Biscuits for Bartok 4 – Aniseed and lemon spelt biscuits

At last, we are back on Uist.  After almost a month away, I am pleased.  Sunny as it is, like the rest of the UK at the moment (but minus the snow) it is bitter with a brisk 35 mph easterly cutting across the islands today.  Not much has changed since we left, particularly given the prolonged cold snap – all the plants in the garden have pretty much stayed static due to the nippy weather.

It was an incredibly busy month for us and in between travels from here to London, up to Angus, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and back home, we covered thousands of miles.  It was great to be able to catch up with more friends than usual, some which we hadn’t seen for a while, but encounters felt all too brief as we tried to cram everything we planned in.

I have opted to break myself in to cooking from scratch gently, trying a new biscuit for the musicians, by virtue of a miracle, produced in time for their arrival this week.  Skip to the aniseed and lemon spelt biscuit recipe at the bottom of this post if the minutiae of island life is not your thing.

Autogeddon Blues

‘My car is a polluter and it’s messing up my future…there ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round.’

Julian Cope, Autogeddon: ‘There ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round’

We also had to find time to change our car while we were away.  We have decided after much procrastination to get rid of our gas guzzling 4×4 and get a newer, greener and more economical car.  It was a tough call as we have always used the 4×4 capacity as a crutch to do as we please without much limitation: off-road, towing, driving in bad weather, however, we are not that interested in cars beyond functionality and reliability.

The reality is we don’t treat cars well: two big dogs and a lot of mud = mess, our car was an ill-treated workhorse. The salt spray and damp here is very damaging and corrosive and in light of that and from the point of view of common sense, we could not justify a price tag of £25,000 for a new 4×4 (real ones cost this much).

There is also the issue of running costs.  Fuel prices here are alarming, diesel being around £1.55 per litre, tax for a big 4×4 about £300 p.a., so it seems like a no brainer, despite our initial delusion that we needed and must have another 4×4. So, we will experiment for the next couple of years with our greener non 4×4 machine, and will be very glad to save £280 on tax p.a. and +35% on fuel per month as a result. Given it is shiny and new, we might even clean it now and then!

Muirburn mishap

Having said nothing much had changed, while we were away, we learned that an out of control moorland fire had damaged a significant part of the area where we take our daily dog walk.  We were pretty dismayed to hear this and a bit apprehensive about what we might find on our return.

The area in question is less than a mile from our house and forms part of the common grazings.  In 2000, a deer fence was erected around 100s of hectares on the grazing to exclude stock and deer and a tree planting project took place, forming part of a network planted on the year of the millennium in celebration of the occasion.  This so-called Millennium Forest has been struggling to cope with the Uist weather for the last 12 years.  Pockets of trees, particularly on the lee side of hills out of the prevailing wind have triumphed against adversity, some of them reaching small thickets of 2m, no mean feat in these conditions.

Moor 1

The thicket of alder above is exceptionally sheltered, the dogs often flush woodcock from the area in winter and an otter regularly spraints along the heather-covered narrow rivulet that runs between the two lochs (in the centre of the picture).  I’m relieved this part wasn’t damaged.

Some of the plantings across the moorland failed spectacularly, mostly due to the topography and severe exposure of the site.  Native species planted include birch, hazel, alder, willow, rowan and Scots pine. Alder seems to have been particularly successful, especially on slopes and in small valleys, coping well with the water-logging typical of this blanket bog habitat.

Hectro and Darwin confused by the moonscape - Where have all the grouse gone?

Hector and Darwin confused by the moonscape – Where have all the grouse gone?

moor 3Muirburning  is supposed to be controlled burning for land improvement, as opposed to the picture of devastation we found at the ‘forest’.  Of course, it doesn’t take long for the rumour mill on a small island to start about who may have been responsible and how and why this mess occurred.  As have said before, it is a small community and I prefer to avoid controversy in this blog.  It would be easy to be judgemental and lay blame, however, I don’t know the facts and it may be that this was an unfortunate accident in a well-managed muirburn episode.

That said, by all accounts it was very windy on the day of the fire hence in these circumstances, burning was possibly not carried out in line with the good practice guidance within the Muirburn Code. The fire brigade and beaters were out all night bringing it under control as it got uncomfortably close to the houses in the township.

