Friday, 31 December 2010

Oh, What a Knife

I am now the proud owner of a Wüsthof Flexibel Fischfiliermesser 6" 4516/16cm made in Solingen, Germany. Otherwise known as my new fish filleting knife.

I have already put it to good use slicing up an enormous side of smoked salmon, from Moidart Smokehouse, kindly gifted to me (oh, and my wife) by one of my brothers. Who would have thought that slicing up smoked salmon could be such an enjoyable and calming experience? I must be accessing my inner surgeon. And where would the surgeon be with a blunted scalpel or enormous cleaver in place of a precision instrument? Private practice probably, charging a Harley Street fortune for ironic dark-ages-style operations.

Sorry, I digress. We have been eating the salmon every day since Christmas day - usually just with some lemon juice and black pepper. But I have also tried it to great effect on oatcakes with some cheap (Lidl) caviar. I'm intending to have some tomorrow, mixed in with soft and creamy scrambled eggs but I'd better wait and see what state of health the morrow brings before committing to such an endeavour.

I'm not one for making any New Year's resolutions but I can say, with some certainty, that I will be collecting, buying and generally acquiring many more gastronomic delights to dissect and deliver to you in a (very fine to the point of translucence) slice-of-life manner.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Still Haven't Found What I'm Dooking For

If you're not familiar with the Scots word "dooking", it's the rough equivalent of the word "bobbing" as used in bobbing for apples.

I'm using it here in reference to a cormorant we watched today dooking for its lunch and coming up with a sizeable flatfish. Like the heron I referred to in a previous post this cormorant was unable to get the fish down its gullet. After a prolonged performance in front of our binoculars it gave up and tossed the fish aside with a contemptuous flick of its head, before preening and swimming off nonchalantly to sun itself on a nearby rock.

The shape of flatfish could be seen as an evolutionary advantage if it were the case that seabirds such as herons and cormorants wouldn't bother with them because of their "unswallowable" form factor. But it's hard to see getting killed but not being eaten because your predator can't be bothered to find a way to eat you that doesn't disturb its immaculate poise, as much of an advantage.

Another theory (and another flatfish) for the bin.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Drinks and Nibbles

I must be my mother's son. When things get bad my instinct is to feed people. Perhaps it's just the distraction that cooking provides under difficult circumstances. When there is little that can be said or done to help, providing food to tired and emotional people is at least somewhat useful.

Despite everything, Christmas has been enjoyable. I have been spoiled with foodie treats and I'm sure that over the next few days/weeks I will go into those in more detail. For the moment I just wanted to mention some rather unusual drinks and nibbles which we "enjoyed" here before heading to my parents' house for the Christmas feast.

I've been reading about the potential benefits of humans turning more toward eating insects. They are, apparently, a rich and very efficient source of protein. So, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and purchased a small selection of entomological delicacies via a website. My family and I were tucking into the more usual pre-dinner staples of cashew nuts and crisps, when I remembered my purchases. We snacked on BBQ Worm Crisps and Thai Green Curry Crickets, followed by Chocolate-covered Giant Ants, all washed down with a delectable rosé port.

Some of our guests turned up their noses at these delights but those who did try them responded with a resounding "OK, really" or "not that bad". After overcoming his initial squeamishness my six-year-old nephew decided that he liked them all but that the Chocolate-covered Ants were his favourite.

I'm intending to track down some locust meats in the New Year. I've heard that they're quite like prawns. Thai green locust curry here we come.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Brandy and Port

It's so quiet. Soft snow on top of a frozen underlayer blankets the ground, deadening sound. I can hear my ears ringing. The mountains on the mainland are partially obscured by snowclouds and falling snow. The low sun is a pale orange glow spreading out to touch the mountaintops.

The mallards are quite at home in this weather. They scoot, silently today, on the calm water near the shore, heads tucked tightly into bodies.

This weather makes my thoughts turn to brandy and port. It's 9.45am so I'm not intending to indulge right now. Maybe later. Brandy and port is a good ostentatious, christmassy, wintry drink. I defy you not to have your cockles warmed by it. It is redolent of an imagined past of Dickensian fireside good-cheer.

I make brandy and port using Spanish brandy (or more correctly Brandy de Jerez) rather than the traditional cognac. It has a cleaner, less cloying flavour.

If you have a proper fish-bowl-sized brandy glass in which to swirl it contemplatively, before putting it down gently in order to steeple your fingers, narrow your eyes and commence telling a bone-chilling, snow-encrusted ghost story then so much the better.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Can't Get No Flatisfaction

Golden light is the order of the morning. The warmth of the sunrise colours belies the bitter cold; re-frozen snow-melt makes for treacherous footing on deck and path; snow clouds intermittently obscure the mountain tops.

You may be able to make out a heron in the foreground of this photo. We have seen quite a few high up on the shore the last few days. They appear to be spending more time in this area and less out on the exposed rocks. Perhaps they change their feeding habits when it's this cold.

We watched one a few days ago, trying to tackle its hard-earned meal. It had managed to spear a decent sized flatfish and quickly set about attempting to eat it. The heron first shook the fish off its beak, then grabbed it again and tried to swallow it whole. This didn't succeed, as the flatfish was simply too wide to go down its gullet. It then dropped the fish and began to toss it about and hack at it: this didn't seem to evoke much nutrition either. It tried the swallowing routine once more before giving up and flying off in a lazy arc across the bay, unsated but with dignity intact.

I suppose it can't be easy trying to fit the wide body of a half-dead flatfish into the narrow hole of a heron gullet. Kind of like trying to eat a sandwich bigger than your head while the filling struggles to make a run for it.

Monday, 22 November 2010


One Christmas, a few years back, we received a hamper of fancy Italian food. It was all beautifully packaged and presented, and all labelled in Italian, so we weren't sure exactly what was inside the enticing packages and jars. We decided not to spoil the surprise by researching it all.

One of the most mysterious packages was a foil vacuum-packed one marked "Stinco". This sounded pretty unpleasant and we weren't sure quite what noxious vapours might issue forth when we opened it. To our surprise, but slight disappointment, it turned out to be what looked like a fairly ordinary cooked smoked ham hough (also known as a "hock" by the language-impaired, unable/unwilling to pronounce a "ch" sound). You can pick up uncooked smoked hough cheap in the local Co-Op, so it seemed a little out of place in a gourmet food basket.

I had underestimated our humble "stinco". We decided it might be best to translate the cooking instructions: these turned out to be a simple matter of slow-roasting it in an oven for several hours. The result was delicious, smoky, stranded meat that just fell off the bone when I went to carve it. We ate it with pickles and chutneys. And lo it came to pass that Christmas-time that our opinion of the humble hough was transformed to exalted heights of culinary appreciation.

The obvious next move was to see if a supermarket hough would work out the same. We did what we would have done previously: boiled up it for lentil soup. Then the magic: we took off the unappealing and waterlogged blubbery fat from the outside of the hough; covered it with oil, seasoning and some herbs; then put it in a low oven for about three hours. Not-so-instant perfect stinco!

I've done some research today. It turns out that the Italian word "stinco" translates simply as "shin". A hough isn't exactly the shin part but is lower down, meaning that it has more fat and tendon on it than the shin. However, it seems that "stinco" is often made using the hough rather than the shin proper. Any rubbery tendon bits break down with the slow-cooking anyway.

We ate stinco for dinner last night, looking out from the dining table at a glittering cold moonlit sea. The lentil soup made from pre-boiling the hough will be my lunch today. Comfort food of the first order.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Cult of Ray

I looked out the window first-thing to see Venus hanging alone in the brightening sky like a frosted jewel; the mountains deep blue and crowned with white; the sea rippling gently below but glassy in the foreground - a motionless heron silhouetted in front of it and reflected in it; the lawn blanketed with hoar frost. It was still too dark to get a decent photo so I just stood and watched.

But I have included a photo I took a couple of days ago, showing an interesting and rather beautiful ray effect as the sun came up behind the mountains. I placed the wee fishing boat in the foreground for added interest.

The days are now breathtakingly short. The sun seems to whip round to the end of the house, scraping the mountain tops along the way, and disappear out out of view before I've even digested my breakfast. I suppose it's a choice of getting up earlier at the weekends or going nocturnal.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Key Ringed

Another stormy night but this time with a biting easterly. Snow on the tops this morning.

