Category Archives: Heritage

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’

First shift

Just done my first stint as a tour guide at Lindores Abbey Distillery. It was brought forward because my colleague, John, cracked a hip immediately after delivering some training to me on Thursday afternoon. (I definitely did not push him!). Otherwise I’d have been starting next Saturday. There were to be six people on the tour today, but it was a busy morning and we ended up with seventeen.

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There’s quite a lot to remember – significant points in the history, details of the barley, water and yeast, the equipment, the timescales, the temperatures, the ABV, what the codes on the barrels mean, where the toilets are … on the whole I think I did OK as a first-timer, but I’m looking forward to having a more fluent grasp of the story.

Above is a picture you won’t see very often – it’s the very first cask of new-make spirit, which was filled at the end of last year. Distilling started just before Christmas so there are just a few casks marked 2017, and as you can see, this is Cask 01, with the signatures of the Distillery Manager Gary, the owners Drew and Helen, and one or two others I haven’t identified yet.

The timing of this is both good and bad for me. Good, because my studies are about to end and I need some gainful employment; bad because I’m still writing up my dissertation and could have done with just another week or two of no extra duties. However it’s only a few tours before the magic dissertation hand-in date so I’ll manage. It’s been most timely that my research project is also about distilling – learning for each has reinforced learning for the other. Distillation is such a rich, fascinating field of enquiry however, that the more I learn, the more ignorant I feel! i.e. the more I know that I don’t know … Maybe that’s a good thing and it certainly keeps me on my toes. Here’s a picture of our low wines in the sensory lab at Abertay – after testing these five, we chose the best and gave it a second distillation and another testing. STV came and filmed us on the job last Tuesday; it’s been a week of brass-necking it.

FSCN0356.JPG That’s all for now; back to the chapter on ‘potential for commercialisation’. Only another week and a half and phew, phew, phew, it’ll all be over. And I’ll have time to learn more thoroughly the history, culture and provenance of my new place of work. And John, here’s wishing you a quick recovery!

Surprise Rise!

Tralaaaah! I shouldn’t have been so impatient (‘twaDSCN0198.JPGs always thus). It’s less risen than the bread I usually make, using dried instant yeast, and the crust is thinner. The crumb is moister. The flavour is intriguing – a slightly sour tang to it, behind a savoury freshness. I imagine that as I practice, it might get better still; but even if it stays the same it’ll definitely be worth making regularly. So the starter has been replenished and next weekend I’ll be at it again. Very pleased with this result. Thank you again, Jim.

Slow Dough

LAn Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Graceast year at a little independent bookshop in Cupar, I picked up an intriguing paperback which was far too expensive for the quality of the paper it was printed on, but which nevertheless called out my name. Tamar Adler’s book, ‘An Everlasting Meal: cooking with economy and grace’ has a foreword by Alice Waters, who set up the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in California. I say ‘famous’ meaning, ‘even here across the oceans; even when there is no international chain of Chez Panisse restaurants; and even with completely different food traditions.’ And personally, even though I’ve never been to California and more than likely never will (but one can dream). Waters says Adler is not just teaching people how to cook, ‘but how to love to cook’.

Tamar Adler apparently drifted into Chez Panisse one day and stayed for many years. Her book title completely reflects what she offers – a beautiful, kind, committed lesson on how to make nice food every day and be kind to your pocket as well as the planet. Just what I want. So I’ve read and re-read her book, and learned loads. Most valuable of all is her rejection of the ‘tyranny’ of the idea that veg must always be cooked to order and served hot. Under her guidance, I now cook most of my veg when I buy it, at the weekend, and store it in the fridge. It’s then so quick and easy to put something nice and tasty and healthy on the table at tea-time, when I’m hungry but can’t be bothered peeling and chopping.

However she acknowledges that sometimes other people do things better than she can. Here’s what she has to say about bread making: ‘If you’re going to choose a food not to make at home, choosing bread represents a judicious division of labour. Bakers are devout and singular people, with firm beliefs in the secret lives of the yeast starters they tend. Their ovens are hot, and they can smell when bread is nearly done, then done. I am not devout and singular enough … ‘

Well  I think that probably also applies to me; but every so often I take a notion to bake bread. And this year I’d been wondering about sourdough, as our research project at Uni involved fermentation of waste bakery products. So I bought another expensive book, this time by Sandor Katz, on the art of fermentation. And what does he tell me? ‘You can’t learn about fermentation by reading a book’… He reckons you need to get your hands dirty.

oatcakes and baguetteMeantime I had the joy of an invitation to meet with Eric Milne, the owner and director of the marvellous Fisher and Donaldson’s bakery in Cupar. Fisher and Donaldson’s is one of those oralgasm sort of bakeries, you know the sort. Five generations in the same family and causing mayhem in the female population ever since. The (secondary) purpose of my visit was to discuss bakery waste for my aforementioned research project, and it was great to see round the factory and marvel at the dinkiness of the wee round Highlander shortbreads, no bigger than a 10p piece; and the modest symmetry of the pie shells, all queueing up shyly for their share of the juicy fillings. As I was leaving, Eric gave me a bag of broken oatcakes and a sourdough baguette, to take to Uni for our discussions. I will tell you more about the research project in future posts – it will probably be taking over my life to a large extent, any time now. However I’m just explaining to you the way that sourdough has begun to ooze its way into my life, more or less unbidden.

