Foraging on my doorstep 2: Cockle chowder with chorizo

This hearty, flavoursome chowder is a welcome and warming treat following a day outdoors in the ongoing winter squall here in the Outer Hebrides. This includes time spent at our local cockle strand harvesting this delightful free food.

cockles 2

Foraging for cockles provides exhilaration in the form of fresh air, a bit of graft – and the potential threat of a fast rising tide to keep you on your toes.  This small and wonderful bivalve beast Cerastoderma edule is almost ubiquitous around the coast of the UK. It can be found in soft intertidal substrates from sand to gravel to a depth of about 5 cm. From population estimates, it is the UK’s second most abundant bivalve after that featured in my last post, mussels.

In terms of commercial availability, cockles are almost exclusively harvested from wild populations, unlike mussels which are available predominantly from cultivated populations. Cockles normally live for 2-4 years and growth is rapid in the first 2 years, slowing with age and they can live for up to 9 years.  Late autumn/early winter is the best time to collect cockles as adults often lose weight over the winter.  Despite the fascinating life history and population dynamics of cockles, I cannot afford further digressions down that road, otherwise,  I might never finish this post.

There are extensive cockle strands both north and south of our house. Although the density of cockles is not necessarily very high, the cockles are large and flavoursome. We opted to go south, equipped with a rake and a bucket and sussed out with keen eyes where the best spots may be to collect as the rising tide encroached, scraping delicately and diligently across the sand surface to feel the cockles just below the surface with the rake.  I have also done this with a cutlery fork, or my hands, all require a lot of bending and scraping, a tactile, worthwhile experience.

We ought to be ashamed that the humble yet delicious cockle is no longer relished across Old Blighty.  This most traditional British seaside favourite still has a toehold of popularity in the East End of London, but most harvested stocks are sadly consigned for export to more appreciative nations.

The small cockle harvesting industry here is no exception. That said, the most notable cockle strand in the Outer Hebrides is indeed exceptional. The breathtakingly beautiful bay of Traigh Mhor on the northern tip of Barra is the most notable cockle strand on this island chain. It is also the only place in the world where scheduled flights land according to the tide.

Landing or taking off from the beach at Traigh Mhor on Barra is an experience that is on many a bucket list.  It has topped polls as the world’s most spectacular landing spot for a flight.  I have been lucky enough to land on and depart from this famous cockle strand many times. Below is the ‘runway’. Credit to HIAL for photos 1,2 and 4.

Barra runway

The short 20 minute flight  I often took southwards from Benbecula to Barra skirted low along the western machair dune ridge of South Uist before cutting across the Sound of Barra, flying close to the island of Eriskay and the spot where the S.S. Politician sank in 1941. This famous wreck inspired the book, ‘Whisky Galore’ by Compton Mackenzie. Indeed, the author is laid to rest on Barra, near the airport.  Many will better recall the highly entertaining 1949 Ealing Studios film comedy based on the book – bad accents and all.

11743373-landing-at-barra-airport

Sadly, due to Local Government cuts, the delightful direct flight between Barra and Benbecula was removed from the schedule. This lifeline link between Barra and the rest of the Uists being permanently cut, despite much local protestations.  More is the pity as a result, local workers commuting and on occasion, in summer, tourists, get stranded on either side of the sound when the ferry cannot run, but a plane would have otherwise flown.  Very frustrating.  It is still possible to enjoy the experience of landing and taking off from Barra, but flights now only run between Glasgow and Barra, the inter-island experience gone, possibly forever.  I am glad I have memories of the experience – both positive and less so.

Flybe-Twin-Otter-at-Barra-Airport-Outer-Hebrides-Scotland

We treated my mum to a flight from Benbecula to Barra for her birthday a couple of years ago. The weather was ideal and the experience was perfect for my parents.  We incorporated a walk along the scenic sands of Vatersay and lunch at Cafe Kisimul in Castlebay. Excellent hand-dived scallop pakora, local lamb curry and some of the best coffee available on the Outer Hebrides.

cr_mega_8_Barra Beach Landing

I have had less pleasant experiences leaving Barra on that short flight.  Following a difficult and controversial meeting, all ferries back to Uist were cancelled due to gales and myself and my colleagues were ‘lucky’ to be able to secure seats on the flight back to Benbecula.  I put the howling gale to the back of my mind and whimsically hoped the flight might be cancelled.

Not so. It landed on the beach in a shower of sea spray, we boarded and within 3 seconds of prop engine thrust, we were up and off, almost vertically, close to cracking our heads on the low roof of the tiny Twin Otter as it bounced about, rapidly and confidently gaining altitude, apparently more rapidly than any plane I have ever flown in. Despite the noise of the wind, the rest of the flight was uneventful and we landed smoothly,  safe back on Terra firma in Benbecula in 15 minutes, flying so low we were below the clouds and could take in the breathtaking views of the coast.

