28 Feb 2010

It's official: I am now the queen of oatcakes

Why did I ever think making Scottish oatcakes would be difficult? There they are in the shops and markets, stacked mysteriously behind their various packaging, sometimes in spruced-up boxes and sometimes wrapped with simple cellophane and ribbon. Always golden and rustic and full of crumbly goodness. “There must be a secret,” I’ve been telling myself for years. “There must be some special art to creating these delightfully edible wee cheese platters."

Lies! All lies!

Thankfully Sue Lawrence once again showed me the light, and I set about gathering the surprisingly few ingredients that I would need. Instead of starting with plain oatcakes and graduating to the cheese variety, I leapt straight into the cheddar, because that’s the way I roll.

100 grams porridge oats (about heaping 8 tablespoons)
100 grams medium oatmeal
125 grams grated aged cheddar (I used Isle of Arran cheese. Be sure to choose a strong cheddar because the mild ones won‘t sustain the same depth of flavour)
75 grams melted butter

Mix everything together and add a few tablespoons of hot water to make it all sticky. (Note: As soon as the hot water went in, this invisible cloud of earthy scent was released from the oats and cheese. I nearly swooned).

Now the fun bit: no rolling pins allowed! Instead, with floury hands, press out the mix onto a board with the heels of your palms until its well spread out. I used a small glass to cut out the rounds, after which I transferred my little pretties to a lightly buttered baking tray.

When they had spent about 30 minutes in the oven (at around 325 F), I took them out and marvelled at how different they looked. Aside from turning a beautiful golden brown, they had become more textured, rough and substantial looking.

If you love oats and have never made your own oatcakes before, do try it. It’s so easy and would also make a great gift. Just stack them up, wrap them in a bit of cellophane and tie it with a ribbon. They’ll think you’re some kind of magic worker. Or if you don’t fancy giving them away, sit yourself down with your homemade oatcakes and a few chunks of cheese (or in my case, a bowl of veggie and barley soup), and enjoy.
Thanks to everyone who has so far participated in my tartan scarf giveaway. I lost count at 18 different clan tartans, not to mention those belonging to places and even one college. There is still tomorrow to get your name in if you haven’t already. Then I shall ask my beloved (a bonafide Scotsman: grrrrr...) to draw the names from the hat of treats. The big boisterous announcement is set for Tuesday.

24 Feb 2010

Tartan: The lore, the love

Anything reborn out of the mire of prohibition is bound for a surge in popularity, and for that most Scottish of fashion statements - tartan - it is no different.

Between the time “highland garb” was banned in 1746 and the ban being lifted in 1782, tartan was primed to step into the spotlight, not just as a symbol of the highlands, but all of Scotland.

What helped was that the British Army was excluded from The Dress Act, and with the army’s increasing reliance on regiments consisting mainly of exiled highlanders, what began was the establishment of identifiable tartans belonging to those regiments, perhaps most recognizably The Black Watch, one of the most popular tartans in Scotland to this day. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of it, so instead, here are some members of the Ramsay clan at The Gathering last summer:

By the time 1782 rolled around, designers were eager to adapt the military styles and patterns to suit civilian use, and customers were just about ready to brand themselves in swathes of the stuff. It would seem that many of the clan tartans were also born around this time, as they were more traditionally associated with a region, and the colours based on what natural plant dyes were available in the area.

Then came the famous royal visit of 1822, when Sir Walter Scott and his Celtic Society decked themselves out in all their grand plaid finery for the arrival of King George IV in Edinburgh. (it is worth noting that while "plaid" stems from the gaelic word plaide (blanket) the word “tartan” comes from the French tiretain, which references woven cloth). From this point in history, tartan and Scotland were pinned together.

It was a sad exchange of sorts, since it was during this time (starting around 1750) that the greatest surge of the highland clearances was underway. People were evicted from their lands and their culture was ransacked, only to have an altered phoenix of tradition rise from the ashes.

Today however, tartan is just one of the emotional ties that help people of Scottish ancestry feel connected to their past. And for those whose ancestors are not Scottish, there is every chance you will become attached to a tartan that is associated with a place. Many cities have their own tartans, and not just Scottish cities. New York has its own tartan, as do all of the Canadian provinces. My absolute favourite remains the tartan for the Isle of Skye:
This brings me to this month’s giveaway. Two lucky people will receive a brushed wool scarf (woven in Scotland, of course) in the tartan of their choice (provided I can find it. If it is a very obscure tartan I may have to come back to you to ask for an different selection).

The “rules” (such as they are), are once again straight forward:

-To enter, simply leave a comment telling me about your favourite tartan.
-This is an airmail friendly giveaway. Anyone can enter and the only person who is not eligible this month is the winner of the last giveaway (sorry, Julia! I feel bad since we just passed your birthday!).
-Please make sure I can link back to your blog
-If you don’t have a blog, you can still enter by emailing me directly at scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com and including “tartan lover” in the subject line
-deadline for entries is Monday, 1 March
-I shall put the names into the hat of treats, make the draw and announce the winners on Tuesday, 2 March

Thanks for reading. I look forward to reading any tartan stories you would like to share.
****This giveaway has now finished. Congratulations Kay and Liz!!!******

21 Feb 2010

Off the map: South Queensferry to "the wild wood."

