Tuesday, August 29, 2006
It was a good way to break back into mainland life. But also one that saw me face the hardest night of abstention thus far: watching my friend and drinking partner of ten years decant and then drink over a hundred pounds’ worth of vintage port. It was a choice between that and a 1997 Pomerol, although we would have had both had I been in the game. I sat there in mild euphoria quietly embracing a feeling of utter, bone-headed stupidity for being so fanatical in my pursuit. Resisting the urge to reach out for the glass is easy compared to coping with that feeling, which has stayed with me since and has rocked my senseless stance at the core.
So it was good, in this way, to be back amongst the safety routine of Home last night, throwing a big pan of student pasta together and getting especially ripped on my remaining stash. And I am now about to throw myself right back into the deep end with a three day trip to the land of the fondue, washed down with litres of cheap white wine and finished off with grappa; of the argentine steaks and infinite butter&garlic sauce cleaned up by kilos of lightly chilled Gamay from the fields behind; of the best penne ever sold, with gallons of slightly fizzy vino rosso. All the potential is there to exhume a period of life spent mainly in a horrific state of drunkenness or blacked out, leading ultimately to my near deportation and the hospitalization of an elderly woman. I will also doubtless want to resuscitate my daily soft-pack of Marlboro for a quid fifty a pop, and marvel at the ease of walking in to a shop to buy, from time to time, a bag of my favourite grass. Or put a few loose coins to good use in a DVD cabin. Why can’t we do it like the Swiss?
Saturday, August 26, 2006
The end of the holiday looms. Nothing left to do but sleep, pack and get on the boat, slotting in a final breakfast of puddings, eggs and scones somewhere so that I don’t have to face the scary breakfast on-board.
But I could do with a break from the tatties, right enough. Tonight’s scallop and langoustine pie near ended us. I also almost managed to fuck its mornay-like sauce. I had been reducing a couple of glasses of white wine, see, but owing to some child-related interruption I had taken my eye off it and let it almost evaporate. So I tried to compensate by splashing a little more from the bottle into the light brown roux I was mixing. It went to pieces immediately, and remained the same liquid consistency as I added the milk. So I mixed a little with more flour in a cup and also an egg yolk and mixed that back into the pan. It seemed to work, and I set about seasoning it with plenty of freshly grated nutmeg while chomping langoustine tails dipped in a little bowl of mayonnaise rubbed with garlic and spiked with lemon juice. I boiled up the shells for a quick shellfish stock, nipping out for a fat pipe in a ruined and midge infested kirk, and added that to my sauce along with some strong cheddar.
The scallops were the fattest and most tender I have ever seen, the knife cutting effortlessly [for the first time this week] through the creamy solid cylinders to create a layer on the bottom of a heavily buttered dish. The gaps between them I plugged with pink langoustines and the whole lot I coated with my yellowy restored sauce and left to set a little before forking over a layer of mash and topping it all with generous handfuls of more grated cheese. Twenty minutes later and out came a golden slab of scallop and langoustine pie, which I let rest for a good ten minutes before placing on the table with a bowl of spinach and a sense of sadness.
The seafood here is in a different league from the stuff you get everywhere else. I am going to miss it, like I am the rough-grass covered, sheep-shit-scented fields and long deserted white beaches. I will miss the fresh air and the simplicity of doing nothing all day but walk, cook and eat. The food and cooking has been the crowning theme to this the best holiday I’ve ever had. I fucking love this place. I fucking love it.
But I am also aware that I have been living a dream for the last six days, the house being a freebie, nothing to have to do, and a flash rental car with which to forage. We have lived extremely well. But it is a dream, a lifestyle I cannot afford.
I don’t want to leave. I feel as if the stuff in the national newspapers that I look at doesn’t apply to me anymore, and I have no desire to get back to any normality. This is how I want to live: in a house, on its own, in a place where nobody has gardens because they don’t need them. The wind would harden you after a while for sure, but you would learn to lean into it. And you’d be dining more on musky mutton than on scallops & prawns. Your kids would be happy, if moderately mongoloid in their world views.
