The birks, the birks …

Wonderful weekend in Aberfeldy – so wonderful it has taken me three days to write it up! Just an hour and a quarter’s drive away but it felt like continental Europe, what with the sunshine, the quirky shops, the local beer, the farmers’ market, the ar2017-04-01 11.06.48.jpgthouse cinema, the ukulele band, and oh! the Birks of Aberfeldy! A wild, dramatic gorge with tumbling streams and crashing waterfalls, acres of wild garlic scenting the birches, and even a statue of Rabbie Burns sitting obligingly on a bench, waiting for Five Women on an Adventure to pose beside him. Good soup and sandwich lunches including a creamy Cullen Skink and some pinky-fresh crayfish tails … and an impressive array of gins back in our swanky lodgings to keep us merry while preparing dinner. Oh yes it was a very good weekend.

By luck we were in town for the first Sunday of the month which is when the farmers’ market arrives. Delicious produce as always but one stall intrigued me more than most – the one giving away free cotton bags to encourage us shoppers to remember to take a bag with us when we go shopping.2017-04-02 09.54.04 ‘Never use a single-use bag again,’ was the smiling challenge from Fiona, who works for Zero Waste Scotland at Perth and Kinross. Now I hate waste but frequently forget the bag, so was very happy to air the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ logo. I had a conversation with Fiona which was really quite inspiring, and gave me some fresh ideas for a new project I have in mind. More of that after the exams!

Completing my joy of the weekend was a great bookshop at the Millhouse – cosy café downstairs, and the Troubadour informs me he once played a gig upstairs there, a couple of decades ago. After my cuppa I browsed the bookshop and found these two gems – 2017-04-05 17.54.07.jpgtiny troves of wisdom, and I’ve read them both cover to cover since coming home. Will be extending my marmalade and oatmeal repertoires over the next week or two.2017-04-05 17.54.35.jpg

Next time you’re in Aberfeldy, I recommend the Habitat café, the Millhouse as above, the cinema coffee shop, numerous quirky gift shops, and the Ailean Chraggan hotel/restaurant at Weem, a hamlet just a mile out of town with good local beer, a wonderfully helpful waitress, a fresh chef, a nice open terrace and the above-mentioned delightful Cullen Skink.

Fresh and local

Yesterday was my first day without classes for a fortnight and I was definitely in 2017-03-24 10.27.02.jpgholiday mood. The Troubadour and I started the day with a trip to Ingin Brae – translates as Onion Hill! but I don’t want to go all Parliamo Glasgow on you – to collect some wild garlic which is just coming alive. Great pungent aroma in the car on the way home. Then I attended a workshop organised by Local Food Works, at the beautiful Falkland Estate, and led by Stella Colleluori, a local chef, caterer and food event sytlist. The workshop, ‘Spring Larder’, was about using whatever’s fresh in the immediate area right now; and we proceeded to make cheese 2017-03-24 14.44.12.jpgand spinach tarts and lamb souvlaki. Stella also made a batch of tzatziki to go with the kebabs.

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Local Food Works is a Climate Challenge funded programme, and they run monthly workshops on the use of local products, as well as a food market and community meals. Their aim is to support the growth of local food producers and also to reduce our carbon footprint by making good food more locally available. Certainly we’re blessed with some great artisan food producers in Fife, and for our tarts we had locally milled flour, local butter, milk, cheese and cream, local spinach and garlic … and even local smoked sea salt. There’s a lot of inventiveness going on and as you can imagine it was a pleasure to work with these lovely ingredients.2017-03-24 14.58.20.jpg

For the souvlaki we had lamb from Minick’s, a local butcher, lean and tasty. We threaded up the skewers with red and yellow beetroot slices, and leaves of onion; all marinated in  Scottish rapeseed oil  and cider vinegar, with thyme, rosemary, and a little mint that had just poked its head through the soil that morning. The beetroot, Stella confessed, was an experiment in the interests of keeping the whole dish local. She hadn’t tried them on skewers before. I got the job of slicing them and although I kept them as thin as I could, I’d say they would have been better at least parboiled first. But hey, you have to try these things! The colours were beautiful so that’s half the battle. Stella was an inspiring and encouraging presenter and we were left with a great feeling for buying and cooking local – and not bothering too much about the calories!

On the topic of artisan food, I was delighted to hear via Twitter last night that Errington cheese is back on the market. I’ve been trying to check out the full story and it looks as if the legal challenge isn’t yet over; but all power to Humphrey Errington’s elbow for the fight he has had on his hands, and for sticking with it.

