Foraging on my doorstep 3: Dulse and beer bread – with my salt beef

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe that included the most obvious bounty on my doorstep – seaweed, in this case, dulse. I have coupled this with my first attempt at preparing salt beef, using a fine quality brisket of Aberdeen Angus. This unique combination produced a sandwich of some distinction, well worth the effort to collect the dulse and time to brine the beef.

In the process

As mentioned before, I am not a hardcore forager because in some respects, I don’t believe in tokenistic use of foraged ingredients. Seaweeds, if not appropriately processed, carefully considered and balanced to be an integral part of a dish can fall into this category. Dulse, however, I have discovered, does have significant merit as a distinctive ingredient that brings novel and intriguing flavour dimensions to a dish.

I am slightly limited in my experimental explorations with seaweeds as I currently don’t have a dehydrator, a tool that would give me more flexibility in using seaweed as an ingredient. Given that we are on the cusp of renovating the house and in the process of packing stuff away to facilitate the incredible mess that will ensue, buying more kitchen gadgets, normally something I would be looking for an excuse to do, is not on the cards.

Help with kelp

Dulse harvest

Dulse harvest 2

It is not the best time of year to be collecting dulse – end of summer / early autumn is optimal, but where there is kelp, it can usually be found at anytime of the year. I began thinking about recipe ideas, as possible contributions to Fiona Bird’s next book – based around culinary explorations with seaweed. The least I could do was come up with some ideas for Fi, Champion of Hebridean seaweed. See also my review of Fiona’s fabulous last book ‘The Forager’s Kitchen‘.

On a sunny but very windy day, we combed our local beach for living kelp that had been cast ashore (as opposed to the masses of dead plants, detached and usually devoid of dulse).  The holdfasts (‘root’) of living kelp plants still grip hard to the boulder substrate on which they are growing and are often thrown high up this beach during storms, well above the kelp zone, therefore making them easy to find.

So why, you may ask am I looking for kelp but intend to forage for dulse?  Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is a red seaweed that is epiphytic on several species of seaweed, notably the most abundant kelp found along the west coast of the Uists, Laminaria hyperborea. The stipes (‘stems’) of this important algae are often festooned with dulse, which has a ribbon-like appearance at this time of year, having been ripped and shredded by the force of stormy seas. These kelp plants live for up to 15 years and dulse tends to found associated with older specimens. Dulse also grows on rocks and mussels in the intertidal zone.

The kelp Laminaria hyperborea, tangle, to give it one of its common names,  is an incredibility important species, notably for these islands. The most apparent benefit of beach cast tangle (as well a few other seaweed species) is that it is traditionally collected from beaches after winter storms and utilised by crofters as a natural fertiliser for crops.

However, it is the unseen benefits provided by these kelp forests that extensively fringe the west coast here that make them so important.  Kelp (actually an umbrella name for a number of ‘forest-forming’ macroalgae) has been described as an ‘ecosystem engineer’, a wonderful term that perhaps, rather simplistically, may be described as any organism  that creates or significantly modifies habitats.  North American beavers and termites are often cited as the more obvious examples.

Kelp forests are extremely dynamic and productive with high biodiversity, acting as a habitat and refuge for many organisms and are important for nutrient cycling and energy capture.  Of key importance to this low-lying island chain may be the capacity of kelp forests to offer a degree of protection to coastal zones from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer, reducing the velocity of approaching waves during storms.  A recent paper that gives an excellent synthesis of the functions of kelp can be found here. 

My life is currently awash with kelp – not just in my spare time used foraging for dulse,  at work I am currently managing a research project focusing on kelp.  A world of weed indeed!

As you can see, the dogs thought harvesting dulse this was a great game and quickly cottoned on to what we were trying to do.  They excitedly began seeking out kelp stipes. Unfortunately, when found they then proceeded to chew off and eat the dulse, or run around with the entire stipes hanging out of their mouths, nonchalantly chewing them while running amok.

Dulse and beer bread

I was aware that the flavour of dulse is complemented by ale and, in wishing to continue pushing the envelope with my recent bread making exploits (more on these another time), decided to pair the two flavours in a loaf.  I have been making a lot of ale rolls recently and was intrigued to experience how the dulse may alter the flavour and texture of my basic ale roll recipe.

The flavour was malty, full and distinctive. The dulse gave a new dimension and depth of flavour, soft texture, even bake and a pleasant smell that was incomparable with any loaf I have made before.  The colour was interesting, slightly tinged with yellow and the keeping qualities of the loaf appeared to be very good, although I admit, it didn’t perhaps last long enough to really test that out…

As mentioned, there are benefits to drying the dulse before use but without a dehydrator, I decided to try using it fresh. After checking the dulse for inhabiting species and removing them, I rinsed it thoroughly under the cold tap for a few minutes.  I then placed it in a bowl of warm water for half an hour, before drying it with a kitchen towel and then blitzing it quite coarsely in a food processor. I have no idea what the standard practice for fresh dulse is, but presumed this would remove creatures, salt and soften it a bit. It seemed to work.

Dulse

The recipe provides 2 large loaves and economically uses 1 500 ml bottle of ale. Alternatively, make 1/2 the volume and drink the spare 200ml of ale! Modify according to your preferred method of bread prep. and room temperature.

Ingredients

600g strong white bread flour

200g strong wholemeal bread flour

200g strong malted bread flour

40g fresh dulse, finely chopped

500 ml ale

100 ml water (approx.)

20g instant yeast

20g salt

60g butter

a little olive oil

some semolina for dusting

Oven: 205 C (fan)

Dulse bread

Method

  • Put everything in a bowl and mix until it comes together and tip onto the surface.  Be careful not to add all the water at once in case the dough is too sticky – especially due to the added moisture in the dulse.  Adjust water amount accordingly.
  • Put a little olive oil on the surface and tip out the dough.  Knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is no longer sticky but becomes soft and elastic.
  • Put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in size.  This may take up to several hours for a big batch like this, depending on room temperature.
  • Tip dough out and fold inwards to knock the air out and cut in 2 before shaping your loaves into your preferred shapes.
  • Place each on a baking tray dusted with a mixture of semolina and flour.
  • Cover with a plastic bag and leave to prove for at least an hour, or until the loaves have again doubled in size.
  • Dust the loaves with a mixture of semolina and flour and slash, if desired, before placing on the oven for 30 minutes.

Dulde bread 3

dulse bread 2

Salt beef: another briny recipe

Although I have always been aware of the existence of salt beef and its origination in Ashkenazi cuisine,  I must admit, I don’t recollect eating it, most probably because it is generally hard to acquire in Scotland and secondly, I have not thought to specifically seek it out. I had a good quality marbled piece of Aberdeen Angus beef and was contemplating what to do with it that would make it special when I came across a number of salt beef recipes online.