But then I spotted the caveat, this morning in fact, outside in the hotel at the ferry terminal. It was half past twelve and he was just rocking back and fore outside a door which you would never know was the entrance to a public bar if you hadn’t grown up in a place like this. He looked fierce, scarily out of his head on drink, as if incapable of walking. There was no telling what he was going to do next, although he appeared to be trying to get back in. There was no ceremony, nobody else around. There was probably only another one or two on the inside. It was broad daylight on a drizzly Saturday midday. He was in his early 40s by the looks of him, taking into account the five to eight years’ pickling, and was wearing one of those padded checked work-shirts, a pair of dirty blue jeans and some non-descript off-white trainers. Weekend wear. This wasn’t some vagrant or hopeless case. He was a probably just a local family man, a builder and part-time crofter perhaps. He would have got himself home in the end, as he does every Saturday. And he might be happy. A warm goodbye to these isles.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
It set me up for the day’s drive to the next island south for some sight seeing, the
I had wanted to buy live, but as soon as I bit into the fat red and white tail I realized that this was as fresh as it gets. I halved it and served it with hot garlic butter; a boule of crabmeat perched roughly on top a concasse of finely chopped cherry tomatoes bound with oil, lemon and seasoned generously; and a sweet pile of garden lettuce coated in a tart lemon dressing. Brown bread smeared with soft salty butter to bulk it out and I sat there until every last cubic millimetre of flesh was picked and sucked from the alien carcase. This was untouchable, and the perfect accompaniment to my icy morning swim and bracing lunchtime beach walk. I went to bed a happy, happy man, tired and topped up with a simple course of cheese and small, dark, moist Hebridean oatcakes.
Today began with a breakfast of smoked haddock poached in milk and butter with a couple of crushed leftover tatties. It set us up good for the day’s walk, which saw us roam mile upon mile of unspoiled, deserted white beach, stopping under the shelter of the dunes to assemble some crab sandwiches and “donner” salad bags -- a good handful of washed&dried leaves in a food bag, shaken about when ready with a sharp, salty lemon dressing and eaten by gripping the base of the bag, rolling down the sides and chomping through the firm green leaves as if they were a greasy big kebab. I was sat there in my version of heaven, my bare sandy feet drying off in the wind and my skin burning from another three-minute romp in the
By the end of the day we were in need of something hearty for tea, and something early. So as soon as I had taken my boots off I was stuffing a half shoulder of best Hebridean lamb with garlic and salt to give it a good slow roast. Keeping things as simple as possible I also roasted a tray of the last of the tatties, thinly sliced, and the sweetest courgettets I’ve ever tasted, with plenty of good olive oil and salt. Some green cabbage and a handful of broad beans also had to be used up, and I brought everything together with a quick gravy by deglazing the roasting tray with red wine, adding a tiny little amount of flour and loosening it up with water from the veg. Eating sheep felt right. I love this place. I don’t remember feeling this content. I am savouring every last fucking moment.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
I awoke this morning with the very strong urge to walk over to the beach, strip off to my bollocks and swim westward until I tired and was claimed by the icy currents. En route to St Kilda, what a lovely thought; knowing I would never ever reach it, not even able to see it, yet deliriously content for my last few hours with the aims of my trip, the thought of washing up on those lonely shores, leaving my family with nothing but the tragic irony of my dying while trying to reach a place that is uninhabitable.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
I am getting frightened. I am taking to this place like oil to mustard. I love it here, the rawness of the treeless, wind-battered and sheep-strewn landscape and the feeling that I have stepped out of society. But my eyes are wide open too, and central to my feeling of contentedness has been the priceless boot-full of fresh garden vegetables and fish that we imported.
