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

Sweet foraging success: Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

For the last week I have spent many feral hours indulging in foraging and fishing in the delightfully radiant and balmy summer sun, making the most of the extraordinary weather in the Outer Hebrides. Foraging successes were numerous, although the pinnacle was the delight of foraging for and cooking with razor clams.

Summer arrived this week coincidentally with spring tides.  Syzygy brings extremes of high and low water that offer up numerous though infrequent opportunities for foragers and anglers.

Fly fishing combining fortuitous foraging

Bright and sunny conditions were less than ideal for fly fishing, but nonetheless, we visited some of our favourite spots, huge lochs within the remote interior of North Uist, encountering no one.  The fish were certainly not ‘on’, but I turned this to my advantage and I grabbed foraging opportunities that I stumbled across along the way.

The unremitting sunshine has resulted in a sudden leap forward for many plants and fruits. We may not have the burgeoning hedgerows found in other parts of the UK, but there are plenty foraging opportunities here nonetheless. On one outing to a favourite loch, Loch Hunder, I found a dense blaeberry patch and turned my attention to gathering these wild berries during a lean fishing phase. This was time well spent as The Man Named Sous continued to fish and caught nothing during my foraging hour! The delicious blaeberries and associated recipes will be discussed in a future post.

Loch Hunder, looking towards 'The Lees'

The sprawling Loch Hunder, looking towards ‘The Lees’

Similarly, on a scorching and opportunistic visit to Geireann Mill following on from the North Uist Angling Club open day and barbecue, I sensed the fishing would be almost pointless. As we drew up alongside the loch inlet in the car, I could smell meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) before I saw it and instantly knew how my time would be best spent.  I was not wrong, my fishless companions later returned to the car but I had a bagful of sweet bounty.

The meadowsweet was turned into cordial, as were kind deliveries of elderflowers from the mainland (thank you Fi and mum). Both cordials will feature in recipes in future posts and I am still experimenting with both. 

cordials 004

A return to Geireann Mill on another evening when the heat of the day had passed (can’t believe I can use this phrase in reference to weather here) was simply stunning. As the sun set and the full moon rose simultaneously, there was not a ripple on the water, save for fish breaking the surface to feed on big hatches of caddisflies skimming or landing on the surface.  The silence was only broken by cacophonous yet plaintive calls of red-throated divers on the water and in between these, the gentle splashes of surfacing trout.  Yet again I know that on evenings like this, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Giereann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann Mill sunset 2200 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 22215 hrs

Geireann mill moonrise 2230 hrs

Although we did try sea fishing too, it was not quite as fruitful as expected with mackerel very thin on the ground at our usual haunts.  The high tide was so big, we suspect it was not the optimal time and we may have missed any incoming shoals. We were content to give sea fishing another shot at Loch Eport, enjoying the sun and the views but with nothing to show for our efforts, it was time to head home for a barbecue. My parents were visiting, and how novel it was that we could manage to have a barbecue, as well taking my dad on numerous fishing outings.  The weather hasn’t always been so kind during their visits.

My casting spot over Loch Eport

My casting spot over Loch Eport

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Equally breathtaking views of Eaval behind me

Spoots, storms and samphire

Samphire is now in optimal condition for foraging, growing bushy, fleshy and succulent without yet turning woody and tired.  I am enjoying it so much that I hope to preserve some before the end of growing season for use later. Just now, I pick it and eat it the same day and used it recently in a recipe with pollack and scallop corals.  The plentiful supply near our house is very convenient and the low tides provided the tantalizing prospect of a seasonal coupling of razor clams and samphire.

Samphire 004 Samphire 010

I joined professional forager Fi Bird on South Uist for a spoot (razor clam) foraging expedition and some gathering tips.  I would highly recommend Fi’s book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ as an invaluable resource for foraging tips and recipes. My review of this excellent book can be read here.

Paddling thigh deep in water and engrossed in spoot-spotting, I was vaguely aware of the towering black cumulonimbus and accompanying stormy rumblings to the south, but wasn’t quite anticipating the hour-long rainstorm of biblical proportions that followed.  A couple of families on the beach cleared off during the deluge leaving us two lonesome foragers. At that stage there didn’t seem to be any point in stopping since we were drookit within a few minutes anyway. The spoots were justifiably wary and pouring salt down the telltale keyholes in the sand where they lay buried yielded a defiant spurt of water, the spoot staying put.