Finally, leaving you with a view of some of the spectators at Ingin Brae yesterday morning …

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Cupar Farmers Market

Had a good outing yesterday to the Cupar Farmers’ Market. Weather dry and brightish, just fine for mooching around the stalls. Maybe not quite fine if you were actually on duty behind the counter, I bet they all had multiple layers of thermal underwear and woolly socks. 2017-03-18 10.32.02I met some of the producers I’ve been reading about recently – like this producer of chilli jellies, who started off his business in the family kitchen in Abernethy – our next village – and is now turning out loads of different flavours. Who would have thought there was a whole business to be created from chilli jelly? 2017-03-18 10.35.04

Then there was the Real Hot Chocolate Company, giving out free samples which just go down a treat in a dry, brightish March. I bought a couple of packets, one in vanilla and the other with smok2017-03-18 10.42.47.jpged chilli. Bit of a chilli theme developing here. I do think free samples are a great sales aid. Surely nobody could walk away without buying something after such a tasty wee mouthful?

The longest queue, as always, was at Spinks’ smokie stall. Spinks are one of the main purveyors of Arbroath smokies, and at he farmers’ markets they always smoke the pairs of haddock in the middle of the road, so you can see and smell them from miles around, and it’s very enticing indeed. I bought myself a wee smokie, and also a piece of smoked mackerel which I had for my supper last night. The texture of a freshly smoked mackerel is so buttery and firm, the flavour so sharp and mellow2017-03-18 10.58.45.jpg at the same time. I think this might be my Death Row Dish, should I ever be unlucky enough to need such a  thing. The concentration needed to lick your fingers free of all that lovely oily fishiness would keep your mind firmly off the ordeal to come. More chillis with a mother-and-daughter business, selling all things chilli – I bought chocolate this time. And then a fantastic bready spread fr2017-03-18 10.48.11.jpgom this baker who had brought his wares all the way from the other side of Callander.

And finally, 2017-03-18 10.47.27.jpga great range of infused rapeseed oils from a farm just south of Edinburgh. I’ve written about rapeseed oil before. It’s really getting the artisan treatment these days, and is said to be just as nutritious as olive oil. My young  Italian colleagues at Uni scoff politely at the idea of rapeseed oil substituting for the mighty olive; but one of these days I’m going to organise a  little blind tasting and see how we come off. Furthermore, Supernature does tours at the farm where you can go and see how they press the seeds etc; so that’s a treat for after the exams. If anyone would like to accompany me I’d be pleased to organise a wee tour.

Berry tasty

When I was at High School we put on a show one year – ‘Christmas Strawberries’. I can’t actually remember anything at all about it … which doesn’t say much for the excellence of the production – except that I couldn’t understand the title. Strawberries only grow in the summer (a challenge in Scotland, as according to Billy Connolly, we only have two seasons – June and Winter!)

There’s a great berry tradition here in Tayside – raspberries, most famously, but other berries too – and a rich tradition of whole families decamping to the Carse of Gowrie for a week in the summer, to work on the berry fields and earn a bit, have some fun, get some sun and meet up with old friends. Nowadays however, the bulk of the picking is done by Eastern European citizens on short-term contracts – hard, messy work which keeps so many of our industries going.

The current BREXIT discussions have made things very uncertain for these fellow citizens however. The politicians haven’t done anything to reassure them they can stay, now or in the future, even though many of them have been here for years. For farming, this is a huge worry, and many farmers are forecasting that they will be unable to recruit enough workers if this situation is not resolved. It has been said that our very berry tradition may be at risk.

So I was very happy to read in the Courier the other day of an Angus-based farmer who has developed a strain of strawberry with a growing season extended by three whole months. Abbey Fruits in Arbroath uses a biomass heating system with a wood-fired oven to warm the water and air in their polytunnels. This will give Scottish berries a better chance of competing with those from further afield. Apparently the first crop has already been harvested (and the weather outside tonight is very chilly, definitely not strawberry-season weather) and sold to Waitrose.

We don’t have a Waitrose anywhere near here but I wanted a photo of strawberries to illustrate this post, and went to Lidl at lunchtime. Their strawberries were from Spain – and I know Spain has had a weather-related poor harvest this year – £1.69 for 400g, pretty reasonable. They tasted better than I expected. Unfortunately my camera battery ran out at the crucial moment and I have now scoffed the strawberries! So no photo …

Crossing fingers that in our ongoing political turbulence, there’s room for someone to make a sensible gesture and confirm that our European workforce can stay among us.