I was outside all day yesterday attempting some minor house maintenance. It's amazing how much longer even the simplest jobs take with a freezing cold wind blowing. I don't know how much snot ended up mixed with my paint. I'm sure it won't do any harm.

We've had some interesting bird activity: Ringed Plovers beetling about on the shore and a Sparrowhawk on the gatepost. The Plovers are funny (and a little tricky) to watch. My wife handed me the binoculars and pointed to a muddy-sand-shingle area of the shore where she had been observing three or four of the little birds. Even with the binoculars and looking at the correct area it took me fully five minutes to spot them. They tend to stay still for long periods, then suddenly "scuttle" across the shore en-masse.

The Sparrowhawk visited about a week ago. We have never seen any kind of raptor close to the house, so this was a bit of a treat. They're quite 'delicate' and much smaller than I had imagined. I managed to get a somewhat blurry shot of it through the window glass before it swooped away.

After my bone-freezing and mucus-streaked endeavours outside yesterday I was glad of an invite to dinner at my mother's house. The dessert was a rather toothsome key lime pie, made with zingy lime juice recently imported from Florida by a family member. There was some discussion about where the "key" bit of the name came from (I think we all knew in reality): was it a pie with keys hidden inside, somewhat like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding? There was much juvenile hilarity at my brother's suggestion that that would be more akin to a "Yale log".

Friday, 29 October 2010

Talks a lot of Wind

I'm feeling a little bleary this morning. It's "can't sleep because of the noise of the storm" season, which usually kicks in around November. But it's early this year. Our house is gable-on to the fierce south-westerlies but roof-space bedrooms and large skylight windows mean that all storm noise gets amplified. At 3am everything is amplified.

It's pitch dark when I get up in the morning and even now, at 9am, you couldn't really call it daylight.

I'm currently sitting at my kitchen table, looking south-east. The tide is high and, from this elevation, it looks like the ferocious deep-turquoise sea starts right at the end of my lawn. That's pretty much the case, actually.

The sky has brightened since I started typing and I can now see huge white waves breaking over the point to the right of the bay. The mountains are now visible: bleak but still autumn-yellow. In the foreground a lone seagull hangs in the air, maybe just struggling to make headway.

Welcome to autumn/winter in the north-west Highlands. Time to hunker down. And I'm rather looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Gone native

Back to Gastrobeach after a break in beautiful, autumnal Perthshire. We stayed in a log cabin in a forest by a river. Our American friend who joined us there for a day said it was like a "mini Adirondacks".

It's a crackling frosty morning here. When I opened the blinds the windows were covered with ornate frosted patterns. I looked closely to see if I could spot fractals, reminded of the passing of Mr Mandlebrot this week. The patterns melted quickly to reveal bright sunshine and blue skies. The sun is so dazzling that it's hard for me to look out towards the bay.

As I haven't had a chance to forage since I returned I will just have a rant. The native Oysters Ostrea edulis around the coast of Scotland apparently belong to the queen. What is that all about? It seems wherever you turn in Scotland and however you try to live you come up against some ancient feudal, monarchical ownership rubbish. The law states that Scottish native Oysters are the property of the Crown. How ridiculous.

That being the case I will tell about how I didn't find five juicy native Oysters around the time I was picking Cockles. I did not shuck them (with great difficulty or otherwise). I did not cook them under a hot grill. I did not season them with tabasco and lemon juice. And I absolutely did not eat them and find them absolutely delicious.

I'm quite satisfied that the queen didn't get them either. Case closed.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Skin Deep

It's been blowing a hoolie the past few days. There have been some spectacular sunny breakthroughs, with the murk parting to reveal the deep-blue-grey, white-capped and glinting expanse of the sea. At the weekend we watched a grey heron battling to reach the shore against the fierce southerly wind. At one point it gave up and landed, exhausted, in the middle of the road. The indignity.

It feels like hibernation mode is beginning to kick in. On these wet and windy autumn evenings TV programmes like 'Masterchef: The Professionals' are enjoyable, 'cosy' viewing for borderline-foodies like me. It's just one of those things that sneaks up on you: quite ridiculous and formulaic TV but compulsive viewing nevertheless.

Last evening Michel Roux Jr had set the challenge to the squad of eager young pretenders of preparing a particular salmon dish, served with a vegetable stew and a cream and sorrel sauce. It looked quite delicious and refreshingly simple apart from the treatment of the salmon skin. This was removed after initial searing in a hot pan, then crisped up in a hot oven. So far so good. However, he then proceeded to serve up the dish with the piece of skin stuck upright in the perfect piece of salmon like some gruesome sail. I commented to my wife that it was a grim way to end up: skewered by a crispy piece of your own flayed skin.

I am glad to see recipes emerging where the skin of the fish is cooked in a way that makes people more inclined to eat it. I usually eat my fish skin but I note that a lot of people never do. Maybe that's just because I was always taught not to waste food. And the skin is a nutritious bit of food.

So, if Mr Roux Jr wants to turn his salmon into a little sail boat adrift on a sea of cream and sorrel, wending its ragged way towards a perfectly-prepared-turnip and artichoke archipelago, perhaps we should just let him have his fun. He does have two Michelin stars you know.

Monday, 27 September 2010

I'm Beaching

And what a remarkably splendid day for beaching it was. There was a hint of autumn chill in the air (appropriate I suppose, it now being autumn) as we straggled down to the shore. But the strong sun blazed in our faces, bringing a pleasant illusion of the height of summer. It was a bit of a family outing: my mum and wee nephew came along with my wife and me.

My mother wanted some cockles for dinner, so I took a rake with me and got to work on the banked-up mud mud/shingle areas that usually harbour a reasonable quantity of them. Cockles can also be found just peeking up through the sand, orientated on their sides. But they were being unusually reclusive yesterday, so the rake did the trick. The buried ones develop bands of grey staining from the deeper, dark-coloured mud/sand but this must quickly bleach out when they spend time near the surface (on holiday or whatever - maybe their reverse equivalent of a nice tan).

Meanwhile my nephew exclaimed victory as he uncovered a cockle with the aid of his tiny trowel. He rinsed it off in one of the muddy little pools he had christened "pudholes", before adding it proudly to the bucket.

Later we paddled out into the sea as the tide crept in over the warm sand.

When we got back to the house my mother decided that she couldn't be bothered dealing with the cockles. I think she remembers the industrial quantities she used to collect in the Western Isles and so thought that this small bucket-full was more hassle than it was worth. I gladly accepted her inverted charity, remembering how filling and satisfying even a small quantity can be.

I brought the cockles just to the boil before cooling and shelling them. I then chopped some chorizo and fried it in butter until the tasty red paprika-oil was leaching out of it. The cockle meats, some garlic salt and some crushed chillies went into the ferociously-hot pan for a minute or so. If you cook the cockle meats for too long the little cossack-boot-shaped morsels begin to take on just that texture (it was tough back in the Steppe, or is that instep?). Anyway, a delicious and substantial starter - more like a main Tapas dish.

While I busied myself preparing the next course my wife took the pan of empty cockle shells down to the shore to add to our burgeoning mock-neolithic midden. A word of advice - if you are going to launch a pan of shells onto the shore at high velocity, make sure your pan has a well-attached handle. She nearly sconed a cormorant.

Now, where's my superglue?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Just Spindrift

The "Indian Summer" I mentioned in my first post of this month has turned schizophrenic. The temperature has rarely dropped below 15 degrees during the day, but the constant drizzle then downpour combined with that produces a cloying weed-smelling murk of an atmosphere outside. The midges love it. The seabirds also seem partial to it - maybe it provides good cover for feeding.

Another example of the flighty weather conditions is my recent encounter with a sort of mini-tornado. It was a sunny but brisk morning. By brisk I mean that it wasn't flat calm - there was a breeze but nothing out of the ordinary. I was working in my office when suddenly a "lump" of wind hit the house. It rattled the the place for no more than 20 seconds, then stopped as quickly as it had started. Upon looking out the window I saw a small vortex of whipped-up spray move across the bay before breaking up into a ragged cloud of spindrift.

