Category Archives: Literary

Daemons and Comfort Food

I’ve just finished reading Philip Pullman’s new(ish) book, ‘The Book of Dust’. It’s the first part of his ‘Belle Sauvage’ trilogy, and seems to be a prequel to Northern Light, which I guess I read about 10 years ago and still remember the thrill. Especially engaging was the fact that every human character has a daemon – a little animal which is part of you, a constant companion, which accompanies you through all the joys and sorrows of life.La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (Book of Dust Series) by [Pullman, Philip]

One of the most immediately-attractive things about this book is that it has pictures in it. Lovely black and white illustrations, which took me straight back to the 10-year-old delights of Swallows and Amazons and all the other Arthur Ransomes. Drawings are so evocative; spread through the text, they seem to give you a breather, help you visualise what you are reading and check your understanding. And in their own right they are so downright enjoyable. After half a page of ‘Dust’, I was hooked.

I remember however being encouraged to read books without illustrations – pictures were for babies – you were a big girl, or a clever girl, when you could read a whole book without pictures. What a shame. Nowadays we’re all so much more visually aware so I hope for lots more illustrations in my reading materials henceforth.

DSCN0222.JPGThe hero of this book is 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents in an inn on the Thames near Oxford. His mother serves up big hearty plates of old-fashioned food as bar suppers, and to Malcolm at the kitchen table. Steak and Kidney Pudding. Cauliflower Cheese. Rhubarb and Custard. When Malcolm has to endure some pretty gruelling experiences in protecting Lyra from the nasty Child Protection people, it’s the memory of his mother’s cooking that makes him homesick. And sustains him for the perilous journey. Well done, Mrs Polstead. I’m with you.

I’ve just written a book of food memories, entitled ‘A Life in Mouthfuls’, and am teetering towards self-publication. I asked a couple of people to read it and give me an endorsement for the back cover, and here’s some of what I’ve got back so far:slow-roasting tomatoes.JPG

“… brought back happy memories of my own where various meals were associated with family members who are no longer with us. I remember a great aunt who always served us lunch of ‘toad in the hole’. My Grandmother had a particularly good recipe for beef olives!”

“… beautifully reflects what happens around our own kitchen tables, where people come together for company, conversation and peer support.”

Very happy to have evoked some of what Philip Pullman has evoked for me. Will keep you posted re my book! Have a nice dinner tonight.

 

 

 

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!

IMG_1170 (2)

 

 

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.

IMG_0831.JPG

 

 

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.

 

Girls of Slender Means

Muriel Spark is a Scottish writer best known for her ‘Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, a fabulously ironic take on Edinburgh, 1950s education, art, class and politics. The lead role in the film version is lavished on us by Maggie Smith, only one excellent reason for watching it all over again.

Image result for images 2ww food rationing ukI’ve just finished Spark’s 1963 novel ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, only 117 pages long in the Polygon edition, and loved every comma of it. The story is set in a sort of young ladies’ boarding house, in the summer of 1945 – just at the end of the war and with London bombed to bits, and shortages of every kind set to continue for years to come. Spark sets the scene on page 2 with a view from the top storey of the boarding house down onto the street far below – little dots of people pushing little dots of prams, carrying little dots of shopping bags and this – “Everyone carried a shopping bag in case they should be lucky enough to pass a shop that had a sudden stock of something off the rations.”Image result for images 2ww food rationing uk

All of this resonates with me considerably. My mother had strong memories of wartime rationing and frequently referred back to it when she was bringing us up in the 60s. The real lived experience of shortages and hunger had got into her bones, and she passed this on to us in case we were ever foolish enough to act as if money grew on trees, or food arrived on the plate from thin air. Food historians acknowledge the UK’s rationing arrangements as a major success, with rich as well as poor forced to get by on a restricted diet –  and many people being in better health at the end of the war than at the beginning. It seems this ‘war on the home front’ was also a factor in the UK’s ability to support the war till its end.

Image result for images ywca park circus glasgow

Also resonating with me from Spark’s novel is the boarding house. For my first year at university, aged 18, I stayed in a YWCA hostel in Glasgow, presided over by two lady wardens who might have been as old then as I am now, and whom we saw as utterly ancient. It was a very old-fashioned arrangement and there were lots of large and small covert subversions of the rules. In Spark’s boarding house there was an eccentrically varied collection of personalities with life pouring out through every pore of their being. It makes me think I didn’t pay enough attention to the other girls in the YWCA; but then, actually being young and living the life took up all your energy. It was a fabulous time of my life. The YWCA’s soggy potatoes and stringy stew just went down the hatch; it was fuel for the rest of life.

Image result for images love food hate wasteOver recent decades, across the developed world, food shortages have become a resounding reality for far too many people. All this in the world’s most developed economies. The latest UK figures on Food Bank usage were released the other week: 1.6million food bank parcels were given out in the year April ’18 to March ’19. The national campaign Love Food Hate Waste has addressed this on the domestic front, and for anyone listening, there are excellent suggestions for how to eke out today’s food ration. Yes of course it’s a disgrace that politicians across the world have allowed this to happen. For myself I will try to address this through the democratic process, but it all seems very remote. It’s much more immediately meaningful to adopt good waste-free kitchen habits.

There is a beautifully understated passage in Spark’s book about a seduction scene, in which the most beautiful of the boarding house girls wakes up in a handsome young airman’s bed. She wants to know what’s for breakfast, and he brings out his rations. Selina, we are told, ‘was accustomed to men who got food from the black market.’ That’s all that’s said; it tells us volumes about the whole ethical approach to obtaining food; her carelessness and his care. She’s just biding her time till she finds a rich husband. He is the one with the greater needs of the community at heart.

