Blaeberries are currently at their seasonal best here in the Outer Hebrides and are perfectly ripe for foraging. Following my recent good fortune to stumble across a dense patch, I gathered enough for a trio of recipes: cheesecake, muffins and jam. I feature blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake and blaeberry muffins here and will reserve (or should that be preserve) the jam for a future ‘jam and scone’ post.
The busy time of summer has limited my capacity to blog over the last month and my planned output has slipped, while my draft seasonal posts grow in number. A combination of work trips away, visitors, outdoor tasks and a sudden garden glut have kept me from the computer. I hope I can get these posts out while they are still relevant. Meantime, apologies for the lack of interaction fellow bloggers, this exacerbated by the untimely demise of my new phone while trying to install the latest Android Jellybean upgrade. I have been unable to read and comment on the go, so was relieved to get the phone back last week.
This is a long post, so if you want to cut to the chase, the recipes are at the bottom as usual. Back to blaeberries.
Blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), also known variously as blueberry, bilberry or whinberry, depending on where you grew up, are superabundant in many parts of Scotland just now, on moorland and under deciduous and coniferous woodland canopies. Alas, on North Uist, their distribution is at best described as patchy or sparse, but exploring the vast interior of the island’s moorland can yield enough for a few tasty berry treats.
Without taking significant time to explore the literature, I can only postulate why this might be. I surmise that lack of tree cover (they like shady canopies), significant areas of habitat too wet to support the species and grazing, particularly by red deer and also sheep are likely contributing factors. Although blaeberries can survive grazing, the plants are reduced to a close-cropped sward and its ability to flower and fruit are then substantially curtailed. In my experience, blaeberries are more abundant where they are less convenient for deer to browse e.g. on islands. Yes, red deer can swim out to islands, and I have seen them do this many times, but where these patches are small, it may be a case of diminishing returns for the deer.
Being no bigger on average than a petit pois, a significant haul of blaeberries can take several hours to pick but these luscious wild fruits are a must for foragers and are well worth the effort. I can’t be the only person who finds the intensity of picking these tiny berries therapeutic and very satisfying.
Moorland – the beauty within
Most visitors to the Uists spend most time on the west side of the islands. This is where most of the population live and most holiday homes, rental cottages, etc are located, predominantly close to the extensive and largely empty sandy beaches and the beautiful machair grassland and dunes. Before we came to reside here. this was where we would invariably spend most of our leisure time too, with the occasional foray into the east side to hill walk. However, since living here, I have come to appreciate the rugged and desolate moorland more, indeed I prefer it to the accessible and more popular beach and machair.
Walking on moorland here can be very tough. There are very few tracks and paths, unless you are lucky to happen upon a deer track. Deep tussocky heather tufts and quaking bog make the whole experience that bit more challenging. This acidic land is patterned with a mosaic of lochs which make it impossible to walk to a defined route as the crow flies and you must pick your way over the undulating terrain along a meandering path between numerous tiny lochans and around some substantial lochs.
Without good map reading skills (and a GPS these days, although forget a phone signal – you won’t get one across most areas) and some acquired local knowledge, one could easily get disorientated or find a deviation back to a road takes several hours – unless you may be willing to swim across a loch, as the deer do. For an island of a relatively small size, isolation and wilderness can be reached very quickly and you are unlikely to see another person until you return to a tarmac road.
The rewards of a moorland visit are spectacular. Fly fishing in the plethora of lochs is the best truly wild brown trout angling that can be experienced in the UK. Many lochs are rarely, if ever, fished and any may provide the surprise of turning a fish. Small lochs require care on approach in the bird breeding season as the edges of some, not much bigger than puddles, are favoured nesting spots of red-throated divers. A few of the larger lochs hold pairs of black-throated divers. The calls of both can be heard during any moorland walk in the summer.
Other breeding birds include numerous raptors; both golden and sea eagles, hen harriers, peregrine falcon, merlin, and kestrel as well as short-eared owls. Waders encountered breeding occasionally include golden plover, greenshank and this year, unusually, whimbrel, normally only seen on passage. Red grouse occasionally explode from the heather at your feet.
Although there are few large mammals on these islands, otters are ubiquitous, both along the coast and inland. I find otter signs on every fishing outing, and have discovered some huge natal (breeding) holt complexes, associated couches, slides and tracks. In the autumn, we have had the privilege of watching red deer stags roar, parallel walk and spar, antlers locked, males intent on their harem prize and therefore oblivious to our presence.
Peat cutting – Ethics, sustainability and reality
Moorland found here is also described as peatland. Peatlands are not only important for a unique combination of flora and fauna, but have their own intrinsic value as habitats. Blanket bog, a type of peatland that predominates here, is globally rare and is maintained by our cool, wet oceanic climate.
Peatlands are important for people too, not just for recreation but also flood management, grazing and perhaps most controversially, as a harvestable resource. I say controversially because prior to moving here, I was very much suspicious of any exploitation of a peat resource. This stemmed from knowing that commercial extraction of peat, including for garden compost, has denuded the UK and Ireland of vast swathes of lowland raised bog. As a gardener, I avoid peat-based compost and am lucky to be able to make enough of my own compost to meet my gardening needs.