I have memories of being at a barbecue, empty glass and ailing paper plate in hand, while a structural engineer explained something of fluid mechanics to me at (too) great length. I do recall him saying that wind behaved like a fluid and was treated in that way in engineering calculations. I can now see the parallels between having a giant bucket of water thrown at your house and being hit by a huge gust of wind. I'm used to storms but this was literally "out of the blue".

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Voodoo Chillies

We've been growing chilli plants in the house. They've been thriving at the big south-east facing window, gobbling up the late-summer sun.

My wife insists that the seeds all came out of the same packet but the variety of different "peppers" they have produced is amazing. There are four plants in total: Two seem intent on spawning long green peppers in the shape of the red Romano type you can now readily get in the supermarket; one had produced a decent sized red Romano type along with several green ones; and one has produced lots of Jalapeño type green chillies and a couple of ferociously hot orange ones.

I pickled a batch of the green Jalapeños. I first chopped them and soaked them in brine (just water and cooking salt) overnight. I then put the slices in a sterilised jar and poured over a half-and-half boiled water and white vinegar (with a little sugar) pickling solution. After a week or so they looked just like the expensive supermarket variety, but tasted a lot better.

I put one of the orange chillies in a beef stir-fry. I should have used rubber gloves while chopping it because the little capsaicin-laden demon wanted to get everywhere. It mellowed out considerably in the stir-fry, at least I think it did but my mouth was so numb by that point that I'm not really sure.

The "Voodoo Chillies" title is fairly obvious but it reminds me of my wife reading the inlay of a Jimi Hendrix CD for the first time, shortly after we met. She pronounced the song title "Voodoo Chile" as "Voodoo Chilli". My friends and I laughed until we stopped. I guess she was just so well brung up.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

September is a trusted friend

Call it an Indian Summer, call it serendipity, call it just bloody marvelous: it's September and summer has properly arrived on Gastrobeach.

I celebrated with a swim in the bay. The slack tide was on its way out, so not ideal, but after a long day in front of a computer in a warm office, the time felt right. It took me a while to wade out to any decent swimming depth. Having to push through a field of bladderwrack is not fun, but there was a sandy-bottomed area on the other side. The water was cold, but not East-coast cold, and I soon acclimatised. I swam for ten minutes or so as the sun disappeared behind the hills at the back of the house. The sea was flat calm and silent.

Another important thing about September, for me at least, is that it should mean that the sea is cooling again with the result that Gastrobeach will be ripe for bivalve foraging. I've met a few people while on the shore who worry about the sewage outflows. But I don't think there can be many raw outflows left, and it's a sizable bay. I've never been made ill by anything I've collected. I know that's not scientific, and there could always be a first time, so I'll try to take sensible precautions.

My wife dug her potatoes yesterday. I say 'her' potatoes as I don't usually eat spuds, although I will probably make an exception for these. She got a good-sized crop from the fifteen or so plants she grew but, unfortunately, many of them were wormy. I can't remember what variety they are but they are quite pink and quite large and probably taste quite potatoey.

My American friend says the Scots are obsessed with potatoes and their varieties. He contends that in the U.S. they just call them potatoes and don't give a thought to what breed they might be. Philistines.... or is that a potato variety too?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cormorant or Shag?

There was a Cormorant (or Shag) in close on the high tide this morning. We normally only see them far out in the bay but this one was within 20 metres of the shoreline, bobbing gently on a steely-coloured, lightly-rippling sea. It didn't hang around for long: it's large black wings carrying it off across the water using a slow "ground-effect" flying technique similar to that of a Heron.

I can't tell Cormorants and Shags apart. On a grey morning like this morning, even with binoculars, it's hard to pick out the differences. So, I've done a bit of research on Wikipedia and I now think that it's most likely that we have been seeing Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo. They are larger and less uniformly black in their summer plumage than Shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis. There still seems to be some confusion about the naming though, with Phalacrocorax carbo being known as "Great Black Cormorant" in much of Europe but "Black Shag" in New Zealand.

The sun has just burst through the clouds and begun playing clicky-havoc with our black plastic guttering. I might, after all, be able to tackle the expanse of docken-infested fecundity which our lawn has become of late.

I should mention the spectacular very-nearly-full moon we watched last night. At first it was completely masked by clouds but it gradually emerged from the rust/blood-coloured plume to shine onto the bay in all its cold-gleaming glory. We admired it through binoculars before turning the lenses towards Jupiter - the only other naked-eye visible object in the sky last night. We were just able to make out the pinprick of a moon, probably Ganymede.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Walking on Samphire

I've called this blog entry "Walking on Samphire" as a pun on the song title "Walking on Sunshine" (geddit?). But it's just occurred to me that I could have had used the geekier title "Walking on Glasswort" as a pun on Iain Banks' "Walking on Glass".

Anyway, either would be approximately correct for the delicious saltmarsh-gleaned treat we had for dinner last evening. The name 'Samphire' is used for a variety of quite different plants which grow around the coastline, all of them edible. The one I was picking was actually Common Glasswort Salicornia Europaea but I think 'Samphire' sounds nicer in culinary terms. You certainly don't see 'Common Glasswort' listed on the menus of many fancy seafood restaurants but that, more often than not, is what the punters will be eating when the dish comes with 'Samphire'.

I've been keeping my eye on a small patch of samphire in a muddy area of the salt flats but, when we were down there at the weekend, my wife noticed that there's actually a huge amount of it down there hidden among the grass. It's just that it was only easy to spot in the muddy areas.

I had bought a large piece of skin-on haddock from our now-faithful fish man and was about to start cooking it when I remembered the samphire. A pleasant five-minute stroll down to the shore brought me back to glasswort El Dorado, equipped with sharp scissors and even-sharper appetite. I gathered a decent bunch, trying to avoid the woodier-stemmed plants. I think it was just past it's best - picking it a few weeks earlier might have meant that the woody stems would not have developed yet.

My wife prepped the samphire by cutting off the stems and washing off the mud. I then steamed it with some butter and seasoning. The cooking took out the bulk of the saltiness, leaving the flavour delicate, if still quite salty, and a little asparagus-like. I pan-fried the haddock and made a simple cream, caper and butter sauce to go along with it.

All in all a delicious midweek treat and excellent use of an unassuming patch of green stuff found in a salty bog. And don't it taste good, yeah, alright....

Monday, 16 August 2010

Wading, not Drowning

I have a sunburned nose. It shines like a beacon through this grey and wet day, reminding me of the bask-inducing solar radiance of yesterday.

It was a delightful double-whammy of low tide and warm sunshine. The air temperature was only around 19 degrees but the clarity of the sky and directness of the sunshine made it feel a lot warmer. My wife and I decided to go for a walk/paddle along the shore to cool off.

The sea was relatively warm so I rolled up my trouser legs and waded out quite deep; trekking sandals protecting my feet from the sharp stones and shells which occurred in dense patches. We hadn't intended to forage but the lowness of the tide had revealed much of interest: great patches of greying kelp covered in large wilks; a ripe field of sugar kelp and sea lettuce; a razorfish graveyard crunching and splintering underfoot.

As I approached a sandier patch a flounder shot out from near my foot and torpedoed in a straight line away from me, beaching itself on rocky 'reef'. It played dead and I briefly managed to pick it up but the fakery didn't last long - a few violent flaps and it was into the sea and away. Later on I saw a larger flounder - well worth eating if I could have caught it - with a darker body and strong white markings. They were probably both Platichthys Flesus but I'm really not sure, as the larger one looked so different - in colour and pattern if not in shape.

My wife found a common whelk (bulot) attached to a cockle and sucking the life out of it; gastric slime hanging gruesomely from the deathlocked duo.

I've been determined for some time that there must be clams larger than the tiny Abra Alba somewhere on Gastrobeach. Yesterday I came up trumps. I found half a dozen or so of a couple of different varieties ranging in size from around 40 to 70mm. There are so many different varieties of these 'hard shell clams' that I really don't know exactly which they were. I think the smaller, rounder one might have been a Blunt Tellin Tellina Crassa but it could just as likely have been a Dosinia of some kind. The oval-shaped ones would be even harder to identify: maybe some kind of Spisula.

Regardless of which variety the clams happened to be, they were all very tasty cooked in the smoky heat of our barbecue. A dash of Cajun hot chilli sauce (mostly Scotch Bonnet and Habanero) was the perfect compliment to their salty, vaguely oysterish flavour.

