This weekend, as the rain pelted against the windows and the garden looked decidedly water-logged, there was no doubt that the typical Uist winter weather had arrived and my memories of the unseasonably long and dry summer are fading. The Romans associated Sirius, the Dog Star, brightest star of the Canis Major constellation with hot weather of summer (Dog Days). Whether we ever really have Dog Days in Uist is, however, a moot point. Hot and balmy? I don’t think so.
So, back to the present, any hope of our plan to dig in deer fence strainers was dashed by the weather. It can be hard to tackle outdoor jobs once the clocks change as work is restricted to weekends, with good weather. Slim pickings. Perhaps just as well it was pouring since we had just taken delivery of a red deer hind to butcher, an annual job which usually takes the best part of a weekend.
On dreich weekend days, no matter how occupied you are, cabin fever has the potential to set in. With the dogs going stir crazy, I had to abandon my attempt to hear GQT on Radio 4. Exasperated by the crazy dog shannanegans, it was time for a break from butchery and some fresh air. Even in foul weather dogs need their walks. People too.
It was an unexpectedly marvellous moorland walk – dry, still and with a rainbow over Eaval. It is one of the special qualities of these islands that you can experience the most sublime weather windows on any day of the year. The quality of light in the winter gloaming appears to me to be unique to this archipelago.
In the stillness I could hear the resonating roars and bellows of a red deer stag. Ahead, on the crest of another hill, Ben na Coile, I could see the silhouette of the stag and those of his surrounding harem on the horizon. I assume it is the same magnificent beast I have seen corralling a large group of +15 hinds on the west-facing slopes of the hill over the last few days. How much more spectacular these beasts looked in the natural moorland setting than my garden!
The racket he was making was not bluster. Combined with the large size of his harem, his stature and sheer bulk all indicated that he wouldn’t be a likely candidate to get as far as the parallel walk with another stag. I doubt if there would be many stags prepared to have a square go with him. If I was a mature stag round there, I would find a big boulder and hide behind it until he passed.
The hind in our kitchen was also by this time looking very good and will taste even better. The intensity of the venison butchery over the weekend meant I had no inclination for intricate food preparation. Comfort food being the order of the day, we were rewarded with a simple bake of sweet potatoes, smoked mackerel and spinach for our hard work. With the venison mission almost accomplished (all but stock and sausages), time to put the feet up with a well deserved glass of elderflower gin.
Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of sweet ingredients as the base for savoury dishes. I suspect it comes from years of vegetarianism which resulted in over indulgence in butternut squash and sweet potatoes. However, the use of the salty, smoky fish cuts through the sweetness of the potatoes and tones them down enough to balance the dish.
Set oven for 180oC
2 medium sweet potatoes
Fresh or frozen spinach, enough for 2 layers in the bake
2 smoked mackerel fillets
Sprig of rosemary, stripped and leaves chopped
Onion, a half
150ml double cream
1tblsp homemade vegetable boullion or 1 tsp veg boullion powder
Parmesan or other cheese of your choice to grate on top
Salt and pepper
Infuse the bay leaf, rosemary, milk, double cream, half onion and boullion together in a pan until almost boiling, take off the heat and sit to one side.
Cook the spinach for a few minutes until wilted (or defrosted if frozen). Let it cool a bit and then squeeze to remove excess water out of it.
Spread layer of sweet potato slices on the bottom of a buttered gratin dish. Sprinkle over a layer of spinach. Break up the mackerel fillets roughly with your hands and place them in a layer over the top of the spinach. Season with salt and pepper and repeat, starting with another sweet potato layer.
Finish with a layer of potatoes on the top and pour over the infused liquid, minus the bay leaf and onion.
Sprinkle liberally with parmesan or the cheese of your choice and bake for about 1 hour.