Salt beef, it transpires, is remarkably simple to make, so difficult acquisition is irrelevant if you are prepared to make it.  Admittedly, it does require considerable patience during brining.  At this stage, I found myself opening the fridge and staring longingly at the briny brisket, counting the days when it would be ready to cook and consume.

Traditionally, saltpetre would have been added.  This does give the beef its characteristic pink tinge. Although we do have some (for something to do with violin making, not cooking!), I prefer to keep the product more natural, so have omitted it.

Since the beef will languish in the brine for an entire week, it is perhaps not wise to try to undertake this without the benefit of a large fridge. Fortunately, I have one.

This recipe is an amalgamation of several I found online.  I modified the contents of the brine and subsequent cooking ingredients to my own tastes.

Salt beef brine recipe


275g soft light brown sugar

350g coarse sea salt

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 cloves

3 bay leaves

a few sprigs of thyme

a sprig of rosemary

salt beef 1

Method

  • Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large saucepan with  2.5 litres of water, bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve.
  • Once it comes to the boil,  simmer for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
  • Pierce the brisket all over with a skewer and place in a large sterilised, non reactive container (plastic is best) that will hopefully fit in your fridge.
  • Pour over the brine to immerse the beef, weight it down if you can, or turn in the brine regularly.
  • Leave to brine for 1 week.

For the beef 

2 kg (minimum) beef brisket

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 celery stick, roughly chopped

1 leek, roughly chopped

1 bouquet garni of seasonal herbs

1 head of garlic, halved

Method

  • Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it.
  •  Place a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover.
  • Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach very gently for about 3 hours, or until the meat is completely tender.

salt beef 2

Serve hot or cold.  We preferred it cold, as luxurious lunchtime sandwiches with the dulse and beer bread, some wholegrain mustard and accompanied by small onions I grew last summer, preserved in a sweet and gentle pickle.  There is no doubt about what I will be making with the next brisket I acquire – an outstanding way to celebrate one of the best cheap beef cuts, making it feel very extravagant.

salt beef sandwich

The vile weather continues here, so time for a break. London calling.  Here’s hoping when I return spring will be vaguely apparent (though I did hear an optimistic skylark singing this morning in the short sunshine interlude between the continual low pressure weather systems).

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

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

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

The core elements of this recipe are a suite of delicious things considered inferior, discarded or overlooked.  I wanted to champion three very deserving ingredients: pollack, scallop coral and samphire, by combining them in a luxuriant recipe to celebrate these, some of my favourite local ingredients. Each of the 3 elements of this dish can be collected sustainably by hand here at the right time of year.

Pollack (or pollock) is a Gadoid fish in the same family as cod. Despite having a similar texture, flavour and smell as cod, pollack is often considered to be inferior, by both shoppers and sea anglers and is consequently cheaper, being used as a substitute for cod, including illegally. A recent article in The Guardian highlighted that cod and chips could indeed be ‘a load of pollack’ as Trading Standards identified that it was being used as a cheap substitute for cod in shops, restaurants and fish and chip shops.  There is also the question of sustainability.

pollack

Despite the pressure on our fragile cod stocks, as a nation, we are still generally pretty conservative and traditional about what fish we think we prefer. Most people, tasting both anecdotally and in blind taste tests cannot tell the difference between pollack and cod. However, the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF), representing UK fish and chip shops expects cod to remain the most popular choice for its members and the public. Anyhow, I’m not about to preach the virtues of sustainability any further as HFW manages this more than adequately with his well-oiled media machine.

Pollack is one of the most common seafish that can be caught with rod and line around our Hebridean coasts and is one of our favourite white fish.  It does need to be well seasoned, appropriately cooked and served with carefully selected ingredients to bring out the best of its flavour, such as this recipe with a rich, flavoursome sauce.

Scallop coral, the orange roe attached to the prized white scallop muscle is also a deserving ingredient routinely (and inexplicably to my mind) discarded, or at least not served with the white muscle in many high end UK restaurants.  It has a rich, sweet and intense and yes, some people consider strong, perhaps overpoweringly distinctive flavour, but that robust flavour can be turned to ones advantage. The coral does cook at a slightly different rate from the white adductor muscle, but I still don’t see a need to discard it entirely.  Why not just cook it separately?

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These big fat healthy corals were discarded from hand-dived North Uist scallops, and were given to us by our seafood wholesaler friend as they were not wanted by the customer.  I snapped up several bags of them, freezing them in small batches for use later.

If there is any ingredient that perhaps signifies the height of summer for the coastal forager it is samphire. Ever associated with fresh summer breezes and sea air, the salt marsh indicator genus Salicornia has become a hip restaurant favourite over the last few years. Yet it is almost overlooked along our coasts being ubiquitous in shallow, slack water inlets, bays and lagoons, wherever you see the cushions of pink thrift, a month of so later one can almost predictably find marsh samphire.

I say marsh because it should not be confused with rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), an edible umbelliferae and the lonely, sole species of its genus. Marsh samphire (Salicornia spp.) comprise a genus that can be difficult to separate into individual species, especially earlier in the season, and are also known as glassworts. Marsh samphire ashes were historically used to make soap and glass, hence the common name.

Salicornia spp. are just becoming apparent here and a couple of weeks ago I found the first nascent plants emerging from the estuarine mud a stones throw from my house. Now is the time to harvest this seasonal beauty.

samphire

As with anything caught, gathered or collected by oneself, Salicornia should be considered a valuable and precious resource. Whatever is taken, it should only be enough for the pot.  Nothing should be wasted. This way, its seasonality and uniqueness can be savoured absolutely.

The sun is out!

I left Uist on Monday on the ferry, the mist was hanging low over The Minch, a bit of a pea-souper requiring the ferry to sound its foghorn.  When I got to the other side, the Isle of Skye appeared to be a different continent – balmy, sunny and hot.  I had meetings in Argyll and it was delightful to drive through wonderful west coast scenery (I saw trees!) on the warmest day of the year so far in Scotland.  The tourist hotspots around Skye, Fort William and Loch Lomond were buzzing with masses of holiday makers and day trippers soaking up the bewilderingly hot and sunny holiday weather.

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

I endured spectacular views over Loch Fyne from my hotel and had breakfast in the sun before getting down to the day’s work.

