Category Archives: Travel

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.

 

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Early Spring

ruta bagaI had an operation on my foot recently (a million thank yous to our brilliant NHS and to the staff of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank, in particular.) So I’m wearing a giant black foam and Velcro shoe-thing, and getting around on elbow crutches. The Troubadour will testify that I’m not the most patient patient in the world; but I have to say it’s been (mainly) lovely to lie back and relax. Doctor’s orders! Toes above nose is the advice, ie foot elevated at all times. I decided not to gross you out with a photo of my foot but instead offer you this delightful rutabaga, which bears a striking resemblance.

Anyway, by week three I was looking for some simple foodie distraction and, needs must, ordered a Tesco delivery which arrived on Saturday morning. I can hirple a little, and squat somewhat; and pivot between the sink, cooker and fridge for short periods. So my little Tesco stash has saved me from frustration meltdown.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fruit’ book has been inspiring. There’s nothing seasonal in the fruit line at this time of year in Scotland; but of course there are certain staples which never grow here at all, so if I have to spend food miles, that’s the way to spenImage result for images mangoesd them. I’d always recognised this for citrus fruits and bananas; but of course mangos also count.

When I did my volunteer stint in Zanzibar we arrived in the fresh mango season. We were advised not to eat fresh fruit (you can imagine my dismay) because of the risk of malaria and various other tropical diseases. Soon enough I decided my natural immunities would have built up a bit, and gave them a try. Fabulous! That almost sherbetty, tart edge to the voluptuous sweetness! The street vendors sold them ready prepared, so you didn’t have to wrestle with the awkward stones; and they offered you an optional sprinkle of a reddish powder which I eventually managed to understand was a mix of chilli and salt. It was sublime.

HFW recommends the Mango Lassi – Indian in origin although the mango is optional. So I followed his instructions, apart from using ready-prepared mangoes instead of the fresh whole fruit. My justification is that at the best of times, those pesky stones drive me nuts – it’s so hard to separate them from the clinging fruit. Just now, with my crutches, the wisdom of wielding sharp knives on recalcitrant objects is obvious even to me, the original (and clumsy) Health and Safety Refusenik.

Ready-prepared mangoes are brilliant. Neat juicy cubes. But they do bring with them a regrettable amount of plastic. So when I’m up and running again I’ll have to find some nifty tool or whatever. Online I found a blog by Elise Bauer, which suggests canned mango pulp or frozen mango as alternatives. However she goes on to say the canned version is probably sweetened and I definitely want mine salty. I’ll look out for frozen mango, which no doubt also arrives robed in plastic, but probably less so. I find frozen fruit and veg very good in terms of avoiding food waste, so I can compromise with the plastic.

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Put a packet of mango cubes in a liquidiser goblet; add 3 large tablespoons of natural yoghurt, along with a little less iced water. Add a good pinch of salt, and the bashed seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods. Whizz. Job done. Pour into two glasses and enjoy with a friend if you haven’t got a Troubadour.

 

HFW gives specific amounts but it’s pretty obvious you just have to adjust to your liking. Also I discovered that a food processor doesn’t work; I’d assumed they do much the same thing – but you need a liquidiser to – er – make it liquid! Funny how that little gem of knowledge has eluded me all these years. Slainte, everyone! Now I’m away for a wee lie doon.

 

Cooking your way home

Food has a potent impact on our remembered experiences. Certain smells, tastes and visuals can take us back in an instant to events we thought we’d forgotten. The jelly mould your mother used for blancmange, when you came home from hospital after having your tonsils out. The gherkin on the side of a dish of pate that reminds you of a friend of a friend who came on to you in France, oh – eeek – 35 years ago!

Sanjeev Kohli, Parduman Kohli, Arif Mir and Aasmah Mir discuss partition

Right now we’re remembering the partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947; there was a good account of it on BBC2 Scotland last night, hosted by Sanjeev Singh Kohli and Aasmah Mir, a Sikh and Muslim respectively, whose families came and settled in Scotland 70 years ago, after fleeing the riots. I had recently read a great book by Hardeep Singh Kohli, Sanjeev’s older brother: ‘Indian Takeaway: One man’s attempt to cook his way home. In this he explained how he had travelled to India a number of times to visit relatives; but never been a ‘tourist’ in the way that many of his Scottish friends, without Indian connections, had been. They came home raving about India, its spirituality and beauty and he thought he should try to see it with different eyes. Essentially, he wanted to figure out his personal identity: was he more Scottish than Indian, or the other way round?

