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".