I am not, nor have I ever been, a proficient map reader. It’s not that I am incapable of following directions, it is more that I am easily distracted and a lover of simply seeing where a new path might take me. Because of this, my relationship with Kerry Nelson’s small and charming guidebook, Edinburgh: 40 Town and Country Walks, is suffering.

Twice my friend Craig and I have used this guidebook and twice we have gone the wrong way after failing to pay close attention to the directions. The first excursion was meant to take us from Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve to Gullane, however we turned too soon and ended up having to traverse "the second biggest golf course" Craig had ever seen. At the time I was certain one of us would be brained by a wayward ball.

During his most recent visit to Scotland‘s fair capital, we gave the guidebook another try. This time we were meant to walk from South Queensferry to Cramond Brig.

Things started off well. We took the train to Dalmeny and found our way down to South Queensferry, whose long harbour is dominated by that beautiful red mammoth of engineering, the Forth Rail Bridge. The path took us along the water and then inland where the bare trees and faded colours made me forget about the promise of spring and think instead of Halloween and the heavy cloak of autumn.

We checked the book several times to assure ourselves that the dotted line on the map at least vaguely resembled the path we were following. Eventually we made it past Barnbougle Castle where we spent a few moments gazing at the tower house, which loomed through the trees at the end of a private drive. All the while we lamented the fact that neither of us are likely to ever live in a castle, and we tried desperately not to feel bitter about this whole sorted deal called life.

Seeing Dalmeny House immediately distracted me from my woes, as any 19th century gothic revival mansion set on wide green lawns and overlooking an expanse of water is likely to do. The house is only open to the public on set days between May and July, and only then as part of guided tours, so I had to be content to wander around while trying to dodge the plays of nearby golfers (who sets a golf course next to such a valuable (and many windowed) property?). Next to the house is the life-sized bronze statue of King Tom, a thoroughbred racehorse and super stud (“leading sire” if you prefer the more genteel term), who died in 1878.
This was where we went wrong. Had we read the directions beneath the dotted line, we would have noticed the express instructions to “turn left here,” which would have led us back to the water for the remainder of our coastal walk. Unfortunately the guidebook map only shows one trail, as if no other trails or roads have or will ever exist in the real world. For creatives who measure things in relation to other things (ie "how big is your frying pan? Could a cat curl up in it?"), this presents a problem.
We trudged along on the muddy track, past trees whose sap seemed to have turned to ink, and Craig joked that he no longer needed to watch the film of The Road, because he “had lived it.” We took the sight of houses in the distance as a promise that if we kept walking, we would eventually reach a main road and a bus stop. We followed the power lines, past wide fields containing isolated trees, until finally we arrived. Exactly where we arrived I cannot tell you, except a sign post of local trails described where we had just come from as the “wild wood.”
Overall it was a fantastic day out, and I am far from giving up on Edinburgh: 40 Town and Country Walks. I just resolve that from now on, I will read the directions and not just try to follow the lonely dotted red line through the landscape.

18 Feb 2010

Escape to Gullane, part two (The Bleached Rocks)

The bleached rocks of Gullane Beach can’t be said to loom or even intrigue from a distance. It is only when you get up close that the textures and layers of these great droopy monsters begin to overwhelm.

I am a panicky climber, prone to long pauses in which my mind attempts to tell my foot to move while my body pays no attention. So it was with slow, lumbering movements that I made my way at high tide to where the bulbous mass of stones made me think of melting elephant bones.

This is geology being a bit of a show off. There is something about all these frozen undulations that should be ugly, but isn’t. The texture of the stone is rough like pumice, while the colourful lower layers are brittle and easily chipped.
It doesn’t matter that I know countless people have seen these rocks before me, it still feels like a discovery, and I spend a long time scuttling around in their shadows, leaning in and out with my camera, filling the lens with curves and lines, dark and light. I want to see them on a bright blue sky morning, and again in the late afternoon when there is a storm gathering out on the water.

For photography lovers, there is no shortage of inspiration in this one small place. Every angle reveals something different. The sky and sea play their parts, always changing the light and making you think that the thing you have already looked at three times is new again.

With so many other beautiful beaches in East Lothian, these stones help Gullane Beach to stand out. I can’t wait to go again.

17 Feb 2010

Escape to Gullane (part one)

The more time I spend in East Lothian, the more I love it. There is a gentle grandeur to that part of the east coast that keeps drawing me back, and no matter where I start, I like nothing more than to end up in Gullane.

For many people, Gullane conjures up images of rolling green golf courses flung inward from the edges of the sea and dotted heavily at the borders with expansive villas. Like St. Andrews, this is a place golfers take seriously, as the old Muirfield Course is home to the rather posh sounding Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

I have never golfed and I don’t know if I ever will. Yet I take incredible enjoyment in this quaint old village, for it holds a number of well placed pleasures. The things I love are tucked in close around the long and simple main street, starting with the dilapidated ruins of the old church of St. Andrew.