Fuel, however, is an entirely different matter and an ongoing issue that made me wrestle with my conscience for some time. Cutting peat for fuel was, until very recently, an absolute necessity to provide fuel for domestic heating and cooking where alternatives such as wood or coal were scarce and/or expensive. To many people, it is still necessary to cut peat for fuel to avoid or reduce fuel poverty.
Owning an old croft house that has never had anything but rudimentary and certainly not central heating has made us face the reality of our necessity to cut peat. The house had an old oil-fueled Raeburn stove and a three bar electric fire covering the open fire when we moved in. We exposed the open-hearth and burned coal that first winter and tolerated the Raeburn which was extremely inefficient and guzzled oil at an alarming rate. Our previous house was well insulated with gas central heating, good glazing and a living flame gas fire, producing clean heat at the press of a button, so the whole concept of keeping warm could no longer be taken for granted and it came as a bit of a shock, quite frankly.
Due to a rusting water heating system and exorbitant costs of fueling the Raeburn, it had to go and as an interim measure, we replaced the open fire with a more efficient multifuel stove while we decided how and when we would renovate the house. With no heating and a draughty uninsulated house, we had to burn fuel of some sort or face very miserable winters. Imported and very expensive coal was not considered an option. When the stove drew strongly during winter gales, we would easily go through a bag of coal a day (each at £8-9 a bag).
Reluctantly, and pragmatically, we decided we should cut peat in the meantime. Although there was some evidence of a decades old peat stack in the garden, like most households, no peat had been burned at this house for some time therefore no one locally seemed to know where the peat bank that would have originally been associated with the house was. We approached the estate and secured a peat bank that had not been used for some decades along the road to Lochmaddy for an annual rent of £10.
Old peat banks are a common anthropogenic feature of the moorland landscape here, though many are now heavily vegetated and obscured by heather. Although a few banks are still cut in the traditional way by hand, most peat banks are now redundant and have been for sometime. When we first moved here, there was very little evidence of significant amounts of peat cutting, however, as a result of escalating fuel prices and with the introduction of mechanized cutting using tractor-drawn auger machines, there has been a resurgence in peat cutting. This mechanised cutting accounts for most of the new extractions and is fairly extensive across some areas where hand cut banks would have been the tradition.The proportion of hand cut banks remains relatively low.
Mechanised cutting is not without problems and can adversely affect the water balance and surface vegetation of peatlands. Where extensively applied, as has been the case in Northern Ireland, the Environment and Heritage Service cite various issues arising from research. Drainage leads to changes outside of the area being cut, caused by drying out the peat and altering the vegetation it supports. The channels left by machine cutting also act as drains, further increasing water removal from the ecosystem. Repeated cuts with vehicles destroy the surface vegetation and this can erode and de-stabilise the surface of the bog. Research has shown that machine cutting decreases the height and biomass of the vegetation and rapidly reduces the invertebrate populations, thereby having bottom-up effects on the food chain.
It would be easy but short sighted to level criticism at people for having peat machine cut, and to do so would ignore the complexities associated with that choice. Cutting here is almost exclusively for domestic use and on a smaller scale than in Northern Ireland.
Hand cutting is time consuming and back-breaking. Traditionally, families and extended families, friends and neighbours would help each other out to get the job done as a requirement of part of the year’s work. Today, not everyone has the luxury of help, time nor the physical capability to cut peat in this way and it is no longer the only option. We are in the position to choose not to have our peat machine cut and I avoid this method because it does potentially cause more damage to these fragile habitats than hand cutting. If I had a young family that needed to be kept warm through winter and machine cut peat was my only option, I am sure my view would be required to change.
The other downside with machine cut peat is although you pay for the pleasure and the physical process of cutting is removed, the peat must still be turned, stacked and removed from the moor by hand.
As anyone who has cut peat by hand will know, the concept of free fuel is a complete misnomer. It is anything but, and requires several pounds of flesh. We have occasionally had ‘help’ from friends for whom peat cutting appears to be perceived as a quaint romanticised novelty. Oddly enough, after an hour or two of repetitive slog, the mystery and fascination wanes…
As incomers, we had no clue how to go about cutting, or quite what it would involve. Our neighbour came out to the bank and showed us the basics of how to cut peat by hand using a specifically designed tool, a peat iron or tairsgear with a long wooden handle and an angled blade on one end. We have been learning ever since and think after a few years of trial and error, we do OK. Some locals are real experts, producing impressively even sized peats built into neat stacks that have an aesthetic, almost architectural quality.
We have a retired neighbour, a crofter who single-handedly cuts various banks, about 200m long in total each year – about 20 tractor trailer loads. He needs the fuel for his fire and peat-fired Raeburn. We did earn some kudos when he found out we cut by hand and he kindly offered hundreds of sheep feed bags for bagging the peat to get it home. When we went round to collect them, he was in his shed (barn) on his own, shearing sheep number 16 of 100 with traditional (not electric) hand clippers. I can’t fail to be impressed by his output, work ethic and stamina.