Evening view of Loch Fyne

Evening view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Having wrapped up my work after 2 days, I headed north up the west side of Loch Fyne and could not resist taking a short break at the famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar at the head of the loch, a place I had not visited for about 20 years and my goodness, it had changed, and was no longer just the shed serving fine seafood that I remember. It looked particularly plush following a recent renovation.

argyll 3

Even near the end of the afternoon service, the establishment was heaving with coaches, people mostly browsing in the shop filled with tasty shellfish produce and more.  However, I had only one thing on my mind.  On such a hot day, there could be nothing more refreshing than indulging in 6 oysters nestled on a bed of ice with a squeeze of lemon and a hint of Tabasco. These slid down all too easily, but were very good value at under £2 each for high quality large, super-fresh oysters. I opted for the rock oysters as I have eaten native oysters but had not tried these non-invasive Pacific imports. These were utterly delicious and I had a pang of yearning for more.

argyll 2

I found it somewhat baffling that no one else in the bar appeared to be eating the signature Loch Fyne oysters but had settled for fish and chips, although these looked pretty tasty too.

Winding home

Joined by The Man Named Sous who had business in Edinburgh, we wound our way home on another stunning day.  Glencoe was, as ever, beautifully intimidating, the rock amphitheatres of the triple ‘Sister’ buttresses that form part of the complex Bidean nam Bian mountain massif almost overhanging the road, completely exposed without their usual shroud of cloud.

glencoe

glencoe 3

We had a particularly unsettling walk in mist many years ago trying to locate the summit of this mountain, having ascended from The Lost (Hidden) Valley.  It has many false summits. We found out next day, which was crystal clear, looking across while tackling the razor-edged Aonach Eagach (Scotland’s narrowest mainland ridge with a Munro at either end) on the other side of the valley that we had in fact been on a false summit of Bidean, but did not want to risk a slip near the edge of the precipitous Church Door buttress where we made a judgement call to turn back. It was the right call that day.

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe, looking innocuous

We made sure that we left enough time for an essential coffee stop at the recently opened Isle of Skye Coffee Roastery at Kyleakin on the Skye.  A must stop en route from ferry and back through Skye from now on. Check out their Facebook page here. The Man Named Sous indulged in some coffee geekery, including making his first espresso on a lever operated machine. We left with sound advice and some great freshly roasted beans that we are very much looking forward to trying in our own machine. Thank you and keep up the good work!

Despite leaving bags of time, a line of campervans on the road across Skye held up progress quite seriously, all driving on the fast side of slow (as Julian Cope would say). This included one that pulled out from a layby in front of the queue of white boxes in front of us at the breakneck pace of a dehydrated slug. As a result, we just made it Uig in time to drive straight onto the ferry.  Phew!  It did, however, give us time to reflect on the ridiculous and ironically inappropriate names for some of these most un-aerodynamic of road-clogging objects such as ‘Swift’ and ‘Rapide’.

How pleasant it was to arrive back to hazy sunshine on North Uist, an almost balmy evening, no less, which means only one thing – midges.  I retreated inside after watering the veg as no matter how I try, I have never developed a coping mechanism for these irritating biting females of the species.

The Man Named Sous persevered, trying to catch the wily grey mullet that tease us, splashing about in the bay at the bottom of the garden at this time of year.  The stale (pitta) bread trick has continually failed, maybe a bacon lure is next on the agenda, however, they are not getting any of our Old Spot bacon, for sure!

mullet

Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

So, what do you choose to accompany an allegedly dowdy fish to persuade one otherwise?  I added pastis (Pernod) to the sauce to complement the subtle yet meaty pollack and the salty samphire and robust scallop coral.

The pollack fillets, (one per person) were seasoned and simply pan-fried, skin side down initially for a maximum of 5 minutes, turned briefly then rested in a low oven (80C) for 5 minutes so it was perfectly cooked, being crispy on the skin side, flaky and just translucent in the centre.

Pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

A very simple sauce where the balance of ingredients complements the delicate white pollack flesh. Serves 4.

Ingredients

1 tbsp. butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

8-10 scallop corals (depending on size)

1 tbsp. pastis

60g marsh samphire, washed thoroughly

50 ml vegetable stock

70ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

  • Melt the butter gently and add the chopped shallot, cook gently for a few minutes until soft and translucent, but not colouring.
  • Turn the heat up to medium and add the pastis, reduce by half then add the corals, stir for a few minutes until they cook and begin to break down.
  • With the heat medium to high, add the stock and cream and reduce by about 1/3.
  • Blitz the sauce in a food processor and pass through a chinois / fine sieve, back into a clean saucepan.
  • Add the washed marsh samphire and cook very gently for 4-5 minutes.  Season to taste and spoon the rich sauce over the pollack . We accompanied this with garlic bread, a ciabatta, courtesy of The Man Named Sous and some salad from the garden.

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Gloucester Old Spot pork scaloppine with nettle pappardelle

With most of the vegetables in the garden yet to surface, it seems wholly appropriate to utilise our currently most successful garden edible, nettles, and combine these in a meal with some of our local Old Spot pork.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) really is a great plant species, and not just for eating. Don’t be put off by online diatribes about nettles being ‘unpalatable, disgusting or only survival food’, or statements such as ‘nettle recipes exist for the sake of eating an ingredient because you can’, etc, etc. The secret is in understanding when to pick them (young, early season tips only) and how to prepare them to really get the best from them.

Also, I don’t buy the argument that they are a hassle to prepare.  They are most certainly less hassle to clean and prepare than some other veg we grow and prize e.g. globe artichokes. OK, an extreme example perhaps, but comparable with spinach, for sure.

Yes, nettles can be invasive in a garden, but if you have space for a patch they grow (too?) unabated, demand no attention and offer up a welcome lush green and nutritious crop during the hungry gap (our’s at least – it is longer than most). Later on, they are fabulous refuges and food for insects (and corncrake refuges here too), make superb nitrogen-rich liquid plant food and can help activate your compost heap. For all these reasons, I love my garden nettle patches. Of course, you don’t need to have them in the garden, there’s plenty to forage from urban wasteland, woods and meadows.

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You might think that living where I do that a crop of pristine unpolluted nettles should be easy to forage.  Well, it is true that we have significant nettle patches in the garden but nightly visits from deer, the dogs cheerfully marking their territory (including the nettles) and most recently, a wily sheep in occupation, make most of our nettles effectively unpalatable.

Even if I wanted to run the ‘urine gauntlet’, I’m reluctant to take an early crop of young nettle tops from our biggest patches. On occasional years, corncrakes arriving from their long migration take a welcome break in this early cover in our garden, especially if the irises have yet to get going, as is the case this year.

The rasping call of the males resonates for a few nights before they move on to more productive machair areas to establish breeding territories. I was optimistic that a corncrake may visit and benefit from our nettles as cover, but our very late i.e. non-existent spring means there was no cover to attract the first arrivals this year.  They must have felt very exposed on arrival.