I wish I knew how to feed the world. Maybe reading and writing is as good a way as any. I applaud Muriel Spark’s thrifty way with words: no waste here.

 

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!

IMG_0514.JPG

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

IMG_0515.JPG

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

img_0518

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.

IMG_0520.JPG

… 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 …

IMG_0524.JPG

… 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 …

IMG_0526.JPG

… 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 …

img_0531

… 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 …

IMG_0532.JPG

… 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 …

img_0537

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…

img_0538

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.

img_0542

Jean Armour Supper

dscn0184 (1)

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.

IMG_0348.JPG

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!

 

 

 

Dinky Eggs

2017-07-21 10.41.15.jpgRecently I was gifted half a dozen quails’ eggs, by my friend Anne who is on bartering terms with the quailkeeper. They’re such pretty wee things and remind me of The Borrowers. About 25 years ago, my friend Marian and I took our collective Wunderkinder to the Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow to see a staged production of this lovely 1952 children’s story by Mary Norton. It features a family of tiny people who live in the rafters and crannies of an ordinary house, and ‘borrow’ things for their daily use. Anyway, as you can see from my photos2017-07-21 11.33.40.jpg (that’s a cherry tomato in the second one, to give a sense of perspective), quails eggs are dinky but just one would probably feed a whole Borrowers family handsomely. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I ate all six myself at one go, the Troubadour having declined. They taste just like hen eggs.

I had a look online to see how quails are produced. It seems they are quite nervous, flighty birds and according to the Farmers Weekly, there is only one intensive quail farm in the UK.  Those quails selected for egg-laying are kept on a ‘free to fly’ basis which I guess means free range. Lots of quails and their eggs are imported so I don’t know what the animal welfare concerns might be there. As usual, I would look for UK or even Scottish birds and eggs, if I were in a shop.

However I haTheBorrowers.jpgve the joy of knowing that mine were produced by a cheerful wee flock pecking around among the backwoods of Newburgh. Thank you ladies, I enjoyed your eggs very much, and also the Borrowers memory they invoked. And thank you Anne, happy bartering!

 

 

EAT YOUR WORDS

Brilliant outing yesterday to the newly -extended Carnegie Library and Galleries, Description: Hard Drive:Users:marthabryce:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 10.15.03.pngDunfermline. Award-winning architecture, opening up huge new vistas over the Abbey and Abbot’s House to the west, and the Forth bridges to the south. And a hugely engaging collection of artefacts representing many of the trades and townspeople of past and present. The actual library section is mercifully preserved pretty much as was. When Captain Wunderkind was a baby I used to push the pram up St Margaret’s Street and get lost in the aisles of books, shoogling the pram with one hand and balancing the books with the other, trying to devour a whole chapter before the WK woke up and wailed.

2017-05-23 11.36.10.jpgIn those days there was no tea or coffee to be had in the library – the very idea! Now however there’s a spanking new café with an outside terrace and leafy views through the treetops. The café contract was awarded to a (relatively) local food business, ‘Heaven Scent’ of Milnathort – a nice change from the corporate Costas that seem to take over. Not that I have anything against Costa – except for the global creep which makes it so hard for the local food story to survive. We arrived at lunchtime and I had a creamy, soothing pitcher of lentil soup with a nice crunchy salad with roasted vegetables, and a pair of seeded mini-rolls. The menu was a notch above predictable, with lots of familiar lunch-type options, livened up with little quirks. Pity that, at 12.30 in the day, they’d already run out of  cream of mushroom – but since they only opened last Thursday, I guess it takes a while to bed in. The queue never went down throughout our visit so clearly it’s going down well.

I’ve always been a big library fan, and fortunate always to have access to some good ones. Right now, I’m in the AK Bell library in Perth – on the spacious and silent upper floor, tapping away. Great study space, good book collection in my field (food and drink, mainly), friendly and helpful staff, and a nice, but slightly pricy, café.

My first library was in what had once been someone’s front room at the top end of the Main Street in Ochiltree – a few doors beyond the House with the Green Shutters. I finished the single shelf of children’s books in a matter of months, so my mother and the librarian conspired to find things from the adult shelves that they considered ‘suitable’. Of course they occasionally got it wrong! And thank goodness for that, as my sex education was badly in need of augmentation.

I won’t go on at length about all my libraries but have decided to do a scoresheet, with points out of 5 on the above features, for all you other booknerds out there:

Name and location of library, and the dates I used it Book collection

score 0-5

Study space

score 0-5

Staff helpfulness

score 0-5

Refreshments

score 0-5

Ochiltree, 1964-68 2 0 2 0
Carnegie library, Ayr, 1974 3.5 3 3 0
Glasgow University Library, 1974-77 5 (but all so BORING!) 3 1 0
Langside Library, Glasgow, 1977-86 3.5 1 2 0
Public library, Stonetown, Zanzibar, 2010 3 – but eccentric! 3 2 0
Carnegie Library, Dunfermline – opened 1883, closed for renovations 2015 4 4 4 0
Duloch Community Library, Dunfermline 4 2 4 2
Laing Library, Newburgh, Fife 4 but specialist – local and family history 1 4 0
AK Bell Library, Perth 4 4 4 3
 Carnegie Library and Galleries, Dunfermline – reopened 18th May 2017 4 4 4 4

So the top scorer is …. drum roll … Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries! Go as soon as you can, it’s a brilliant visit and does the townspeople proud.