Category Archives: Lifestyle

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.




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:


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.


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.



Maggie’s Munchies

On Wednesday I participated in the fourth of four nutrition workshops at Maggie’s in Dundee. Sue, the tutor, is a retired dietitian, and runs this group for people who live with Cancer, on a drop-in basis. The aim is to explore how various dietary choices can support your feeling of wellbeing on your Cancer journey.2016-09-04 15.15.54.jpg

I don’t have Cancer; but I’ve recently been studying the connections between the so-called Mediterranean Diet, and Cancer prevention. My friend Amanda works alongside Maggie’s, and when she heard about my interest, made the necessary introductions. This has been a brilliant opportunity for me, to see how theory gets translated into practice, and I’m very grateful to Amanda and Sue, and all the women and men with Cancer who allowed me to join in their conversations. It was a privilege.

Sue’s four sessions were based on the government’s Eatwell Guide. So we had two hours on each of Fruit and Veg; then Carbs; then Oils and Fats; and finally, Salt and Sugar. In each session, Sue prepared some recipes and talked us through the whys and wherefores of various foods and their provenance. There was plenty time for discussions. And then we ate all the food! What a brilliant learning opportunity – so much better than just reading a recipe book, or even watching a dish being made on television. I saw things being made that I’d read about – like Bircher Muesli – which I just didn’t fancy enough to try. (Oats soaked overnight in milk? Doesn’t sound promising …) Yet the results were delicious, and I’ll definitely make it again.

2016-12-10 20.41.11No surprises in the fact that there isn’t a magic dietary bullet for Cancer. The advice is the same as eating for general good health: lots of fruit and veg, high fibre unless it’s upsetting your system (sometimes affected by the condition or the treatment), oily fish a couple of times a week, and avoid processed foods because they are usually high in salt and sugar. Not too much red or processed meat, not too much dairy. Straightforward, really. But we all get into ruts, cooking the things we know; and Sue showed us some dishes which were easy and tasty and unknown to many of us.

For example, we had mung bean salad; red pepper soup; winter dried fruit salad, with yoghurt and toasted hazelnuts; lentils with red onions in a mustardy-horseradishy dressing; soda bread rolls; smoked mackerel, beetroot and potato salad; hummus; spicy red pepper dip; lemon-tossed popcorn; little oaty-cranberry bundles. And the Bircher Muesli as mentioned earlier. It was all beautiful to behold, and delightful to eat, and left you feeling nicely satisfied afterwards. There is no hardship at all in eating like this; it just takes a bit of planning. Sue’s approach to the recipes was very refreshing too – if you don’t like one ingredient, just substitute another. No major fuss about measuring – a handful will do. We were given recipes too. The links I’ve added here aren’t Sue’s but have the same kind of slant. Also, you can buy a recipe book from Maggie’s.

Maggie’s Centres are architecturally acclaimed, and provide a calm, warm, safe space where people can drop in, have a cup of tea, a chat, browse some great resources, get some specialist advice if they need it, share their experiences with other people with similar conditions, and attend a range of classes if they want to. The emphasis is on empowerment – nurturing people through some difficult times and helping them find the courage and confidence to carry on. People who go there praise the skills and dedication of the doctors and nurses and others who help them on the clinical side of their treatment. And then they say that Maggie’s gives them back a sense of themselves.

I hope none of you ever need Maggie’s – but if you do, I’d say this; you couldn’t find a better source of wisdom.

How not to complain

Yesterday I went to Curry’s to swap my printer… I’d paid £12 for the risk that the first one might come a cropper and sure enough, it did. I have to confess I was a little irritable. However my malaise was as nothing compared to the man in front of me in the queue. He was absolutely bawling at the store manager, who was remaining calm, keeping his voice down, adopting a very non-threatening posture as they teach you in all those challenging behaviour courses. Meantime Mr Angry was having a field day, playing to the gallery and clearly not to be appeased, no matter what the manager might say to him in reply. His telly wasn’t working boy, was someone going to suffer for it.

ImageHis wife stood by, pale-faced and silent, and I wondered if she’d ever had that treatment directed at her.