Cockle chowder with chorizo

This is a simple recipe that demands only the best quality ingredients: fresh, sweet cockles, quality chorizo and super-fresh local free range eggs.

First, prepare the cockles.  To avoid grit, leave the cockles in seawater overnight to allow them to filter out as much sand as possible before cooking. This recipe is a variation of a Rick Stein recipe from Rick Stein’s Seafood.

Ingredients

2.5 litres of cockles, cleaned
1 litre of water
25g butter
50g chorizo, diced
50 ml Noilly Prat
1 leek, sliced,
4 tomatoes, skinned and finely sliced
2 waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tbsp. double cream
2 large free range eggs
juice of 1 lemon
handful of chopped parsley or chervil
salt and pepper

cockles

Method

  • Put the cockles in a large pan with about 150 ml of the water and the Noilly Prat and cook at a high heat for 3-5 minutes, shaking occasionally until they are all open.
  • Decant into a colander over a pan to retain the cooking juices. Take the meat from the shells, once they have cooled at little.
  • Melt the butter in a large pan, add the chorizo and cook until it gains a bit of colour. Add the leek, celery and skinned tomatoes until soft.
  • Pour the cockle cooking liquor (minus the last bit to avoid adding sand) and water into the pan.  Add the potatoes and simmer the chowder until these are soft.
  • Add the double cream and cockles and season.
  • Whisk the eggs and lemon juice in a bowl.  Add a hot ladle of chowder to this mixture and add to the pan. Stir and allow to thicken over a low heat.  Sprinkle on parsley/chervil and serve with crusty homemade bread.

The driech smir outside will soon be forgotten…

cockle chowder

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Foraging on my doorstep 1: Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

This short series of posts focuses on very locally foraged free food gathered predominantly from the shoreline near my house.  First, a rich starter of mussels with a decadent cream sauce featuring the heady anise-heavy combination of pastis and fresh tarragon.

cockles and mussels

Warning of significant digressions in this post, skip to recipe at bottom of the post to avoid same.

Windows of opportunity

I have been making the most of the short windows of opportunity that the stormy and erratic weather has presented here on North Uist.  Given the fairly unrelenting storms since the beginning of December, one either grasps the nettle and heads outside to embrace the squall, or cowers indoors to suffer from cabin fever.   The latter is not an option for me, not least because I also have to get out for daily dog walks. That said, some days have been so wet and windy, the dogs have declined to leave the house for all but the shortest periods. Sensible animals. The forage and beach walk in the photo was atmospheric and perhaps most surprising, not a drop of rain fell on us. Hector the Frisbee King is captured mid-catch.

beach view 1

beach frisbee catch

I was also away for half of January, so the break has meant the weather has not quite been able to grind me down thus far. I also have come to the realization that I have to be pragmatic and accept that my aim of regular blogging will be challenging this year and I anticipate more erratic and less frequent posts, not least because I am away for a period again at the end of this month and we hope to start renovating the house thereafter.

The planned house renovation continues to grind along at a glacial pace. We have experienced delays that were not anticipated as a consequence of what should perhaps politely be described as differences of opinion between ourselves and planners / building control about the design and layout or the substantial re-modelling and extension of our crumbling croft house.  Thankfully, these issues now seem to resolved (we hope) and we can now begin to make tangible progress.

Granite and metal

While away, we took advantage of the opportunity to look at various fixtures, fittings and finishes we may include in our renovated home.  We had a productive day in Glasgow visiting stonemason yards to select a slab of granite for the bling large island that will form the centrepiece of the kitchen. Job done, we went to see groove metal titans, Lamb of God at the 02 Glasgow Academy in the evening.

We chuckled at the ironic dichotomy of our daytime middle-aged middle class exploits to locate granite and discuss soft furnishings for our renovation project versus the fret-melting aural assault of the evening metal gig.

Lamb of God did not fall short of our expectations, delivering a set of unrelenting brutality and vitality, much to the delight of the typically good-humoured metal-loving audience. The 2,500 capacity venue is an old Art Deco cinema in the Gorbals area of Glasgow’s south side.  It stands in isolation on the road, the Art Deco features having saved it from demolition, unlike the buildings that once stood around it. The venue is a gap filler between small intimate venues like King Tut’s and big hangars like the awful SECC.  It was a well-chosen venue for this sold out gig. I captured the atmosphere of the gig with a few video clips. One is below. Warning: it is a bit sweary.

It’s the first gig I have been to for quite a few years where my ears were ringing afterwards, I think probably due to the awful set up for one of the support bands (who never seem to have the benefit of the mixing desk) resulting in mic feedback of scratchy ear-spitting delivery. I recall gigs in the 80’s and early 90’s were often unbearably, painfully loud (literally), until decibel limits were reigned in a bit, much to the benefit of the audience.