Less meat, more veg

Radio 4’s Farming Programme had an interesting feature yesterday morning about

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Harvest Thanksgiving, Newburgh 2015

vegetarianism in Germany  – apparently the government is introducing a controversial ban on meat at government receptions. This is on environmental grounds – it seems that in Germany they take very seriously the costs of producing meat vis-à-vis a vegetarian diet. Indeed, from the programme I gather that this is a hot potato (!) in German politics, with vegetarians identified as crazy left-wingers compared with the conservative cattle-munchers.

Can you imagine such a debate happening in Scotland? For a start, despite decades of awareness of the issues, there is little high-quality or high-profile public debate on the sustainability of meat-farming. It’s an international rather than merely national issue, as previously ‘developing countries’ increase their appetite for the ‘western diet’ over traditional vegetarian habits; hence an increasing global demand for meat.

The meat-versus-veg debate is frequently over-simplified. Scotland has a wealth of high-quality, compassionately-farmed beef, lamb, pork and increasingly, venison – not to mention game birds and the whole of the fishing industry. Apart from the deliciousness of the product, meat’s importance to the economy, and a vast cultural heritage, there are jobs to consider. I’m certainly not in favour of wholesale vegetarianism, imposed or otherwise. But I do go along with the many leading academics, environmentalists, farmers and food writers that we should all be eating less meat; and what meat we do eat should be of high quality.

Much research has linked heavy meat-eating to high incidence of cancer and heart disease. Decades of research findings have found that diets high in vegetables and fruit have a strongly protective effect on our health. Fish also enjoys a favourable profile in health and diet research. I’m certainly not an expert on these areas; but I know that these messages aren’t new. The links I’ve made highlight just a few sources of authority, but there are many more. I reckon it’s time Scots took the evidence to heart. Maybe we should revertPopeye to childhood role models:

I’m Popeye the sailor man – I lives in a caravan – I fights to the finish cos I eats me spinach – I’m Popeye the sailor man!

Bonnie Dundee

2017-02-19 08.45.50.jpgThat’s my first full month in as a student on the Masters programme in Food Innovation at Abertay University. Loving it; and throwing myself into the studying with gusto, hence few posts of late. Lots of interesting things to report however …

Firstly, I have lots of delightful young student colleagues from Europe – Italy, Greece and 2017-02-16 11.01.49.jpgAustria to be precise. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to hear first-hand how they do things, not only across the generations but also, across the waters. This first photo is the counter in the student coffee bar; and I asked my Italian friend what she thought of it.(We’re working together on a project, developing a product which reduces or removes the sugar in a foodstuff aimed at children – and I’ve become ever more highly sensitised to the amount of the white stuff we in Scotland throw down our necks on a daily basis). She laughed and said she had taken a photo and sent it home to her friends – they found the muffins highly enticing but would never have found these in a student canteen in Italy – only wholesome stuff would have been on display. Don’t ask about our respective dress sizes …

Secondly, the great fringe benefit in all this is that I get to travel to Dundee at least three days a week (using my trusty bus pass!) and pass some nice foody shops en route to 2017-02-21 18.39.29.jpgclass. Last night I popped into The Cheesery and bought this beautiful ewes’ milk cheese, made in Tain, Sutherland (home of Glenmorangie whisky). We visited Tain last year with a group of friends on a bus pass tour and it’s a lovely wee Highland town with an excellent museum where I thought I found a distant relation who was one of the early Suffragettes. Deep respect! But I didn’t see any flocks of sheep entering the milking parlour.

The idea of milking sheep in Scotland is a bit unusual; our sheep are more the woolly-jumper type. Currently the controversy rages on about raw milk cheese, with a strong stand being taken by Food Standards Scotland against Humphrey Errington, Raw Cheesemaker Extraordinaire; and there is massive support for him from the artisan producers of Scotland. How to raise our national culinary standards without taking measured risks? they ask; and I have to agree. Anyway, to the makers of Fearn Abbey ewes’ milk cheese, I drop a curtsey and wish you well, in bringing a gently tangy new offering to the Scottish cheeseboard.

Other poets are available …

P1020867.JPGGreetings on Burns night! We’re not having haggis at home tonight because we’re going to a Burns Supper on Friday; however I was inspired to shell out £9.99  for this bottle of wine which, apparently, ‘gangs wi haggis’, and will report back on whether it does what it says on the label. The wine is made, from local brambles and oak leaves, by Cairn O’Mhor, that great Scottish winery on the north banks of the Tay, maybe 20 minutes’ drive from here. I wrote previously about our visit there; it was hugely enjoyable and I’m looking forward to our next foray.