Foraging for food on the shore is easy and fun: just follow your nose. Or mine - you can't miss it right now.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Rubber Bulots

Now wending our way from sunny Normandy back to the reliable saturation of the west coast of Scotland.

Among our prized collection of French foodie goodies is a tin of escargot. I'm looking forward to trying these and comparing to the bulots I had shortly before we left France. Bulots aren't really Dog Whelks (muricidae) as I had previously thought but are actually buccinidae, specifically buccinum undatum, which are really just Common Whelks. I have eaten bulots before, last time we were in France, but I was somehow more aware this time of the strangeness of the experience.

Bulots do have a lovely sweet seafoody flavour but the texture takes a bit of getting used to and, because they are quite large, there is a lot of texture to get your gob around. The can also be tricky to get out of the shell whole - this didn't bother my brother-in-law, as he doesn't much like the darker-coloured "skooshy" bit at the end - but I'm quite partial to it. All my own attempts to retrieve a whole one failed, despite the useful tool provided to me for the purpose. But the lack of total extraction wasn't a detraction from the molluscular experience.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Moules Frites and Marmite

Normandy is a gastroperson's delight. We've eaten al fresco every night: delicious barbecued meat and poultry along with fresh vegetables such as courgettes and french beans from the garden. The temperature has been hitting 30 degrees during the day and sustaining 18-20 even into the grasshopper-chirruping, starry-skied nights. Good red wine has not been hard to come by.

We've also eaten out (as in out out) a couple of times. Last night I had a superb pot of a kind of creamy seafood stew/chowder called 'Marmitte'. I say 'chowder' but Marmitte is really much too rich and thick to be classed a soup. We think it was made of a scallop stock bechamel base along with a great deal of garlic, cheese, cream and spinach. To this sumptuous (and extremely hot) concoction chunks of salmon and white fish were added.

Today we had lunch in a beautiful and typically-French-looking historic village a few miles from here. Our host at the local relais was also typically-French-looking, and sounding: great Gallic lungs threatening his wrath if we didn't partake of and enjoy every morsel of his fare. There we ate moules frites - also typically French. The first time my sister mentioned moules frites I thought it must be something to do with fried mussels but it's actually just what it sounds like: mussels with chips. Somehow it works - the tasty and crunchy frites are perfect for dunking in the liquor from the moules. Others in our group ate boudin noir - a very rich French black pudding - along with slices of apple.

Tonight we'll be tucking into cuisses de grenouille - frogs legs. Most of us have never tried them before but I reckon that a day of doing all this typically French stuff just wouldn't be complete without munching on a bit of unfortunate amphibian.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Hake-ing it Easy

We struck it lucky with the location for our holiday in the north east of Scotland. We stayed in a tiny cottage by the seafront. The upstairs bedroom - accessed via a precarious, near vertical ladder stair - had a ceiling so low that I had to walk with my head to one side while up there.

The weather was fine apart from one deluge day. The scenery was quite stunning and very different from the west. But, best of all, there was the local fish processors' fish shop about 30 seconds walk from the house.

We went to the fish shop every day to buy Cullen Skink for lunch and seafood to cook for our evening meals. We'd taken a limited range of ingredients with us but that didn't matter. The fish was so fresh that it didn't need to be mucked about with. Although some days I did experiment a bit more e.g. the Hake I cooked wrapped in Serrano ham - just fried in a very hot pan with some butter and oil. My wife particularly enjoyed the sweet and meaty prawns cooked in garlic butter. The prices were also very reasonable - I think we're paying through the nose on the west coast.

We also became a bit addicted to the coconut ice cream from the shop a few miles from where we were staying. Excellent diet: fresh seafood, ice cream and red wine. I heartily (sic) recommend it.

So, back home to the dank and grey west coast? Not quite. We're now in Normandy in France enjoying delicious barbecued food, excellent company and temperatures touching 30 degrees. Time for a dip in the pool I think!

Monday, 19 July 2010

That Skinking Feeling

We've escaped the miserable west coast summer weather by heading east. Sunshine was splitting the sky when we awoke this morning. Relief.

My wife is currently taking photos of Swallows darting in and out of the roof of an old fishing shed outside the window of the tiny house in which we are staying. Sand Martins also swoop and dive above the shore.

Yesterday I enjoyed two excellent but distinctly different bowls of Cullen Skink. We're in the right part of the world for it: Cullen is just a few miles along the main road from where we are staying. I think this fish soup is a genuine Scottish delicacy. When made correctly it can be a delicious and highly nutritious meal.

My first bowl of the day was slightly lacking in body: All the right components and flavours were there but it just wasn't chunky and filling enough for my palate. My second was chunkiness incarnate: great lumpen islands of smoked haddock and potato, while the liquid component seemed to be composed almost entirely of cream. This is probably not quite right as far as the traditional recipe goes but, for someone like me who thrives on protein and fat, it seemed perfection.

Later, with full bellies and smug contentment, we watched the sun sink in a riot of pink and orange hues off the beautiful coast of Skinkland.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Black-Heads and Beauty Spots

The sky is clearing after several days of filthy weather. We had some brief respite yesterday before another deluge overnight and into this afternoon. It's easy to forget how stunning the outlook is when it's shrouded in grey but now the green foothills of the mountains are again lit by shafts of watery sunlight, and the beauty is revealed afresh.

The Skuas seem to enjoy the grey weather and have been staking out a rock in the centre of the bay whenever the tide is in around it. I'm assuming that this is because the grey weather is good for cover when they are hunting and that they prefer the high tide as they always attack over water.

More avian interest on the shore today: We spotted out first Black-headed Gull (pictured). They are really quite petite compared to Common Gulls, which we get in some numbers. It was accompanied by a grey-speckled juvenile of the same species.

My wife also saw several Gannets circling off the headland. She's been admiring their rapier-like fishing technique: They "stoop" like raptors from considerable height then pierce deep water at breathtaking speed to snatch their unsuspecting (presumably) and unfortunate (definitely) prey.

Makes me question, somewhat, the appropriateness of the saying "eats like a Gannet", as once or twice levelled at me. I assume my mother wasn't referring to my lightning speed and skill at the dining table.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Heron today, gone tomorrow

great skua in water
A ferocious and calculated attack brought interest to an otherwise grey and wet weekend.

We were having a lazy time: half watching the Wimbledon men's final; half eyeing the weather out of the large window and hoping that the wind and rain would stop. My sister called and I described the weather to her, noting a large crow battling the storm.

After the phone call my wife pointed out that the "large crow" was behaving more like a raptor in flight and that it had strong white-band markings on its wings. A quick skim through a bird-spotting reference book revealed it to be a Great Skua, apparently blown off course from its usual summer territory around Shetland. It wheeled away out into the bay at great speed - the storm-battling had been a ruse - its long, narrow and pointed wings cutting through the gale.

My wife kept watching it through binoculars. She called me back to the window a few minutes later: The Skua was harassing a Grey Heron in flight. The slow-flying Heron tried hard to avoid its attacker but sustained assaults from above eventually tired it and forced it down to the sea. There it fought back, writhing its long neck as it tried to get a strike in on the Skua. All to no avail. With ruthless efficiency the Skua rode it under the ashen waves and drowned it.

We had seen the way Skuas operate on nature programmes. It was rather different observing it first-hand.

Later we noticed that there were actually two Skuas in the bay, now resting almost invisibly on a central seaweed-covered rock. One of them took off and make a brief but unsuccessful raid on the Mallards before returning to the rock, where the pair eventually settled for the night.

My parents visited in the late afternoon. My dad told me that the Gaelic for Skua is feasgadair which means "to wring out". This is because of the Skua's charming feeding habit of forcing its victims to regurgitate their last meal.

Nature can be brutal. We're better off out of it.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Clams to the Slaughter

My brother has provided me with this excellent footage (sic) of razorfish (razor clams) summarily evicted from their sandy homes by the simple addition of salt.

I've blogged about the salt technique before and it does work very well. You pour the salt on the 'keyhole' in the sand immediately after you see the water-spout. Much easier than trying to dig them out.

Incidentally I read that one of the smallest of the razorfish species, Solen marginatus, can perform a "clever" trick in order to save itself from predators. It can shed the top part of its siphon as a sacrificial offering when threatened, giving it time to escape into the sand while the predator is occupied with the ghoulish morsel.

