, like most of my good ideas. Anyway what I’m saying is, I don’t like to lose the best of last year before hurtling into the next. So I’m going to bore you with my Christmas dinner stories. Just the menu – the rest of the shenanigans are for private viewing only!

IMG_0454.JPGSo here’s my turkey. I have fulminated at length in the past about never in my life intending to cook another f***ing turkey. But as you will recall from my last post, I came over all funny in mid-December when I went into Cheyne’s the Butchers to order a ham. And for the first time in my life, I can say completely unabashed that my turkey was a triumph. I brined it a la Nigella – in a massive pot with water/salt/sugar, squeezed IMG_0457.JPGoranges with their husks, and a range of whole spices including cinnamon sticks. star anise, cloves, bay leaves, parsley stems and slices of fresh ginger root. After two days (ie on Christmas Eve) I took it out and roasted it for two and a half hours (12lb turkey), painting it all over first with honey and maple syrup, then latticing with streaky bacon. It bronzed up beautifully and I covered it with tinfoil halfway through. Sadly I forgot to take a photo of it as it emerged Adonis-like from the oven. Bronzed and muscled, you get the picture.

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Now I’m sorry I can’t find the words to say this without Nigella’s pout: darlings, it was succulent! Enough said? I eased the stress by buying (instead of making from scratch, another first) butcher’s stuffing and bacon-wrapped chipolatas; cranberry sauce; and even gravy. And by doing it a day ahead, I had it carved ready to heat and serve. Not as spectacular as bearing in the burnished beast on a platter and carving it at the table, but I have learned my limitations through the years. Anthony Bourdain, sadly gone from us during 2018, recommends having two turkeys cooked – so you get someone to take one whole cooked bird to the table and flourish it around a bit while, like a whirling dervish, you are standing in the kitchen reducing the other one to perfect portions. Then you wait five minutes and produce beautifully arranged dishes, and everyone thinks you are Wonder Woman. Of course he’s talking about restaurant cooking. I was more than happy that the Wunderkind and his lovely fiancé were flurrying around helping get it all out on the table, hot and fresh and tasty, but without the drama. Rest in Peace, Anthony, your stories are wicked and wonderful. And Nigella – I apologise for all the times I have mocked your pout. Your recipes are brilliant.

We started the meal with a little cup of chilled pea and parsley soup (Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Veg Every Day); then Scottish smoked salmon with oatcakes or, for the Troubadour, my quince cheese, made with Newburgh-grown quinces; then the turkey or for the vegetarians, an almond and cashew nut roast stuffed with prunes and chestnuts (thank you Shirley Spears). The usual veggies and condiments. Then Olivia’s Magnificent Limoncello Trifle, second year running so it’s now a tradition. And we finished with an Aqua Vitae espresso cocktail, made up in a big coffee jug by the Troubadour.

The things I would repeat neIMG_0451.JPGxt year are the brining and the buying-in of the extras; getting Olivia to do the trifle; the chilled soup which makes a light and fresh savoury start to a heavy meal; and Valerie’s smoked salmon, superb as always. The nut roast? Not sure. I liked it but the Troubadour thought it was a bit dry so I haven’t quite cracked the veggie option yet. On the left is a nice reminder of a pie-making session with Stella for the Victorian event. Not vegetarian, and nothing to do with Christmas dinner as such but hey, we were heroes! Forty wee hand-raised pies to Stella’s lovely mutton/ham/caper recipe.

There you are, that was it, please tell me your own Christmas dinner stories. It may only be lunch; but it’s such a delight for anyone who loves cooking to have a special project and with lots of friends around the table to share it with. Looking forward to poached egg on toast tonight!

Wishing you all good food and good friends throughout 2018, and lots of ways to share them with those for whom these fundamental requirements are in short supply.

 

 

Grace and the Gobbler

Photo alert: these are randomly picked from the past as I can’t find a single photo of a turkey in my vast food-photo collection. Funny, that. So instead I’m just posting some seasonal favourites.

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As in every other year at this time, I have spent the last month dreaming up my Christmas dinner. Consulting cookery books for the perfect balance of gourmet delight and ease of delivery. Writing lists, sharing ideas with the Troubadour, crossing out and starting all over again. And now of course the shopping has begun, and the prep is under way – the practice runs and the experiments. I love it. It’s what Christmas really means to me – getting the people I love around the table and sharing nice food and drink and lots of laughs. It’s the stuff of life.

