Wild greylag goose: trials and tribulations of island life

Every time I open my freezer, something falls out and lands on my foot.  At the moment, the usual culprit is a pack of 2 goose breasts. Attempting to re-arrange the shelf results in a landslide of further goose cuts, precariously stacked behind the breasts on the ‘goose shelf’.  The signs are there.  I need to start using more of these greylag cuts before the shooting season comes round again.

Not that I am complaining, goose breasts are relatively benign compared with the (near) concussion that resulted from a large venison haunch joint falling from the top shelf and clouting me on the back of the head as I searched for something in a lower drawer.  Lesson learned. Large joints of meat to be consigned to the bottom of the freezer in future.

I was watching the greylags today on the croft behind our house, two adults and a brood of 4 well-grown goslings, all feeding on the grass.  It won’t be long before they turn their attention to crops grown by crofters, demanding time and energy to scare and / or shoot this resident bird that has an all too healthy, indeed burgeoning population.  I was involved in biannual goose counts for a number of years, covering my local township and the adjacent townships on and around the island of Baleshare.

Baleshare is always present along the horizon of any photos I have included of the view from the bay at the bottom of our garden and is joined by a short causeway to Clachan, North Uist. The island of Baleshare is a special place for us, and has been for many years, including those long before we eventually moved to North Uist.

We walk the dogs on the expansive Baleshare beach as well as try to catch seafish there, I enjoy running around the island’s single track roads and we fly fish at the Clachan lochs on the other side of the causeway for trout and sea trout.  The south end of the island almost encapsulates the small peninsula on which our house sits, acting as a barrier that protects us from the ravages of fierce Atlantic storms. Baleshare and Clachan are places that I identify with particular people and none more so than Ivan MacDonald.

Ivan MacDonald – One of North Uist’s finest

Ivan, who crofted the land on Baleshare and the surrounding townships, tragically died the weekend before last, being involved in a collision with a car while walking home after a dance at our village hall, less than a mile from our house and an even shorter distance from his own.

I know readers of this blog are scattered round the globe and that many of you will not have known Ivan.  However, my blog documents island living as much as food.  The repercussions of the loss of a young, popular and well-known person to such a small island community cannot be overstated. Testament to this was the amount of mourners who attended his funeral on Saturday. The church and hall were so full that we, along with many other mourners, stood outside to pay our respects during the service. It was an incredibly sad day for the community and beyond.

We had known Ivan pretty much since we moved to Uist over 6 years ago. At that time, we were playing a lot of traditional music and the first people we connected with were musician friends already living here.  We quickly met Ivan through our friends and would play with him often at parties or sessions, enjoying the craic.  He was a fine piper and whistle player and had a great tune repertoire from piping, his Gaelic culture and beyond.  I learned a lot of lovely tunes from him, and have a notebook with the names of tunes Ivan played that I jotted down, some I have learned, others I intend to one day.

Ivan was always fun to play music with because despite being a much better musician than I was, he was never elitist and would graciously play with whoever was at a session. He was a gentleman and simply loved playing and he loved the pipes. He was also the only person I knew here who, like I was a few years ago, was trying the challenge of learning to play Uilleann pipes and he would always want to know how I was progressing and sympathise with the associated challenges.

Ivan was well-known for being a talented Highland piper and I struggle to recall a wedding, dance, party, concert or dinner in Carinish Village Hall at which Ivan did not play his Highland pipes. I will always think of him when I visit the hall.

I associate Ivan as much with crofting as piping and Gaelic culture.  Any time I have been walking, running or fishing on and around Baleshare, I invariably saw Ivan at work in his tractor or tending his stock.  He chose to continue his crofting heritage as a career and was very successful. At 33, he was bucking the trend of an ageing demographic in crofting. I know I will have to check myself as I raise my hand to wave the next time a tractor passes me on Baleshare, a melancholy reminder of his absence.

Many people may have known Ivan a lot longer and better than me, and many will also have fond memories of him.  However, the loss of Ivan leaves a void for all of us that alters the cultural and crofting landscape of North Uist tangibly and irrevocably. As Eric said to me of his passing – he was one of the good guys.  Our thoughts are with Ivan’s family and those closest to him.

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Making the best of a (goose) problem

It would be fitting to include a recipe featuring the fine wethers that Ivan supplied us with, his sheep reared on the wild heather-clad east side of the island for a proportion of their lives – hardy beasts with a rich gamey flavour and essentially wild and organic. Sheep that good, however, do not last long and unfortunately, ours is finished.  I turn therefore to complete a suite of recipes featuring the crofter’s nemesis – the wild greylag goose.