Unfortunately for the razorfish evolution hasn't yet provided a trick to allow them to escape from sodium chloride wielding humans with video cameras.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Oh Fiddleheads!

We also did a bit of gastroforest foraging while our friend was here.

We visited a nearby forest park, where a "Local Food Fair" was being held. Unfortunately the food fair was a little disappointing in range, although we did get some delicious and rather unusual flavoured (mine was Cranachan) ice creams.

The weather was fine so we took off for a walk around the forest trail. Our friend is a tree/wood enthusiast, so we stopped frequently to get the full tactile bark experience and to find out the species from the conveniently-provided name tags.

Deeper into the woods the smell of Wild Garlic (pictured; also known as Ramsons) evoked strong (sic) memories for me of playing there as a child. We collected some of the succulent deep-green leaves which were growing abundantly in the most shaded and moist areas of ground.

Our friend also noted a lot of new and lush-looking ferns. He told us that the young, curled-over "fiddleheads" of the ferns are quite a delicacy in the States. We picked a few likely-looking candidates and headed home with our bounty.

We cooked the fiddleheads simply: boiled for five minutes then seasoned with salt and pepper, and a little butter. Some of the wild garlic was added to an immense and diverse bowl of salad; while the rest of it was finely chopped and added to a pan of prawns frying on our barbecue. The fiddleheads had a delicate texture and flavour - a little like asparagus. The wild garlic was sharp and fresh in the salad but subtle cooked with the prawns.

We thought we were being innovative in suggesting that "The Fiddleheads" would be a good name for a Folk band but, like many other good ideas, I see it's already been done. Contra dance, anyone?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Wilking back to happiness

A small but successful foraging foray on the gastrobeach this weekend.

We had a friend staying who had never eaten wilks (winkles - same thing) so I considered it my duty to make sure he got to try some before he left. He had tried other tasty gastropods, so (fortunately) knew what to expect.

Wilks (know as Common Periwinkle in England) are relatively safe to eat at this time of year, despite the warmer sea temperature. The common kind are seaweed-eating grazers, unlike the larger Whelk species, which are carnivorous. Wilks don't filter-feed so they don't pass large quantities of sea water through their bodies in the way that bivalves (such as mussels) do and, therefore, they don't tend to accumulate the same nasty toxins.

We collected a small pot of wilks and also some sea lettuce and sugar kelp. Heading home the skies opened and we got thoroughly drenched.

We boiled the wilks for five minutes in salted water before draining them and adding olive oil and powdered garlic. My friend and I ate the lot; pulling out the coiled morsels with a pin and discarding the indigestible opercula. I got my wife to try one by getting her to close her eyes before eating it. Wilk innards are tasty but not attractive.

We had the somewhat-insubstantial dried-out sea lettuce and sugar kelp as an accompaniment.

There was a game of World Cup football on while we munched our micro-feast: England vs Germany. He's American and we're Scottish. Thoroughly enjoyable all round.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Thyme and Tide

Nearly fully shiny-waxed and gibboused moon, so there will be some decent low tides.

The weather has been a bit dreich and I haven't been down to the gastrobeach for a few days. But hopefully good tide-ings will entice me out this weekend.

I've recently acquired a hachoir. It does a fine job but I find it a bit of a pain to get it out, then clean it up and put it away afterwards, just to chop a few herbs. I'm quite practiced with a big knife for this job and I enjoy reducing a pile of herbs to a delicious and fragrant slurry with my rapid rolling/cutting motion.

On the other hand my wife has really taken to the hachoir. She used it the other night to great effect; rendering an enormous pile of garden-fresh marjoram, lemon thyme (pictured) and parsley down to nanoherb-scale bits. This she piled onto fresh salmon along with olive oil, seasoning and lemon juice. Baked in foil in the oven, then cooled and served with salad and houmous it made an excellent summertime meal.

I call the utensil a hachoir but it's also known as a mezzaluna (meaning "half-moon" in Italian). I always thought of the single-bladed one as being a mezzaluna and the double-bladed a hachoir but, apparently, both names are correct.

Need to get the grass hachoired soon. The clover is takin' over.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Lettuce Be Clear

Sea Lettuce
Clarifications and corrections day. No, not mending my ways, just some stuff from previous Gastrobeach entries.

What I have been calling Green Laver is actually Sea Lettuce (Ulva Lactuca). I've since read of it being eaten raw in salads. Can't say I fancy that much, especially when it's doing its plastic bag trick. I find it tangled up in clumps of other seaweed such as Knotted Wrack which adds to the baggy detritus aspect.

Thanks to the blog commenter who identified the "Goat Bird" as a Snipe and not a Plover. You can hear its call on the RSPB website. A weird sounding creature and more than capable of scaring the bejesus out of small camping-inclined humans.

The weekend was sunny but with a ridiculously brisk north wind. It blew away the midges but also any notion of barbecues. I spent some time loafing and reading up on the use of shore crabs to make bisque. All the shore crabs in the book were an appetising orangey colour (while still alive) but ours are mostly green.

Oh no. Now I've got "Little Green Crab" stuck in my head. The punnery is taking its toll.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Never Haddock so Good

I caught a fish-man yesterday and got me some haddock. No ill-will from the fish man - he'd just forgotten about me. Evidently not a man for keeping lists.

I try to buy haddock with the skin on. It's better for pan-frying that way, as it doesn't fall apart when you go to turn it. Excellent dusted with seasoned flour, perhaps with just a pinch of tarragon in it, before frying.

Damp and misty so far today but there are rumours of sunshine to come later. The tide is high but not yet fully in. I can tell this from the wee tide-table gadget I've put up on gastrobeach (see towards the bottom of the righthand bar). It's not accurate for here, as the closest I could get was Ullapool. Seems to be around half an hour behind ours.

I like to notice the tides and to think about what makes them happen. It's a fascinatingly clear way of seeing, every day, the effect of the pull of the moon on our planet. Next time you see a high tide try thinking about it as a gravitational/centrifugal water bulge. Odd.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Little Green Bag

Have decided to give my blog a new look today: fresher, brighter, cleaner. Mmm, sounds a bit like toothpaste or mouthwash.

Plootered on the shore yesterday and found some more green laver. I dried it out in the oven as usual but it just didn't taste right. Maybe it was a bit old or maybe it was actually a piece of green plastic bag (it looks rather like that before it's dried out). Anyway, I didn't eat it this time.

The beach was covered in slimy brown weed/algae of some kind. It must have been brought on by the warming of the weather. Warmer water means it'll be less safe to eat seafood from the shore: no "r" in month, no "f" in way. On a brighter note: the samphire is starting to peep through the salt flats, and should make a tasty treat later in the summer.

Interesting weekend. We left the pub on Saturday night determined that we weren't going to have a party back at our house. On the way home we met a load of be-kilted blokes proffering a tray of wedding cake. We duly partook and got into conversation with them. Turned out that we knew the family of the groom. A bunch of the revellers ended up back at our house and we drank (Pimms & lemonade?!) and talked until the early hours.

Sunday was.....vague.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Oh, Woah, Woah! Mr Fish Man

I don't know what I've done to upset the fish man.

He comes round in his white van on Tuesday afternoons and I managed to catch him about 4 weeks back, after he had stopped at a neighbour's house. He said that he would stop regularly from then on. But, no joy. Not a pause or a beep from him. Guess I'll just need to wait forlornly for him by the side of the road and put on my best "fish face".

The fish man comes all the way over from the east coast on his regular weekly run, and goes right out to the Western Isles. It seems odd that here, surrounded by sea, we have to wait for a bloke from Buckie to supply us.

Guess I'll just have to stop complaining and get a wee boat.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Acting the Goat

Barbecue weather! After a busy day in the sun riddling soil, planting raised beds and weeding we decided to fire up the submarine hatch. Dinner was salmon marinated in mojo then cooked on the barbecue with some red peppers.

After dinner my wife stoked up the fire with some logs and we sat drinking nicely-chilled white wine. I heard a strange bird call that I recognised from my childhood. A weird sound, almost like that of a lamb bleating. I got my wife to listen and she insisted she couldn't hear it. When she did eventually hear it she was convinced that it was a lamb bleating.

