Blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake, muffins and moorland virtues

Blaeberries are currently at their seasonal best here in the Outer Hebrides and are perfectly ripe for foraging. Following my recent good fortune to stumble across a dense patch, I gathered enough for a trio of recipes: cheesecake, muffins and jam. I feature blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake and blaeberry muffins here and will reserve (or should that be preserve) the jam for a future ‘jam and scone’ post.

The busy time of summer has limited my capacity to blog over the last month and my planned output has slipped, while my draft seasonal posts grow in number. A combination of work trips away, visitors, outdoor tasks and a sudden garden glut have kept me from the computer.  I hope I can get these posts out while they are still relevant.  Meantime, apologies for the lack of interaction fellow bloggers, this exacerbated by the untimely demise of my new phone while trying to install the latest Android Jellybean upgrade. I have been unable to read and comment on the go, so was relieved to get the phone back last week.

This is a long post, so if you want to cut to the chase, the recipes are at the bottom as usual. Back to blaeberries.

Blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), also known variously as blueberry, bilberry or whinberry, depending on where you grew up, are superabundant in many parts of Scotland just now, on moorland and under deciduous and coniferous woodland canopies.  Alas, on North Uist, their distribution is at best described as patchy or sparse, but exploring the vast interior of the island’s moorland can yield enough for a few tasty berry treats.

Without taking significant time to explore the literature, I can only postulate why this might be. I surmise that lack of tree cover (they like shady canopies), significant areas of habitat too wet to support the species and grazing, particularly by red deer and also sheep are likely contributing factors. Although blaeberries can survive grazing, the plants are reduced to a close-cropped sward and its ability to flower and fruit are then substantially curtailed. In my experience, blaeberries are more abundant where they are less convenient for deer to browse e.g. on islands.  Yes, red deer can swim out to islands, and I have seen them do this many times, but where these patches are small, it may be a case of diminishing returns for the deer.

Island blaeberry patch

Island blaeberry patch

Being no bigger on average than a petit pois, a significant haul of blaeberries can take several hours to pick but these luscious wild fruits are a must for foragers and are well worth the effort. I can’t be the only person who finds the intensity of picking these tiny berries therapeutic and very satisfying.

Moorland – the beauty within

Most visitors to the Uists spend most time on the west side of the islands.  This is where most of the population live and most holiday homes, rental cottages, etc are located, predominantly close to the extensive and largely empty sandy beaches and the beautiful machair grassland and dunes. Before we came to reside here. this was where we would invariably spend most of our leisure time too, with the occasional foray into the east side to hill walk.  However, since living here, I have come to appreciate the rugged and desolate moorland more, indeed I prefer it to the accessible and more popular beach and machair.

Walking on moorland here can be very tough.  There are very few tracks and paths, unless you are lucky to happen upon a deer track. Deep tussocky heather tufts and quaking bog make the whole experience that bit more challenging. This acidic land is patterned with a mosaic of lochs which make it impossible to walk to a defined route as the crow flies and you must pick your way over the undulating terrain along a meandering path between numerous tiny lochans and around some substantial lochs.

Without good map reading skills (and a GPS these days, although forget a phone signal – you won’t get one across most areas) and some acquired local knowledge, one could easily get disorientated or find a deviation back to a road takes several hours – unless you may be willing to swim across a loch, as the deer do. For an island of a relatively small size, isolation and wilderness can be reached very quickly and you are unlikely to see another person until you return to a tarmac road.

The rewards of a moorland visit are spectacular. Fly fishing in the plethora of lochs is the best truly wild brown trout angling that can be experienced in the UK. Many lochs are rarely, if ever, fished and any may provide the surprise of turning a fish. Small lochs require care on approach in the bird breeding season as the edges of some, not much bigger than puddles, are favoured nesting spots of red-throated divers.  A few of the larger lochs hold pairs of black-throated divers.  The calls of both can be heard during any moorland walk in the summer.

Other breeding birds include numerous raptors; both golden and sea eagles, hen harriers, peregrine falcon, merlin, and kestrel as well as short-eared owls.  Waders encountered breeding occasionally include golden plover, greenshank and this year, unusually, whimbrel, normally only seen on passage.  Red grouse occasionally explode from the heather at your feet.