I shouldn’t exaggerate about our non-existent spring.  It did occur on Sunday past after all, which was glorious and confusing all at the same time.  I was fly fishing on Saturday wearing 3 layers of fleece, couldn’t feel my fingers and abandoned the outing.  On Sunday, we were bewildered by the novelty of stunning sunshine, but not just that – warmth and managed  t-shirts all day and a swim (for the dogs anyway, I’m not quite that hardy). Monday, same old, same old northerly wind, rain and low cloud.  Where art though spring?  Or please can we cut to the chase of summer?

Spring wildlife spectacular

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the wildlife is undeterred and the breeding season is in full swing.  Lapwings and redshanks show their irritation as I pass by their breeding territories on my local run.  I know exactly when and where to expect the next irate protective parent to rise from the vegetation to give me an earful as I pass by.

I watch the oystercatchers nesting round the bay having their frequent and noisy altercations with a pair of local ravens.  Gregarious eiders also nest around the bay, the gentle and soothing call of displaying males resonates on (rare) still nights.  Females will soon form crèches with their broods to help protect the vulnerable ducklings from predation.

The spring migration is ongoing and we currently have reasonable numbers of whimbrels on passage north, stopping at the bay at the bottom of the garden on their way to breeding grounds from Greenland across to Central Siberia. Male cuckoos make their presence heard and wheatears dart around the garden, a flash of white on the rump making them stand out against the grassy backdrop.

We have had spectacular views of a pair of hen harriers and short-eared owls hunting daily across the garden, often flying within a couple of metres of my office window.  This is very distracting while I am working!  Many parts of our garden have remained largely ungrazed for years and the sward is longer than the surrounding common grazing vegetation, so we have a genuine vole hotspot that is proving very fruitful for the local short-eared owls.

I have seen them hunt successfully on a number of occasions, once taking a short-tailed field vole literally from under the kitchen window.  I never tire of watching their graceful billowing flight.  One owl has regularly taken to saving energy by scanning the grass in the garden while perching on a favoured fence post.

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Another rare and spectacular wildlife watching experience happened this week.  For the first time since we have lived in this house, we had a visit from an otter in the bay at the bottom of the garden.  It is not at all rare to spot otters here and we have had many very close encounters, but our bay is unlikely to form the core part of an otter territory due to the large component of the day when the tide is some distance out of the bay.

However, this young otter appeared to be exploring the area with a view to establishing a territory.  It ran up and down the grassy slopes at the bottom of the garden, methodically exploring overhanging rocks some distance from the shore, before returning periodically to play and feed in the seaweed on the rising tide. It was delightful and a privilege to have such prolonged views of this secretive mammal from our window.

Nettles: weeding and feeding

My pristine young nettle tops were picked from my raspberry beds where no marauding beasts have access.  This served to let the new rasp shoots have more space and light to grow. I find this to be the only downside to applying old manure (pig in our case) to permanent beds – weed seeds proliferate.  The nettles are small beer though – I’ve got my hands full with the chickweed later in the season.

I have a pretty extreme reaction to nettle stings, so I harvest using heavy-duty rubber gloves – gardening gloves are not robust enough and I learned my lesson the hard way when I was stung through them.

Although sensitivity to stinging nettles does vary between individuals, my sensitivity has very much increased as I have got older.  I remember, like most children, running through nettle patches and coming out with the familiar white blotches and associated red rash, but it never really hurt as much as just irritated slightly. I would just grab a dock leaf (Rumex spp.), rub it vigorously over the affected area, usually my knees, until my skin turned green from the dock and then continue on my merry way.

Now, even the slightest brush against the youngest stem covered in the small silky irritant hairs, which contain histamine, serotonin and formic acid among other things, is to be avoided. These hairs generate the familiar rash but this is coupled with considerable pain.  Although the rash looks the same, the pain stays and I can feel the effects for up to 2 weeks after being stung and the area of skin remains tingly and sensitive, which is a bit disconcerting. I wonder how common increased sensitivity is with age and expect it isn’t unusual, just unpleasant!

Preparing your nettles

I wanted to incorporate the nettles into pasta.  The best way to deal with them for this is to blanch the young tips, plunge them into boiling water for 3 – 4 minutes, then refresh in ice cold water to retain the vibrant colour.  The stings are now gone and the nettles can be handled.

All stems should be removed and the leaves squeezed lightly before blitzing in a food processor to a fine texture.  The nettles then need to be squeezed hard to remove as much moisture as possible as this will impact on the texture of the pasta.

Nettle pappardelle

I wanted to make a rustic hearty pasta to accompany the pork and thought pappardelle would be a fitting choice for the nettle and to complement the gutsy flavour of the pork scaloppine. I have used the same pasta recipe for about 20 years as it has never let me down.  It is from Nick Nairn’s first book ‘Wild Harvest’. The standard recipe calls for 150g of flour (plain, but I use ’00’).  For this recipe I used 180g to offset the additional moisture the nettle brings to the mix.  I got away with it.  Just.

Ingredients

180g flour, ’00’ or plain

1 whole egg, medium

1 egg yolk, medium

80g of fresh young nettle tips, rinsed, blanched and refreshed, trimmed and blitzed

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Method

  • Combine the flour, eggs, blitzed and squeezed nettles together in a food processor for 2 – 3 minutes. The mix should resemble fine breadcrumbs, not be gooey.  Add a bit more flour if it is.
  • Tip out the dough and knead briskly for 1 minute.  Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to rest for an hour.
  • Cut the dough into 2 pieces, flatten each with a rolling pin to 5 mm thick then roll and refold the dough 7 times until you have rectangles about 8 x 18 cm.  This is important to work the gluten to get a shiny dough and gives the correct al dente texture after cooking.
  • Using a pasta machine, set the rollers at the widest setting, pass through the dough and repeat, reducing the roller setting with each pass until the penultimate setting.  Pass through at this setting again and hang up to dry for at least 5 minutes.
  • Lay the pasta sheet out on a lightly floured surface and roll before slicing about 2 cm wide to produce rustic pappardelle ribbons. Hang them up again until you are ready to use them.
  • To cook, place in salted boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Check the texture as you cook.

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Pork scaloppine with prosciutto, capers and balsamic vinegar – a fitting accompaniment

Ever since I got a hold of our local Old Spot pork, one particular recipe has been pouting at me and I knew it would work very well with this nettle pasta.  I saw this recipe on the The Garum Factory blog pages.  The pork is sumptuously blanketed in prosciutto with pungent sage delicately folded within which also shines enticingly through the prosciutto. The sauce is perfect with the pork – and the nettle pappardelle.