Meantime, in remembrance of the Bard’s birth, I just want to say:

  1. Yes I like Burns’ poems and songs, or at least most of them  No poet or songwriter gets it right all the time, and undoubtedly some of his work can fairly be consigned to the doggerel-and-drivel bucket. But then he penned such stirring stuff as ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, and poked such fun at the powers that be (‘O Thou who in the heavens dost dwell…’) and regaled us with great stories (‘… and shouted, Weel done, Cutty Sark!/ and in an instant, all was dark …’) and gave us lots of tender wee odes to fieldmice and mountain daisies and headlice. It’s a great thing for Scotland to have a bard who has travelled the world in terms of popularity and raises our flag in all sorts of good ways. However
  2. You’d think Robert Burns was the only poet we ever produced. What about Edwin Morgan? Liz Lochhead? Norman McCaig? Kathleen Jamie? and so on and so on. Next week the troubadour and I are going to a Celtic Connections event to see the Hazey Janes, a Dundee band, perform alongside Liz Lochhead reading some of her poems, and it promises to be a great night. And finally ….
  3. Haggis is not the only foodstuff to have inspired a poem. I’m sure you all know that. tomato-breakfastRecently I read a brilliant blogpost, which I’ve linked to here, which addressed a juicy poem about tomatoes, by Pablo Neruda. Here’s a tiny extract: ‘It sheds its own light, benign majesty. Unfortunately, we must murder it: the knife sinks into living flesh, red …’

So there you go. Let’s celebrate poets tonight, living and dead; and here’s a prayer in Burns’ own words:

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Amen.

 

Nourishing the Nation

Went to a meeting in the Scottish Parliament last night – Cross Party Group on Food. This is one of over a hundred specific interest groups which cross party lineExterior of the Holyrood Buildings; they are open to the general public as well as people with a specific interest. This was my first visit to the Food group. It was a good session – 90 minutes of informed, enthusiastic information and debate, well chaired by Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens, quite appropriate given the  plea from Nourish Scotland on eating more veg).

The theme for the evening was learning and development for food industry practioners. We had presentations from the Food and Drink Federation Scotland; the College Development Network for the food industry; and Skills Development Scotland. Then there was a lively discussion around the table, with contributions from leaders from the meat, fish and vegetable industries, as well as from other learning providers. E.g. Abertay University informed us of their forthcoming lab provision, enabling hands-on training for students with an interest in creating something new in the food world.

2016-12-01 13.41.30.jpgIt seems that in Scotland we have a fabulous pantry of produce, and some great learning and development initiatives; but that there is a serious problem in funding. Not just the question of insufficient investment, but of sustainability of funding to allow for development and growth.

Food is a key part of Scotland’s economy, and so on an economic agenda alone it ought to be supported. However food is also a global issue and a basic human right; and ironically, the Cross Party Group’s last meeting focused on the problem of malnutrition, alive and well in Scotland. I know this picture is replicated worldwide; surely it’s time to do something about it?

I’m fortunate to live in a country that respects and fosters debate and democratic involvement; and that has such lush food provision in its hills and valleys and shorelines I’d like to find a way of spreading it round a bit. Suggestions welcome.

 

Recovery Mode

Woohoo! I’m in recovery! Raise the flags! I’m back!

Don’t worry, I’m exaggerating; I certainly haven’t been at death’s door and I didn’t even lose my appetite. But I’ve had about ten days of heavy, heavy cold, sore throat like swallowing razor blades, and with chest infection and OUCH!!! a UTI for good measure.

Yesterday, though, I put my toe in the social water, had a great afternoon and then a lovely long phone conversation at night and am feeling much restored. Still blowing my nose for Scotland (think massed bagpipes and ‘The Muckin o’ Geordie’s Byre’), but approaching normal routines. 2016-07-16 07.46.56.jpgThis is an old photo chosen for its cheeriness. I haven’t had the camera out in the last week.

I read a lot, and watched LOADS of telly. Will report back on my reading material in due course, but just want to briefly record my new-found appreciation of the Dinner Ladies series 1 and 2, written by Victoria Wood in 1998-2000 and with a stellar cast including her good self plus Julie Walter, June Reid, Irma Barlow, Maxine Peake, Celia Imrie and others. Great to see them all nearly 30 years ago and to know that many of them are still going strong. Not Victoria Wood, sadly. She was one of many great artists who died in 2016, and received nothing like enough tribute because so many others were following suit.