There is no knife of any use in this otherwise wonderful and well-equipped house. The wind and rain is lashing at the windows behind me. My lungs are pumped with the richest air I’ve breathed, my skin dry from the sea air, and my growing belly full again of salmon baked in foil with butter, white wine and salt. We had smoked salmon for breakfast, thick slices of the stuff loosened up with some lemon and black pepper and piled on hot brown buttered toast. Tonight’s fish was still clinging to the spine in the centre, the way it should be, and was served with a bowl of cave nero, baby carrots, fat garden peas and soft slices of creamy potato roasted with capers and plenty of premium salt. Big dollops of Hellman’s to ease it on down, and I am already looking forward to a breakfast of salmon to fuel my morning reckie.
Monday, August 21, 2006
It was an absolute pleasure to be straining that stock in my dressing gown, putting it on the hob once again to reduce to a sexy gloss while I rubbed some soft Scottish butter, flour and brown sugar to make a crumble. Today was all about assembly, nothing more. Once I had finished the last of the prep and got some air into my lungs I fried a few shallots and leeks in butter and pork fat, a little garlic and then a third of a bottle of white wine. In went the soaked flagolets and ladlefuls of hot, thick, brown stock. The sweet earthy smell of the beans mixed with the deep meaty flavour of the liquid told you that this food was going to fill you up in places other food simply cannot reach.
Once the stew had been taken to a gentle simmer, I propped the marinated leg of pork in a tray with a couple of skewers and some tatties and threw it into the oven. It roasted up a treat, the crackling an inch high, bone dry and a deep orange colour. The meat was so tender and flavoursome that it made you want to weep, a spoonful of the sleepy bean stew helping you on your way and the only thing saving you being a smidgen of sharp apple and butternut squash sauce. This slow-cooked core of the meal was spruced up by a pile of vegetables less than an hour from the ground: bright orange carrots shaped like assorted Greek sex statues and packed with a sweetness closer to youth than anything else you will find; some large fresh peas, slightly mushy to help mop up the thick brown sauce; and a heap of soft green cabbage.
And we all sat there, the first time the family Unit had been together for some years now, stuffing ourselves with this simple but deeply sensual of meals. There is just something about this particular meat and bean combo that gets to people, even if they don’t realise it. Perhaps it’s something about the three-day prep, watching it come together slowly and knowing that there this is the only way it can be cooked. There are no shortcuts.
It also fuelled an impromptu ceildh on the kitchen floor, a wonderful spontaneous piece of highland madness – a family riddled with behind-the-scenes “issues” all deciding to say “fuck it” and have a fucking dance. The Wife, not from these parts, didn’t know quite what to make of it at first. But within minutes she had poured herself a stiff voddie and coke and was frantically grappling with a tin of golden vag for a rollie. It was fucking marvellous.
And now Phase 1 of our
Saturday, August 19, 2006
I feel relieved, and nostalgic with it. You can be under the impression, while living away from the place where you grew up, that things have changed since you left and that people are no longer doing the wild and crazy things you and your friends did in the good old days. Today I had that romantic notion swept swiftly aside, thanks to a visit to a Highland Gathering a few tens of miles up the coast.
It was pissing with rain as we slipped around the sodden field looking for a place to park. It didn’t take long, given that there was barely a handful of people standing around the track-and-field arena and just one kilted meat-head lobbing a 16lb hammer around his head in the centre. Or so it seemed. On closer inspection it became obvious that everyone was in the beer tent, getting fucking rubbered. As I walked passed the entrance my heart almost fluttered at the smell that wafted from it, a sweet mixture of grass, rain, whisky, fags and warm Tennents lager. It was heaven. I had to go in to soak it up, and then I remembered what this sort of drinking looks like up close. The faces, purple and glazed; the eyes, focussing for too long on each object and following just a fraction of a second behind every movement of their host; and the defiantly proud “fuck it” stance achieved by leaning slightly backwards with a cheap plastic shot-glass full of rum, vodka or whisky in one hand, the obligatory Can in the other and a maddened, glassy leer. And the under-agers, huddled for shelter under the amusements with bottles of Stella, were everywhere you looked, fresh-faced but ultimately fucked.