Jody and Ken are not just accomplished chefs, but Ken is also a superb photographer.  His images capture the essence of this recipe and my photos would simply not hold up to their exquisite gallery of images that accompany the recipe. I do not reproduce the recipe, but it can be found here.  Thank you Jody and Ken.  It was really delicious!

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

Hebridean carrageen pudding with rose water and cardamom

I have recently been busy processing seaweed to make the traditional Hebridean carrageen pudding, with an aromatic twist.  I was very lucky to receive a gift of this red seaweed (Chondrus crispus) freshly picked on South Uist by our very own resident Hebridean professional forager, Fiona Bird. I have been trying to write this post for some 2 weeks, but due to a work trip away and other commitments, I am only just getting round to it now.

I met Fiona a few weeks ago at a soirée on South Uist to celebrate the publication of her new book dedicated to foraging, ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’. Suitably impressed by the diversity of recipes within and some of the delightful nibbles on offer incorporating foraged produce, I ordered a copy which I received last week.

Fiona gave me some wild garlic that evening, foraged in Angus.  Unfortunately, despite being pretty much ubiquitous throughout most of the UK,  it is more challenging to find  on the Uists and I am not inclined to collect it unless it is super-abundant as it is elsewhere. The wild garlic was hence a rare treat which I cooked as a purée with venison.  More on that recipe another time.

The Forager’s Kitchen – a  book recommendation

foragers kitchen and carrageen 001

If you have an interest in foraging in any way, this book is a must to add to your culinary collection. While it is true that foraging is currently in vogue, in reality this is not a passing fad and it has always been there as an underlying component of our food heritage.

Many high end fine dining restaurants currently feature foraged items within dishes on their menus. This book is therefore a timely reminder that making food with foraged ingredients need not be exclusive, complex or challenging but is an accessible and health-giving addition to the cooking experience.

Fiona’s infectious enthusiasm and knowledge for her subject couldn’t but help but make any reader want to have an excuse to get outdoors and see what bounty is on the doorstep. What better encouragement does one need than free food and a comprehensive compilation of recipes to assist the cook to develop new recipe ideas?

Fiona, as well as being an experienced cook and forager (she was a Masterchef finalist) is also clearly passionate about food and its associations with family. Her personal anecdotes within the book and warm and engaging writing style help to bring the foraging experience alive.

The introduction provides essential and sensible guidance about where, when and how to forage, words of wisdom about misidentification and associated risks and a useful kit list for aspiring foragers.

The book is separated logically into 5 chapters covering flowers and blossom, woodland and hedgerow, fruits and berries, herbs and sea / seashore. No matter where you live, there is a chapter that will capture the habitats around you and help you seek out the free bounty within.

There is more than adequate background information on species and where to find them, how to forage for and use them.  There are interesting snippets of folklore associated with many of the species, notably plants. It was lovely to be reminded of the Scottish name for rosehips, ‘itchy coos’. As children, I remember we would tear the hips open and squeeze the seeds down the backs of each other’s school shirts, a prank guaranteed to make anyone itch all afternoon.

The additional ‘Wild Notes’ dispersed throughout the book are a lovely touch, providing the reader with tips to help them develop different ways to expand use of foraged food and broaden their repertoire. Although the cover states there are over 100 recipes, these notes pack in many more recipe ideas.

The layout makes the book very visually appealing and there are many fantastic photos.  The outdoor images in particular cannot help but lure the reader outside to explore local woodland, or in my case, seashore.

There are a lot of excellent tips and ideas that I would not have thought of before as well as many ingredients I had not previously considered using e.g. Scotch quail eggs with sea lettuce – delicious idea. There are many intriguing and inventive uses for the natural sweetener, sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), from smoothies and sorbets to tempura.

What I really like about Fiona’s approach is that it is relaxed, unconstrained and encourages culinary creativity.  You can take her ideas and run with them to develop recipes and interpret the way nature’s larder can be used in your own way. That way, you will have the freedom to enjoy the outdoors while collecting some of your own food during which time you can contemplate what you might produce, inspired by the environment around you.

For me, foraging adds to what lies at the heart of everything that is great about food and cooking – it is a voyage of discovery, with twists and turns provided by intriguing ingredients that can be combined in infinite combination.   Foraging also helps me to get outside my culinary comfort zone and I enjoy nothing more than the revelations it may bring. Hence, this is an appropriate time to introduce my new friend Chondrus crispus.

‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ by Fiona Bird is published by Cico Books and can be ordered online via major internet booksellers.

Fiona also provides regular updates on her foraging activities on Facebook at The Forager’s Kitchen and Twitter (@TheForagersKitc).

I purchased this book and my review in entirely independent.

Carrageen – a very traditional pudding

If it wasn’t for Fiona’s generosity in providing me with freshly foraged carrageen, I’m ashamed to say it might have taken me a lot longer to get round to using this traditional Hebridean ingredient.

carageen raw

I should also thank one of her children who kindly left it at a drop off point i.e. the school in Benbecula.  Thankfully the receptionists didn’t take against keeping the well wrapped weed until I got there to collect it!

This attractive red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, called carrageen here in the Hebrides (also known as Irish Moss, pearl or jelly moss) grows on rocky coasts around the UK and Ireland and around the northern Atlantic. It is a small branched purplish-red seaweed that grows up to about 20 cm but its appearance can vary significantly in both colour and size, depending on levels of exposure to waves and turns quite green or yellow, being bleached in strong sunlight.

It grows in a wide range of habitats from exposed shores to sheltered estuaries. It is found lower down on the shore from the mid intertidal to sub tidal zone, so the best time to find it is at very low tide, or preferably on a spring tide. The Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) is a tremendous resource for information on all aspects of the ecology of Chondrus crispus and other marine flora and fauna around the UK coasts.

Carrageen is part of the Gigartinaceae family of seaweeds, some species of which have been used historically as food additives all over the world for many hundreds of years. They are harvested commercially, notably in the Philippines most recently and have a multitude of applications in the food industry.  This is because seaweeds from this family have a high content of unique polysaccharides called carrageenans.

Carrageenans bind strongly to food proteins so are particularly useful as thickening or gelling agents to add viscosity to dairy products such as ice creams and desserts. They are added to processed meats as a stabiliser, help to clarify beer and are a vegetarian or vegan alternative to gelatine. They are also used in shampoos and toothpaste and have many other non-food related applications.