Product DetailsBeing a big food lover, and coming from a strong Sikh food tradition, he hit on a novel way of exploring his roots: he would travel round India, cooking Scottish food for Indians! This is actually quite hilarious – you know from the start that he’s onto a loser – lack of equipment and ingredients being only the start of it. One of the running themes from a 1990s sitcom features an aspirational Indian family living in the UK, trying to cultivate a taste for ‘Bland’. So Hardeep’s attempts to ‘sell’ Scottish staples like Shepherd’s Pie and fish and chips to his Indian companions is full of pathos and self-deprecation. He’s a journalist, and writes like a stand-up comic; so there’s a steady stream of things to smile and laugh about.

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With a wonderfully truthful sense of childhood influences, he recounts the evolution of his mother’s Glenryck Mackerel (tinned of course) Curry on white rice … a creative cook’s attempt to make the most of cheaply available foods to feed her ever-hungry family. Yes it sounds dire but he assures us it was devoured with delight; and he counterposes it with a poignant account of eating fish curry in a tsunami-ravaged beach café in Mamallapuram.

Hardeep Singh Kohli honours both his parents in their strenuous, determined efforts to survive and prosper as refugees in a strange land; it is especially lovely to see his mother’s sterling efforts so lovingly catalogued. This a great read; do try and get hold of it.

 

 

Campbeltown Loch, och aye!

Just back from a great weekend visiting friend Elaine, who has been sent to Campbeltown for six months by her employer. Campbeltown is at the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, made famous by Paul McCartney who lived there with Linda many years ago. It’s really lovely. And it takes forever to get there. In fact even when you get to Inveraray, at the northern end of the peninsula, there’s still another two hours to drive. So it was good to have a really good reason to visit.

I decided to make a special pie for the occasion, to share with Elaine and Marian and Gavin. Actually, it wasn’t just a pie, it was a project, and here’s how seriously I took it: yes I boiled the bones and trotterIMG_7734 for the jelly. Anyway it was the first time I’d made a raised pork pie, and it was very good but not perfect so I have a few refinements to make before I’m ready to unleash it on the world. Marian, Gavin, Elaine and I enjoyed it with a cider tasting, which I must say was one of my more inspired combinations. On the drive down on Friday afternoon I stopped at the marvellously-stocked Co-Op in Lochgilphead and bought four bottles of posh cider and we gave them marks, along with the pie. As you cIMG_7745an imagine, it just got better and better as the meal wore on!

About 11pm Marian decided she and I would take a wee bedtime stroll  – so off we went, and were intrigued to find a large sign out on the Machrihanish road saying, ‘Drinks Ahead’. We followed on hopefully, till another sign told us ‘Five Miles’. That seemed a bit ambitious so we headed back. Elaine told us it was the weekend of the  Campbeltown Half Marathon – the drinks in question being bottles of water, not finest vintage ciders. Ah well you live in hope.

No more foodIMG_7819ie stories for the present. We got the ferry to Gigha yesterday and had a wonderful walk on an amazing beach, were adopted by two dogs, and met a bunch of local people and visitors out gathering rubbish off the beach, which faces America – stuff just washes right across the Atlantic, apparently. Here are a couple of pictures of Gigha: if you ever get the chance, you should go. And also to Campbeltown of course. Anywhere up and down the west coast, in fact. Scotland isn’t warm, but it’s beautiful.

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Securitate dumpliings

Following on from the Matzo balls, I have been reminiscing about my working trip to Cluj in Romania in 1995 or thereabouts. I was travelling alone and found that quite difficult because I couldn’t figure out a single word of the language, either written or spoken. This was fairly soon after Ceauscescu had bitten the dust, and the country was very slowly coming out of communism.  When I went on the trams I found people staring at me and then when I tried to make eye contact they instantly looked away. This of course was the country of the Securitate where nobody could trust anybody else because of all the informing that went on.

I was in Cluj as part of a European exchange programme, visiting and teaching at the University. Three nights running I was entertained at the homes of women who were lecturers at the university. Their hospitality was extremely generous and quite illuminating. All three, notwithstanding their high educational standards and facilitystuffed-dumplings-coltuna%C5%9Fi[1] in many languages, lived in high-rise flats adorned with grafitti. The dumpling connection comes in here –  one of the colleagues served up some dumplings which I must say didn’t enchant. To my spoiled western palate they seemed heavy and greasy and tasteless. But then she and her husband and children took me out for a drive into the Carpathian mountains and it was wild and beautiful with the possibility of bears – or vampires – to look out for, and it was wonderfully fresh.