Although there are few large mammals on these islands, otters are ubiquitous, both along the coast and inland. I find otter signs on every fishing outing, and have discovered some huge natal (breeding) holt complexes, associated couches, slides and tracks. In the autumn, we have had the privilege of watching red deer stags roar, parallel walk and spar, antlers locked, males intent on their harem prize and therefore oblivious to our presence.

The north end of Loch Hunder, only 40 minutes from the road.

The north end of Loch Hunder, only 40 minutes walk from the road.

Obain nam Fiadh - one of my favourite fishing lochs.

Oban nam Fiadh – another of my favourite fishing lochs.

Peat cutting – Ethics, sustainability and reality

Moorland found here is also described as peatland. Peatlands are not only important for a unique combination of flora and fauna, but have their own intrinsic value as habitats. Blanket bog, a type of peatland that predominates here, is globally rare and is maintained by our cool, wet oceanic climate.

Peatlands are important for people too, not just for recreation but also flood management, grazing and perhaps most controversially, as a harvestable resource.  I say controversially because prior to moving here, I was very much suspicious of any exploitation of a peat resource. This stemmed from knowing that commercial extraction of peat, including for garden compost, has denuded the UK and Ireland of vast swathes of lowland raised bog. As a gardener, I avoid peat-based compost and am lucky to be able to make enough of my own compost to meet my gardening needs.

Fuel, however, is an entirely different matter and an ongoing issue that made me wrestle with my conscience for some time. Cutting peat for fuel was, until very recently, an absolute necessity to provide fuel for domestic heating and cooking where alternatives such as wood or coal were scarce and/or expensive. To many people, it is still necessary to cut peat for fuel to avoid or reduce fuel poverty.

Owning an old croft house that has never had anything but rudimentary and certainly not central heating has made us face the reality of our necessity to cut peat.  The house had an old oil-fueled Raeburn stove and a three bar electric fire covering the open fire when we moved in.  We exposed the open-hearth and burned coal that first winter and tolerated the Raeburn which was extremely inefficient and guzzled oil at an alarming rate. Our previous house was well insulated with gas central heating, good glazing and a living flame gas fire, producing clean heat at the press of a button, so the whole concept of keeping warm could no longer be taken for granted and it came as a bit of a shock, quite frankly.

The old Raeburn

The old Raeburn as it was when we viewed the house

Due to a rusting water heating system and exorbitant costs of fueling the Raeburn, it had to go and as an interim measure, we replaced the open fire with a more efficient multifuel stove while we decided how and when we would renovate the house. With no heating and a draughty uninsulated house, we had to burn fuel of some sort or face very miserable winters.  Imported and very expensive coal was not considered an option. When the stove drew strongly during winter gales, we would easily go through a bag of coal a day (each at £8-9 a bag).  

Reluctantly, and pragmatically, we decided we should cut peat in the meantime.  Although there was some evidence of a decades old peat stack in the garden, like most households, no peat had been burned at this house for some time therefore no one locally seemed to know where the peat bank that would have originally been associated with the house was.  We approached the estate and secured a peat bank that had not been used for some decades along the road to Lochmaddy for an annual rent of £10.

Old peat banks are a common anthropogenic feature of the moorland landscape here, though many are now heavily vegetated and obscured by heather. Although a few banks are still cut in the traditional way by hand, most peat banks are now redundant and have been for sometime. When we first moved here, there was very little evidence of significant amounts of peat cutting, however, as a result of escalating fuel prices and with the introduction of mechanized cutting using tractor-drawn auger machines, there has been a resurgence in peat cutting. This mechanised cutting accounts for most of the new extractions and is fairly extensive across some areas where hand cut banks would have been the tradition.The proportion of hand cut banks remains relatively low.

Mechanised cutting is not without problems and can adversely affect the water balance and surface vegetation of peatlands. Where extensively applied, as has been the case in Northern Ireland, the Environment and Heritage Service cite various issues arising from research. Drainage leads to changes outside of the area being cut, caused by drying out the peat and altering the vegetation it supports. The channels left by machine cutting also act as drains, further increasing water removal from the ecosystem. Repeated cuts with vehicles destroy the surface vegetation and this can erode and de-stabilise the surface of the bog. Research has shown that machine cutting decreases the height and biomass of the vegetation and rapidly reduces the invertebrate populations, thereby having bottom-up effects on the food chain.

