Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Whitebaited Breath

Moody October sky
Don't you just love October? The summer is still a warm, barbecue-flavoured memory; September has lulled you into a false sense of security; and then, all of a sudden, October batters in with hailstorms and getting-up-in-the-dark blear.

But it's no problem this time - we have some autumn sunshine lined up, Mediterranean style. And, when we get back, I'll get to work on planning weekends away, and other distractions, to break up the moribund months of the long winter.

The closest I've got to collecting seafood recently is stealing lovely crispy-coated whitebait off my wife's plate at The West End Hotel in Fort William, last weekend. I followed that - and my own massive portion - with a bowl of huge and very tasty moules cooked marinière. The mussels were, I was assured, fresh from nearby Loch Linnhe. They certainly tasted it, and I had a bit of a carb-out dunking all manner of absorbent matter (food only) in the delicious creamy sauce, before finally attacking it with a big spoon.

Another reason that these mussels met with my approval was that they had decent hard shells. Wee splintery shells, such as the ones on some of the mussels you get prepacked in the supermarket, are not on. Call me fussy but I want to be able to drink the tasty cooking liquid safe in the knowledge that I'm not going to lacerate my throat or stomach with shell shards.

And where are we going on holiday? Turkey! We're very much looking forward to the food and I'm hoping there are lots of fresh balık (fish) dishes on the all-inclusive menu. I made us a Turkish taster meal last weekend - no fish on the menu but plenty of meat with fruit in it, tomato salad with loads of raw garlic in it, kahve (Turkish coffee) and baklava (filo and honey sweetmeats). We were fragrantly stuffed after that lot.

As for the language, I can now remember how to ask for red wine. My wee nephew suggested it might be an idea to learn how to ask for food, too - just so we don't starve or get too drunk.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Gander at Goose Barnacles

The fascinating organisms pictured, are goose barnacles. We found them, while on holiday, washed up on the otherwise uniformly empty and sandy shore of Boyndie bay.

We had never seen goose barnacles before and found them quite beautiful, if a little alien. Although we didn't attempt to eat them I wondered if they would be anything like the barnacles that the Spanish, particularly of the Galicia region, risk life and limb to collect from wave-battered rocky inlets. Because of the great difficulty and danger involved in collecting them, the Spanish variety - known as percebes - fetch premium prices in their bustling fish markets.

It looks like the ones we found were the pelagic gooseneck barnacle variety Lepas anatifera. The stems of these are, apparently, edible. But, because the stems are so thin and not very meaty, they would probably just be a load of messy hassle to prepare. The Spanish variety, in stark and expensive contrast, are apparently simple to cook - just boil up for a few minutes in some sea-water - and deliciously salt-meaty. Just be sure to pull the crunchy head off.

I have just read, with some incredulity, that goose barnacles are so-called because it was thought in the (I hope distant) past that Barnacle Geese developed from them! Tiny geese, spontaneously erupted from the driftwood, one day to fledge and take flight: charmingly naive notion on the one hand and disturbing autogenesis-like concept on the other.

Well we did say they looked alien.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Life's Baleen Good

A big boat off the Banffshire coast
by fitaloon (sourced from Flickr)
It's cloudier today, with a curiously warm east wind pushing a swell in towards Gastrobeach. The swell made for interesting swimming conditions yesterday: It had churned up seaweed and sand murk from the bottom of the wee cove, so I couldn't really see what I was swimming through. Being carried back towards shore by rolling waves was fun despite the several mouthfuls of salty water I scooped up along the way. Just give me some baleen and I could filter-feed.

A summer (so far) of sea, celebration and spectacular sunshine. All, as you would expect, a bit fishy too. Shiny new memories glittering like a line-full of darrow-hooked mackerel.

We headed north-east at the start of the holidays, to stay once again at the tiny fishermans' cottage, and indulge in a week of fresh seafood and coconut ice-cream. My menu for the week turned out something like this:
  • Saturday - out to the chippy for scampi, chips and a bottle of too-sweet rose wine (from the Spar across the street)
  • Sunday - hmm, didn't write that one down, so it must have been meat
  • Monday - smoked hake with salsa and oatcakes, followed by rock turbot in a cream sauce with roasted tomato salad on the side
  • Tuesday - mussels cooked in white wine and garlic, followed by sea bass in a teriyaki/balsamic/chili reduction
  • Wednesday - dressed crab, then skate with a lemon butter and caper sauce
  • Thursday - fresh hake with herb butter, followed by that very special coconut ice-cream
  • Friday - didn't write that one down either, but I think it was a large bag of prawns cooked in garlic butter
While I'm making lists I will create one about some of the inferences we can draw from the above:
  1. We ate a lot of (excellent) food
  2. We were not on any (recognisable) form of low-fat diet
  3. We were (unequivocally) spoiled
  4. While I have no particular problem with the lingering odour of fish and garlic, Glade will not be marketing that particular fragrance any time soon.
Now we're back home, and work beckons. But the Perseid meteor shower on a balmy, midge-free August evening was a rather special way to round off the holidays.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Sam and Salm

Green, sprouty, salty and tasty.