So – yesterday morning I was gifted a tub of sourdough starter, neatly labelled ‘Jimbo: Oct 2014 to Feb 2018’. I think the giver of Jimbo probably meets Tamar Adler’s description of ‘singular and devout’. He is a craftsman in wood, and last week gave us a lovely housewarming gift – a beautiful door wedge, which is far too tactile to be allowed to lie on the floor holding a door open. He told me I had to leave Jimbo out all day, to start the breadmaking process at night. And this is what I’ve been doing.DSCN0192.JPG The picture shows it after its first slow rise, with a nice puddle of rapeseed oil and a dose of nuts and seeds ready to be stirred in. The Troubadour bought some strong flour for me at the Co-Op, and I think this may be a bit of a come-down for Jimbo who is used to the finest organic flours from the Pillars of Hercules. But I wasn’t going anywhere near Falkland and as usual was in too much of a hurry (Tamar Adler would say my bread is doomed).

So … the dough is now sitting in bread tins for its final rise but I have a little problem regarding the timing of the baking. In DSCN0193other words, I’m going out at just the time the bread should be going in the oven. So I’m going back downstairs now to have a poke at it and decide how to handle this crust crisis. I will report back faithfully and am ready to eat humble pie as there is a fair risk that poor old Jimbo’s first outing is going to end in disappointment!

 

A Jarful of Sunshine

Woohoo! that’s the first Seville marmalade of the season made! For a few hours last night the whole house smelt of oranges, a happy scent that makes me feel like summer – even though the orange harvest takes place in winter. It makes me want to visit Seville, but I don’t know when would be best – blossom time or fruit time? How to choose? I once had a lovely new years’ holiday in Majorca and we took the little wooden railway over the mountain from Palma to Soller. Along the route were orchard-loads of orange trees, allImage result for soller train drooping like they were festooned with Chinese lanterns. You could have reached out and plucked them. The scene was so soporific that perversely, I was inspired to think up a plot for a murder novel, with a body being heaved off the rattling guards-van in the middle of a tunnel. I scribbled away at it for a while but plotting has never been my strength, and the energy fizzled out like flat tonic in gin. I should have stuck with a short story. Maybe I’ll revisit it now that I’ve reinspired myself with my marmalade.

DSCN0170.JPGApparently of course, Soller oranges are not the same as Sevilles, and their marmalade is a sweeter cousin. Sevilles are bitter, and so is my marmalade, in a thoroughly enticing and nuanced way. I used Shirley Spear’s method, from her ‘Marmalade Bible‘ – one of a series of pocket-sized books on various aspects of Scottish cooking, published by Birlinn and illustrated handsomely by cartoonist Bob Dewar.

I deviated a little from the recipe – she suggests adding a couple of lemons to your kilo of Sevilles, but I didn’t have any, so pressed on regardless.DSCN0165.JPG I halved the amount of sugar – DSCN0167.JPGpartly because I didn’t have enough white sugar and thought brown might discolour or cloud the finished result; and partly because, well as we all know, sugar – teeth – obesity. I can’t do it. Even so, it was a kilo of sugar to the kilo of fruit so it’s hardly a low-sugar option. To counteract this I didn’t top up the juice after boiling, so that the volume was lower. However I still used all the peel, thinly sliced by hand. So the result is three large jars of marmalade, bitter as it should be, packed with softly chewy slivers of peel. We love it.

A word about the book’s author. Shirley Spear is my idea of a really helpful food writer – traditional and to the point but clear in her instructions. Unlike some Scottish food writers, she doesn’t rhapsodise endlessly about pheasant and scallops when most Scots never see these things – although she does give the luxury end of things a good airing from time to time, and is well placed to do so. She reminds us of simple pleasures and traditions which are at risk of dying out. Recently for example she wrote about liver, and posed the question, ‘when did we all get so squeamish about offal?’  I was saddened the other week to read her swansong in the Sunday Herald; although I applaud her life choice. Her career has no doubt been exciting and rewardinDSCN0171g, but you can have enough of a good thing and grandweans are to be treasured. Shirley Spear, I salute you and wish you well; but I’m missing you already!

Bob Dewar‘s cartoons are clear and informative and a little quirky. They complement the recipes beautifully and turn these wee Birlinn books into a total pleasure. Most of us have more recipes than we will ever need; it’s good that some of the space is given up to really clever, neat and apposite illustrations. More lavish cookbooks have endless gorgeous photos of course, and I do like them too, up to a point. But these wee books  are somehow a bit special. I also have the ones on Berries (Sue Lawrence) and Arbroath Smokies (Iain Spink), and I’m sure I’ll accumulate more as I come across them. They’re practical and also pretty; what more do you want for a fiver?