My own irritation melted like ‘snaw aff a dyke’, especially as the assistant now dealing with me was being utterly helpful. I raised my eyebrows at him and he muttered ‘happens every day.’

Often these days, in post offices and railway stations for instance, you see signs reminding people that their staff are not to be abused. Quite right too. Maybe they should have called the police. Just standing in the same queue was upsetting, goodness knows what the state of the manager’s health is, having to deal with such an assault. Stomach ulcers? Migraines? Panic attacks?

I’d have liked to knee Mr Angry in a sore place; but of course that wouldn’t have sorted things out. A better, and more seasonal, solution would be to cast him as the new Scrooge, and visit him with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. You get the idea; he’s whirled back to his grandparent’s day when the milk horse is sick, there are no deliveries, and his grandfather has to walk five miles through the snow to get milk to feed six hungry children… He’s taken to visit the homeless unit in his own town, in the present day, where the youngsters are trying to make something cheery to eat that can be heated up in a microwave oven and costs less than 75p… he’s taken to late November 2023 to hear his own child, now grown up, vowing to be a better parent than his own father… and then he’s given a chance to think again whether his malfunctioning telly was really worth all that fuss. I think I’ve just invented my new novella! But meantime – let’s hear it for courtesy and a sense of perspective.

A Month in the Country

Some friends and I decided to view some films that had been created from short fiction, first reading the book then meeting to view and watch the film together. Tonight was the first night and by complete coincidence we chose a film that featured Armistice – or to be more precise, a story set just after the first world war, with the main character and supporting character being young soldiers just back from the trenches.

The film was made in 1989 from a beautiful little novella by JL Carr, and stars a very young Colin Firth as Birkin, with Kenneth Branagh as Moon and Natasha Richardson as Alice, the vicar’s wife. It tells the story of Birkin’s recovery from the worst of his war-induced twitch, stammer and night terrors, as he spends a month in the country uncovering an old wall painting in the church. The work itself absorbs and speaks to him, as do the villagers who give him a warm and practical welcome. There’s nothing sentimental about the story, either in the book or the film; but it’s beautiful and hopeful, and makes a lovely counterpoint to all the more formal Armistice events we have reflected on today.

Sadly I’m having trouble with my graphics tonight so can’t include a picture for you to enjoy. Sorry. Do read the book, though, it’s only 80 pages and we all loved it. And get the film if you can. It’s a faithful adaptation. Very inspiring for those of us who write short stories.

The softest hands ever

IMG_0016I had a very nice time in Glasgow on Saturday with three friends.  We had been invited by Jo Malone (not personally, but still) to partake of a hand and arm massage and a glass of champagne.  How could you resist?  So off we went.

Of the four of us I think it would be safe to say that I am the most likely to have soft hands to start with – i.e. I don’t do much of what many people would consider ‘real’ work.  Nothing too manual, with a softy lifestyle.   You know – dishwasher, as little housework as I can get away with, a couple of hours at the keyboard with feet up afterwards to recover.  My mother used to come in from plucking turkeys, survey her broad, red, deeply wrinkled digits, and tell me, ‘stick in at the school, hen, and you’ll no have to work as hard as yer auld mother’.  Well I would like to say that I have indeed had to work hard all my life, but never in that hard physical sense.  It’s just my poor brain that gets wrecked.

So – perched amiably at Jo Malone’s, we each had our turn at what was a deeply enjoyable experience.  Champagne at 11.30 am is so civilised!  And the hand-made chocolates added most agreeably to the occasion.  Our masseuse was a beautiful, bright art student who seemed to really enjoy her job and we had a great chat.  My turn came last and let me say, she was  visibly startled as she took my hands in hers – here are her exact words – ‘Your hands are the softest I’ve ever come across’ !!!  Let me remind you that Jo Malone’s shop is very exclusive and I’m sure they train their staff very carefully.  So this was an expert assessment: the SOFTEST hands!  I am boasting at length because I don’t go in much for grooming and pampering.  In my sister’s company I usually feel over-opinionated and under-dressed.  But hey – the softest hands!  I’m looking forward to Jo Malone introducing a brain massage; maybe that’ll be a different story.  Until then – I’ll be pressing flesh…