Thursday 27 January 2011

A Sense of Porpoise

We've heard a lot in the news this winter about freezing weather and snow. Here in the North West Highlands, where it is usually wet and stormy in winter, cold weather is often welcome. Cold temperatures mean high pressure which, in turn, means fewer storms and drier weather. It's annoying to hear weather presenters consistently making the mistake that we should all be glad of 'mild' weather in winter.

Today is a case in point. Fairly cold (around -2) last night, and the weather today is clear and fresh with light frost on the ground and the sun splitting the sky. The only clouds are high and wispy-thin. A fat waning-crescent moon still hangs: a fading watermark. Take a deep draught of that chill air and it will clear your sinuses.

My head is clear today, too. A morning TV feature reminded me about "mindfulness meditation" but that's really just another way of describing the process of stopping, taking in your surroundings and "being in the moment". How you do that is up to you. I don't find it easy to plant myself in the present but I know that it feels good when I manage it. The brain is "plastic", so it's possible to change its structure by doing this kind of thing.

Now to the Porpoises. We saw them at the weekend - a pod of three crossing the bay. We didn't get a photo, as they were too far out to sea and didn't hang around for long. They are distinguishable from Dolphins by their shorter and more flattened dorsal fins. They are apparently common here but we've never seen them in the bay before. Probably harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena.

I like porpoises. They don't spend their time engaging in pointless acrobatics like their dolphin cousins, preferring to keep to themselves in order to avoid being attacked - often by those dolphin cousins.

The way they crossed the bay was a case in point - they only broke the surface twice in the whole stretch, and then just for a moment.

Monday 24 January 2011

Nads The Way I Like It

The photo may look like something out of a horror movie but it's actually part of my dinner. You are looking at an opened-up European edible sea-urchin Echinus Esculentus. In the sink you can also see razorfish and some other things that look somewhat like oysters of the feral Crassostrea Virginica classification.

Yesterday was a fun and productive day of gastrobeaching. The moon at around 80% of full combined with very still weather, meant that the tide was low enough to reveal the razorfish sandbank and also some of the kelp beds. It was in those beds that we found three sea-urchins. I decided to take the smallest of the three, reasoning there would be less of it to get through, this being my first attempt at eating one. We also found a good variety of interesting seaweed: loads of sea lettuce and a red dulse-like leafy weed among the thick kelp, and a separate bed of sugar kelp farther on. After gathering our haul we chatted to other foragers on the shore about the relative merits of various razorfishing techniques.

Upon our return home I set about finding out how to eat the forbidding-looking sea-urchin. I trawled through several YouTube videos, most of them set in Japanese restaurant kitchens. The Japanese call the edible parts of the urchin, often served as sushi, "Uni" (oo-nee), and they are considered a delicacy. Their sea-urchins seemed to be of a variety with larger spines and more orange-coloured Uni. Employing the knowledge I had gleaned I took a large pair of scissors and cut into the "vent" underneath the urchin, then outwards and round to remove a circular section, leaving the main part of the shell as neat and intact as possible. While my wife hid, I took a teaspoon and tucked in.

A bit of biology first. While the edible part of of the sea-urchin is colloquially referred to as the roe, it's actually the milt-containing gonads of the creature. This isn't the best thing to bear in mind when it's quivering (from shaky hand) in your teaspoon. Let's be clear about this - the texture of the Uni is not nice. It's cold and slimy in the mouth. The flavour, however, is very good: a rich, sweet and complicated seafood flavour quite unlike any other I have tried. Determined not to waste the calorific bounty provided by this beautiful creature, I ate it all. There was a surprisingly large amount of it.

A gastronome friend has since told me that Echinus Esculentus is not considered the height of sea-urchin gastronomy but, to me, it's more important that I'm eating what's here and available right in front of my house. Eating seafood raw, within half an hour of it being plucked from the shore, will always be an experience.

Who'd have thought that scoffing the gonads of a living echinoderm could be so life-affirming.

Monday 17 January 2011

Souplover Man

Thank you Lidl. Your central Aisle of Teutonic Wonder has again revealed a shining pearl of reasonably-priced kitchen equipment that has surely improved my life.

I like gadgets but I'm not very good at buying them because I keep putting off the purchase of them, never sure of choosing the best one available for my budget. Thus is was with the Lidl hand blender. I spied it in the Aisle of Wonder shortly before Christmas. At £9.99 it looked a steal - solidly built, with a reassuringly workmanlike heft and a burnished stainless-steel shaft. But I abandoned it, reasoning that there was no way that anyone could really make a decent blender with a reasonable motor for £9.99 retail. However, when I went back early in the new year to do some other shopping, I noticed that it was still on offer but that there was only one left. This time it was mine.

My wife and I make a lot of soup. It's so easy, cheap and satisfying to make I've often thought that, if I ever went into the catering industry, I would set up a wee cafe selling nothing but. Before the advent of the Lidl hand blender we had to take our soup and pour it into an ageing Magimix, a few ladles at a time. Now we just boil up the veg (or whatever) until tender then render it down to velvety mellifluousness, in-pot, with a few pulses (sic) of the blender.

We used it to make celeriac soup for Christmas dinner. I could have done with adding more liquid, as it came out a bit thick. But, as we were only serving small cups of it in between other gargantuan courses, it wasn't too filling for the purpose.

The celeriac soup recipe was gleaned from our trusty New Covent Garden Book of Soups. We've found the recipes in our 1996 edition to be reliable. But what are they up to these days? I recently bought a carton of their 'Root Vegetable Medley' and it was horrible: undercooked veg, nasty colour and no detectable salt. What is this nonsense about salt anyway? Sodium is a required electrolyte in the body, and adding salt to your cooking won't do you any harm. It will just make your food taste better.

January can be a hard month. Today is "Blue Monday", statistically the most depressing day of the year. So it's a good time to cheer yourself up by getting out a gigantic pot, a motley-looking assortment of seasonal ingredients and a hefty choppy device (Lidl or otherwise), and souping your way to happiness.

Monday 10 January 2011

Mocha Chocolata Yatter

The snow has all melted away and the cold, damp morning has a real January "back to work" feel. The tide is high and steely-rippled in the meagre dawn light. But it's warm in here and the coffee is hot and fragrant: Cariamanga from Ecuador, given to me as a kind gift by a friend who works there.

Most of the Christmas food-surplus mountain has now been converted into excess waistline. A few ill-flavoured Thorntons chocolates entreat with merciless determination from their yawning box. Come to think of it, most of their chocolates taste pretty poor - mostly of sugar. They're addictive and guilt-inducing, and I only tend to eat them when I have hangover anxiety. Blech.

We polished off the smoked salmon on Hogmanay, after an impromptu foodie get-together back here. You can tell it's a middle-class affair when your guests turn up at 3am equipped with cava and Bombay Sapphire, then send their husbands running (literally) back home because they've forgotten the Comte. We also finished my brother's rather fine spiced, pickled beef - I must get the recipe for that. The "evening" did, of course, finish up on whisky. A cask-strength Caol Ila. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The coffee is working its magic and the world seems a brighter place. Probably because the sun's just come up.