When she listened more closely she heard the difference. I described it as sounding like "a goat bleating through a kazoo", because it has extra tonal/harmonic sounds that you don't get with a bleat.

I first heard this call while away on a camping trip (about half a mile over the hill from my house) as a child. I was with two of my brothers and a friend and we heard this weird noise right outside the tent. It scared the hell out of us and we legged it home over the hill. The next day my dad said that we had been hearing the "Goat Bird" (translated from Gaelic), which he reckoned was a Plover. I haven't done the research to find out if the "Goat Bird" and the Plover are indeed the same thing. It sounded like something bigger (and scarier) than a Plover!

It didn't sound so scary last evening. Haunting but rather soothing, as we drank our wine and bathed in the midge-alleviating smoke from our impromptu fire-pit.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Deer Imprudence

Last night my wife and I watched two beautiful, graceful (and probably right tasty) deer on the shore from upstairs via the skylight window. I think they were Red Deer - they certainly looked pretty red as the light from the sinking sun caught their coats.

The tide was high so the deer waded from the shore at right-angles to us, over to the rocky foreshore right in front of the house. We had ample time to get a load of photographs. I don't usually put photos in my blog but I'll make an exception here.

They seemed oblivious to us watching and to the cars going by on the road right beside them. Not very prudent!

Thursday, 3 June 2010


I knew it couldn't last. The cold spell had knocked the midges back until a little later than they usually start but they're resilient little [insert expletive]s.

Last evening was very still so I went out to weedkill some monolithic dockens. They midges descended as soon as I set foot out the door; then proceeded to make a proper meal of me. It may sound strange but I get to a point when the irritation of all the bites seems to merge together into one giant histamine "glow" and then I don't seem to notice them so much anymore. It's only when I get back into the house and the inflammation properly sets in that the damage becomes clear.

I suppose they are a pretty amazing species: they're survivors; and an important part of the food-chain here. Maybe I should stop complaining and put them directly into my food-chain. They're tiny and black and could be easily incorporated. Caraway seed roll, anyone?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A Brighter Shade of Kale

We did some work on the garden over the weekend. The couch grass was getting a bit out of control so we hauled a load of it out of the planting beds. The amount of waste plant matter generated by this exercise was quite staggering.

We planted some French beans with accompanying cane tepee structure. We pulled out the gone-to-seed kale plants which had grown into sturdy, buttery-yellow-flower-topped, bee-entreating trees. I planted some lemon verbena in my treasured herb bed, to replace the one that died during the long frosty spell. I haven't yet used lemon verbena for anything but it smells amazing when you rub the leaves between your fingers. Perhaps that's what it's for: a finger-scenting herb.

It's a warm but silvery-grey day today. The gorse bushes by the shore brighten the scene with their vibrant yellow flowers. Gorse has a wonderful coconut-like smell. Enticing in every way: until it shreds your hands.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Got My Mojo Working

I've never been to the Canary Islands. But my wife went there on holiday with her sister a few years ago. She brought back with her an amazing alchemical secret contained within a tiny and unassuming paperback: Mojo.

Mojo is a garlic sauce which is ubiquitous throughout the Canaries. It's provided as a dip along with snacks in cafes, bars and restaurants. You may have tried it cooked in the red version of it used in Spanish Tapas recipes, such as "Polo con Mojo de Ajo".

I called it "alchemical" because of the way it can transform the flavour of a dish. Whether used as a marinade for grilled fish or chicken; or dolloped in with some pan-fried seafood; it instantly adds mouthwatering garlicky umami-ness.

Let's get something straight here: you have to like garlic a lot to love this stuff. It's very easy to make: the peeled cloves from a whole bulb of garlic; olive oil; vinegar (I usually use cider vinegar); teaspoon of salt; big bunch of parsley and one avocado. Chuck the whole lot in a blender and whizz (adding more oil or vinegar if required) until smooth and creamy.

I've mentioned some of the uses in cooking but I prefer it in its raw state. We had some yesterday, to accompany pan-fried prawns. Crusty bread along with that: instant, tasty, reeking dinner!

My favourite is the green version, as described above. But there are many different varieties, including ones with nuts and oranges. You can make a red one using paprika and/or red peppers and/or red chillies instead of parsley and avocado. Just don't scrimp on the garlic.

There is an important pact which must be entered into when eating fresh mojo: everyone in the household must partake at the same time. For some reason you don't seem to notice the smell when all garlic-stenching to the same degree.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Silver Bream Machine

Slightly chilly but bright and clear day today. From my desk I can hear a Cuckoo and also, in the distance, the sound of a neighbour's Guineafowl screeching: I swear that sounds like someone trying to cut through old fence wire with a rusty hacksaw.

My wife and I were away for the day yesterday, so I thought I would pick up some "different" fish from the supermarket. We'd only ever had Sea Bream (Seabream) in restaurants, so I thought I would give that a go. The woman at the fish counter was clueless (I asked her about the fish and she said it was "popular") so I just bought the two fish whole. It looked like Black Seabream rather than the Red variety.

We got home later than expected and I proceeded to fillet the fish, which I haven't done very often, with completely the wrong sort of knife. The result was four ragged "fillets" which I seasoned and slathered with olive oil and fresh herbs from the garden: marjoram, chives, rosemary and sage I think. Lots anyway. Oh, and some freshly-squeezed lime juice for zing.

I cooked the Bream, skin up, under a hot grill for a few minutes and served it with purple sprouting broccoli and "crushed" herby potatoes. A very late but rather satisfying meal.

As we were finishing our dinner my wife suddenly leapt to her feet and pointed out a couple of deer on the shore, being pursued by a large dog. They bounded over the road and up the hill leaving the panting dog in their wake.

I must get myself a fish filleting knife. One that's sleek; strong-handled; sharp; flexible: let's call it a Silver Bream Machine.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Sea Clearly Now?

A rather damp and misty day to be starting my new life but I don't care. I've freed myself from a load of work-related stress that was (literally) damaging my brain.

It's so misty that the mountains on the mainland have been entirely blotted out. I suppose it's a fine "soft" day. All sound is deadened by the moisture in the air. The grass is long and growing at an incredible rate but there's no prospect of mowing it when it's this damp. Soft, verdant, fecund, moist and other rude-sounding words all apply to the scene.

Lacklustre tides at the moment with this middling moon.

Oystercatchers are circling the bay. Their high-pitched cries cut through the muffled air.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Fish Out Of Water

Just back from a business trip to Glasgow. Stayed in a swish hotel by the Clyde; watched the sun set over the river from my sumptuous eighth-floor room; wandered over the footbridges and along to the Science Tower in the evening sunshine; ate trendy food in city restaurants. City life is OK for a break, but it's good to be back. It's a beautiful day; I'm back home with my wife; and the sea is here, right where I left it.

The closest I got to "gastrobeaching" in Glasgow was some very tasty but ridiculously hot Thai monkfish. Finely sliced raw red chillies sprinkled liberally over it.

I travelled back up the coast by train. Spent the journey alternating between enjoying the stunning views and reading a fascinating book about the history of neurofeedback. The last leg of my journey was by ferry. Calmac are a reassuringly old-fashioned and unglamourous ferry operator. They haven't changed anything much since I was a kid: the same dour uniforms and "workmanlike" customer service. A Scottish institution.

The Shelducks are back in the bay: four of them this time; pure white against the steel blue sea. Didn't see any ducks on the Clyde. But perhaps I wasn't really looking.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Crystal Ship

I was woken up last night by the sound of the slates clicking on the roof. That always means that the temperature is rising back above zero, after having dropped below. It doesn't usually get so cold here in May. Maybe it will kill off some burgeoning midges.

I wandered downstairs and sat on the sofa for a while, looking out towards the bay. I left the lights out, so as not to spoil my dark adaption. The clicking from the roof subsided and it all became tranquil. The sea was flat calm. A pale glow in the sky heralded the (too) imminent arrival of dawn.

A ship heaved into view beyond the headland. It was probably just a large fishing vessel but it seemed garlanded with light, which spilled onto the mirror surface of the water. There's something about looking out to sea at that drowsy hour of the morning. A chance to get things in perspective, perhaps.

I imagined myself standing sleepily on the ship's illuminated deck, peering back at the darkened houses in the bay, wondering if anyone was awake in there.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Weed Weekend

I experimented with oven-dried seaweed this weekend.

