Category Archives: Scotland

The Miller’s Tale

Fresh from the sourdough workshop, the Troubadour and I headed south to IMG_1138Dumfries and Galloway for a look around some museums that had been tickling our fancies. This wide, green, rolling corner of Scotland is often overlooked by travellers heading north to south or the other way round – and yet it holds some magnificent rural and coastal scenery, great gardens, and a host of cultural interest.

On the way down we stopped for coffee at Biggar and found, quite unexpectedly, a great wee local museum, run by volunteers, with an amazing collection of artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the 20th century. We especially liked a series of beautifully-crafted models showing cross-sections of local historic buildings like towers and mills and castles. There was also a huge reconstruction of old shops and businesses from Biggar’s main street in years gone by. Well worth the £4 entry fee us bus-pass-holders get to enjoy! And only £5 for the rest of you.

Above righIMG_1162 (2)t is a picture of Sweetheart Abbey, in the village of New Abbey where we were staying. It’s run by Historic Scotland and currently being renovated for safety reasons but dates from the 12th century and has a story about Queen Devorgilla who carried around her dead husband’s heart in a box tied to her waistband. This was seen as an act of great romance and devotion hence the name  given to the Abbey. I don’t get it. I mean – why??? Anyway it’s a picturesque visit with a nice tea shop and great cream scones.

Left is a picture of the 19th century foundations of the stills at Annandale Distillery. It’s a great piece of excavation work, carried out by Glasgow University – you can see very clearly the hearths from the two stills, with the chimney intact at the back. Like many distilleries, it closed in 1918 and then had a number of decades changing hands. The new owners started distilling in 2014 and the newmake spirit and 3 year old, both peated and unpeated, are a delight. ‘Man o’ Words’, the unpeated, invokes our bard Burns who lived and worked in Dumfries for a while, as an exciseman no less; and ‘Man o’ Swords’ invokes Robert the Bruce. In my heart I’m a woman o’words, not o’swords; but I have to confess I preferred the latter in a glass.

Our main intention when booking the break was to visit ‘The Devil’s Porridge’, a museum in Eastriggs near Annan which commemorates the massive armaments factory which was created there to produce cordite for the first world war. Apparently it was the biggest producer of cordite in the world at the time, and whole towns were built to accommodate the 9,000 staff who were needed to run it – 75% of whom were women, under 21, and working class – coming from jobs on farms and in service or other low-paid work. The collection of photos, uniforms, machinery and other artefacts is excellent and there’s a lot of really helpful interpretive information. There are lots of photos of young women delving into vats of cotton fibre, bare hands and up to their oxters in explosive materials. And yet apparently the workers were delighted to be there, earning two to three times their previous wages, enjoying a great social life, and freed from the servitude and lack of opportunity which had been their previous lot. I regret to say that I didn’t take any photos when we were there – partly because it was a bit cramped and the exhibits too big to get a proper viewpoint. But mainly because I had just come from my tasting session at the distillery and wasn’t entirely sober! Great museum though and I thoroughly recommend it.

And finally to the Corn Mill, also at New Abbey. This is run by HiIMG_1165 (2)storic Scotland, and we were shown round by a really enthusiastic local woman who brought its entire history to life for us. Originally it was built to grind oats for the monks at nearby Sweetheart Abbey; but the mediaeval origins are lost and the mill was rebuilt in the 18th century. It only closed for business in 1948. The interior of the mill shows how successive millers innovated and redesigned to ease the back-breaking burden of hauling sacks of oats around. You have to take your hat off to those informal engineers – the skill and dedication it must have taken to devise ways of, for example, hauling those 200lb sacks of oats from the bottom of the mill to the top. And you also have to spare a thought for the children employed in a lot of the heavy, boring, repetitive and dangerous work of the mill. Phew, phew, so lucky to have been born a century later! IMG_1175 (2)

I found the milling story fascinating in the context of my wider familiarity with barley-milling. At my place of work we use a modern mill which deals with half a ton at a time, yet you could only call it dinky in comparison to the massive millstones used at New Abbey for oatmeal. Also, from the sourdough workshop I was well convinced of the benefits of stoneground flour for breadmaking, and aware that there are very few stone-grinding mills left in Scotland. Now I can see why. The picture below shows a millstone imported from France in the height of the French Revolution – apparently it cost the equivalent of £15,000 at the time, and was shipped in segments; so that the miller had to reassemble it in situ. Otherwise it would have been impossible to shift. It seems that Napoleon put trade embargoes on hold in order to clinch this deal! (Please feel free to insert your own Brexit analogies here, I can’t bear to!)

And so my commitment to stoneground flour is renewed – thank you, Historic Scotland – and today’s tasks include cleaning out the fridge and feeding my little sourdough starters. And sorting out the rest of my Dumfries and Galloway photos; and maybe having a wee nip of Man O’Swords!

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Embrace Stickiness

‘Stop doing that with your hands, Helen!’ Jeff, the instructor was calling at me across the other eight apprentices, from the far end of the table. I paused, Lady Macbeth-like, in the endless rubbing of my sticky mitts. ‘Will these poor hands ne’er be clean?’ I nearly said; but Jeff was speaking again: ‘Look at my hands.’ Jeff has lovely hands – big and strong and gentle. I’m not really digressing, honestly. They were covered in a thin pale crustiness. His hands are perfectly suited to the job. ‘These are seasoned hands,’ he told me. ‘Enjoy getting sticky.’