The church lies across the street from a rather nice deli (ask about the treacle oat biscuits). A mop of dead vines hunches over the broken walls and a wooden door is propped open, an ongoing invitation to the parishioners who abandoned this building hundreds of years ago when the newer Dirleton Kirk was opened. The rusted lock is draped with cobwebs, the cover to the keyhole barely parted as if in the hope its companion key might still exist somewhere.

The road that runs past the church away from the high street is the one that leads to the shore of a long, beautiful beach. Oh, how easy it would be to walk to the beach, if only the magnetic tug of exquisite cake wasn’t hauling us back down the pavement and into Falko, a bustling German bakery and coffeehouse. If we just could tear ourselves away from the promise of three-layered torte or meringues that hover like clouds behind the glass display case, then we could go to the beach.

There is nothing to be done. We should eat.
And? Which did you choose?

Now we can go to the beach, following the trail that is lined with sea berries, which are rust red on one side and bleached white on the other. We can dodge the tide and look up at the dunes, where the wind pushes at the stalks of grass and makes them bend like an army of old men that refuse to fall.
The waves chop placidly at the shore, but this doesn’t stop one suspicious dog from chasing them up and down, biting down on the white furls just as they break and disappear, thwarting him yet again. We count seashells and see the fanned remains of seabird wings, lost to some unknown tragedy. A little further down the beach a stick rises up from the shoreline like a frozen cobra.
There is something else on this beach that I want to show you, but I loved the place so much I was unable to scale down the photos enough to include them here. Instead I will post them tomorrow, so they can stand alone in all their glory.

All that remains is to offer a big friendly greeting to any newcomers to this blog. I’ve rarely been so delightfully shocked in all my life.

16 Feb 2010

Pure. Dead. Brilliant.

I'm feeling a bit aff ma heid. Each day I can expect about 20-40 visits to this wee patch of Internet. Tonight I arrived home to find that more than 250 have wandered through. It would seem the folks at Blogger have pinned me with the cyber ribbon Blog of Note.

Since I don't have a post planned until tomorrow I shall say a bloody big thank you to Blogger and to everyone who has paid a visit today. I present to you a small gift of two photos to mark the slow transition from deep winter to early spring: snowdrops and sea berries.

7 Feb 2010

Small place, big temptations

When it is grey and rainy and your trip to the beach has been cancelled, and the entire day lies before you like a long shadowless frown, remember that Scotland is a small country, thereby making it possible to easily take a bus or train somewhere new. If the purpose of your amended journey is food based, then you could do worse than finding yourself on the tiny main street of Bridge of Allan.

Following the closure of a long-running copper mine to the east of the village in the early 1800s, the big change came a few years later when the water in the area was found to be rich in minerals. Thus began Bridge of Allan’s boom as spa town. The Victorian era saw thousands of people travelling there each year in order to soak and steam their way back to health and vitality.

Today Bridge of Allan is known more as a haunt for food lovers. For a tiny place it boasts five entries in one of my favourite guidebooks, Scotland Recommends. Four of the five entries are to do with food, while the fifth notes the town’s history as a Victorian spa town.
The first place on the list is filed under the heading “delicatessens not to be missed." The Clive Ramsay deli is a long, narrow shop packed with meats, cheeses, chocolates, breads, jams, wines, (deep breath) chutneys, biscuits, meats, olives… you get the idea. I scooped up a jar of lime curd and two little potted desserts before we went next door to the café for lunch.

It was difficult to forgo the haggis cooked with a measure of Drambuie, wrapped in a filo pastry. Even harder was saying no to Scottish wild venison sausage with parsnip mash and port wine gravy. However, my choices of goats' cheese over Stornoway black pudding on a bed of Scottish beetroot and crunchy salad, followed by a warm salad of king scallops and Scottish bacon with a hollandaise dressing, did not disappoint. Unfortunately the prawn and bacon salad photo did not turn out, but behold this goats' cheese marvel and the hand-cut chips.
Dessert was but steps away across the street, where The Allanwater Café (founded 1902) holds two listings in this particular guidebook. The first is for its fish and chips, which we had to pass up if we had any wish of enjoying the second claim to fame: ice cream.

I launched myself towards the chocolate sundae, while my friend had the alcohol-laced Boozy Baba. While the vanilla ice cream was rich and delicious, the small mountain of little marshmallows cheapened the flavours for me, and I wish sorely that I had chosen the Boozy Baba as well (I did have a taste and it was splendid).

Walking slowly now, there was one stop left on this, the foodies tour of Bridge of Allan, which was Woodwinters Wines and Whiskies, listed as one of the best independent wine shops in the country. Not being a drinker, I bought my beloved a bottle of Deanston 1993 Highland Single Malt, which owes its deep red colour to spending 18 months in a port cask. Apparently it promises a nose of soft milk chocolate with red berry fruits, a palate with some “pretty violet notes with some spice and fresh red berry fruits” and a crème Brulee and gentle floral finish.

There you have it. So if its raining and you just don’t know what to do, head to Bridge of Allan and let your nose and taste buds lead you in a pinball game back and forth across the street until you stumble to the train station smiling a glorious, gluttonous smile.

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