It all seemed so blatant. It was two in the afternoon. You just don’t see this sort of abuse anywhere else, so engrained in the community. And it was strangely warming to see that the craic is every bit as head-banging as it ever was. Nothing has changed, except the people I remembered from high school. They looked like the scary blokes that kids tend to avoid, and thankfully were far too gone to recognise me.
And then, after arriving back home to my pan of boiling beef bones, I walked past the neighbour’s house to hear the back door open and a sharp, gritty female voice shouting: “YOU COMING IN FOR A DRAM”. It wasn’t a question, it was a demand, and the urgency with which the tiny little septegenarian figure in the doorway delivered it struck a resonance. They were getting fucking wrecked in there on cheap whisky and, as has been customary every time I come back here, I was being invited to join in. My immediate gut-reaction was one of sheer excitement, like suddenly seeing the girl you are besotted with at school appear ahead of you in the corridor. But then almost simultaneously you remember that she is not your girlfriend and has, in fact, never spoken to you. So I went inside and muttered mutterings about being off it and they took that on board easily enough. They looked far more concerned with the job at hand -- sitting in their bricked-up caravan in the middle of the Highlands, where they will both die, getting ripped to the tits at four in the afternoon on dirty glasses of drinking whisky. It’s a warming image, and one that transcends my stressed and self-obsessed life in the south.
Speaking of which, I now have that smug feeling of having tomorrow’s finale all in hand, with a bowl full of fine flageolet beans soaking; a heavy disk of best free range pork thigh marinating in a dry spice mix of star-anise, cloves and Chinese fivespice; and, best of all, a tall thick pan full of silky brown stock that I have just turned off after 9 hours of skimming.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Tonight we had an uncle round to help eat the grilse he’d donated. It was about five pounds in weight and ultra fresh, so I poached it whole in a fish kettle and served it seventies style on a bed of leaves replete with lemon scales and curly parsley. With it we stuffed our faces on soft Maris Pipers roasted with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and salt and, added later, olives and mini plum tomatoes; and a green salad fresh from the garden coated in a sharp anchovy and lemon dressing. It was well-seasoned, in your face food that was all laid out on the table for us to pass between each other and dig into. It was very satisfying to sit back and watch the meal make everyone happy, primarily because it provided a great way to avoid conversation. Food as it should be. Now I face the less than trivial prospect of sourcing a kilo of flagolets for
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The Motor Grill in Ballenuig is an institution. It is as much part of my trips back here as sitting on the midge-infested river bank at sunset having a fly rollie or, on this occasion, a fat hooter from the huge bag of grass I didn’t forget to pack. The precise form of delivery has varied over the years, but I seem to be converging on the ultimate in guilty pleasure: a scotch pie, chips and beans.
A scotch pie, for anyone left wanting, is a puck-sized case of oil-based pastry filled with minced lamb fat, gristle and salt. It came in a large microwave-friendly plate saying “horrific” in every known language, and I immediately set about seasoning it accordingly. First the vinegar: heavy on the beans and a splash on the chips to help stick a few tens of thousands of crystals of cheap salt; followed by ketchup and/or brown sauce for the pie. You barely need to rest your knife on the rim of one of these fuckers for it to start sinking into the sloppy crust, a dirty oozing arsehole-like vent in the top giving you a sneak preview of the insipid grey matter within, which starts to spill out the sides helped along by a glistening coating of grease and oil.
You don’t eat a scotch pie, it performs a combination of evaporation and dissolution on the tongue leaving nothing but a clammy thick layer of fat in the back of your throat. The acidic tones of the tomato- and brown-sauce helps sooth the pain, as does the mug of warm milky powdery coffee and two slices of economy white toast spread with value marg. It would have to be finished off with an Embassy Red for it to classify as a true Highland Classic. But having wolfed it down in a matter of minutes I felt like a king; it felt like I was going home.
