In My Scottish Kitchen, September 2017

One of the most common complaints of the traveller is the dearth of vegetables served along the way in any type of eatery, cafe, restaurant or pub. Despite veggies being in vogue, we don’t see many on the plate, other than a token salad or a potato, the latter usually in the form of the dreaded chip. After 6 weeks on the road, we were longing for our own apartment or little house, just to be able to cook a pile of vegetables, a soup or vegetable bake, as well as catch up on some washing. It’s rather ironic really, that these simple domestic tasks become so overwhelmingly desirable when you no longer have them.

View from our York Kitchen. Had to pick some wild weeds along the way- purple buddlea is the local weed, growing out of walls and concrete paths. Adding a homely touch to the plastic ikea plants and slate tiled York roof tops.

Our first pot of soup, a leek and potato soup, seemed fitting for our little kitchen in Aberystwyth, Wales. Our York apartment, a spacious Ikea fitted out place in a converted office building, provided the means to cook, but as we were also visiting friends that week, we had little chance to use it. My dear friend JA made some wonderful salads and dishes loaded with veggies from her¬†Lottie ( affectionate English name for an allotment garden), the most memorable dish being her Summer Pudding, filled with plump, ripe blackberries picked from verges, along with raspberries and blueberries cured inside a mold of organic white bread. Ecstasy. There’s an art to making these carmine concoctions that taste like berry velvet.

View from JA’s apartment, overlooking the Minster, York. JA’s Australian roots have given her a passion for freshly grown vegetables.

Now that we’re in Skye, our little stone cottage by the sea has enabled some real cooking to take place. But first, before driving across to the island, we did a big veggie shop in Inverness. Vegetables are much cheaper in Britain than Australia, so long as you stick to seasonal ingredients that are locally grown. My big bag of vegetables, including a cute Wonky cabbage, cost very little, necessitating a few little add ons, such as box of raspberries, some odd looking flat peaches, French butter, lovely cheeses, some Scottish and others a bit too French, and of course, a bottle of single malt whisky. All in the name of keeping up with the locals, of course. Or as the late Angus Grant, fiddle player from Shooglenifty would say, in the only words I have ever heard him sing, ‘Suck that mother down,’ during his live solo on the tune ‘Whisky Kiss.’

On special for 16 Quid. Going down nicely. In memory of Ian Channing.

Wonky vegetables are NQR shaped produce, an idea that has also taking off in Australia. We don’t need perfectly shaped vegetables thankyou, and we definitely don’t need them wrapped in plastic. Most of my bargain veggies came pre -wrapped or bagged in acres of plastic. I’m wondering if the ‘War on Waste’ campaign is happening in Britain and Scotland. The other aspect I found unusual about the local supermarkets was the volume of pre-prepared foods. You name it, it’s available, pre-cooked and ready to ding. Fish cakes, fish pie ingredients, including the sauce, pre-cooked mussels, all sorts of meals, mash, even mashed swede. I’m not sure that Jamie Oliver has made much impression on the English diet.

Wonky Cabbage, 45 p

I was hoping to find a farmer’s market on Skye to supplement these goods. It turns out that farmers markets are quite rare, but then given the climate, I can understand why. We found one at Glendale in the north-west of Skye, a longish drive. We arrived early to find 7 stalls huddled together against the wind: one lady had a pile of fresh organic chicken carcasses for stock, another chap had one small bag of rainbow chard and black kale, nearby was the cucumber specialist, with two kinds on offer, on another table were a few carrots and apples and further down a lady with some sticky buns. And in the midst of all this I found the lady from Tinctoria, a specialist hand spinner and dyer from these parts. She has been hand dyeing since the 1980s and grows her own herbs to make the most extraordinary colours. Needless to say, I wanted them all.

Green ball, dyed from Brazilwood then over dyed with Indigo, the pink is Brazilwood and the blue is from Woad. Not quite kitchen goods but probably made in a kitchen. Dyewoods are woods providing  dyes for textiles. Some of the more important include: Brazilwood or Brazil from Brazil, producing a red dye. Catechu or cutch from Acacia wood, producing a dark brown dye. Old Fustic from India and Africa produces a yellow dye.