In these circumstances, several offences may have been committed.  This is not least because the burning destroyed the woodland, it also extended across areas of golden eagle, hen harrier and short-eared owl territory and habitat and I fear for the nest of the local golden eagles, one of which I photographed in a previous post.

The edge of the burnt moorland, showing the contrast before and after

The edge of the burnt moorland, showing the contrast before and after

A significant amount of deep heather habitat has been lost from an area where I have known hen harriers to nest for the last few years and I will miss the delight of seeing them fledge chicks as I have done for the last 3 years from this one particular area.  Fortunately there is enough suitable habitat nearby for them to relocate.

I took a few photographs as a record and will continue to do so as the heather regenerates.  Most of the trees across the burned areas are too badly damaged to regrow, or entirely annihilated. The acrid smell of burning vegetation still hangs heavy in the air.

An old deer track revealed by the burning

An old deer track revealed by the burning

Perhaps one of the most striking reveals is the scarring left by the mechanical tree planting carried out back in 2000.   I didn’t live here at the time, but by all descriptions, a vehicle removed uniform chunks of peat at intervals across the bog and turned them over on top of the surface to provide a soil mound for trees to be planted on.  I knew the impacts were there as it is almost impossible to walk across the ground due to the gouged out mounds. The scarring is quite horrendous and the damage will remain for many decades, long after the effects of the muirburn incident have disappeared as the heather regrows.

Mechanical planting holes created for tree planting

Mechanical planting holes created for tree planting

The 1000 mile challenge

Being away means I have been completely out of my running routine.  Both of us also managed to catch a pretty horrendous cold, quickly followed by conjunctivitis, upon getting back to Scotland from London – a new and unsavoury experience for us both! Needless to say, it has taken some time to recover (and see properly again!), so I have only just felt up to running again for the first time in 3 weeks, and managed a 4 mile run today. 

That said, in my wisdom, I decided to join one of my Facebook friends who has organised a group to chart progress over the year for a 1000 mile challenge – hence I have committed to running 1000 miles this year.  This would be fine had I not had a 3 week lag in March.  I better order a new pair of running shoes – I’m going to need them, sitting around 170 miles for year to date. 

Aniseed and lemon spelt biscuits

Week 4 of my biscuit-making explorations and I have decided to ditch recipes and freestyle from now on.  This biscuit is based on the flavours of pastis with a twist of lemon.  Don’t be deceived by the bland image of the biscuit – it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and packs a vibrant flavour punch.  However, the punch is an aniseed one, so if this flavour is not your bag, try more subtle caraway, fennel for similar notes, or reduce the volume of seeds added. 

The biscuits are not that sweet and are very crunchy.  Good dunked in coffee, apparently, so I’m told, I’m not a dunker. Makes about 18 biscuits.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan)

Ingredients

60g unsalted butter

40g caster sugar

40g soft brown sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

80g plain flour

60g spelt flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp aniseed seeds

grated zest of one lemon

Method

  • Cream the butter and sugars together in a stand mixer.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and combine to form a soft dough.
  • Allow to rest in the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm for at least a couple of hours.
  • Roll the balls of dough to the size of a cherry and place on a greased baking sheet, press the balls down gently to flatten, spacing them a few cm apart.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, check at 10, they may be ready depending on your oven – they should be pale golden around the outside.
  • Place on a wire rack to cool.  Get the coffee machine on.

aniseed biscuits

Wild Hebridean salmon with lemon nasturtium ‘caper’ butter sauce

It was a privilege and proud day indeed when The Man Named Sous caught his first wild salmon on a trip over the Sound of Harris to the Obbe Fishery, Leverburgh, Harris.  This fishery has a number of lochs and pools around the village.  The one which yielded the salmon ‘The Mill Pool’ sits in an incongruous setting, right next to the Co-op car park.  In fact, it is so close to the car park that you have to cast pretty carefully or risk snagging a vehicle, or worse still, the ear of an unwary shopper. Pretty surreal, considering almost all the fishing we do is in wilderness areas of North Uist!

Given the conservation status and fragility of wild salmon populations, good fishery management means at the Obbe, you can only keep one salmon and one sea trout in any outing, all others caught must be safely returned.  So it was that The Man Named Sous carefully landed his 4 lb 5 oz salmon next to inquisitive shoppers and to the whoops and cheers of his Swiss fishing companions.

