Category Archives: Heritage

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!

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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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.

 

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.

 

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!

 

 

 

A lot to be thankful for

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

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

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

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

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

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