Not that this is what I have been eating since arriving. This morning I was handed two fat vacpacks of best smoked salmon and asked if I was cooking, so I made some pasta with a mornay-like sauce of egg yolks and cream, shallots and wine based, tossed with the firm pink fish and spinach from the garden. Some nutmeg and pepper to finish, and served with a salad of garden leaves with a simple lemon dressing and a hot loaf of rosemary and olive-oil encrusted bread. There is a salmon with my name on it in the freezer too, just packed up whole and untouched in a carrier bag and stuffed any which way but loose into a drawer, Highland style. And there is a hunk of best pork from a pig called
The drink is bubbling away beside me, chemical bonds being formed that will one day cause someone to sit fully clothed in the shower wishing they hadn’t moved up here, that their life had gone differently; or perhaps providing the perfect accompaniment to a simple summer lunch of bread, salads and cheese that will never be eaten outside either on account of the midges, the hurricane or the fact that the dour culinary culture of this heathen land has branded such eating practises “for pricks”.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
I had once again stopped off at Tesco for a quick recipe and came out, again, with the only meat I can eat from there: lamb, this time a rolled shoulder. It cost three quid, so I bought a couple of cans of borlotti beans too and a savoy cabbage for the craic. When I came home I fried off some shallot and celery and garlic in a roasting dish and tipped in the beans, a little water, some fresh rosemary, bay, laid the unrolled shoulder across the top and put into a hot oven for 45 minutes until the fat was crispy.
I also made some ice cream to get rid of the pots of birthday cream standing in the fridge, a vanilla with just the right vanilla, creaminess and sweetness. It was the perfect ice cream, with no less than 6 medium egg yolks, or at least it would have been had I not first checked the wooden spoon I used to stir the custard. The result is a pint of garlic and onion bolognaise-base vanilla dessert, which at least served to lighten thigns up later on. I will never again use a wooden spoon to stir custard.
Friday, August 11, 2006
I had planned to buy nothing in this weekend in order to use up everything in the cupboards before going on holiday. But in fact there is little fresh stuff there anyway. Cooking by condiment is the reason, as is no better illustrated than tonight’s creamy lamb, coconut and spinach curry. Once I had fried off the veg with plenty of coriander powder, fennel seeds, tumeric and some cumin I deglazed the pan with water and then added about a pint of water to it, boiling up the messy orange brew for a couple of minutes before letting it simmer for half an hour to release the flavours.
I then passed the spicy mess through a sieve to leave a thick paste, into which I tossed the spinach and returned to the pan. The water in the leaves loosened up the sauce, and in went a good few chunks of coconut, the browned meat, and the lid to simmer for a wee while as the rice cooked. I finished it off with fresh basil and parsley and served it piping hot with a dod of cream and a few of the last shavings of coconut off the block. Creamy, slippery green bands of spinach and bite-sized chunks of meat all soaking in a thick dark yellow sauce, into which I had mixed a couple of tablespoons of full fat yoghurt in at the end. Fuel for tomorrow’s worktops and tiles and pizza.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
A most miserable meal the other night, comprising two slices of processed supermarket bread toasted and spread with some fridge-cold factory-processed pesto. It was the kitchen refit that had sealed it, again, and the associated cost optimization procedures of base-units, tiles, sinks, taps, worktops, dishwashers, … So the following day, to use up some mince, I made a couple of burgers and served them with some soft halved potatoes roasted skin-on with rosemary and good olive oil, plus some leaves and salad. The mince I had seasoned generously and a pinch of mustard powder made the patties even tastier.
“Life” seems to be getting almost too busy to make space for cooking. So last night I continued with the midweek quickies with small bowls of spaghetti with a few tomatoes and some garlic warmed in lots of good olive oil, toasted pine nuts and a grubby great handful of fresh basil leaves. It was a sincere improvement over the pesto toast, completed by loads of fresh salty parmesan and some black pepper and the browning remainder of a Tesco salad pack.