My vegetable stash is lasting well. In my Skye kitchen I’ve made lentil and vegetable soups, swede, onion and Orkney cheddar bake, pan scorched green beans with garlic and lemon, ( loving the very skinny beans here), caramelised whole shallots in olive oil, butter and beetroot glaze, Cullen Skink full of undyed smoked haddock, pasta with veggies, mushroom risotto, cauliflower cheese and loads of salads. My cooking has taken on a distinctive Scottish style- the view outside my kitchen window, the rain and the ever-changing Skye light having a profound effect on my cooking and pastimes. It’s odd, given my gypsy tendencies, how homely and settled I feel here.

Simple foods, just vegetables, some butter and cheese. The swede bake layered with onion and Orkney cheddar was a winner.
A bag of shallots become caramelised in olive oil, with some fleur de sel butter, and a reduction of balsamic and beetroot dressing.
Cullen Skink, with smoked haddock, potato, leek, and parsley. Crofter’s bread and French butter.

Fat Raspberries, sweet and seasonal, lead to the obvious choice of dessert- Cranachan- except that I was rather heavy-handed with the single malt and the toasted oats. It ended up more like an alcoholic breakfast. Mr T has promised to pick some neglected black berries along the verges, down near Maelrubha’s well; before we leave this special place, I’ll try to make a more restrained blackberry version.

A heavy-handed Cranachan. Too many oats and way too much single malt.
Crafting and Crofting. My travelling project, a bramble berry scarf, in memory of Skye.

I could go on and on about the wonders of Skye and how inspired I feel here, but I’ll save it for another time, another ramble into the mist. The media file below depicts views from our cottage. It’s hard to stay sane around such ever shifting beauty.

Thanks once again to Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for hosting this monthly series.

Tidal cottage on Breakish. I could stay here for a few months or more. Celtic dreaming.

Walking York

I love walled towns and cities; ancient walls define a place so well. Inside a walled town, things are generally more historic, well preserved, expensive, touristy, and interesting. York is no exception to this general rule. In the height of summer, York’s main historic streets, especially around the Shambles area, can be jam packed. While this part of York is pedestrianised, making walking a breeze, the crowded narrow streets can be overwhelming, especially on the weekends and any day between 10 am and 5 pm when bus loads of tourists arrive for the day. The best time to see old York is outside these peak hours or in months other than July and August.

Why are these people queuing? York’s Harry Potter shop!!
The Shambles- an old quarter in Central York and extremely busy in the day time.
Mr T and JA, walking the pedestrian friendly streets of York. So much to catch up on.

Walking the walls is a great way to escape the busy pedestrian traffic, offering an excellent view of the city below. The walls can be divided into three sections, each with a Bar or gate. You can ascend the walls at these Bars and if thirst should intrude upon your exercise, simply descend at the next gate for a refreshing ale. Some walls look down directly into inviting beer gardens or onto old pubs, making this option highly probable. Other wall walks offer views into the backyards of fine homes and hotels, especially around the Minster. A good way to approach this walk is to you choose one section at a time, followed by an on ground exploration. Layerthorp Bridge to Monk Bar and on to Bootham Bar is the best section. The Micklegate bar section looks out onto an interesting industrial view along the railway side, then ends at the delightful York Museum Gardens, a 10 hectare park situated in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey and the remains of a Roman tower.

St Mary’s abbey, Museum Gardens
Views from the wall near the Minster.

Another acquired map, though the distances can be deceptive. Courtesy of Friends of York Walls CIO, an invaluable website to study before the walk.

York. The Minster and a Song

York is a great city to visit. Vibrant, with many ancient and modern attractions, it is easy to while away a week within the city walls, as well as walking on top of them too. The Romans spent some time here after CE 71, naming the town Eboracum. Then the Vikings, who invaded in CE 866, left a strong impression: they named the place Yorvik and left a street plan that still survives today.¬Ļ The Christians left their beautiful small churches and a notable cathedral, the York Minster, which dominates the townscape, its ethereal steeples, like medieval skyscrapers, are markers for the lost.

The York Minster in sepia.