I have already featured a recipe for greylag goose and apple sausages, pan-fried breast with balsamic vinegar and confit of goose legs.  All of these turned out to work pretty well and I had hoped to further demonstrate the versatility of the much maligned greylag.  However, recent experiments would suggest that perhaps I have pushed the boundaries of taste literally a bit too far.

As I have warned before, eating a goose you have been unable to reliably age can be like roulette and the chance is one day you will get a tough old bird. This recently happened to us.  I had planned to serve the pan-fried breasts with a Madeira and oyster mushroom cream sauce.  No amount of resting would help recover the Pirelli-textured breasts, and I must admit the sauce really was not one of my best.  I hate food waste but the only option was consignment to the bin.

Cured wild greylag breast ‘prosciutto’

The biggest faux pas, however, was my decision to dry cure two goose breasts.  The process was relatively simple and I know that it can work for duck, so why not goose? Olfaction alone should have warned me not to go there.  Raw greylag has a distinctive smell, one that is in no way lost through curing, I discovered.   It was very pungent, slightly fishy and I wasn’t at all convinced by it.  I reproduce the recipe is case anyone is very keen to prove me wrong about dry curing of greylag, after all, it may have been the bird we used, not cured goose per se, or perhaps the process or choice of cure ingredients. one breast was cured as described below, the second had the bay replaced with tarragon.

Ingredients

  • 2 goose breasts, skin on
  • 80g salt
  • 25g sugar
  • 1 tbsp. crushed dried bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. ground fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp. ground black pepper

Method

Curing rates are very dependent on temperature and humidity.  There is also a risk of mould in prolonged hanging, so best gain a bit of experience before going for the more intense flavour prolonged curing gives, and check the breasts regularly.  I gave these 3 weeks in a cold outbuilding, wrapped in muslin, checking once a week for ‘flex’ and mould. White or green mould should be wiped off whenever seen.  If you find black mould, do not eat the meat. It should not hang so long that it becomes stiff and rubbery and should retain some moisture. Texturally, these appeared to be perfect, but the flavour was too powerful for my taste.

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Cured - looks good, smells less so.

Cured – looks good, smells less so.

  • Mix the cure ingredients together, crushing the bay leaf with a mortar and pestle.
  • Coat the goose breasts in the mixture and massage it into the meat, and make sure every bit of it has cure on it. Put the breasts in a plastic container in the fridge for 2 days, turning over half way to coat in any cure mix on the bottom of the container.
  • Rinse and dry the meat thoroughly, pat dry then sit on a rack for a couple of hours.
  • Wrap each breast in muslin and tie with butcher’s string and hang in a cool place with moderate humidity for 2 weeks to 2 months. Prevent each breast touching the other as they hang to allow good air circulation.

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I am certain the cure time and salt content were just about right, the meat was yielding and evenly moist without being rubbery.  I have kept the breasts in the fridge and have the occasional nibble as they continue to dry out.  I am hoping the meat will be an acquired taste and also plan to dice it up and throw it in a casserole.

Bouncing back – Barbecued chipotle greylag goose breast

After the slight disappointment of the prosciutto, I was pretty confident that my most recent goose excursion would be delightful.  Of course, the odds were in my favour as you can’t go far wrong with barbecuing and we were not disappointed. The powerful flavour of the goose stood up well to the fiery smoky chipotle marinade which did not overpower the gamey goose flavour.

Chipotle marinade ingredients

  • 2 dried chipotle chillis, rehydrated
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • salt and pepper
  • some groundnut oil

The marinade ingredients were pulverised in a small blender before being rubbed onto the goose breast that were then left to sit for 3-4 hours. The goose redeemed itself entirely on the barbecue and was one of the highlights of our local meat-fest barbecue – to be featured at a later date.

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Stormy Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Heavy Weather

I tentatively started writing this post a couple of hours ago. The predicted low weather front started to take effect on the Outer Hebrides about lunchtime. As it was also very wet and windy yesterday, for the first time in about 18 months, I thought it was safer not to take the dogs out. It seemed a bit better today, but once I got out, it deteriorated again and with pins of horizontal precipitation jabbing me uncomfortably in the face, I struggled to stay upright, slipping and sliding on the very wet blanket bog, struggling into the headwind to get back to the car. The dogs coped a bit better being four-paw drive and a bit nearer to the ground. Being smart beasts, they have devised a cunning and stealthy plan for horizontal rain and hail. They lie down flat in the heather and wait until I get a bit ahead of them, then slink at speed past me and lie down again, as if they are covering each other in a military advance. The best part for them was getting home for a towel dry and a biscuit. Me to.