Age concern?

The audience had a diverse age range, perhaps not surprising given Lamb of God have been around for 20 years or so, band members being about the same age as us. between them they sported more hair and beardage than the entire audience put together. I must admit, although both The Man Named Sous and I still love going to these heavy gigs, we no longer have the requirement to enter the throng of the ‘pit’, being squashed and ricocheted off bodies to cross this central void in the audience, passing bodies over our heads to reach the front (or indeed, being passed high on a sea of hands ourselves).  In this case, we could predict the massive size of the pit, so big at times it became less dynamic and almost pedestrian. We kept out of the way and enjoyed the whole spectacle from a fantastic elevated spot 1/2 way back.

The benefit of attending these gigs over the years is that you get more relaxed about self-image.  Youth brings out the desire in fans to wear their music on the outside, be it a t-shirt or other typical metal paraphernalia.  While we were waiting in the car to go into the gig (we also no longer queue in the rain until a venue opens), we saw a couple of young guys get out of their very metal 4 x 4 in comfy hoodies and trainers.  They then proceeded to get biker boots and knee-length leather coats out the back of the car and don them before strolling, more credibly, over to the venue across the road.

Those longer in the tooth have of course gone through this and paid the price with heat exhaustion. I was once close to passing out as a result of wearing a fully lined bikers jacket at the front and have had numerous pairs of favourite DMs crushed and scuffed in the affray.  I also had the left sleeve of that battered old bikers jacket completely ripped off at a gig in the 1980’s.  No malice intended! Now we are older and sensible, we deposit coats in the cloakroom, patiently queue at the end to retrieve them and favour t-shirts, comfy jeans and old trainers, should we end up wearing a pint of beer thrown exuberantly in the melee. That said, we still prefer standing gigs, seated gigs being routinely rejected.

Classical misconceptions

Someone recently said to me that they were surprised by my taste in music because I ‘didn’t look like someone who listened to metal’.  WTF?! This left me perplexed and wondering how they think I should look, being a professional woman in my early 40’s. Clichés came to mind: Piercings? Tattoos? Crucifix (large, inverted)? Bullet belt? Spandex? (!). Although The Man Named Sous sports the more credibly clichéd long hair and beard associated with rock generally, he also likes prog rock, yet I have never seen him wear a cape or wizard’s hat and he has no propensity to stick kitchen knives between the keys of our electric piano.

For me, connections between metal and image evoke nightmarish flashbacks to 1980’s ‘hair metal’, dreadful commercial manure I never considered to be part of the metal genre: Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, etc and all the base banal misogynistic baggage and superficiality that came with that Sunset Strip scene.

Not that I am suggesting for a minute that metal is highbrow. Metal as a genre is often treated as a bit of a joke, labelled as blue collar, often being perceived as frivolous, ludicrous or unsophisticated .  Thrash.  More like trash, I have heard more than once. Some of it certainly is, particularly when OTT mashinations are performed in earnest, but some of it is tongue in cheek.

Understandably, it can be easy to criticise what appears to be, at face value, an unfathomable attrition of noise (sometimes white). Some of it is indeed vacuous or unlistenable.  Cherry picking the best of the very many genres and sub-genres that are labelled as metal (prog, math, groove, black, doom, nu – to name a few). If the wheat is separated from the chaff, some challenging and original gems of motivational music can be discovered (Tool -Ænema; Opeth – Blackwater Park; Mastodon – Crack the Skye). This is highly subjective of course!

Extreme music (encompassing metal) may form the backbone of my music collection, but I do listen to many other genres (with the exception of some forms of jazz), including classical music and opera. Classical music is not so diametrically opposed to aforementioned extreme music.  Parallels can be drawn between the musical and structural complexity: shifting time signatures, inclusion of polyrhythms, prodigious mastery of solo instruments, layers of sound and contrasts of sonic light and shade.

Classical music can be light music, analogous to soft rock (neither are to my taste), or deep and dark e.g. Shostakovitch: Symphony No.5, more akin to black/doom metal, also Wagner, very obviously. It is not therefore uncommon or surprising to find many people who can become immersed in both genres. Interestingly, no one has suggested I have the look of someone who listens to classical music. Further ridiculous clichés are imagined: twin set and pearls, blue rinse….

There is also for some, the pseudo intellectual supposition that classical music is in someway superior, in quality and depth, at least.  I don’t subscribe to this argument. Evidence from opera libretti would suggest subject matter can be banal and literary content as weak as may be surmised for other musical genres.  I have had the unfortunate experience of mistakenly buying opera tickets for performances where the libretto was translated into English instead of being displayed in translation by supertitles. A ruined experience indeed. I can accept the ludicrous plots and extreme melodrama of wonderful Italian opera for the entertainment that it is. This forgiveness comes from hearing a libretto sung in the language that it was originally intended.