Dinner Ladies is a situation comedy, set in a factory canteen, and follows the daily events and the relationships and adventures that ensue. You couldn’t call it high literature, but it has such a faithful ring of authenticity and a lot of good, straightforward belly laughs. Also some poignant moments, like when Andy gets cancer treatment; and when Bren’s neglectful, fantasist mother played outrageously by Julie Walters manages to trick her daughter yet again out of her holiday money.

Now that I’m better I’ve just heard a great interview by Andrew Marr on the radio and have pre-purchased a Kindle book due out later this week by Martin Sixsmith. Remember his ‘Philomena’? An investigative journalist approach to an Irish orphan scandal. He’s written in the same style this time about honour killings in Pakistan, and I can’t wait to read it.

Not much to say about food and drink in this post; it’s been soup, bread and cheese all the way. And lots of lemons. Wishing you good health wherever you are.

 

Mellow at Hogmanay

Greetings to you all. My damson gin is all finished, in the happy pursuit of sampling and gifting. It was delicious. Must make a bigger batch next year.2016-12-31 18.24.42.jpg

Also, as I have been nursing a heavy cold, I am well fortified with Benylin, Lemsip, Strepsils, and hot toddies. So I’m coasting gently towards the Bells, and depending on whether or not it rains tonight, I might foray out and take part in the Oddfellows’ Parade – a surreal and well-named event that happens here each year. I think it has masonic connections, so it wouldn’t normally attract my attention. The Oddfellows, dating from four or five centuries ago, I think (pardon the mellow approach to historical accuracy), were the unskilled labourers who weren’t eligible  to join the craft guilds. Their march involves someone riding backwards on a Clydesdale horse, up the high street, with a band following; and revellers dressed up in pretty scary costumes dashing around terrifying the populace and collecting money for charitable causes. Follow the link to get a 5 year old account of the event by another Newburgh blogger, with good photos. This photo isn’t the Oddfellows! it’s from Bourdain’s book.

2016-12-31 18.22.11.jpgQuickly before the parade sets off, I’m going to talk about two good food books I’ve read recently. The first was a gift from a fellow blogger – thank you so much, FoodinBooks! This is ‘Appetites’ by Anthony Bourdain. I’d read his ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and ‘Cooks’ Tour’, both of which had me laughing and gasping with horror/delight – all about his coke-fuelled path to chef stardom. This latest book is about so-called family cooking – with his appreciative comments about the unconventionality of his own family. The book, like his others, is completely irreverent yet dedicated to good eating. Very meaty, with graphic photos not much enjoyed by the Troubadour. Great fun though. Inspired by some of his recipes, and the donor of the book who, I discover, hails from New Mexico, I cooked up a bit of a Mexican storm a few weeks ago – huevas rancheros and patatas bravas, quesadillas, and stuffed peppers, sweetcorn fritters and so on. I suppose it wasn’t anything like authentic Mexican cooking so I apologise for what is probably a highly clichéd menu. As if haggis, neeps and tatties were the only thing Scots eat. But it was hugely enjoyed. An old song came to mind, plucked out for me by the Troubadour – El Paso by Marty Robbins. Again, probably clichéd (Donald, whaur’s yer troosers?) but I love it.

(A slight digression – here’s a video of the Troubadour using the tune of this song for a wee ode to Scottish artist and sculptor Tony Morrow. This is a picture of his pie and bridie, cast in bronze).2016-12-31 20.50.37.jpg

Bourdain has a French parent; and the author of my second book has been living in Paris. 2016-12-31 18.25.01.jpgAnd both are chefs. That’s the similarities dealt with. David Lebowitz’ ‘The Sweet Life in Paris’ is a book I’d  been aware of because I follow his blog – in his blogsphere I am the flea that sits on the hide of the elephant – he has thousands of followers. Anyway his book is very entertaining – I saw it in the library in Perth when I was studying for my recent exam (yes thank you I passed) and have loved reading his full-length work. He describes how the Parisians hate Americans, and his efforts to kind of blend in. Like, eating with your hands, in the streets? Very no-no to Parisians apparently. He describes how a Parisian eats a banana – with knife and fork and napkin … Hilarious, even though I suppose it’s exaggerated and maybe Parisians don’t recognise this view of themselves. His eventual acceptance was very much aided by his prowess as a patissier and chocolatier.

Incidentally, do you like the background surface under the books? Still in New Mexico mode. Happy new year to all my friends around the globe, I will be drinking to your health this evening; here’s to a brilliant 2017.