Traditional carrageen pudding

Carrageen pudding is still regularly offered as a local delicacy in the Outer Hebrides and in my experience tends to be served with a very soft jelly-like set, much softer than pannacotta.   The dried seaweed is traditionally soaked to soften it, then boiled in milk, strained and sugar is added, perhaps along with other flavours such as vanilla  or whisky.  I have also been served it with soft fruit added.

dried carageen

my dried carrageen

I have only ever used dried carrageen, however, being given fresh carrageen by Fiona was an exciting prospect.  I wanted to experiment with making a carrageen pudding using the fresh weed, but also to dry the rest for future use, much more the normal practice.  A small handful of dried weed (about 10g) is usually adequate to set a pudding with about 600 – 700 ml of milk.

Drying carrageen

Carrageen can be sun-dried, but with our wet weather, I opted to use the oven.  Fortunately, my oven can be set to pretty low temperatures. Here is how I dried the carrageen to preserve it for future use:

  • Carefully rinse the carrageen in several changes of cold water to remove the salt (and the array of small creatures like shrimps and snails).
  • Spin the seaweed in a salad dryer to remove as much moisture as possible, then rub it with a tea towel.
  • Spread it out on a couple of wire racks and put the racks in a very low oven (60C) for about 7 hours.
  • Store in an airtight container or plastic bag, ensuring the seaweed is totally desiccated before doing so.

Using fresh carrageen

Following a browse on the web and through a few seaweed-related books, I was quite surprised to find there is not a lot of information out there about using fresh carrageen for cooking.  A few tweets to Fiona and a bit more info from her gave me a bit of confidence to experiment with making a pudding using the fresh weed. I knew I would need a much larger amount when using fresh than dried to get a set.

I decided a 2 : 3 ratio of fresh weed to milk and added 100 ml of double cream to the strained mixture at the end, i.e. a 1 : 2 carrageen to milk/cream ratio for the finished pudding, along with flavourings and colour. I wrapped the seaweed in muslin and floated the bag in the milk as it warmed. This amount serves 4.

I wanted to add some of my favourite aromatic flavours: rose water and cardamom to the pudding as I have only experienced traditional flavourings. I am delighted to say the pudding set was quite firm, more akin to pannacotta and the texture smooth.  The rose water and cardamom worked very well with the silky textured pudding.

Ingredients

200g fresh carrageen, washed (or 10g dried)

300ml whole milk

100ml double cream

1/2 tsp rose water

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

40g caster sugar

optional extras:

a handful of brambles or other soft fruit

a few drops of natural red food dye

rose petals

a few chopped toasted almonds

Method

  • Put the milk in a pan and add the muslin wrapped seaweed bag to the pan.
  • Slowly bring to the boil and allow to simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes.
  • Press down on the muslin bag frequently with a potato masher or similar to extrude as much of the carrageenan thickener from the seaweed as possible.
  • Pour the mixture through a sieve, into another pan, again, squeezing muslin to extract as much carrageenan as possible.
  • Add the double cream and sugar, heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit before adding the cardamom, rose water and red dye.
  • Pour into ramekins and allow to cool slightly before putting in the fridge to set.

I topped the puddings with some defrosted brambles I picked last autumn but I think they did nothing to enhance the pudding’s flavour and only served to confuse the palate, so would leave off the unnecessary garnish next time – I can put my precious few remaining stocks to better use.  Similarly, the rose petals look pretty, but the aesthetics outweigh their enhancement of the dish – they are a bit dry and papery!  I topped with almonds, just as a change from my usual pistachio choice with this flavour combination, but pistachios would work even better.

carrageen 043 carrageen 046

Mission accomplished, I am now going to watch the second in the BBC wildlife series ‘Hebrides: Islands on the Edge’.  I’m disappointed to report this great series is only being broadcast in Scotland but hope some of you can pick it up on iPlayer or other web resources. It really is magnificent.

Wild greylag confit d’oie and more

For many British game species, 31st January is end of the open season, including wild greylag geese. I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by spending time exploring classic goose recipes by Julia Child. I was particularly thinking of confit of the legs.  I had another recipe in mind for the breasts courtesy of Cooking in Sens, a delicious balsamic goose breast recipe.  It is also a requirement, of course, to use the whole bird and the carcass was used to make goose or game stock (as I call it).

We have accumulated a number of wild greylag geese, shot and kindly gifted to us by a friend.  One never quite knows when geese will arrive at the door, but we are always pleased to see them, no matter how busy or inconvenient the moment – it is a pleasure to receive such delicious and free wild meat.

We recently took receipt of our final two geese of the season. Given the pretty awful experience of plucking the last two indoors (being forced to do so by darkness and grim weather), we decided our only option was to get out while it was daylight and the weather calm enough to deal with plucking, etc.  Since it was mid-week, and we both work full time from home, this meant seizing the opportunity at lunchtime to get on with the job.  Not your average lunchtime pursuit!

goose plucking bay cottage

So, down we went to the bay at the bottom of our garden, a goose each in hand and got plucking.   Fortunately, only the sheep can see us down there.  I had to abandon The Man Named Sous, (pictured finishing the job sitting on the rocks in the company of sheep as the tide came in) as I had to get back to work.

Room with a view

This is also the view from my office window and I work hard not be distracted by the ebb and flow of the tide and daily patterns of activities that the changing sea level brings, particularly those of birds. Waders including redshanks, greenshanks and curlews use the bay all year, as do a resident population of about 50 shelducks.

Female eiders nest around the edge of the sheltered bay in the breeding season, forming crèches with other females and their broods to try to protect their vulnerable chicks from predation, particularly by gulls.  Lapwings and oystercatchers nest around the house in the mosaic of marshy grassland, as do snipe.

Passing and hunting raptors including hen harriers, short-eared owls (both daily visitors in the breeding season), peregrine, kestrel and the occasional white-tailed sea eagle make use of the bay and the surrounding common grazings.

It’s a busy and beautifully noisy place most of the year, especially so in spring when lapwings display and snipe drum overhead. A bit later in the season, oystercatchers start to get excited as their broods hatch and they constantly circle anything that comes close, trying to see them off with their distinctive and relentless, loud piping call.

Of course, resident greylag geese also use the croftland all year and nest out on the islands, bringing broods in to the sheltered bay once they hatch. It is also why the location, overlooking the bay and islands sold the house to us – and that was before we realised how incredible the sunsets would be. It pays for us to remember these most sublime views when the weather is at its worst, as it has been on some days over the last couple of weeks.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Plucking complete, goose feathers were gathered up and added to our compost heaps as they make an excellent addition to compost, providing nitrogen and minerals (similarly, I also add wool gathered from around the common grazings that surround the house).

Preparing geese, I must admit, is a lot of work and was covered more fully in a previous post Plucking Hell, it’s an ‘een of evisceration but is well worth it.