While I draw these parallels here (and I’m not the first to do so), my personal and singular distinction between classical and metal is motivational.  The emotion and power of Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor, Op. 85 is undeniable, but only the driving and relentless tempos of bands like Lamb of God and Pantera can make me run faster.  Both should be credited for my improving 10 km pace.  No matter how loud I crank up Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, I know it would not achieve my continually improving pace….

Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

I have discussed collection and cleaning of mussels in detail in a previous post when I prepared the classic Moules Marinière. Here, this dish is best served as canapés or light starter as it is pretty rich. For those regularly following my blogs, the addition of pastis to the recipe will come as no surprise – it is one my all time favourite and much used accompaniments for fish and shellfish.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, sliced

50 ml of pastis e.g. Pernod

a few grinds of pepper

200 ml or so reserved mussel cooking liquid

3 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

100 ml double cream (optional)

Method

  • Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
  • Add the pastis and allow the alcohol to evaporate off before adding the mussels.
  • Cover with a lid and wait 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan vigorously occasionally until all mussels are open and cooked, discard any shells that don’t open.
  • Strain off the cooking liquid into a pan, taking care to leave the last of it in the pan, lest it contain some grit.  You should have about 200 ml. Reduce this down slightly, by about 1/3.
  • Add the double cream and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes to reduce,  thicken.  Add the chopped fresh tarragon. Season with pepper.
  • While the sauce is reducing, etc, loosen the mussels and place each on the half shell, ready to receive a topping of the tarragon and pastis cream.
  • Top each mussel with a generous spoonful of sauce.  Place under the grill for a few minutes, or in a hot oven for 10 mins (180C) and serve with your finest homemade crusty bread.

mussels with pastis and tarragon

Teacakes: Homage to Tunnock’s – festive or otherwise

Teacakes, of the marshmallow and chocolate variety, may not appear to be the most obvious choice for a festive post.  Pimped up appropriately however, they can become so, lending themselves quite obviously to the form of a Christmas pud.

I am attempting to redeem myself having almost entirely missed the opportunity for a festive post.  Storms have resulted in no broadband for 6 days and hence an enforced break from blogging over the festive period, ironically, the first time in months I have had more time to prepare food and post than usual.  So, belated Merry Christmas to all those who sent good wishes, sorry I have been slow to reciprocate.

Festive challenges

The storms here, as elsewhere in the country have had considerable impacts.  We were very fortunate not to lose power on Christmas day, and the Christmas Eve storm was not quite as fierce as it was forecast to be. We also had a turkey-cooking contingency plan.  A friend kindly offered a gas oven should the power go off which thankfully it did not, other than for a couple of minutes.  That said, it was windy enough to affect the radio signal.  We spent Christmas day without broadband, our phone line still is not working and to top it all off, no radio signal.  We felt disappointed not to be able to communicate with friends and family freely, or to listen to Radio 4, as we enjoy doing, on Christmas Day.

That said, our issues felt trivial compared with those unfortunates in the south of England with no power, properties and possessions ruined by flooding and no certainty of when normality may return, with further unsettled weather forecast and flood warnings in place. This really put our minor issues in perspective and our thoughts were with people who will have had a very unpleasant Christmas.

For us, Christmas, in all honesty is no biggie, although we do enjoy the relaxation, chance to catch up with friends and family (although many are dispersed and far away) and indulge.  I know, it is a bit bah humbug, but I cannot help but reflect on the fact that for many people, Christmas is a very difficult time.  This is especially the case for those who have suffered loss or whose loved ones are missing. Many people are not surrounded by family and friends but spend Christmas isolated and lonely.  This must be amplified for many by the general media portrayal of the cliched scenario that Christmas Day is all about multiple generations of family coming together to harmoniously and joyously celebrate around a table groaning with food.  I commend Radio 4 and Channel 4 for reflective coverage of the more difficult but realistic side of this time of year for many people. This year, I have lost my Uncle, a friend, a neighbour (another friend) and, sadly, last week, a work colleague. My thoughts are with those most affected by these losses. Much as I am not at all prone to nostalgia, I will certainly not be looking back on 2013 fondly, and look forward positively to what 2014 may bring. And so, back to food….

A seasonal food summary

While it may be a bit late now to recount in full those seasonally appropriate recipes here, I summarise. Christmas Day was straightforward and traditional.  We enjoyed Eggs Benedict with parma ham on homemade muffins for brunch.  Canapés included slices from a side of local peat smoke roasted salmon we purchased from the Hebridean smokehouse, conveniently only 2 miles from the house. A bit of luxury and well worth it. We also enjoyed goose rillettes, made from confit wild greylag goose legs, another local luxury which only cost me my time to prepare.

