Sunday, 21 August 2011

Signs I like number 20-something

Seen off the Royal Mile today at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe... I think we can all agree that this looks like a genuine bargain!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Between the wars... a prize find.

"Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars

Billy Bragg (from "Between the wars")

We stayed at Carcant, a sheep farm and hill estate in the Moorfoot Hills near Heriot in the Scottish Borders, a couple of weekends ago. There, we came upon this wonderful old collection above the door of an old barn, now a workshop and tool store for the residents. At first, I thought these were prize certificates for their sheep dog trial prowess (as they are indeed champion sheep dog triallers!) but closer inspection revealed these to be a set of prize certificates from the Selkirk and Galashiels Agricultural Society from the 1920s. I couldn't help but imagine the old farmer and his wife, maybe their children, returning home with another collection of certificates from another successful showing of their cattle or sheep at the local show and proudly pinning them above the door. Maybe glances at these through the year inspired them in their early morning animal feeding and mucking out chores with competitive thoughts of the coming show season.

It was a wonderful wee corner of nostalgic memorabilia for a Scottish agricultural way of life that is long, long gone although, fortunately, the agricultural shows remain, as does the culture of sheep dog trialling (but that's something for another time). And, another somewhat poignant thought that it raised was that I now now longer have any near relatives left who were alive when this set of small personal triumphs was being accumulated. It marks a time, at least 85 years ago, that is now some two or nearly three generations old and its survival in a working barn is all the more remarkable for that. I felt privileged to be able to observe it and record it.

Carcant's wonder wall...
A close up of some certificates, ranging between 1920 and 1926.
Here's what this unexpected find made me think of, one of my favourite songs by Billy Bragg:

Food from the Park: June

Flaming June? Not for most of the month, it wasn't, in Stirling at least. But we still managed to eat from the Park again in June. And, in wild food terms, it might seem a logical conclusion that the availability of edible species would continue to increase in June as it does in the run of months from March to May. But our experience is that while some new options for a wild food diet do indeed appear, other options become less palatable. Nettles, ground elder, common hogweed and cleavers in the Park, which provided the bulk of vegetable mass for meals in the previous months, have all grown up and become tough, coarse and/or incredibly fibrous. Hawthorn leaves, so soft and nutty-tasting when they first appeared, and lovely in salads in that state, have also toughened up and dropped off our menu. By June, the leaves of wild garlic were also beginning to die back.

But, fortunately for the wild food gastronaut, there are new kids on the block in June. From mid-June in Stirling, the creamy-white, fragrant umbrellas of flowers, or umbals, of the elder can be found in profusion on elder bushes all around the edge of the Park (see below). As I've written previously, the elder is an important source of ingredients for wild food - in winter, we picked the jelly ear or Jew's ear fungus from dead elder trees. In autumn, I have no doubt that we'll find ways to incorporate elder berries into a meal. And in summer, well, best of all is elder blossom. Every summer, we make a big batch of elderflower cordial. We drink it usually with sparkling water but sometimes just with tap water, and often with ice cubes, frozen raspberries and the blue flowers of borage from the garden thrown in. It's a bit special.

We started making this year's cordial about in early June and we finished the last bottle of last year's stock three weeks later, so 12 litres must be about right, since we don't stint on its use during the year! We use the recipe in the book "Sensational Preserves" by Hilaire Walden, which includes the addition of citric acid to prevent fermentation. Actually, we made about 14 litres last year but two bottles fermented, probably as we didn't have quite enough citric acid left for the recipe by the end of the season - so 12 litres survived.

Elderflowers - raw material for one of summer's true wild food delights!

 Here's a picture of our final elderflower cordial "product" for 2011, labelled up as a bit of fun.

Our 2011 elderflower cordial collection

The other special wild food that appeared in June was wild raspberries, which are usually abundant in our Park and which few people bother to collect. We usually harvest about 6 kg of these over the several-week long season and these are mostly frozen for use through the year, in porridge and in puddings (and, once, to make a framboise liqueur).

Wild raspberries in King's Park.
 Our raspberry season usually begins with us simply eating the first ripe berries off the bush for a couple of weeks in early-mid June when we are out walking the dog, until there are enough ripe berries to make it worthwhile doing some organised picking. The 6 kg total usually arrives in about half-to-one kg batches, which is what we can pick in about 30 minutes with both of us picking. That's generally because 30 minutes is about the limit of my patience with the nettles and bramble thorns that interweave the Park's raspberry patches. Unless we are planning to cook them down for something, in which case, they can be frozen in a lump, we normally freeze them laid out in a single layer on baking trays in the freezer and then bag up the already-frozen berries.

The 2011 raspberry season began worryingly slowly and it looked like last winter's extremely extended and severe cold spell had killed off the majority of the raspberry canes (wild raspberries produce the current year's fruit on the previous year's new growth). That had indeed happened and there were large areas normally dense with raspberry canes which were almost devoid this year, but the remaining survivors seemed to have benefitted hugely from the very warm dry spell of weather in April, resulting in a great pollination and a huge crop on the remaining bushes. We picked steadily through late June and all of July such that, with the final picking session in our raspberry season, we managed to bring our total to just over 6 kg again this year (by the very end of July, when I wrote this catch-up note).

Incidentally, we also managed to include some Salicornia or glasswort in our diet in June, a salt marsh pioneer plant that has been eaten in Britain for thousands of years. Highly nutritious but if eaten too regularly, it might wear away your teeth due to its high silicon content (it is called glasswort after all!). I seem to recall reading that people from some prehistoric coastal populations in Britain were found, by archaeologists examining their remains from graves, to have wear patterns on their teeth consistent with a high consumption of glasswort.  We didn't pick this ourselves - O bought it from the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar shop. It must have been harvested wild (no one grows it commercially here - or anywhere?), and probably locally to Loch Fyne.

[Addendum, 4th August: Excitingly (admittedly I don't get out much), I was on a bus in Portobello yesterday and saw Salicornia for sale in the window of a traditional fishmonger's - the one with the window constantly washed by a curtain of running water; if you are local, you may know it. Maybe it is becoming more popular. I'd love to know where they source it from].

 We ate it (the green stuff above) as an accompaniment to a breakfast of smoked salmon scrambled eggs, made with Loch Fyne smoked salmon and eggs from our Stirling friend Judy's chickens. Slightly salty and you have to pull the edible vegetable portion off with your teeth and leave the central slightly woody stalk. A slightly odd breakfast item but pretty tasty nevertheless.