Eventually we hit a couple of good patches, firmly gripping and delicately pulling out the spoots subtly sticking out of the sand. Our hands eventually turning blue, it was becoming difficult to find and grip our quarry and the situation was on the verge of descending into what might very appropriately be called lunacy, so we called it a day. Soaked to the skin and bedraggled, Fi’s carefully prepared picnic looked like a better option accompanied by a cup of coffee and we retreated indoors to warm up and enjoy Fi’s smoked salmon samphire studded bagels.

It was a fun and enlightening afternoon, though no photos were possible as phones / cameras would have quickly died in the deluge! Fi kindly gave me our modest mollusc bounty for dinner. I got home to discover hardly any rain had fallen on North Uist although it was still quite muggy and overcast.

razor display

Razor clams with samphire, summer vegetables and herbs

The last thing any cook wants to do in the middle of summer is stand over a hot stove cooking for long periods.  This recipe avoids the need, as does the main ingredient of razor clams, by default.  The style of cooking and construction of this recipe is the kind of cuisine I get most pleasure from making: very fresh ingredients sustainably sourced by hand, vegetables and herbs picked from the garden minutes before preparation, intricate and time-consuming preparation with precision cooking of only a few minutes required to bring the dish together.

This à la minute cooking style is one I have favoured lately and is perhaps the signature style of Tom Kitchin whose recipe this is (albeit tweaked a bit).  Tom may be considered a celebrity chef, but it was very reassuring when we ate at ‘The Kitchin’ to see that he was present, leading his brigade in service. His undeniably Scottish take on fine dining with complex yet honest dishes containing the finest fresh seasonal produce made the dining experience one of the best we have had recently, so another recommendation.

The chorizo used is very good quality, coming from Lupe Pintos Deli in Edinburgh.  A little goes a long way, so depending on the style and potency of the chorizo, more may be added.

Serves 4 as a starter or light main course

Ingredients

8 razor clams, washed

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

110 ml white wine

1 tsp rapeseed oil

1 courgette, cut into 0.5 cm dice

1 carrot, cut into 0.5 cm dice

60 g samphire, rinsed

40 g cooking chorizo, cut into 0.5 cm cubes

110 ml double cream

110 g young broad beans (podded weight), podded and shelled

50g finely chopped parsley

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

1 lime, zest and juice

25 g unsalted butter

100g squid, prepared and cleaned, cut into triangles

salt and pepper

Garnish:

3 springs of dill, finely chopped

1 bunch chopped fresh chives

1 bunch of chervil, leaves only, chopped

2 springs of bronze fennel, finely chopped

a few springs of basil (I used Red Rubin for colour), gently torn

a few chive flowers

Method

Get everything chopped and prepared ready to go as this recipe comes together in a flash.

First, prepare and cook the spoots.  NB The spoots look just as indecent when cooked as they do when you pull them from the sand.

  • Heat a large saute pan or similar (with a tight-fitting lid) over a high heat.  When hot, add the razor clams, shallots and wine and quickly cover.
  • Steam for 30 seconds (no more or you will get Pirelli-textured spoots), they will open.
  • Strain the cooking liquid into a pan and keep aside.

razorclams cooking

  • Take the spoots from the shells when cool enough, remove the digestive tract (worth an online search for tips if you don’t know how to do this), slice the cooked clams thinly at an angle and set aside. Keep the shells for plating up.
  • Heat a teaspoon of rapeseed oil in a pan and over a medium heat, add the chopped carrot and courgette, broad beans, parsley and anchovies. Fry gently for 3-4 minutes and set aside.
  • Take the clams cooking liquid, heat and reduce by half before adding the chorizo, cream, samphire, carrots, courgettes, parsley and anchovies.  Stir and simmer until thickened slightly.
  • Add the lime juice and zest and butter until melted then strain off about 1/4 of the sauce into another pan and add the spoots. Keep warm.
  • Using the other teaspoon of rapeseed oil, heat a pan to cook the squid.  Season the squid and add to the pan once it is smoking and cook for 1-2 minutes until opaque, no more or squid will be rubbery.
  • Add the squid pieces to the spoots and sauce.
  • To serve, put 2 shells on each plate, spoon the spoot and squid mixture into the shell and drizzle the veg and sauce around before garnishing with the herbs and chive flowers.

razor 1

razor 2