Dinner was traditional – local turkey and all the trimmings.  We still enjoy an annual Christmas turkey, something we very much missed when we were vegetarians. Turkey seems to be a bit passé just now, with goose or capon trending, but we regularly eat wild goose, so a free range very local turkey from our neighbour was a much bigger treat. Literally. Dessert was a simple refreshing orange panna cotta with a sharp blackcurrant compote, made during the summer fruit glut and kept in reserve for mid winter.

Dinner was a relaxing affair, but for the point half way through the meal when we turned round to see the Christmas tree lights flicker and a cascade of smoke drifting upwards from a melting light housing on the tree! The Man Named Sous took quick action to unplug the tree and avert disaster. Phew! A new set of lights required for next year.

On the baking front, I made good old traditional mince pies, topped with almonds and frangipane, filled with homemade vegetarian mincemeat I made back in November. The frangipane topping idea is courtesy of Richard Bertinet, the recipe can be found here. The pastry was wonderfully crisp and thin. These mince pies were devoured hot from the oven by our ever eager visiting musician friends just before Christmas.

mince pies 1

mince pies 2

mince pies 3

Stollen also featured, currently trending as the seasonal cake of choice this year.  It was reassuringly solid, about the weight of a breeze block, an indication of its authenticity. It was also delicious with a swirl of marzipan, added non-traditional cranberries and a good hit of ground cloves and nutmeg. This was a gift for a friend and stollen aficionado, and was well received. This was Mr Hollywood’s Christmas GBBO stollen recipe. Darwin also assists as a prop in the photo, looking longingly at the stollen.

stollen

Tunnock’s Teacakes – legendary Scottish product

Finally, a more quirky offering as a tribute to Tunnock’s teacakes. For those not aware of these products of legendary significance for Scottish gastromony, a Tunnock’s teacake should not be confused with the traditional English teacake, an enriched dough sweet pastry roll with dried fruit and spices, usually served toasted and spread with butter.

The Tunnock’s Teacake is a dome of chocolate filled with marshmallow, similar to Italian meringue, sitting on a shortbread-like biscuit base (also encased in chocolate). The packaging is iconic and distinctive, each teacake encased in striped silver and red foil (milk chocolate) or silver and blue foil (dark chocolate, less common/popular than the milk version).

The Tunnock’s factory is in Uddingston in Lanarkshire and their products even inspired traditional fiddler John McCusker to pen a tune entitled ‘A Mile Down the Road’ in honour of Tunnock’s since he lived close to the factory at one time. Apparently, there is a 2 year long waiting list for tours of the factory, which churns out 10 million biscuits a week including another biscuit icon, the Caramel Wafer.  However, the teacake is not my personal favourite, I always preferred Tunnock’s coconut and chocolate-coated Caramel Log. Controversial.

My attempt to make teacakes came about because of the affection others have for this enigmatic sweet treat (you know who you are!). Pressure came to bear when contestants were set a technical challenge of making them on the Great British Bake Off and a Paul Hollywood recipe was posted online. I was gifted a silicone teacake mould, the caveat being I had to, of course, make some.  I was delighted with the gift and happy to oblige.

Home made teacake homage

I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe.  I usually use very high quality dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids, but stuck to his advice to use lower cocoa solid chocolate, to avoid discolouration / cracking.  It worked very well.  I made a second festive batch with milk chocolate, as a gift for a friend who is a Tunnock’s teacake lover, but prefers milk chocolate.  I used 50% cocoa solid milk chocolate (Co-op Fairtrade), and was surprised how much more delicate and hard to work it was than the dark Bournville I used for the first batch. For the second festive batch, I also reduced the amount of salt to 1/4 teaspoon as I could detect too much salt flavour in the first batch.

teacakes 1

The recipe also wisely advises the turned out teacakes should not be handled as the shiny exterior is easily marked with fingerprints.  Also, they should not be put in the fridge as they will lose their shine.  So, best eaten fresh.

teacakes 2

teacakes 3

Although time consuming and a bit fiddly, the recipe gave good results and they were great fun to make.  Even better, they were very much appreciated and enjoyed by the teacake lovers.  I don’t have a sweet tooth, and this became very apparent when I sat down to eat the teacakes with a few aficionados. The presentation of the teacakes had a sense of occasion and anticipation.