It would be easy but short sighted to level criticism at people for having peat machine cut, and to do so would ignore the complexities associated with that choice. Cutting here is almost exclusively for domestic use and on a smaller scale than in Northern Ireland.

Hand cutting is time consuming and back-breaking. Traditionally, families and extended families, friends and neighbours would help each other out to get the job done as a requirement of part of the year’s work. Today, not everyone has the luxury of help, time nor the physical capability to cut peat in this way and it is no longer the only option. We are in the position to choose not to have our peat machine cut and I avoid this method because it does potentially cause more damage to these fragile habitats than hand cutting.  If I had a young family that needed to be kept warm through winter and machine cut peat was my only option, I am sure my view would be required to change.

The other downside with machine cut peat is although you pay for the pleasure and the physical process of cutting is removed, the peat must still be turned, stacked and removed from the moor by hand.

machine cut peat showing the drainage line left by extraction of the 'sausages' or 'bricks'

Machine cut peat showing the trench or drain left by extraction of the ‘sausages’ or ‘bricks’

As anyone who has cut peat by hand will know, the concept of free fuel is a complete misnomer. It is anything but, and requires several pounds of flesh. We have occasionally had ‘help’ from friends for whom peat cutting appears to be perceived as a quaint romanticised novelty. Oddly enough, after an hour or two of repetitive slog, the mystery and fascination wanes…

As incomers, we had no clue how to go about cutting, or quite what it would involve. Our neighbour came out to the bank and showed us the basics of how to cut peat by hand using a specifically designed tool, a peat iron or tairsgear with a long wooden handle and an angled blade on one end. We have been learning ever since and think after a few years of trial and error, we do OK.  Some locals are real experts, producing impressively even sized peats built into neat stacks that have an aesthetic, almost architectural quality.

We have a retired neighbour, a crofter who single-handedly cuts various banks, about 200m long in total each year – about 20 tractor trailer loads. He needs the fuel for his fire and peat-fired Raeburn. We did earn some kudos when he found out we cut by hand and he kindly offered hundreds of sheep feed bags for bagging the peat to get it home.  When we went round to collect them, he was in his shed (barn) on his own, shearing sheep number 16 of 100 with traditional (not electric) hand clippers.  I can’t fail to be impressed by his output, work ethic and stamina.

Making the cut – a novices guide

The hand cutting process is very physical and time consuming.  Our bank is approximately 80m long and is split into two sections.  First the peat is turfed, sods of overlying moorland turf removed to expose the peat below. Timing is important and this should be done early in the spring while the turf is damp and pliable, before a crust forms later. My job is to cut the clods with a spade and The Man Named Sous levers them out with a spade, placing each in front of the bank, laying the turf to restore the habitat as much as possible.

Turf removal

Turf removal

Turf removed, rectangular peat slices are cut using the tairsgear (my job, demonstrated here).  While I cut, he grabs each peat and throws it up onto the bank in neat lines (hopefully). Throwing straight requires technique and strength which I don’t have. This is completed 2 or 3 layers deep, depending on peat depth and quality. Yellow steel toe-capped wellies are optional.

cutting 2

Half of the bank

Half of the bank is cut

Now, we are at the mercy of the weather as the peats are left to dry for a few weeks before we return to turn and stack them in groups of 4-5 peats so these dry completely before bagging. Each shrinks significantly as it dries.

The other half cut

The other half cut

Stacked, dried and ready to bag

Stacked, dried and ready to bag

We do not have a quad or tractor, so our peat has to be bagged and each bag (about 160 in total, 15-20kg each) carried by us to the car and trailer at the roadside, about 100 m away over wet and uneven bog.  This is the toughest job and takes us about 4 hours.  I bag, but must be careful not to make each too heavy or I can’t lift them!