Today, however, I cooked up a birthday treat of pan fried salmon fillet with crushed potato salad and a caper dressing. The fish I had trimmed into two halves from the bony chassis and placed skin-side down on a hot Teflon pan, pressing to ensure the whole surface was covered. The tatties I had boiled and crushed with a fork, and then mixed with leeks that had been sliced and sautéed in butter with salt and black pepper; a little cream left over from the making of my birthday cake to loosen it all up. And then applied, cement-like to the centre of the large white plates and topped with two crisp Fillets O’ Fish. My belly full of a buttery sponge with cream, jam, icing and marshmallows. Thirty two years old. And a birthday present that may top the lot: a day out at The Duck.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Today was spent getting frustrated with not being able to get cracking on today’s food, on account of the yellowing pools of congealed piss coating my toilet rim and the realisation that I could scratch my name in the sink walls. Apart from finding it personally disgusting I was aware that, restaurant or no restaurant, you can’t serve food to someone and then let them relive themselves in such squalor.
I eventually got started at around half past one with the desert, throwing some butter and sugar into ramekins and into the top of a hot oven, just leaving me time to clean up the various pieces of broken crayon, play dough, toys, paper, books, socks, teething rings and cups&plates that had accumulated, before filling the pots with sliced apples and putting them back into to caramelize. Which they did, but only just.
I then set about slicing some aromatics for a bean stew, sweating them off in pork fat that I had trimmed from the belly then doing away with the can of cider from the fridge that has been hanging around for Far Too Long, followed by the soaked flagolets beans, pint of fleshy chicken stock and a fat bouquet garni. Once that was simmering away I took out the apple pots and left them to cool while I made a dry crumble topping. I then withdrew the marinated pork belly from the fridge and put it in a hot oven, leaving only a quick apple sauce to make and a visit next door to pick a few blackberries for a sweet coulis. It is a pain to find good, dried flagolets, and you need good stock, but it really is hard to beat the crispy fatty pork, sleepy earthy beans and a tart apple sauce. It was 25 degrees today, which sounds far too hot for such a dish, but the cider and plenty of flat-leafed parsley at the end, not to mention the mustardy salad of leaves, kept it summery.
Friday, August 04, 2006
Food wasn’t really on the cards tonight, and I knew I had the rest of a ham hand and a few bits and pieces to liven it up.
I boiled a few more tatties and a big handful of fine green beans, and sliced and cooked in butter one of the overly expensive fennel bulbs I had picked up at the smelly farmers’ market. I tossed it all in with the remaining beetroot & rocket salad and the rest of the ham trimmed and torn into bite-sized chunks, all of it coated in a simple vinaigrette. The fennel, which I had flambéed in some Ricard for the craic, was extremely sweet owing to the slight caramelization of its vulvaic cross section. It was soft and delicious; organic, inconsequentially, and more like a light green plait of tender shoots than the giant bulb of woody stems typical of the supermarket variety. It went very well with the hand, which has fed us now for two days at a cost just £2.80. If I don’t put the Loaf off this minute, I am going to wash it all down with the ice cold tin of Scrumpy Jack that has been tormenting me from the depths of the fridge for hte last 5 weeks.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
I am feeling vulnerable with respect to the bottle these days, nervous about going up North in a couple of weeks perhaps. It’s no exaggeration to say that nobody up there understands the concept of abstinence. If they do, it’s only in the context of a break between horrific benders that last months or, in some cases, years. I think I have started to falter due to a sense that nobody gives a shit. It’s not that I was ever aware of doing this for anyone, but perhaps I was hoping that it would impact those around me in ways that I could see and understand and therefore help fuel the whole head-banging exercise.
Certainly, the thought of me on our lovely wee family trip to the Outer Hebrides lugging a huge crate full of drink because I have to is not an attractive one, not so much because it will force me to face to the shear volume of alcohol that I was going to put down me just to get through the week (that kind of realization, for some dangerous reason, has never managed to get to me), but in the picture of loneliness it paints: my healthy, happy young family around me and me sat there, bloated and dulled and up to the eyeballs because I have no choice. And then having to get more in before the week’s out, beers and such like, not to mention the two or three pub visits dressed up as family lunches and the harrowing prospect of my visiting our temporary neighbour – an alky who I have been warned not to feed whisky of any type or form. Baggage, probably about a hundred quid’s worth, that I tell myself over and over again that I am better off without.