Firstly, these teacakes are massive compared with Tunnock’s. By the time I got half way through, everyone else was finished eating theirs, commenting on the delights of the teacakes and thinking of going for a second one. I however, was feeling slightly queasy at the thought of eating the second half of mine. It was simply too big and sweet for me. The others though there was clearly something wrong with my palate, or the wiring of my brain. One muncher commented with an air of disappointment that he was not able to get the whole thing in his mouth at once, as you could a Tunnock’s (!). There were also heroic tales of entire boxes of 6 being consumed in one sitting. Finally, they are extremely messy to eat, so prepare to roll your sleeves up and to wear meringue from ear to ear.

teacakes 4

The milk chocolate versions were given a festive twist, a dollop of melted white chocolate and some marzipan coloured with natural food dyes transforming them into Christmas puds, giving them that bit more bling required for a gift.  I stopped short of including a blob of mincemeat within each, although I was tempted.  Maybe next year….

festive teacake 2

festive teacakes 1

Hogmanay is almost here, so Happy New Year, all the best for 2014, see you on the other side!

The last gasp of summer: a duo of foraged flower and berry ripple ice creams

The fleeting Hebridean summer has long gone, yet my store of foraged meadowsweet and elderflower cordials allow for culinary reminiscence of the few warm days we enjoyed this summer. Despite the shortening days and the decidedly autumnal nip in the air (that the midges are impervious to), I incorporated flowers and berries of summer into ice cream to help summer linger on the tongue and in my memory that bit longer.

This recipes is a bit less seasonal than I hoped and a busy August and September have entirely curtailed my ability to post and keep up with my favourite blogs.  These last two months have been exceptionally busy with many visitors, much to do around the house and garden and some work trips which together almost block booked my diary for weeks. It has been lovely to catch up with so many people and a surprise so late in the typical tourist season (we rarely get visitors in winter).

The season for meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) always seems surprisingly long to me, the last few flowers being blackened to oblivion by recent equinoctial gales. Thiperennial herb of the family Rosaceae is common here, as on much of mainland UK. it is usually found along damp roadside verges, in gardens and across swathes of boggy common grazings.

It is obvious, being relatively tall compared with much of the uncultivated grassland vegetation here and the blousy beauty of the delicate creamy fronds draw the eye from a distance, and the scent is distinctively sweet and enticing. A frequent experience while driving round the island in summer is to enjoy catching its sweet almond-like scent on the breeze while waiting at passing places for oncoming traffic to pass on our single track roads.

Meadowsweet

I provided a link to the recipe for my elderflower cordial in a previous post.  The meadowsweet recipe is essentially the same recipe, substituting the volume of elderflowers for meadowsweet flowers.

Cordials at the ready, I received an additional fortuitous gift of a few kilos of blackcurrants and redcurrants from my neighbour and the flower and ripple combination was so obviously calling out to be transformed into ice cream. I decided the blackcurrrants would best complement the elderflower and used the tart redcurrants to pair with the more syrupy meadowsweet. Both berries were turned into coulis to form the ripples.

The ice cream recipe has a traditional rich and decadent custard base, an indulgence necessary to reward time invested in foraging, cordial making and berry picking that culminated in these recipes. All the activity and effort can entirely justify the indulgence, well, that’s my view, at least…

The method for making both ice creams and coulis for the duo is the same, although less cordial is needed for the meadowsweet recipe as the flavour is more powerful.  Below I outline the ingredients for both recipes.

Elderflower and blackcurrant ripple ice cream

Ingredients:

250ml whole milk

150g sugar

500ml double cream

pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

40ml elderflower cordial

Blackcurrant coulis:

Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.Take 50 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 150g of blackcurrants.  Sieve and fold into the ice cream.

Meadowsweet and redcurrant ripple ice cream

Ingredients

250ml whole milk

150g sugar

500ml double cream

pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

25ml meadowsweet cordial

Redcurrant coulis:

Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.Take 40 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 125g of redcurrants and the juice of a lemon.  Sieve and fold into the ice cream.

To make the ice creams – Method

  • Warm the milk with 250 ml of the cream, sugar and salt in a pan.  Once warm, remove from the heat.
  • Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and slowly pour the warm mixture over the yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the mix back into the pan.
  • Stir constantly over a medium heat with a spatula until the mix thickens to coat the spatula.
  • Pour the thickened mix through a sieve into a bowl surrounded by an ice bath (to stop the eggs in the custard cooking) and stir until cool, refrigerate then churn.

Swirl each coulis through each ice cream once churned by your ice cream maker.  Fold in at the end of churning if you are making the ice cream by hand

Despite the contrasting colours of the coulis, the ice creams look surprisingly similar in the photographs, although the distinctive flavours of each shine through – guaranteed to fox most people in a palate test!

elderflower and blackcurrant

tasty duo

medowsweet

HTC One  2 September 2013 954

Hand-dived scallops and samphire with Marsala and porcini sauce

This is a last hurrah for hand-dived scallops and seasonal samphire as well as a need to satisfy my yearning for some fungi. While the Fruits of the Sea may be plentiful here in the Outer Hebrides, I can only read in envy about the wonderful selection of fungi currently being foraged with enthusiasm on mainland UK.