DSCN0184As I may have shared before, however, I have a bit of an antipathy to the turkey. This is despite the fact that it’s a nice low-fat meat, and my own mother used to pluck turkeys at a local farm every December, to bring in a bit of extra cash. I have fond memories of me aged 10 playing around the farmyard while a team of three strong women grabbed, drew necks, hung up the squalling gobblers, and pulled feathers like fury. You’d think I’d embrace the family tradition every year – not necessarily in killing and plucking, but in giving a turkey the loving touch for the festive table.

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Here’s the truth. I got so obsessed over the years with doing the whole turkey dinner absolutely from scratch that I sickened myself, and couldn’t face actually eating the damn thing with its two kinds of home-made stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry and orange compote etc etc. And that made me crabbit. Which is not a good way to come to the table. So I’ve been doing alternatives for many years now, and most of those have worked out really well. Including improved mood on my part.

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This year I will be cooking for eight meat-eaters and four vegetarians. My plan for the meat-eaters was ham. But something happened to me yesterday, as I walked through the door of our delightful local butchers, Cheyne’s; and I found myself interrogating them about the provenance of their turkeys. Yes, turkeys. Since free-range is the only option when I buy a hen, I asked first of all about their Kelly Bronzes. And obviously I’m a bit out of touch with meat prices since I don’t cook a lot of meat at home (again, the Troubadour’s influence). However I was shocked and horrified at the price and after a lot of humming and hawing I compromised all my principles and have ordered a normal, not free-range, fresh turkey (also pretty costly, but half the price of the Kelly Bronze). Eeeek, ouch, crivvens, help ma boab. Guilt re the welfare of the birds, fighting with my inbuilt thrift or maybe you could call it parsimony. I couldn’t in all conscience spend £70 on a turkey. My mother would turn in her grave.

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Today however my equilibrium has been restored because by timely coincidence I opened an email from FareShare asking for donations for people whose Christmas menus might otherwise be constrained to beans on toast. So I’ve given them a wee chunk of my Christmas budget and suddenly it makes perfect sense to scrimp on the free-range credentials. It’s a tough old world out there, and if yesterday, I thought I had a moral dilemma, I’ve suddenly had it put into perspective.FSCN0162

So I’m trusting that all my dear friends coming to me on Christmas day will help peel the sprouts, stir the gravy, ply me with gin, and generally prevent me from going into OCD orbit; and that comfort and joy and good cheer accompany all the little donations that help to spread the gladness. Here’s FareShare’s details if you’re looking for your own little Yuletide Balancer: FareShare Donate

Waxing lyrical

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Recently I mentioned that I wanted to cut down on my use of plastic, especially clingfilm, in the kitchen. I was nervous that it would be impossible because the alternatives might not be great. Well as is often the case, as soon as you dig around a bit you discover a well-trodden path which somehow has eluded you up till now.

It turned out that all I had to do was turn right from my own close and walk a hundred yards down the street – Minerva Blue Crafts was in the middle of setting up workshops to show people how to make beeswax wraps. So I signed up, paying the princely sum of £15. While waiting for the event I had a look around and found beeswax wraps for sale in Lakeland – at a staggering £19.99 for three! I love Lakeland, and if I’m looking to treat myself, that’s often where I go. But it has to be said, sometimes their goods are on the pricey side.

So, come the day of the workshop and I discovered I’d got the date wrong and was working – driving a minibus to Hawick (the new Borders Distillery) and back no less, more of that in my next post – and the next date (yesterday) was already fully booked, so popular are these workshops proving to be. So I’ve booked again, but meantime, to satisfy my curiosity, I dropped in with my camera; here are some shots of Newburgh Women Saving the Planet!

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I haven’t got the proper knowledge yet of how it’s done, but will report back in a future post on exactly how you create these handy wee cloots. They can be used to cover a bowl of leftovers in the fridge, or to wrap up a sandwich to take to work – or, no doubt, lots of other things. I overheard a conversation about wrapping one’s husband up in one; the main attraction being that it takes warm hands to make it fit properly … but maybe that’s an advanced class!