The interior of the Minster is vast and requires a few return visits. Fortunately, the entrance ticket lasts for one year. You may need binoculars to look at the detail in the stained glass windows, most of which have stories to tell, such as the famous Rose Window, with its combination of red and white roses alluding to the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York by the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York. ²

The Minster and stained glass

Attending Evensong at the Minster, which is held most evenings at 5.15, makes this vast space more meaningful. During August and school holidays, visiting choirs take the place of the regular choir to sing at Evensong. The ritual during Evensong is quite formal and follows the Anglo-Catholic service. During our visit, while trying to stay unaffected by the religious elements that were stark reminders of a discarded childhood indoctrination, I was, nevertheless, anticipating a musical thrill, that quintessential shiver when a piece of performed music enters the soul. During the performance of ¬†‘And I Saw a New Heaven’ ¬≥, just as the conductor, a black caped Harry Potter figure with a shock of grey hair, swayed ecstatically as the choir and pipe organ consummated in heavenly sound, I briefly went to that new heaven. This piece of music is not your typical earworm for a fun holiday abroad, but nevertheless, it’s a moving one and will now always be associated with York. The piece is included below.

The chancel, York Minster
York Minster

¬Ļ¬†http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/timeline

²https://yorkminster.org/geisha/assets/files/fact-sheet-the-principal-windows.pdf

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Bainton

And I Saw a New Heaven, by Edgar Bainton

Aberystwyth. Quaint Coastal Welsh Town.

It took me a while to get my tongue around the pronunciation of this lovely old fashioned seaside town in Wales. Aberystwyth. I’m still not sure that I’ve got the rhythm right. With each new road sign announcing a town, river or place, we tried to pronounce Welsh, and ended up tongue-tied and in awe of this Celtic language that has survived so well in this corner of English speaking Britain. Do the Welsh play scrabble and how much are the vowels worth?

Aberystwyth, Wales
Aberystwyth, Wales

London. Take a Walk on the South Side.

Last week’s visit to London forced me to revise my negative preconceptions about that city. Since my first visit in 1985, I’ve avoided London, only passing through for a night or two on the way to somewhere else.

Westminster and Big Ben. London.

And so during a recent long walk along in Southwark, I experienced a travel epiphany, a moment of sheer delight in the surrounding environment. Walking along the south bank of the Thames, from Westminster Bridge to the Tate Modern, familiar landmarks, symbols of power and Britishness came into relief: Big Ben, Westminster, St Paul’s and London Bridge ¬†rose up into the dreary slated sky, a theme park view of London’s icons seen from a safe distance, or perhaps like an old hand coloured etching from times past.

Bridges of London, from Southwark

We descended the steps from the bridge to the river and walked beyond the amusements of South Bank, busy with tourists eager to experience the theatrical world of dungeons, petty thieves and London’s colourful past. Further along, passed McDonald’s, fish and chipperies and the gigantic ferris wheel, the promenade turns into a series of lanes and dark underground passes, bridge tunnels, old churches, remnants of mediaeval lanes, parks, gothic churches interspersed with new modern housing developments.

Bridges of London

The walk has evolved over the last 30 years as this southern bank has become revitalised and gentrified. Once home to London’s poor, prostitutes and thieves, it retains some of that appealing grunge.

London Buskers under bridges.

Further along looms the striking building dedicated to Modern Art, the Tate Modern. A monolithic brick structure, Mussolini- esque and unadorned, the Tate Modern was once an electric company. Now beautifully restored, the building is a fitting space for the art it houses.

Tate Modern. Bad pic.
Dali’s Lobster Telephone 1936. For Chris Warner.
Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’. The other one is housed at NGV, Melbourne. For Oliver Morgan.

After a few hours in the Tate, the nearby Borough market revealed its cosmopolitan culinary charms. Very busy on a full market day, the market is full of youthful vitality. French cheeses and saucissons, moules mariniere, calamari fritti, Malaysian goat curry, dishes from regional India, Seafood Paella and borek, and the very British pork pie shop, compete for the lunchtime pound. A world of food temptation and well worth a visit.

 

At the start of this journey, the tide of the Thames was out. By the time we left, it was lapping forcefully at the sides of the banks. As we headed back to the North, I felt pleased about the day. But, like the tide, the jury is out. I think my view of London will always fluctuate. It will depend on the day, the company and the walk taken.

Low tide on the Thames
Low tide on the Thames. Muddy banks full of old terracotta shards.

Good songs for the journey.

Werewolves of London. Warren Zevon

I’m in London Still The Waifs

London Calling. The Clash