An alternative fungi foray

It’s not to say we do not have some fungi here, we do but they are not the big gusty flavoursome favourites that I craved for this dish. We are very limited by the range of habitats, and importantly, lack of woodlands for a good diversity of edible fungi.  I particularly miss woodland excursions to collect my favourite, Cantharellus cibarius, which I have known all my life as chanterelle, but that is now somewhat inexplicably referred to almost exclusively as the oh-so-trendy girolle in fine dining establishments.

In trying to find out where this change (or my perception of it) had arisen, I started digging and found a paper by Pilz et al (2003) entitled Ecology and Management of Commercially Harvested Chanterelle Mushrooms. Chanterelles, which actually encompass 4 genera: Cantharellus, Craterellus, Gomphus, and Polyozellus, are commonly referred to as chanterelles because their spore-bearing surfaces appear similar without magnification.

I must admit I got a bit sucked in to the etymology having found an enormous list of 90 vernacular names for chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius sensu lato), from Catalonian name Agerola to Ziza horia (yellow mushroom) of Basque, Spain and France. Indeed the Catalonian language appears to have a diverse and delightful array of names including Vaqueta (small cow), Ull de perdiu (partridge eye) and Rossinyol (nightingale).

Anyhow, I digress, since alas, I have no fresh chanterelles this year, but I do have some very fine dried porcini, Boletus edulis, also known as cep or penny bun (and many other great vernacular names besides). This fungi has a distinctive nutty, meaty and robust flavour that works very well in a huge array of dishes.  Balanced correctly with other flavours, it can be surprisingly subtle but identifiable on the palate, yet the distinctive flavour cuts through when required e.g. to accompany steak.

Scallops and samphire with a Marsala and porcini sauce

My supply of hand-dived scallops is becoming harder to acquire and the samphire season is pressing on, the plants are now less juicy and slightly woody, tips are now best selected.

I have married Marsala and porcini together before, but not with scallops, so I was interested to see if I could get the balance right, given the sweetness of both the scallops and the Marsala.  To counter this, I added a bit of our home-cured Old Spot pancetta to the sauce for a slightly salty tang, and the samphire also adds a bit of salt for balance.

The porcini were soaked for about 20 minutes in boiling water, squeezed out and finely chopped.  The reserved soaking liquid was added to the sauce to intensify the porcini flavour. I took my eye off the ball for a minute and slightly over-reduced the sauce, so it was a bit thick but the flavours were still balanced.

The method here focuses on the sauce since scallops and samphire are cooked simply and gently. The sauce should be prepared first and kept warm since the scallops and samphire require full attention by way of minimal but precision cooking.

Serves 2

Ingredients

3 or 4 hand-dived scallops per person

a handful of samphire, washed

Sauce:

15g dried porcini, rehydrated,

75 ml porcini reserved cooking liquid

100 ml double cream

75g pancetta, finely cubed

1 shallot, finely chopped

50 ml Marsala

10g unsalted butter

salt and pepper

Method

  • Add 10g of butter to a pan and gently fry the shallot until translucent.  Turn up the heat, add the marsala and reduce by half.
  • Add the porcini and the cooking liquid and reduce by approximately a third.
  • Meanwhile, gently dry fry the pancetta in another pan until slightly browned, drain on kitchen towel and set to one side before adding it to the sauce.
  • Add the double cream to the sauce and reduce until slightly thickened, keep the sauce warm.
  • At this stage, prepare a griddle or frying pan for the scallops and cook just enough to caramelise the outside and retain a translucent centre.
  • Blanch the samphire in a pan of boiling water for 1 minute and drain.

This tasted like a fitting way to celebrate beautiful local scallops and savour the end of the summer samphire season while welcoming the autumnal flavours of fungi.

scallop final

scallops final 2

Ways to love your lettuce 1: Avocado, lettuce and bacon

For all it is easy to grow and its numerous forms and flavours, lettuce suffers from a poor image. Yet lettuce is no one trick pony, it can be versatile and varied. I am currently immersed in my predictable annual lettuce glut therefore I offer a series of recipes to help love our lettuces. I start with a combination of lettuce, avocados and bacon.

Salad and perceived banality of lettuce

Despite being a very common and popular garden crop in the UK and easy to grow and able to be accommodated even in the smallest garden, there are a lot of lettuce detractors out there. In Britain, lettuce has way too much historical baggage – most of it negative. I also blame the generic, bland term ‘salad’ (the ‘S’ word, hereafter banished from this post).  This descriptor offers no indication of exactly what one may anticipate eating.  It disguises a myriad of possibilities: delightful taste combinations, the subtle interplay of leafy flavours that can create or enhance a dish.