On Saturday I collected Gutweed and Green Laver. I rinsed the sand off the seaweed and dried it in the oven at around 60 degrees (Celsius) until it went crispy. I put a little sugar on the Gutweed. I happily munched into the experiments: the Gutweed was certainly crunchy, although mostly because of the sand inside it; the Green Laver had a strong and evocative seashore smell but tasted strongly of iodine at the back of the mouth. The quick rinsing had done nothing to ameliorate the saltiness. My wife wasn't too fond of either of them. However, she conceded that some very finely crumbled Green Laver might work as a seasoning in seafood dishes; so I put some in a jar to save for the right recipe.

We spent most of Sunday weeding the garden. Later in the day, just as the tide was turning, we braved the bracing wind for a stroll along the shore. I, of course, turned it into a seaweed-foraging stroll in my determination to find some more Sugar Kelp. Just as we were about to head home I was rewarded with a few slimy fronds of the prize.

I rinsed the Kelp and tore it into small pieces, then placed them on a baking tray with a little olive oil. The Sugar Kelp crisped up nicely and I presented it to my wife as a snack, along with a glass of sherry. She asked if we were out of Twiglets. I responded that Twiglets were like small, salty pieces of driftwood anyway.

To her credit she tried the "Kelp crisps" and didn't wince too visibly. The sherry must have washed the flavour away. I thought they were good: delicately crunchy, almost sweet at first, then back to salty and iodic. My wife suggested deep-frying them next time, and I agreed that might work better.

I found some more Twiglets in the cupboard and we munched them with the remainder of our sherry.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Where's Your Head? Ate?

When I was about four years old my family and I lived close to another beach, not far from here. It was different to this one: sandier and more full of jellyfish.

My brothers and I would go paddling in the often-chilly water and feel small Flounders skittering under our feet: a slightly alarming sensation at first; at least until the fun of the chase took over. The idea was to trap the tiny, camouflaged flatfish under our feet and claim them from their sandy home.

The first time I tried it I asked my older brother why we were doing this. He told me we could eat them. So, thus enthused, I almost immediately managed to trap one. No easy feat (sic) either: my brothers were duly impressed. I claimed my prize, flapping, from beneath the sun-dappled waves and bit its crunchy head off. The body flapped on a little (not much) longer.

I wasn't much impressed with the flavour and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. I was used to raw, crunchy food at that age. How was I to know we were supposed to cook the fish first?

Friday, 30 April 2010

Ground Effect

It's flat-calm April weather. Drizzly one moment, blazing sunshine the next.

The birds are enjoying it. Swallows swooping perilously close to the water, catching ever-more-abundant flies; loose flocks of Meadow Pipits beetling round the lawn and the damp soil; a robber-masked Wheatear bouncing between the rocks.

And of course there's the Grey Heron. When the sea is as calm as this it skims in low over the water and makes lazy, elegant use of the "ground effect". Gliding low like this alters the airflow around its huge wings, reducing drag. Curiously, "ground effect" isn't much use over land as there are usually too many obstacles to get low enough.

Humans, particularly Russian humans, have made interesting use of the "ground effect" in "ground effect vehicles" such as the Ekranoplan, nicknamed "The Caspian Sea Monster".

I wonder if it would fit in the bay? Might startle the Heron.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

All Work and No Bay....

Have been bogged down with work the last few days, with precious few opportunities to go out and inhale great gouts of salty sea air. However, despite the miserable weather, I decided to venture out onto the shore this lunchtime.

It's full moon time and we've had some monstrously high tides. Last night I spent a bit of time staring out at the foul weather and agitated sea. From a certain angle it looked like the deck dropped away straight into the water, with no intervening land.

The tide had started to turn by the time I made it down to the shore today, so no Razor Fish opportunities. I did find an array of (semi) edible seaweeds that I'd never really noticed before. I tried them all raw, with varying degrees of disgust. I think I identified and tasted: Gutweed (salty, green and surprisingly tender), Green Laver (salty, green and surprisingly tough) and Sugar Kelp (salty, brown, frondly and surprisingly OK). I'll get round to cooking some of them but it satisfied my inner Neanderthal to try them in their raw form first.

So, great gouts of salty sea air; great gouts of salty seaweed; now back to plain gouts of unsalted paperwork.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Mussels with Brussels

Went to the local with my wife and two of my brothers last night. After a few Spanish lagers the seafood punnery blossomed once again.

My brothers are all fine cooks. I suggested to one of them that he come up with some unusual seafood-pun-incorporating recipes that I could list here. One that's dying to be concocted is, I think, "The Mussels with Brussels". I don't know if it will ever see the grim light of day but it really has potential. The humble sprout combined with the not-so-humble Mussel. I like Brussels Sprouts. But I like to chop them up finely and stir-fry with bacon. Replace bacon with Mussel and the possibilities are, well, obvious and somewhat limited.

Feeling a little bloated today. Spanish lager on top of Spanish garlic chicken (our dinner last night) equals not the least flatulent combination.

Spanish garlic chicken is delicious, though. Chicken thighs cooked on the hob with salt, olive oil, dry sherry and about six cloves of finely chopped garlic, with another six to eight whole cloves (unpeeled) thrown in for good measure. That's "six to eight", not "sixty-eight" as one of my brothers heard it last night. No wonder I'm feeling bloated.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dabbling in Twitching

Miserable weather yesterday evening and our intended walk got cancelled due to lack of locomotion.

Plenty to see from the house with binoculars, though. A pair of Shelducks were making slow but steady progress up from the water line, rooting for small crabs and other tasty morsels as they went. Their pure white plumage with black and brown markings is so distinct, even at a distance, that it looks like the contrast has been turned up to eleven.

At the other end of the contrast scale were a pair of Sandpipers. I must have been staring right at them for fully five minutes before I actually picked them out from the sand and seaweed backdrop. They are slight and delicate looking, with spindly legs and a needle-like bill.

I've never been much of a twitcher. At least not in the birdwatching sense. But I have to admit that watching seabirds is quite interesting; maybe because I get to wonder about what they are eating and what it tastes like.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Waxing Gibbous

I note from the small widget on my blog that the moon is waxing gibbous. Well that's exciting. Big Spring tides to look forward to. The low tides should reveal more edible seaweeds. It's maybe just the thrawn side of my personality but I find the prospect of eating seaweed more exciting than just about all the other foraged-food possibilities the Gastrobeach has to offer.

"Waxing Gibbous" is a wonderful term. I wonder if it could be applied to people who are putting on a bit of weight, or even to pregnant mothers.

The wind has just dropped and it's very still and quiet on the shore. The grass outside is damp from some torrential showers earlier on. This is the kind of weather that the midges will love in a few months time. "Al fresco" dining opportunities will be over, except for the midges of course.

A Grey Heron is standing on one leg, surveying its territory. My wife has just told me that they can be quite communal birds and that they group together in trees, particularly at breeding times. The breeding/nesting area is known as a "heronry" or "heron rookery". We only ever see the loners on the shore.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Kelp, I need some body

Sunday was bright but with a biting wind. We wrapped up and went off scrambling over the rocks at the northern side of the bay. Slippery terrain: I joked to my wife that I was the kind of guy that could turn a girl's ankle. She fared better than me though; she in trainers and I in clumsy walking boots.

I found some kelp in a tidal rockpool. A frondy, slightly slimy specimen. I've eaten dulse straight off the shore before, but not kelp. It was, of course, very salty and also a bit chewy but not unpleasantly so. I can't say it would make for a terribly satisfying meal but I suppose that's not the point. It could be made palatable by getting rid of some of the salt and drying it out, perhaps to crumble into soup. I've been eating miso soup for my lunch lately, and I can imagine that it might add a bit of body to that. Works for the Japanese.

Out of the wind it was warm and we basked in the sun a while, listening to that especially-relaxing sound the sea makes as it gently laps into a small inlet between rocks.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Clam before the Storm?

Just out of bed, still in pyjamas. There's a dusting of new snow on the mountains today. Strong sunshine again but the Cumulus clouds in the distance look like they're threatening to change into something more rain-bearing.