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More detail on all of this at a future date. Meantime, for those of you who follow my blog, let me just announce that I finished my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo challenge on Friday night and posted it in at 5 to midnight! So that’s me with the first draft of a novella in my eager little clutches, and after I’ve recovered from November’s bad posture cramps, eye strain and weight gain, will be trying to figure out what to do with it. Hurrah!

 

 

Birnam Book Festival

Today the Troubadour and I had a brilliant visit to Birnam and then Dunkeld (joined on, as you cross the Telford bridge) – a cold walk in the town, a bit of culture, a heart-warming book-signing, a very typically Scottish lunch, and a bit of retail therapy. This photo may not be the cheeriest view of the town, but I wanted to capture the way the cloud lay across the valley like a cat with no intention to budge.

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Briefly let me explain my absence from the blogwaves for the last month – I’ve been writing a novel! I signed up to NaNoWriMo, an online challenge which involves writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. So I have become a bit of a hermit. However this morning I reached 43,800 words and am well on course for finishing on time, fingers crossed ; hence taking a day off for a fIMG_0363.JPGun outing.

Birnam, for those of you not local, is well known for its mention in Macbeth – one of the witches assures him of his brilliant future: “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care/Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are./Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him.”

In other words, never. But alas, Macbeth fell for a dastardly witches’ trick as we find out later in the play. Nowadays, Birnam is a small southern Highland town with lots of pleasant amenities, only about 20 minutes’ drive north of Perth. This weekend they are hosting their first ever book festival, and we managed to get tickets to see Peggy Seeger being interviewed about her book by Fiona Ritchie (Wayfaring Strangers).

IMG_0356.JPGThe title of Seeger’s memoir ‘First Time Ever‘ comes from the song written for her by her long-time life partner Ewan McColl, and made famous by Roberta Flack and a host of others who have covered it over the years. In interview she was open, charming, honest, witty and downright entertaining. Now in her eighties, she informed us that back home in London, she wears a community alarm pendant in case she falls; and yet she clearly had the courage and drive to travel north to a (today at any rate) freezing foggy Highland town, and talk for over an hour then sign books – and tonight she’s on stage, singing. This is a woman with absolutely no claptrap in her veins. She has a strong record as a feminist and environmental campaigner as well as being a key figure in British and Scottish folk song revival. Folk isn’t my first choice of music, but I’d heard her recently on Radio 4 singing her great song about not being allowed to be an engineer, and I was hooked. Even better, she told us all that she had read Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ to prepare herself for writing her memoir – exactly what I did a couple of months ago – so now I feel I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

Fiona Ritchie was an excellent interviewer, and the dialogue flowed like a spirited conversation, with nothing forced and nothing held back. There was time for just two questions from the audience at the end – both of which were inspired, and generously responded to. I’m including them here because they really added to the experience: Q1 was asking her to relate her experience as a child when she met Elizabeth Cotten, the black singer (‘Freight Train’), in a department store; and Q2 was about the place of folk and traditional song in politics. I won’t rehearse her answers here; buy the book!

IMG_0361.JPGI mentioned lunch and retail therapy. Oh dear. I have at last succumbed to the lure of the (I blush to admit it) deep-fried Mars Bar. It was that cheery, scrubbed-face, clever waitress at the Dunkeld Fish Bar who enticed me. And the Troubadour who made me. Well maybe not exactly. We shared it (his half was bigger than my half, honest!) What really worried me was that I’d enjoy it so much that I’d want another one. Well, it was gooey and sweet and I couldn’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy it. But its similarity to a deep-fried sausage in batter was less than prepossessing so I think I have now laid this ghost and it’ll never happen again. Unless we have any more cold Scottish November days, and how likely is that?IMG_0366

Retail therapy involved a browse round a great second-hand book shop where I purchased ‘From Petticoat Tails to Arbroath Smokies: Traditional Foods of Scotland’ by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. I will review this book further in due course; it fits very well with another historical tome I’ve been working my way through. Further shopping entailed a new wok from Kettles of Dunkeld, a great ironmongery emporium. Also a potato-shaped potato-scrubber (clever), a vinegar bottle, Christmas napkins and one or two other wee delights. The wok needs seasoning so I’m away downstairs now to get on with that. Stir-fried veggies coming up. And wish me well for my final 6,200 words!

 

 

 

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!