Peat can get waterlogged in the bags, so when we get it home, it is unbagged and stacked on platforms we have built for this purpose where it will remain relatively dry over winter as we use it. It is not the most elegant stack, but we are glad to see the work finished. We completed this last night.  The whole process took us about three days in total working flat out over numerous evenings, but we have secured our fuel for the winter.  No small feat, job done!

peat new 3

With house renovations pending, we hope to move to greener heating in the future by fitting an air source heat pump and with underfloor heating, we will no longer require to cut peat.  We are grateful however to have had this peat resource to heat our house through a few winters, but as it was the case here historically, peat cutting has been a time-consuming necessity. I will not miss it when we no longer need to cut it, although the views from the peat bank are not so bad:

peat sunset

Blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake

blaeberry 1

So, at last I am back to blaeberries et al.  I wanted to couple the blaeberries with my recently made elderflower cordial.  The most frequently cited recipe for this refreshing drink can be found here. This is a very reliable Pam Corbin recipe from the River Cottage handbook, ‘Preserves’. I have made about 10 litres of cordial from gifts of elderflowers brought to me and I will be planting some bushes in the garden soon to complement my growing meadowsweet patch (also makes very good cordial).

One thing about the recipe is that you must not omit the citric acid, it enhances the distinctive aromatic flavour of the flowers and prevents the cordial from tasting overpoweringly sweet, as well as helping with preservation.  Fortunately, we have a big tub of it that we use to clean our espresso machine.


cordials 004

This no-bake cheesecake recipe is very simple and makes 4 individual cheesecakes for loose-based tartlet tins about 8 cm in diameter.  Plain round tins would be nicer than the more retro fluted ones I have, but I don’t have any.


20 ml elderflower cordial

180g blaeberries

40g butter, melted

100g digestive biscuits, crushed

200g cream cheese

30g icing sugar

300ml double cream, whipped


  • Melt the butter in a pan together with the crushed digestives, mixing well until the biscuits have absorbed the butter.
  • Press the biscuit mixture into each loose-based tartlet tin. Allow this to chill in the fridge for an hour or so.
  • Beat the cream cheese lightly, add the icing sugar and elderflower cordial.  Whip the cream, although not too stiffly and fold into the cheese with the blaeberries, gently crushing a few so the colour marbles through the mixture  Spread across the biscuit base and allow a few hours to set.

blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake

blaeberry cheesecake 007

Blaeberry muffins

The wild alternative to the blueberry muffin and a veritable classic, all the better for the simplicity of muffin-making. I tend to use the same basic muffin recipe template and ring the changes with the ingredients.  I added Ottolenghi crumble that I keep stashed in the freezer to add a hint of sweetness on top as these muffins contain very little sugar. This recipe makes 24 mini muffins.  I don’t make big muffins as I can’t eat a whole one.  I know. Lightweight.

Pre-heat the oven to 190C


150g blaeberries (or blueberries)

350g plain flour

100g caster sugar

pinch of salt

2 medium eggs

1 level tbsp baking powder

280 ml milk

100 ml sunflower oil, or melted butter

1 tsp vanilla essence


  • Sift the dry ingredients (except berries) and mix.
  • Whisk the eggs and add to the dry ingredients together with the other wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Some lumps are fine.
  • Fold in the berries and spoon the mixture into cases/muffin trays until each is 3/4 full.
  • Sprinkle with crumble and bake for 20-25 minutes.

Crumble recipe

300g plain flour

100g caster sugar

200g cold unsalted butter cut into small cubes


Fling the ingredients into a food processor and pulse until it forms a breadcrumb consistency, or mix using your hands. If you use a processor, make sure it just turns to breadcrumbs and no more, or you will have cookie dough.

Put the excess in the freezer to use another time.

muffins 1

muffins 2

muffin 3

51 thoughts on “Blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake, muffins and moorland virtues

  1. Such an amazing story! I must add that living in Sydney with only the occasional need for heating (and reverse cycle at that,) I can’t fully appreciate the labour, blood, sweat & tears no doubt! It’s a phenomenal amount of work you’ve done, back breaking indeed. No doubt there is an amazing sense of accomplishment you have in what you and your sous chef achieved!

