Monday 30 May 2011

Squats Entertainment

Sunshine! We've seen incredibly little of it this month, and May is usually the best month for weather in the north-west Highlands. Instead we've had twice the usual rainfall and what feels like a never ending cycle of storms. One of the few moments we were able to make it out of the house this weekend we spent rebuilding the blown-over 'trellis' netting for the beans to grow up. The beans don't look too keen in any case.

Never mind. I want to discuss party food. My wife managed to get hold of some Squat lobsters ('squatties' or 'squats' as we call them) for the party. This was no mean feat given that some poor soul had to take his boat out in decidedly non-clement weather specifically to get them! I'm very grateful, anyway, because they were delicious. I prefer squatties to prawns - they have a meatier texture and are, in flavour, more like lobster than prawn. You might assume this, given the name, but they are not really lobsters at all and are more closely related to certain types of crab. The variety we mostly get here - the Long-clawed Squat Lobster Munida rugosa - definitely has the look of a big unhoused hermit crab.

Talking of crab-like things, one of my more unusual gifts was a miniature bottle of vodka with a scorpion in it. The text on the bottle informs us (reassuringly) that it's a 'farmed scorpion' and quite edible. Now that would be a job-title to have - scorpion farmer. I'll be quite happy to chow down on the scorpion. I have no particular fear of eating insects and I find it odd that we are happy to eat insect-like creatures from the deep but turn up our noses when they come from the land.

We also had some fantastic meat and cheese at the party. My wife ordered up a Spanish Salchichon (cured sausage) and a whole (one kilo weight) Manchego cheese. If you've never tried Manchego I heartily recommend getting hold of some and eating it with the traditional Membrillo quince jelly. I should have tried some with the orange tequila jellies my brother had made - could have been an interesting combination.

The enormous cake, bagpiped in by my nephew, went down well, although I singularly failed to get the joke intrinsic to the cake (something to do with fork handles and four candles). Then there was the brain: my wife and friends had made a thick raspberry-flavoured jelly custard and set it into a mold to form a neat cerebral hemisphere. It was hilarious to see the reactions as guests were handed wobbling dollops of simulated cortex on black paper plates. The kids didn't bat an eyelid - they're right at home with gruesome-looking food.

Another blog post and I still didn't really fit it all in. This is a great way of spinning out the birthday fun! I really do believe in making the most of those precious gatherings with family and friends. I have a large family and it's not easy for us all to get together. When we do manage it, in the good times, I think we make a pretty good job of celebrating in style with food, drink and music.

I'll leave you with that thought and with this beautiful sunrise photo taken by my wife as we meandered home after the party. I think it's a testament to her keen eye and steady hand that I only had to straighten it by 3.5 degrees in Photoshop.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Gathering Storm

A wild week in many respects. I've just experienced a large and zero-ended birthday with much accompanying merriment. My wife, my family and my friends went out of their way to make sure that it was a birthday I will never forget. All quite wonderful and a bit overwhelming.

Knowing me as they all do, they made sure that food would be a central part of the event. I was treated to a bar meal out a local hotel on my birthday where I consumed a large bowl of mussels. The day before the party there was a fortuitously low tide and I went foraging on Gastrobeach with some family and friends. I realise that we're into May now, and I wouldn't normally be collecting much shellfish (particularly bivalves) at this time of year, but it has been so cold that I thought it unlikely that we'd have any problems. We raked up a lot of small surf clams, picked large wilks off the kelp and fat mussels from the rocks. I also took a bit of bright-green sea lettuce for seasoning. I showed my brother-in-law the fine art of catching razorfish the old-fashioned way, and managed to break the shell of it in the process.

Back at the house we cleaned and sorted our various finds. I fried up some onions, garlic and herbs in a large pot, then tossed in the surf clams (plus a few cockles). I let them cook for a few minutes then added a wee pot of ready made Cullen Skink, milk, double cream and seasoning. Meanwhile, my sister prepared the mussels by checking them and removing the 'beards'. There's no point in trying to scrape the barnacles off these wild mussels because they are absolutely encrusted with them, and it's not as if they would do you any harm. We simply steamed the mussels with some white wine and added cream just before serving. I boiled the wilks (winkles) and plonked the pot on the table for easy access by the snail-eating contingent.