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So, yesterday I spent at a sourdough bread-making workshop at Breadshare in Portobello, Edinburgh, run by Deborah and Jeff, a pair of cheery Australians who haveIMG_1107 (2).JPG brought back meaning to the ancient guild title of ‘Baxter’ – the baker. I’d read about them in the Press as they have really cooked up a storm. Grace Dent, no less, visited them in her recent tour of all things foodie in Edinburgh, and raved about their bagels. (I would like to be Grace Dent when I grow up – well-informed, great sense of humour, cheeky, has a great job. And, oh well, thin.)

There are many things I have learned by reading books (e.g. childrearing – ask the Wunderkind). Results may vary but still, you do your best. Instinct and common sense obviously play their part, but I’m not all that well endowed with the latter. Anyway, yesterday was a great wake-up call to the fact that some skills are better learned hands-on. Sticky.

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I tried just letting the goo adhere, and do you know, it actually worked? Once I rid myself of my unthinking prejudice towards clean hands, I was fine. It was liberating. And more: says Jeff, ‘the table is your friend.’ You don’t need to peel your dough off cleanly each time you shove it around – the table is holding it in place for you so that you can stretch it more easily. And you should have seen the way Jeff coaxed his little pile of raggy dough into a smooth Botticelli-round pillow – it nearly brought tears to my eyes. But, he showed us, if you keep the edges of your hands on the table, and lightly-quickly whizz it around, we could do it too! Nearly. Sometimes. With practice.

In the picture above you can see our pizza doughs resting under clear plastic bowls. We IMG_1111.JPGlet them rise a bit, slapped them down and around, loaded them up with goodies, and baked them for lunch. There’s a tricky point where you have to get them off the tray via a long paddle, or peel, and into the oven. I’m sorry to say mine didn’t survive that process too well, and the toppings sort of fell through the dough onto the oven floor – you could hear the sizzle. It tasted okay but it was definitely at the bottom of the class, looks-wise.

Everything else though was a triumph. Here’s what I brought home at the end of the day:

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a Borodinsky Rye, with 40-year-old Russian sourdough (oh the delight of copious coriander seed!); a seeded sourdough cob; a lovely little square batch; a cob with walnuts and another with walnuts and big fat sticky dates. What a haul. Everything organic. Nothing added. Flour, water, yeast and a few well-chosen goodies. And a tub of rye sourdough and a slightly bigger one of wheat leaven starter, with all the info we need to repeat, at home. Breakfast will never be the same again.

In the Kailyard

IMG_0945 (2)I have a group of wonderfully green-fingered veggie-gardening friends, and every so often we get together with a pot luck supper. In my diary these events are referred to as ‘The Kailyard’ – an old Scottish word for the kitchen garden (because even in coldest, windiest parts, you can always grow kail, or kale). To avoid confusion I will add that there is a somewhat derogatory use of the term kailyard, applied to a school of writers who indulge in sentimentalised renditions of Scottish life. I want to rescue this lovely old word ‘kailyard’ from such snobbery, and apply it in its traditional sense. Rant over.

At our last meeting in the first half of June, with the gardens just about beginning to produce the goods, we had a lovely buffet with some homegrown produce, some from the shops. The menu included smoked trout pate; a couscous salad with broad beans, herbs and lemon; a sourdough focaccia with green olives; a mushroom salad with pumpkin seeds; green beans Provençal; and for dessert, some chocolate pistachio fudge.

However the absolute piece de resistance was produced by Caroline and Robin who brought their portable smoker, and after the ‘first course’ (above), demonstrated the smoking of their own catch of rainbow trout and cod before we gobbled it all down with delight.

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The principles of smoking are quite straightforward and low-tech – after all, this is a process that has been used for centuries if not millennia as a way of preserving the summer’s catch for the winter larder. Having said that, it’s not something I’ve tried myself – yet! Robin carried his smoker in his rucksack, and as you can see from the photos, it consists of a 3-burner gas stove with a smoking box on top. There’s a trivet inside with a grill above it, on which you lay the food, with a narrow gap round the edges of the trivet to let the smoke through. Under that, on the floor of the box, you sprinkle some sawdust and set light to it. Then you put the lid on and wait awhile – depending on how big or dense your piece of food is. Our pieces of fish took about 20 minutes.

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I can barely describe how delicious this fish was to eat. Partly of course because it was freshly caught – the cod from about 25 miles up the coast and the trout from the loch at the top of the hill, a mile away. But the smoking imparted such an aromatic, slightly salty flavour and the texture was beautifully firm-tender. I unashamedly took home a doggie bag and had it in my sandwich at work the next day – and enjoyed it even more than before, bringing another wave of home-wrought delight into the world of the stills. (Every time I do a tour I talk about the impact of peat smoke on malting barley; it’s the same process.)

It matters what kind of sawdust you use – obviously you don’t want anything with chemicals in it, but otherwise you can experiment with different types of wood. Fruit tree shavings of various kinds apparently work beautifully, and we have no shortage of those in our area. The best online guide I found was provided by Wikipedia – with clear info about food hygiene as well as different types of cooker. These come in a wide price range, from about £25 up to silly realms. But you can also improvise with an old biscuit tin over a low fire, and that’s what I intend to do.

Other types of food and drink to try … tea, peppers, prunes, beef, pork, turkey, chicken, sausage, fish and seafood of all kinds, eggs, cheese, nuts, tofu, paprika, salt … as suggested by Wikipedia. Happy Smokin! Smoke responsibly.