  2. What a terrific post! This brought back so many memories of my childhood holidays in Caithness on my uncle’s farm. Peat cutting was part of the fun of the holidays. I distinctly remember the midgies!
    Blaeberries we used to find in the woods on the outskirts of our village. I don’t think we ever found enough to make those wonderful treats you have shared. I think we ate what we found, right there and then.:-)

    • Thank you so much, and for re-blogging.I forgot to mention the midges.We have learned to get done and dusted early in the season or only go to the bank if the wind speed is over 10 mph, so midges are blown away! When I collected blaeberries when I was a child, I too ate all of them before they got to the bowl, usually resulting in a sore stomach. I’m much more disciplined now but it took over an hour to pick about 1 kilo.

  3. Nice to see you back, though I guessed you were too busy for blogging!
    I once worked with a guy in the ambulance service, who gave it all up to move to the west of Ireland, after meeting and marrying an Irish girl. He tried his hand at various jobs, one of them as a peat cutter, using the ‘long iron’. He also heated his large house exclusively with peat, and I recall his letters, telling me how back-breaking it was to work cutting it.
    Another great post from you, finishing with delicious-looking food, as always. Regards from Norfolk, as ever, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete, I hope to get more of a routine back soon, although plans for house renovation also about to kick in! Hope to read some of your posts I have no doubt missed, and before it’s cold enough to do so in front of a peat fire! Hope the Norfolk weather is still being kind.

  4. Oh, your muffins look so beautiful! And they’ve risen so well. I made muffins for the first time last night and filled the wells too high. Anyway, they tasted great regardless of how awful they looked.
    – My folks cut (by hand) their own turf for a number of years. Not out of necessity, either. They just happened to revive an old family tradition. It is back-breaking work! Yet, in winter the smell…
    – Wonderful post, as always (won’t even start on wild bilberries as we called them).

    • Thank you! Yes, muffins can taste good regardless of shape. I made some banana and toffee ones recently and they looked terrible but apparently tasted good though I don’t know as I dislike bananas. The smell of post fires burning still smells the township air here in winter, it’s fine as long as you don’t get done acrid downdraught from the stove on a winter gale 🙂

  5. I can’t imagine how much work you both did cutting and hauling peat! I’m hoping you have a cozy winter enjoying your stacks of peat. I can’t fathom having to do that work now that I’m retired but as you say the old crofters did it every year. Good for you picking the blueberries and making those delicious treats. You should eat well for strength after all the hard work!

    • It sure is a lot of work! As you say, crofters such as our neighbour have done this all their lives. He was telling me about the enormous amount he had cut this and in the next sentence said, ‘Och, but I’m getting too old for this’, which made me smile. Maybe one day, but I told him for now he seems to be doing just fine! Thanks.

  6. I was completely enthralled by this post. I’ve little knowledge of what it took to “harvest” peat and am very impressed that you both were able to gather enough for the winter in a few days. Wow! Must be something in the water for your retired neighbor seems to have the same stamina. 🙂
    You must have picked quite a few berries to have enough for 2 desserts — and what a pair of desserts they were. Blueberry muffins are, for me, fantastic and a crumble topping makes them even better.

    • Thank you so much John. I think the threat of being very cold in winter sharpens one’s resolve! My neighbour is unbelievable, and there are few others like him here, peat cutting, like crofting is their life blood. Although it took a while to gather enough, I also managed to make a single large jar of blaeberry jam too 🙂

  7. Superbly informative and fascinating post, as ever. ‘Bilberries’ are at their best, and abundant, here in Yorkshire too and, as Lofty the camper has given up on his clutch completely, they are fortunately within walking distance. And, apart from being free for the taking, they are so much tastier than the oh so fashionable cultivated blueberries. I’ve been thinking about entering something my local ‘Village Show’ in September. Your muffins might be just the thing. Another thought: fill a jar with bilberries mixed with a little sugar, top up with vodka (cheap will do), leave a few weeks and you’ve got an excellent liqueur. Made with ‘afine’ (bilberries, blaeberries etc in Romania) and topped up with home-distilled (double distilled) plum ‘brandy’ (palinka), it’s even better and known as ‘afinata’. I’ve still got some I made in Romania in 2003 and the long rest has made it even better.

    • Thank you! I agree about the superior flavor of the wild berries. May be you should put your liqueur into the show, will give the judges something to talk about, sounds great, palinka can be fantastic too. Hope Lofty is on the mend soon!