What a feast. We served up the surf clam chowder in bowls on top of plates and put some decent crusty dunking bread on the table. I sprinkled chives and dried sea lettuce (I burned the first batch) over the chowder. This kind of food if very messy and a lot of fun. It's also the kind of food you pay a fortune for in fancy restaurants. My sister commented that the mussels were much bigger and tastier than any vacuum-packed supermarket variety she had ever tried. Even the humble wilks were sweet and delicious.

I forgot to take any photographs of all this.

And this was just the build-up to the party! I think I'll have to put the rest in another blog post or I'll be typing all day. I recommend letting everybody know what kind of food and drink you like so that you get lots of it whenever you have a high-numbered, zero-ended birthday.

The other part of the wildness has been the weather. We've never seen anything like this in May. It's often changeable but is not usually veering crazily between sunshine (with rainbows) and hailstorms with 90mph gusts of wind. I guess I'll just have to hunker down with the remains of the party food and my several newly-acquired bottles of malt whisky.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

It's Raining, Menhir

What a difference a week makes. Last time I was writing about scorchers, this time it's dreich and bucketing rain with the impenetrable blanket of Nimbostratus back in residence. The weekend was OK though; a few cloudbursts but some bright and breezy spells in between.

We took a stroll down the road, then back along the shore. My wife collected this large piece of wood that looks to be off an old boat. I don't know exactly what it is but it's pleasingly rust-streaked, holed and pockmarked, so we've planted in the garden as a sort of flotsam menhir.

I keep an eye of Scottish politics. It's not like you could really miss it the past few days. I was very interested to note, from a Gastrobeach point of view, that the new Scottish Government will be seeking control of the Crown Estates, which means that rights to the use of the coastal seabed and foreshore could be handled by the Scottish Parliament in future. It would be good to know that the Queen no longer had strange archaic rights to the native oysters on the shore in front of my house! On a less flippant note this change would, of course, be of huge significance to all those involved in inshore fisheries and offshore renewables in Scotland.

I think I forgot to mention that we got the submarine hatch barbecue fired up last week. We were only cooking boring pork chops and sausages but it was a pleasure to be able to cook outside without being troubled by midges (they haven't quite started yet).

I'm ready for a large mug of coffee now. There's a wee bit of 'rocco' left. It says on the packet that it is, "A quality arabica blend of South American coffee beans and the Mocha bean". It's certainly chocolatey.

Just thought of the title for this blog entry. That's pretty bad. Perfect.

Monday 2 May 2011

Always the Sun

A scorcher. We don't get many but this one has class. We knew it was coming and actually (and this really doesn't happen often) left stuff outside that we would normally bring in at night. Had to sleep with all the windows open. It was so tranquil that we could hear boats chugging in the bay, a cuckoo, an owl, seagulls and oystercatchers all at the same time.

It's easy in this part of the world, during the winter months, to forget that the sun exists. Days are short and the sun is often blotted out by thick grey cloud. But that only serves to make the impact of the sunshine seem greater when we do get wonderful days like this. I sometimes wish it wasn't the case that our mood cycles are connected to the weather but I think that there's plenty of evidence here that it's true. The people seem to bloom, sometimes quite exuberantly, along with the plants when the sun comes out.

We spent yesterday with our wee nephew, starting the day (at his insistence) paddling in the bay as the tide turned and came in over the warm sand. The water was very cold but he and I ventured out up to our waists before deciding that the kudos of taking the plunge just wasn't worth the pain. A wee girl from up the road heard his cries of delight and came down to the shore, dragging her mother in tow, to see what all the fuss was about. I think she got in as far as her ankles before bursting into tears. My nephew later found a starfish, Asterias rubens I think, and we got a great photo of him displaying it proudly for the camera.

We got a bit of weeding done, in between visiting family and lounging on the deck. The dandelions are running riot this year but at least they pull out easily. Buttercups are my arch enemy because they certainly don't.

It was definitely a gin and tonic evening - who were we to argue? Hendrick's Gin is a wee bit unusual with very distinct savoury, herby flavours. They recommend that you drink it with ice and cucumber but I've never been very sure about that. I once ordered a Hendrick's and tonic in a Glasgow pub and the barmaid enthusiastically served me up what looked like a glass of salad. There were a few strange looks from my pint-drinking colleagues.

I hope you can't overdose on vitamin D because I probably got more yesterday than I've had in the last six months.