Confit d’oie

As the season goes on, geese accumulate more fat reserves, so the bonus of late season geese is the ability to utilise this fat to confit part or all of the bird.  Although greylag geese can be difficult to age, I had judged this bird to be one of the 2012 broods, so was reasonably confident the breasts would be wonderfully tender and fit for the fine recipe I had in mind.

Wanting to maximise what the goose could deliver in both the number and variety of dishes, I opted to confit the often tough legs and wings.  Actually, only one wing was fit for confit as the other had sustained irreparable damage when the goose transited from sky to ground.

I used Julia Child’s recipe for Confit D’Oie. Salt curing the goose pieces first for 24 hours, I omitted the saltpetre (Potassium nitrate) from the original recipe and it still works. For this volume of goose, you need a lot less of the quantities than Julia suggests as her cure is for a large pork joint.

Ingredients

For the salt cure:

20g Maldon salt

2 bays leaves, shredded

2 springs of thyme

1 tsp. of ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves

  • Crush this mixture in a mortar and pestle and rub it all over the goose pieces, skin and flesh, massaging it in well. Refrigerate the pieces for 24 hours.

Goose confit, 1

goose confit 2

  • Scrape the seasoning off at this stage.
  • Brown the goose legs in a frying pan in some goose fat to colour them lightly.
  • Now the legs are ready to go into the goose fat.

goose confit fat

For the goose fat:

  • Use enough goose fat to submerge the pieces of goose, I used about 700 ml (melted).  Put in a casserole dish with a lid – it will be going in the oven.
  • Bring to the gentlest simmer on the stove top and preheat the oven to 140C.
  • Place in the oven, covered for about 2 hours.  Check it half way through to make sure all the meat is covered.

It should be golden brown and the flesh exceptionally tender when it is ready.  The smell was intoxicating when I took the lid off the pot.  Mine were perhaps a bit too brown, but it did not diminish the deliciousness.

goose confit 3

There was no way this goose was ever going to last long enough to be preserved in goose fat, the original reason for confit being to enhance the storage potential of the meat. Having made goose stock with the carcass,  I served the confit legs and wing with puy lentils cooked in the stock, with a bit of carrot, shallot and celery, folding through some tomato concasse at the end and garnishing with parsley.

goose confit 4

A final added bonus was all the spare fat which the goose was cooked in.  This was strained and stored for other recipes – not least wonderfully flavoured roast potatoes.

Balsamic goose breast with roast potatoes and braised red cabbage

Having boned out each goose breast, I use a goose breast recipe courtesy of Cooking in Sens, where the recipe can be found – delicious marinade of balsamic vinegar, honey and ginger.  The only alterations I made were to replace the chicken broth in the original with goose stock – and the alternative side dishes.

goose breasts

I also made a sauce by taking a decent splash of Madeira, simmering it to let the alcohol vapours leave the sweet flavour, then adding the reserved marinade.  This was then reduced slightly before whisking in some cubes of unsalted butter at the end, straining and serving over the goose breast which was served nice and pink and extremely tender.  Apologies for the quality of the photograph!

goose final

Potatoes were diced for a large surface area to absorb the flavour from the goose fat they were roasted in, reserved from the confit. Braised red cabbage was cooked in a bit of goose stock, sherry vinegar and a few sticky drops of pomegranate molasses.

In the end, the goose went a long way because the breasts were so big, we could only eat one between us.  We had the other one cold in a tasty winter salad the next day as we discussed how great greylag goose tasted and what we might do with the others in the freezer.

First Forage of 2013 – meteors and mussels

The horizontal smir prevented my attempts to achieve anything meaningful in the garden over the last couple of days. Low cloud and mist have been scudding over the surface of these low-lying windswept islands for a few days.  Flights and ferries have been disrupted and cancelled, mail and papers erratic.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Nonetheless, last night there was a small break in the cloud just after midnight. This allowed us to get a glimpse of the promised first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantid meteor shower. The shower is apparently produced from the debris of an asteroid (2003 EH1), possibly the extinct nucleus of a comet that broke up centuries ago and the shower was supposed to reach its peak just before dawn today.

The possibility of seeing an average of 100 shooting stars an hour, here in the UK, cloud cover permitting, forced us into the back garden to scan the night sky over the Atlantic.  Of course, there is no light pollution here on the edge of Europe and star-gazing on a clear night yields interesting observations, be these of planets, constellations or satellites  – and shooting stars. We have also had irregular but spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis.

Astronomical advice was to look north west to see the radiant point where meteors may stream from.  Sure enough, we were outside being buffeted in the wind and in only 2 or 3 minutes we saw numerous shooting stars, one was particularly bright  and spectacular, enough to make us both gasp ‘Whoa!’. Unfortunately, patchy cloud smothered out the view very quickly and thickened over the course of the night, so the promised natural firework display was short-lived.  Despite keeping a vigil from bed with the curtains open, the cloud never really lifted and we lost the opportunity to see any more of the spectacle.

Day time forays – The Mightly Mytilus

I don’t return to work until Monday, yet despite this, I don’t feel like I have a huge amount of time on my hands to get things done, or even that I am particularly achieving a lot while I am off! This always leads me to question how I do manage to cram what I desire to acheive into the average weekday of work, et al.  It certainly seems to be the case that I am much more efficient when the working day puts a squeeze on my time, so in a way, I look forward to returning to that status quo next week.

Meanwhile, despite the weather, I wanted to make the most of getting outside, beyond my daily dog walk. This was a bit too exciting today as the dogs disturbed three red deer. Fortunately, after a quick dash towards the deer, they returned excitedly to our side as they would rather be with us and deer are quite frankly a bit big and scary.

Winter foraging opportunities are rare here. The collection of even those easiest to locate beasts along the seashore, the mussel, is complicated by the requirement for low tide to fall in the short hours of daylight and on a day when I am not working. Hence, while mussels are common and abundant,  I get out to collect them very infrequently.

The mussel Mytilus edulis is common all around the UK coast, occurring from the high intertidal to shallow subtidal on the shore.  It is found on rocky shores or open coasts as well as where hard substrates occur in more sheltered coasts, including estuaries.  It is so successful because of its capacity to tolerate a wide range of temperature, salinity, and to some extent, water depths.

Mytilus edulis is gregarious, and can form very dense beds, with young mussels settling to colonise any available space between individuals already attached to the bed by super-strong byssal threads. These threads (also known as the beard to the cook) help to maintain their position in the bed, even in strong currents and storms. Mussel beds provide niches for many other marine organisms and mussels are heavily predated. Predation has the biggest impact on mussel mortality – and makes them important in the food chain.  They are eaten by birds (notably eider and oystercatchers), flounders, crabs, starfish and dog whelks, to name but a few.