Making the cut – a novices guide
The hand cutting process is very physical and time consuming. Our bank is approximately 80m long and is split into two sections. First the peat is turfed, sods of overlying moorland turf removed to expose the peat below. Timing is important and this should be done early in the spring while the turf is damp and pliable, before a crust forms later. My job is to cut the clods with a spade and The Man Named Sous levers them out with a spade, placing each in front of the bank, laying the turf to restore the habitat as much as possible.
Turf removed, rectangular peat slices are cut using the tairsgear (my job, demonstrated here). While I cut, he grabs each peat and throws it up onto the bank in neat lines (hopefully). Throwing straight requires technique and strength which I don’t have. This is completed 2 or 3 layers deep, depending on peat depth and quality. Yellow steel toe-capped wellies are optional.
Now, we are at the mercy of the weather as the peats are left to dry for a few weeks before we return to turn and stack them in groups of 4-5 peats so these dry completely before bagging. Each shrinks significantly as it dries.
We do not have a quad or tractor, so our peat has to be bagged and each bag (about 160 in total, 15-20kg each) carried by us to the car and trailer at the roadside, about 100 m away over wet and uneven bog. This is the toughest job and takes us about 4 hours. I bag, but must be careful not to make each too heavy or I can’t lift them!
Peat can get waterlogged in the bags, so when we get it home, it is unbagged and stacked on platforms we have built for this purpose where it will remain relatively dry over winter as we use it. It is not the most elegant stack, but we are glad to see the work finished. We completed this last night. The whole process took us about three days in total working flat out over numerous evenings, but we have secured our fuel for the winter. No small feat, job done!
With house renovations pending, we hope to move to greener heating in the future by fitting an air source heat pump and with underfloor heating, we will no longer require to cut peat. We are grateful however to have had this peat resource to heat our house through a few winters, but as it was the case here historically, peat cutting has been a time-consuming necessity. I will not miss it when we no longer need to cut it, although the views from the peat bank are not so bad:
Blaeberry and elderflower cheesecake
So, at last I am back to blaeberries et al. I wanted to couple the blaeberries with my recently made elderflower cordial. The most frequently cited recipe for this refreshing drink can be found here. This is a very reliable Pam Corbin recipe from the River Cottage handbook, ‘Preserves’. I have made about 10 litres of cordial from gifts of elderflowers brought to me and I will be planting some bushes in the garden soon to complement my growing meadowsweet patch (also makes very good cordial).
One thing about the recipe is that you must not omit the citric acid, it enhances the distinctive aromatic flavour of the flowers and prevents the cordial from tasting overpoweringly sweet, as well as helping with preservation. Fortunately, we have a big tub of it that we use to clean our espresso machine.
This no-bake cheesecake recipe is very simple and makes 4 individual cheesecakes for loose-based tartlet tins about 8 cm in diameter. Plain round tins would be nicer than the more retro fluted ones I have, but I don’t have any.
20 ml elderflower cordial
40g butter, melted
100g digestive biscuits, crushed
200g cream cheese
30g icing sugar
300ml double cream, whipped
- Melt the butter in a pan together with the crushed digestives, mixing well until the biscuits have absorbed the butter.
- Press the biscuit mixture into each loose-based tartlet tin. Allow this to chill in the fridge for an hour or so.
- Beat the cream cheese lightly, add the icing sugar and elderflower cordial. Whip the cream, although not too stiffly and fold into the cheese with the blaeberries, gently crushing a few so the colour marbles through the mixture Spread across the biscuit base and allow a few hours to set.
The wild alternative to the blueberry muffin and a veritable classic, all the better for the simplicity of muffin-making. I tend to use the same basic muffin recipe template and ring the changes with the ingredients. I added Ottolenghi crumble that I keep stashed in the freezer to add a hint of sweetness on top as these muffins contain very little sugar. This recipe makes 24 mini muffins. I don’t make big muffins as I can’t eat a whole one. I know. Lightweight.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C
150g blaeberries (or blueberries)
350g plain flour
100g caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 medium eggs
1 level tbsp baking powder
280 ml milk
100 ml sunflower oil, or melted butter
1 tsp vanilla essence
- Sift the dry ingredients (except berries) and mix.
- Whisk the eggs and add to the dry ingredients together with the other wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Some lumps are fine.
- Fold in the berries and spoon the mixture into cases/muffin trays until each is 3/4 full.
- Sprinkle with crumble and bake for 20-25 minutes.
300g plain flour
100g caster sugar
200g cold unsalted butter cut into small cubes
Fling the ingredients into a food processor and pulse until it forms a breadcrumb consistency, or mix using your hands. If you use a processor, make sure it just turns to breadcrumbs and no more, or you will have cookie dough.
Put the excess in the freezer to use another time.