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.