Went for a walk on the shore with my wife yesterday, as the tide was turning. Noticed a lot of larger shells around, of what could be Surf Clams. I never find any live ones of these of any decent size, just tiny ones. I haven't yet been able to work out the different types of small clams. Apparently they are difficult to tell apart. I've always called the small ones Carpet Shells but it looks like they may actually be Abra Alba which never grow very large.

I've also read in some places that small clams like Abra Alba are too small to bother eating. Well, they're on the beach and I eat them. They are tiny but tasty and are excellent mixed in with some pasta, still in their shells. They infuse the pasta with a subtle and sweet seafood flavour, which would be worth having even if there was no actual protein content from them.

Think I will need to dig down into the sand, rather than just raking, to see if there are any bigger clams. I'll probably find Clappy Doos (a sort of large black mussel/clam) but I don't remember them as being very good to eat. Must give them another try.

Friday, 16 April 2010

These Spoots are made for Wok-ing

I shouldn't really call them "spoots". My mum hates that. We always called them razor fish but they are now (pretentiously trendily) often called "razor clams". I've also heard "spout fish" and "razor shell". In Gaelic my dad always called them "muirsgian" which I suppose translates as "sea knife". Anyway, it was a new moon yesterday and the tide was low, down below the sand bar, at just the right time for my lunch break. How kind of the moon to oblige. I hastily pulled on my wellies and "wellied it" down to the beach; salt and bucket in hand.

It worked! Saw water-spout; immediately chucked on pile of salt; razor fish became restless in its hidey-hole and duly rose up to the surface, thrashing salty "foot" in aggravated manner. I just pulled it out of the sand and tossed it into my bucket. Easy. If only I'd known that trick during my childhood I'd have saved myself a lot of split and bleeding fingernails from failed razor fish-grabbing attempts. Would probably have got a row from dad for wasting salt, though. He loves to do things the hard way.

The trick is to get the salt down as soon as you see the water-spout. Any delay and the razor fish gets too deep to be affected.

I got two big ones in the fifteen minutes or so before the tide came in over the sand bar. Straight up to the house: slit them open (they didn't like this much), disentangled the tasty bits from the slightly questionable bits, chopped them up and chucked them into a very hot frying pan (I didn't actually use the wok) for about thirty seconds. Salt, pepper and some sweet chilli sauce. Delicious.

Fast food and an altogether different kind of lunch break.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Murk my words

Strange murky day today. Shafts of "god ray" type light are sometimes managing to make it through the gloom and lance obliquely down to the sea. Wondering if it has anything to do with the cloud of volcanic ash drifting over from Iceland. Probably not.

The dabbling Mallards are scooting about on the glassy sea. There's a guy living in a house behind ours that likes to feed them. We see them often, trooping comically up his drive. Not so comical when they fly down over our house en-masse in the morning, to get to the sea, depositing high-velocity splatters as they go.

New moon. Must get in tune with the tides and lock onto my internal ebb and flow. All say "Ommmmm". Maybe not. Getting enough ebb and flow from all the nice coffee I'm drinking.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Tide is low and we're having sun

Working, so restraining myself from going and plootering about on the shore, although the tide is enticingly low. Glorious weather and sparkling sea again - what's going on? From my window I can see a heron strutting its stuff down near low water. But now having to lower the blinds as the sun is so blazingly hot, and warm office makes for cranky worker.

My wife pointed out the Eider ducks to me this morning. Through the binoculars we could see the male breakfasting on a green shore crab. They must have amazing power in their jaws and strong beaks - I read that they can even crack mussels. They dive deep compared to some of the other ducks in the bay, presumably to get down to the tasty crustaceans on the sea bed. The scruffy-looking Mergansers, by contrast, seem to "trawl" closer to the surface, perhaps to catch small fish. Will need to look more closely at the Mergansers, they look more like the Red-Breasted variety but I can't be sure.

Back to work now. Phone call from cranky city-based colleague. The sun must be blazing in on him too.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Eider Sanction

This is the first day of working from home. It's a beautiful day and Spring is springing all around. Must keep with the required steely discipline of this new setup and stay at my desk, though. Maybe take a stroll in the sun at lunchtime.

Woken this morning by the sound of Eider ducks in the bay. They make an odd noise which sounds a little like a bunch of old ladies saying "Oooooh" in an exaggerated, upward-inflected way.

Teriyaki-marinated salmon with potato wedges and salad for dinner last night. Farmed salmon, but I'm not bothered about that - it tastes good. Please pull me up if I ever say "It eats well" or come out with any other such verb(al) abuse.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Seaweed and leave it

Found my friend out on the deck this morning, drinking a cup of coffee in the blazing sunshine. Still in pyjamas. He's leaving today and is making the most of the unexpected super-clement weather bonanza.

We went for a stroll on the shore yesterday and I picked up various bits of unappetising-looking sea vegetation. Bright green gutweed is slimy and cold on the shore but I was imagining drying it out and sprinkling with sugar to make a crunchy wee snack. Too many sewage outlets around though, so much better to collect closer to the low tide mark another day. The outlets from the newer houses should be much cleaner - SEPA now insists that the "grey water" goes through secondary filtration before discharge onto the shore. But there are still many older outflows which are basically leaky septic tanks.

Later we ate barbecued food. This was cooked on my "unique" contraption composed of an old submarine pressure hatch (or maybe a ship's porthole cover) sitting atop part of the base of an ancient stove. Various tasty fake-meat products (I love a bit of mycoprotein); and griddled/fried vegetables in olive oil, herbs and garlic. Shove that lot into a crusty brown roll with some salad and, voila, a very sore jaw. Actually quite tasty but I did feel a bit like a snake learning to dislocate its jaw in order to accommodate a whole goat.

After the meal we went out and stoked up the barbecue with wood. Instant fire pit. A clear, starry night; we identified a few constellations and saw the dot of a satellite flare up as reflected light briefly caught its mirrored surfaces.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Sparkling water, please

Amazing Spring day today. The sea is sparkling in dazzling sunshine. There's a cool breeze blowing. I really should get off my backside and go outside, but the view from the sofa is so panoramic anyway that I don't feel that I have to trouble myself with actual locomotion.

The tide is half way out and I think it's coming in. Moon is waning crescent at the moment and the tide is not getting spectacularly high or low. Would like to get some razor fish using the easy-sounding salt method that my brother has told me about but the tide is not getting low enough to go out beyond the sand bar where the razor fish can be found.

Will maybe dine outside on the deck this evening if the breeze dies down. Our friends are heading back home tomorrow, so will need to think of something a bit special to cook.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Snack My Beach Up

This is a new blog about the beach in front of my house and the good (and sometimes rank) things I can find there to eat. I intend to positively "snack up" my beach to the point of seafood transcendence. I will become a gastropod gastronaut; hopefully avoiding gastro-enteritis along the way.

The idea came about as a result of a recent visit by some good friends. I took them out on a mollusc-scavenging trip; welly boots on and rake in hand - instantly transformed into my dad. One of my friends, a London music journalist, reckoned that his city pals would positively (metaphorically) lap this stuff up. I just slugged back my whisky and called him a "metropolitan c**t". He took it in good heart and we all continued, drunkenly, to assemble a sequence of some of the worst sea/seafood-related puns you've never heard. I intend to make use of those in my blog. Further suggestions welcome. Music references preferred.

We then talked about loss, death, grief. The sort of stuff that naturally follows on from seafood puns.

I've lived close to this particular beach for most of my life. During my upbringing I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being dragged around the shore while my mother picked wilks (winkles), which she then sold to scrape together a few quid towards the mortgage. My younger brother was fascinated with the entire ecosystem of the beach and even said that he wanted to become a marine biologist when he grew up. I thought it was cold, wet and boring. Later in life I ended up back there picking wilks towards my own mortgage. The beach was still there, hard and cold, not offering up its bounty willingly.

Now that life is a little easier for me, and I have discovered the joys of seafood (especially free seafood), I have found that spending time on the beach, scavenging, is a pleasure.

What did we eat the night of the puns? Most of the contingent at the table were full on veggies and wouldn't touch the vaguely-gynaecological-looking contents of the molluscs with a bargepole. For those who did choose to dig in there was rich garlic, tomato and basil linguine with mussels, surf-clams and cockles. There was also a large pot of the same shellfish but unshelled and flavoured with cajun chilli sauce. We scoffed the lot and threw the shells back on the shore.