As an invertebrate zoologist, I must admit that I find it very difficult to stop myself going on at length about the fascinating physiology of these bivalve molluscs. I will resist and spare the reader the detail, save to say that the fact the mussel is a filter feeder has fundamental implications for the way the forager selects and the cook manages mussels.

My local mussel patch

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

I collect wild mussels from a few favoured spots.  The one I chose yesterday is on the west side of North Uist, a few hundred metres from my house. It is a sheltered sandy bay protected from storms by many islands and reefs and is well away from the open Atlantic. It is a great spot for swimming at low tide in summer when the pools left behind warm up in the sun – you don’t even need a dry suit to get in.

It is also an area where it pays to keep an eye on the tides as this vast expanse of sand has channels of water that are deep and fast flowing once the tide turns and fill up alarmingly quickly, preventing safe crossing.  However, it is a convenient site for me and happens to yield the best mussels I have found so far.  They are always almost grit free, moderately sized with plump contents.  Sometimes the biggest shells do not yield the biggest mussels. I always take only as many as I need, usually about 2 kg, enough for 2 meals to make it worth my while.  I also try not to detach smaller mussels that have settled between those larger ones I am harvesting and I don’t take them all from the same spot.

I did photograph the bay, which is really quite beautiful in most weathers, however, yesterday conditions were so poor, it looked incredibly bleak and driech and I decided not to include the photos as I don’t want to give such a bad impression of the place – or to have the tourist board on my case.

Gathering your wild mussels

Often there are concerns raised about the safety of eating wild mussels, particularly in areas where contaminants/pollutants may accumulate in the tissues of these filter feeders. Also, there is potential for toxic planktonic algae within the mussel to cause food poisoning, either Diaretic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) or the more serious Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), depending on which dinoflagellate algae are within the mussel. Neither pollutants or blooms are an issue here.

The best way to avoid the risks is to stick to the old adage of only collecting and eating mussels when there is an ‘R’ in the month, hence avoiding the spring and summer seasons when algal blooms may proliferate.  Mussels are also in better condition over the winter and are plumper as males and females build up stores of milt and roe prior to spring spawning. If you live in an area where blooms are an issue, or have concerns about using wild mussels, farmed mussels are the easiest option.  Mussel farming is pretty sustainable, and the only fundamental difference between these and wild mussels is the precaution to manage the toxic algae risk by placing the mussels harvested from ropes in tanks of sea water sterilised by use of UV lights.

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

Of course, wild mussels can have a lot of barnacles growing on them, as well as seaweed, and these need dealt with too.

Preparing your foraged mussels

For the first stage, I rinse them under the tap and place in a bucket of cold tap water, sprinkle over some oatmeal, add a tablespoon of salt and leave overnight.  This will allow the mussels to filter through and clean out grit (the oatmeal is supposed to help) and also loosens the barnacles which you will need to remove later.

Next day, I scrape the mussels, remove the tough beards from the inner lip – these are the byssal threads that attach the mussel to rocks – pliers are handy if you find this a struggle. I scrape off the barnacles with a knife, otherwise they will fall off in cooking and the gritty pieces will spoil any sauce (although I always strain cooking liquids to be sure to remove any grit). They are ready to be cooked ASAP.

Moules Marinière

Yes, there are a million and one recipes for this but it is hard to resist making one of my mussel meals this classic.  It is very quick and simple and encapsulates everything about France and the sea in one bowl. I served it with sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia on this occasion.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

a sprig of thyme

a couple of glasses of dry white wine

a few grinds of pepper

fresh parsley, chopped

2 tblsp 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.
  • Throw in the thyme, mussels and pour over the wine.
  • 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 through a fine sieve or muslin to get rid of grit, herbs, garlic slices.
  • Add the double cream (if desired) and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes.  Season with pepper.
  • Plate up the mussels and pour over the sauce and garnish with parsley.

Moules mariniere

Sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia

A quick and tasty foccacia to mop up the sauce from the mussels. My thyme is now well and truly ravaged by my excessive pruning for cooking and the vagaries of the weather.  I have 2 intact plants remaining – I hope they can last me until the spring…

Ingredients

1/2 tsp dried yeast

300g strong white flour

1 tblsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

170 ml water

1/2 jar sunblush tomatoes in olive oil

4 sprigs of thyme

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Extra olive oil to top foccacia

Maldon salt for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 195C

Method

  • Combine all ingredients in a bowl, slowly adding the water to get a slightly sticky dough consistency.
  • Put some olive oil on the work surface and knead for 10 minutes until the dough is stretchy, elastic and smooth.
  • Leave in a warm place for 45 minutes and knead for a further 5 minutes. Rest for a further 15 minutes before rolling out to the desired size/shape and adding the tomatoes
  • Mix the thyme leaves with some olive oil and the crushed garlic and spread over the surface. Sprinkle over some Maldon salt.
  • Bake for 18-20 minutes until golden, cut up and serve.

Sun blush tomato and thyme foccacia

Mussel and Leek Chowder

To get the most out of the mussels, I used the second kilo to prepare another meal.  This chowder recipe is based on that in Nigel Slater’s ‘Tender Volume II’, a vegetable growers cookbook bible, especially for easy everyday vegetable-centric delicious meals, snacks and suppers.  I replaced the bacon with chorizo, as I had no bacon. I also cut down the cream by 1/4  I thought it may be too powerful for the mussels with the chorizo, but they still came through on balance, thanks to the use of the cooking liquor.  I always favour Noilly Prat for such recipes (to bring a bit of Languedoc to North Uist), but any white vermouth can be used.

Ingredients

1kg mussels, cleaned

3 leeks

150g chorizo (not hot)

40g butter

2 glasses Noilly Prat

450g potatoes

150 ml double cream

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs of thyme

handful of chopped parsley

Method

  • Clean and thinly slice the leeks, slice the chorizo.
  • Add the chorizo to the butter in a pan on a moderate heat and cook for a few minutes, add the leeks and turn down low, put on a lid and cook for about 20 minutes
  • Clean and prepare the mussels and place in a large pan pour over the vermouth and put the lid on.  Cook on a high heat until all mussels are open.  Discard any that do not open.
  • Remove the mussels from the shells, strain and retain the cooking liquor.
  • Peel the potatoes and cut into large dice.  Put in a pan with 400ml of cooking liquor, the cream, thyme, bay and some black pepper.
  • Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
  • Add 3/4 of the potatoes to the leek and chorizo mix, remove the herbs then blitz the remaining potatoes and liquid with a hand blender or liquidiser until smooth.
  • Add to the pan with leeks, chorizo, potatoes, etc, add the mussels and parsley, bring to the boil and serve.

Mussel and leek chowder