The weather has deteriorated considerably since the dog walk, as predicted. Since the low is coinciding with a high tide, police are taking no chances and causeways along the island chain have been closed. Although I work from home now (thankfully) when I commuted from work on South Uist in very poor weather the office would be closed. We all left early to ensure we got back home (especially those crossing several causeways to North Uist) before causeways were closed by police.

Traversing causeways is like driving along behind a very long sea wall in a storm, although worse because vehicles move from the relative shelter of the island onto the causeway, open to the full force of the elements. Immediately a gust can hit the side of the car as sea spray and the occasional wave also lands on it, making it impossible to see. Windscreen wipers are useless and there is also a risk of aqua-planing. Great as my little puddle-jumper was for commuting, it did not take kindly to these occasional conditions any more than I did!

Exposing oneself: Eriskay causeway in better weather – closed for business this evening.

Wind speeds have reached about 70 mph, with gusts of +90 mph and the gusts are rocking the house, much as they have done periodically for the last 80 or so years of its existence, with no particularly detrimental effects. The wind is fairly persistently strong and then, as the clouds roll in from the Atlantic, even in the dark you just know when it’s going to get that bit worse. The preceding loud roar as the wind speed picks up heralds the arrival of another front of torrential rain, although unlike last night, no lightning accompanies the squall.

Regular Facebook updates from across the islands tell the familiar tale: ferries and buses cancelled, local amenities such as the sports centre closed – and beware, power outputs reported across parts of North Uist and Benbecula. I have got more common sense than to start baking when the weather is like this. With overhead powerline transmission serving the whole electricity network, power cuts are common – even without the explanation of the wind (swans or geese hitting a line somewhere is one such reason). So, it was just as we started to cook dinner the power went off following many threatening flickers. One never can tell how long it will stay off, so we try and keep the stove stoked, a pan of hot water on top, if required and NEVER open the freezer door – in case the outage is protracted.

Twenty minutes later, power back on, we quickly served dinner. The lights have more or less stayed on since until I started to write this and frustratingly, as anticipated, the power went off again but just for long enough to knock the computer off and all the digital devices in the house. It may be that I will have to resume this post tomorrow, we will see what happens….

Venison and Black Turtle Bean Ancho-Chipotle Chilli

Dinner needs to homely, preferably slow cooked and comforting in this weather – not to mention hot – chilli hot, that is. Using some of our venison that was butchered in the autumn – a piece of shoulder diced into big chunks, slow cooked and rich in gamey flavour stands up well to the heat and smokiness of the chillis.  The chilli was served with Mexican green rice, a recipe I found in the Wahaca ‘Mexican food at home’ book, which I varied to accommodate the ingredients I had. This is basmati rice cooked in veg stock with a handful of coriander, parsley an onion and 2 garlic cloves whizzed in a food processor and mixed through the rice, finished in the oven for half an hour.

Chilli Ingredients

800g venison shoulder, diced into big chunks

150g dried black turtle beans

1 tblsp of flavourless oil e.g. groundnut

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

400ml tomato passata

500 ml game (or beef) stock

4 dried ancho chillies, re-hydrated

2 dried chipotle chillis, re-hydrated

1 tblsp chilli powder

2 tsp ground cumin

I tsp celery salt

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tblsp lime juice

Method

  • Soak the beans for a few hours then boil for about 45 minutes until just tender, set aside.
  • Re-hydrate the chillis in boiling water for about 20 minutes, then blend and strain through a sieve to remove skin and seeds, set aside to add later.
  • Brown the cubes of venison shoulder steak in the oil and remove with a slotted spoon.
  • Saute the onion, garlic and the rest of the veg gently for about 5 minutes.
  • Put the venison back in the pan with the veg together with the passata, stock, herbs, spices, celery salt and rehydrated chilli paste.
  • Allow to cook for an hour at a low heat, covered, on the stove top, then add the turtle beans and cook for about another 1 hour 15 minutes. Add the lime juice just before serving.
  • Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with Mexican green rice – and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon – or some milk to suppress the heat.

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