I found a charming video on you-tube about making ‘Shliskies‘ – Romanian potato dumplings – do have a look. This recipe looks to me more like Italian gnocchi. However the interesting thing for me is that the man demonstrating the making of the Shliskies to his family is also a holocaust survivor.

One of the other ladies who entertained me that week served a wonderful smoked aubergine pate which I’ll write about next time I make a batch of same.

Tammy Troot

Look what just swum into my life:  handed in tonight by my kind

Trout 001fisherman neighbour Alan.  I’m going to bake it tomorrow  morning, with some lemons, for the Harvest Thanksgiving lunch after the service.  A good result all round – it was going to bean salad.  Not that there’s anything wrong with bean salad; but you have to love a nice fresh sparkly rainbow trout, don’t you?

I’m reading ‘Narrow Dog to Carcassonne’ by Terry Darlington; but it sounds like there aren’t many trout to be found in the murky canals cruised by the Phyllis May.  Maybe further on in the book – I’ve just crossed the English Channel with them, and taken a tour round Belgium.  Soon we’ll be back in France, on the Canal des Ardennes.  It’s looking good.  Terry and Monica and their whippet Jim have taken to life in a cigar tube, and it’s just as traumatic as you would expect it to be.  Jim is a bit of a drama queen, and scrounges pork scratchings everywhere they go.  I think I could survive a barging life.  With a dog.  Not sure about surviving in such close proximity to a husband though.  Alas this isn’t a choice I have to make right now.

Acid Attack

I was shocked by the story of Katie Gee and KiIsrael and Palestine Nov  2012 219rstieTrup,two 18 year old girls who had acid thrown in their faces last week, as they were coming to the end of a month-long stint of voluntary work in Zanzibar.  Shocked but not overly surprised.

The last time I wrote a blog it was from Zanzibar where I spent six months volunteering with VSO.  It was a steep learning curve.   The culture of the island is heavily imbued with its predominantly Muslim faith; with its history as a hub of the Arab slave trade; and with its post-colonial socialist history.  I came to understand that the tourist trade is effectively less than 20 years old – until then there was only one hotel on the entire island, and it was run by the government.  It’s a stunningly beautiful island with enormous tourist potential. However the local people are understandably cautious about some of the implications of tourism.  In 2010, the highest proportion of tourist jobs went to people from Kenya, or mainland Tanzania; yet youth unemployment on the island stood at over 50%.

I was working in a project that aimed to equip local unemployed young people with the starter skills and knowledge they need for working in the tourist industry.  As well as the usual range of subjects (customer service, English language, etc) we also had to address the values issues, such as attitudes to women, gay people, alcohol and states of undress.  At that time, homosexuality was illegal and in the neighbouring country of Uganda it was a capital offence.  Girls in Zanzibar theoretically had the same rights to education as boys; but something like 75% of them had to leave school each year to have their first baby.  You can’t change a culture just by a short training course and the hope of a job; it’s a long game, and meantime the behaviour of some  tourists continues to challenge and antagonise the local people.

I wonder which organisation was behind Gee and Trup’s volunteer placement? Were they given a proper understanding of what to expect, and how they would need to moderate their behaviour to keep themselves safe?  We for instance were advised to keep our shoulders and knees covered in public, at all times.  Don’t hang your underwear out to dry where men can see it.  If you want to go swimming, go to a private beach run by a hotel (which we generally couldn’t afford) because it’s not acceptable for women to use the public beaches, unless fully clothed.

All of this took a bit of getting used to.  Six months wasn’t long enough, and one month certainly wouldn’t be.  I do wonder at the wisdom of organisations that set up such short placements – it leaves volunteers very vulnerable.  Everywhere we went we were hassled by men wanting to speak to us.  In my case I didn’t feel this was a sexual threat, more often it was about money.  But it was unwelcome and unpleasant.

My brief experience of Zanzibar leaves me feeling it’s a bit of a tinder-keg in terms of potential violence.  In 2010 there were general elections for the whole of Tanzania, and VSO evacuated all their volunteers for a whole month around election time – because three people had been killed at the previous election.  Maybe Ramadan was an especially tense time for volunteers to be present.  I never witnessed any religious extremism while I was there but obviously there are risks.  I hope Gee and Trup are able to come to terms in due course with their trauma; but especially I hope that agencies which send youngsters out to dangerous places look to their policies and procedures and consider ways of keeping people safe.