There were whoops and cheers in our kitchen too when the catch of a salmon was revealed to me – plus a sea trout as well.  The question is how to you honour such a wonderful fish?  It has such delicate flesh and flavour that is unrecognisable from that of farmed Scottish salmon, which I admit I have very mixed feelings about.

No Scottish food blog would be complete without a salmon recipe, would it? Simple is best.  Although a bit decadent for a Monday night, last week we enjoyed the last pair of six fillets from the fish.  It was a moment to reflect on what an honour it was to enjoy eating genuinely wild Scottish salmon these days, especially in the Outer Hebrides where catching one is no mean feat. It was also important to relish the moment.  It will most likely be a very long time before the experience comes round again.

Wild Hebridean salmon with lemon nasturtium ‘caper’ butter sauce

Like many people, I always have a super-abundance of nasturtiums at the end of the summer.  The leaves are used to make pesto and are added to salads with the flowers.  Still, there is always more than enough to collect all the seed I need for the next year and lots left over.  The quandary of what to do with the seeds was solved when, while flicking through the River Cottage Handbook No 2: Preserves, I found a novel way to preserve the seeds, and just at the right time of year. It is remarkable how similar preserved nasturtiums taste to the flower buds of the genuine Capparis plant and all but lose their peppery power.

Nasturtium ‘capers’

Take the green seed pods from your nasturtium plants at the end of the growing season, while they are in optimal condition and before they start to yellow.  Some seeds have a reddish tinge and they are fine to use. The recipe in the Handbook calls for 100g, but this is a lot to aim for, so if you have less, cut ingredients proportionately rather than miss out.

Ingredients

15g salt

100g nasturtium seed pods

A few peppercorns

200ml white wine vinegar

A few seasonal herb sprigs (optional)

Method

  • Dissolve the salt in 300ml water to make a light brine and leave the seeds in the brine for 24 hours.
  • Drain and dry the seeds, pack into small sterilised jars with a few peppercorns and herb sprig of your choice. Leave 1cm at the top for the vinegar.
  • Cover the pods with the vinegar and seal with a vinegar-proof jar lid.
  • Store for a few weeks before using.

Cooking the salmon

Use farmed if wild is unobtainable – check the quality/credentials of your source for environmental and welfare standards. The fish should be cooked only for a short period and rested to retain a soft, translucent centre.

Ingredients

Salmon fillets  -1 per person

Salt and pepper

ground nut or other flavourless oil

Heat oven to 80C

Method

  • Heat a griddle pan until hot, but not smoking – you are aiming for crisp, seared but not burnt skin.
  • Put a small splash of oil in the pan, score the skin a few times and season with salt and pepper.
  • Add the fillets to the pan, skin side down.  Leave without interference for 3 to 4 minutes until the skin has crisped. Moving them around before this will most likely result in soggy/broken skin.
  • Carefully turn the fillets over and cook the flesh side for around 30 seconds then place the pan containing the fillets in the oven at 80oC.
  • The fillets will continue to cook through while resting in the pan for a maximum of 5 minutes.  This will give you time to make the sauce.

Nasturtium ‘caper’ lemon butter sauce

This sauce is very simple and is just about instinct and using your palate to balance the few ingredients, to your taste. The butter makes it rich and thick. The lemon adds zing and the nasturtium brings piquancy.  I would normally add a splash of Noilly Prat at the beginning and let the alcohol cook off, but I have ran out at the moment. In this case, I used approximately these amounts:

Ingredients

1 tblsp. nasturtium ‘capers’

juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon

30g unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes

generous handful of parsley

salt and pepper

Method

  • Add the lemon juice and zest to a small pan, heated to medium/hot.
  • Add the capers, as the contents start to fizz slightly, add the cubes of butter a few at a time, whisking them into the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper.
  • Throw in the parsley, stir gently and serve immediately over the fish.

I served the salmon with a warm salad of Anya potatoes with caramelised shallots, sherry vinegar and rapeseed oil.  The carrots were shredded and tossed in Dijon mustard, orange juice with a splash of cider vinegar, rapeseed oil and pepper.

Wild thing, I think I love you....

Wild thing, I think I love you….