  8. We saw a few banks of cut peat in the Uists, and read a bit about the use of peat in the Kildonan Museum and other places. It’s great to get your much more in depth explanation! We drove through North Uist, but didn’t get much time to explore because it was one of the wettest days we had in the Isles!

    Lovely muffin and cheesecake.

      • The Uists were still beautiful, and we really, really appreciated the sun when it came out. We met some cyclists who cycled from Eriskay to Berneray in one go, and seemed remarkably cheerful about the rain!

      • The great thing about these islands is they are so beautiful on a sunny day that all is forgiven, and these days are not just confined to summer, we have some breath taking winter days, but very few tourists then it is so very quiet. Hardly a surprise given the risk of ferry disruptions if it is stormy, we occasionally get stuck on the mainland too.

  9. The old Raeburn brings me back. I grew up in a house with one that had a fire box and two ovens. The bottom one mostly only fit for warming plates. We ate all our meals from it. We ran it on turf too!
    Lovely post.

      • I well remember first up was obliged to rake the embers and load in more turf. Still, happy memories of my Dad cooking Sunday tea for eight of us on two pans while one of us would toast bread on a fork on the open fire door. The best toast I have ever or will ever eat.

  10. Wow. This is unbelievable. Very informative. You really are a hard worker! It builds character. You’re really making the landscape of my old Victoran novels come alive. Your photos are gorgeous too. I love the tile by your old stove. I hope you kept that! Great use of your fresh ingredients as well.

  11. We’re away to Islay at the weekend to stay in a house with a peat fire in the front room. I must admit I did wonder whether it was an environmentally friendly way of heating a house, so it was interesting to read your post. Just hope we don’t need the heating… it is August after all. If I can find any bilberries I’ll definitely be making the cheesecake, might pack a bottle of elderflower cordial just in case!

    • Hope the weather is ok for your trip to Islay, have a good break. The need to put the fire on is possible in any month here! Not sure where to recommend for blaeberries on Islay, but the Paps of Jura will have plenty, if you visit, unless the deer munch them all. And look out for adders 🙂

  12. And I thought I was hard done by having to collect logs from the woods when I was younger! Jeez, that’s hard work. Great points about the commercial peat digging too.

    You paint a great picture as alway Tracey and I love the puds! I really should post some…

    • Thanks, hopefully next year we can get away without cutting, or less at least, but maybe optimistic as I think we will be living on a building site! Hope to see some of you dessert posts soon. I haven’t got a sweet tooth, but like making them, and have someone only too happy to dispose of them 🙂

  13. I so enjoy every time I visit. Not only go you provide us with a delicious recipe but your stories of life and its necessities as so interesting. I admire the stamina that you both have along with all your neighbors.

  14. Your posts are always so well written and interesting! I had no idea that so much effort was involved with peat, or how it was cut, or even how it was used, really. Your cordial, cheesecake and muffins sound delicious too.

  15. Fascinating disquisition on peat-cutting. I am so ignorant. I assumed it was backbreaking work, but I didn’t know about the necessity of turfing before cutting, or, frankly, the need to dry it. Somehow I think I imagined big compressed bricks of mulch. Thanks for the edifying clarification. And the cheesecake! Oh, the cheesecake. I don’t eat cheesecake much because of the caloric cost and because most of the time they just aren’t very good. But one made with wild blueberries and elderflower. I’d even pay for transAtlantic shipping! Great post. Ken

    • Thanks Ken. It is very difficult to get the drying just right and we are also at the mercy of the weather. Too much rain just after cutting is bad, too much sun or prolonged drying makes it crack and shatter and you can’t burn it, it turns to dust. Try cutting after July and it will never dry and remains big soggy turf cushions.We have learned from all these mistakes! Cheesecake, yes an occasional treat, especially if you can burn the calories off by cutting peat, or walking for 10k to pick the blaeberries as I did!

  16. I once spent a day peat cutting, and I can say that it was – quite honestly – the hardest day’s work ever! Still, the concept of free fuel is certainly an appealing one.
    I saw so many blaeberries when I was in Scotland this summer, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Now I’m so sad I didn’t pick them. I always make litres of elderflower cordial each year – but introducing blaeberries is a super idea. It’ll just have to wait until summer 2014 now….!

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s