More likely, a plate of blandness is conjured up in the mind: iceberg lettuce and some insipid waterball tomatoes and if you are really lucky, a vaguely water-flavoured addition of cucumber with a tough, dark dyspepsia-inducing skin.  Alternative thoughts may be a sad, soggy and superfluous garnish left on the side of the plate as an afterthought, the limp offering receiving no more than a cursory glance, at best a gentle prod with a fork and thereafter (justifiably) ignored. To add insult to injury, some call it ‘rabbit food’ (whatever that means) and steer clear at all costs.

Beyond lettuce, there are many flavour-packed leaves that transcend the boundaries of our notion of the traditional and can elevate dishes to new levels. The leafy delights of mizuna, komatsuna, red chard, rocket, sorrel, endive, to name but a few, can be discussed another time but as with lettuce they merit a better description than the ‘S’ word.

Lettuces of distinction

As a grower, it can be a bit bewildering looking through seed catalogues to choose which varieties of lettuce to grow; cos, butterhead, crisphead being 3 common descriptions of form.  After trying many different varieties, I have settled down to grow some favourites of different varieties and textures with the odd wildcard thrown in annually.

Without a doubt the ultimate lettuce for me is the big, blousy butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons, an heirloom pre-1885 French variety (Merveille des Quatre Saisons). It is as tasty as it is beautiful with rosette growth in an array of shades ranging from bronze, gold, red encompassing a delicate green heart with ruby-tinged leaf tips.

As the name suggests, it will grow across extended seasons, is vigorous, easy to grow and quick to mature. Being a soft butterhead, it is delicate and can suffer as a result of the strong winds here so I usually plant it next to brassicas for protection.

This is the one and only item I have ever entered in the local North Uist agricultural show.  I did win first prize but was most upset when I collected my lettuce at the end of the day. Its beauty had faded having sat on the show bench all day and it was a shadow of its former glory: saggy and not worth eating.  I felt disappointed by the potential food waste and that I had let competition get in the way of common sense. It made me realise that my priority is to grow my vegetables to eat rather than for the show bench. Growing conditions here are tough enough and I relish eating everything I grow. Maybe if I have more growing space I will re-evaluate and enter some produce in future – and if I develop an interest in competition of any sort whatsoever.

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

Clockwise from top left Marvel of Four Seasons, Catalogna Lingua di Canarino and Little Gem

I also grow Catalogna Lingua di Canarino most years, for its vigor and flavour and Little Gem for its versatility and delicately bitter edge, although it is least vigorous, germination can be patchy and it takes a while to get going outside.  I often braise or stuff the small tight heart leaves of Little Gem. Finally, I grow the winter favourite Valdor to extend the season.

Lettuce with avocado and bacon

This post should perhaps more accurately be entitiled ‘Ways to love your lettuce in combination with bacon’ as my trio coincidentally and quite unintentionally all contain some of our own home cured Old Spot bacon. I may well at last get round posting about the Old Spot bacon prep. In fact, I’ve just decided that the third lettuce and bacon combo recipe will culminate with the tale of the Old Spot cure.

Both Marvel and little Gem are included here, for the contrast of the delicate soft butteriness of Marvel and the hearted, gently bitter and refreshing crunch of Little Gem. The recipe is adapted from one in the Wahaca Mexican Food at Home book.

Ingredients

1 Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce

2 little gem lettuce

1 green chilli, finely sliced (I used Hungarian Hot Wax)

1 avocado, diced

3 spring onions, sliced

handful of coriander, chopped

150g pancetta, diced

dressing:

1 avocado

juice of 1 lime

60 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 heaped tsp. Dijon mustard

2 spring onions

small bunch of basil

salt and pepper

Method

  • Put all the dressing ingredients in a blender together and blitz, season to taste.
  • Dry fry the cubes of pancetta until crisp, drain on kitchen towel and allow to cool.
  • Arrange half of the lettuce leaves on a platter (or 4 individual serving plates if you wish).
  • Shred the rest of the leaves and combine with half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli and spring onions and a spoonful of dressing, season, mix and place on top of the lettuce leaves.
  •  Scatter the other half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli, spring onions and coriander over the top.

Avocado 2

Avocado 1

Avocado 3

I served it with rare venison steak and chipotle tostadas, topped with Manchego cheese and Hungarian Hot Wax chillies – a great way to love my lettuce and a cool and refreshing foil for the meaty and fiery tostadas.

venison and hot wax

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.

elderflower

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.

Ingredients

20 ml elderflower cordial

180g blaeberries

40g butter, melted

100g digestive biscuits, crushed

200g cream cheese

30g icing sugar

300ml double cream, whipped

Method

  • 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

Ingredients

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

Method

  • 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

Method

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