My dad was trying to get us to describe the taste of samphire; 'a bit like asparagus, but salty,' my brother ventured. I don't know how to describe it but the saltiness is, by far, the overriding flavour.

The wee green shoots are popping up all over the salt-flats. They are tricky to spot at first; then you notice them contrasted against the background of the brown muddy areas, then, when you get your 'samphire eyes in', you begin to see them everywhere amongst the grass and sea-pinks.

The sunny weather has made the prospect of lazy cooking even more than usually attractive. In this spirit of 'less time cooking means more time kicking back, watching the hills turn red, nice glass of wine in hand,' my wife threw together some salmon and samphire parcels. Oil on foil; samphire on foil; salmon fillets on samphire; cumin, pepper and butter on salmon; seal up the foil parcel and into the oven for 15 minutes. Ocean-tang-fastic.

We'll be looking for the Sea Blite Suaeda maritima coming through next. More indescribable-other-than-in-terms-of-saltiness halophile treats for the summer months. Hurrah!

Monday, 28 May 2012


Dolphins from Armadale-Mallaig ferry
Thirty degrees. We don't get thirty degrees. I don't remember us ever having, in the north west of Scotland, a spell of weather as hot, blue-skied and all-round gorgeous as this. I hardly recognise the place: The mountains look Alpine, the sea looks Aegean and the sunburned faces look like stop-lights.

Our trip across to Mallaig on the Armadale ferry turned into a nature cruise when the skipper announced that we were heading towards a school of dolphins. All we could see at first was a dark patch in the flat calm water - a dark patch which, upon inspection with the small binoculars my wife had the foresight to bring, turned out to be caused by the leaping and diving of a school at least fifty dolphins strong. (I assume that these were of the Common variety Delphinus delphis.) Tourists surged forward to catch the action on tiny and expensive-looking camcorders. I pointed our camera in the general direction of the dolphins and started pressing the button pretty much at random, as I couldn't see the view screen due to the glare. We got a few reasonable shots but not as many as I would have had if some foolish camera designer hadn't decided it would be a good idea to get rid of optical viewfinders.

By the time we reached Mallaig the wee seafood shop by the railway station was pretty much cleaned out. We had to make do with 350g of Gravadlax-style thick cut smoked salmon to accompany the spelt loaf we had picked up in Armadale earlier in the day.

After a dip in the sea at Morar we settled on our blanket, laid out on the glistening white sand, to eat our picnic late-lunch in the (did I mention thirty degrees) sunshine. Life doesn't really get much better than that.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Limpet Games

summer icebergI learned a valuable lesson from my wee nephew this sunny weekend: It is possible to push a skewer through an inflated balloon without bursting it. The fact that he took off half way down the garden as I started to push the skewer in didn't inspire confidence but, despite the fact that he had only 'seen it on telly' it did, in fact, work.

My wife and I were feeling surprisingly fresh after a superb 'galloping gourmet' evening of tapas, Kir Royale, hot-smoked salmon, Moroccan lamb and more sumptuous desserts than you could shake an eager spoon at.

After toast, coffee, outdoor-sofa-lazing and balloon shenanigans we packed a rucksack with flask of elderflower cordial, packet of nuts and some salami, then took off over the rocky shore at, approximately, dog-whelk pace. Trekking sandals were the business for splashing through the perishing-cold sea and not-quite-so-perishing rock-pools. My nephew only had trainers (complete with built-in flashing LED lights) and Sonic the Hedgehog socks. But he too splashed around regardless.

An enormous chunk of polystyrene was pressed into service as a ship, complete with stick mast and complement of sailors: Captain Limpet and his trusty whelk crew. The inshore breeze didn't make for ideal sailing conditions. I slip-slided out through the water to a kelp-covered island to launch the vessel, only to see it deposited straight back on the rocks; Captain Limpet entirely failing to live up to his name.

After late-lunch break we continued on along the shore, taking in the beautiful hazy view in between repeated backtracking to share our nephew's latest (and, of course, most important) discovery. We made it as far as the 'cave' (really an arch) at the point. There was what looked like a bat-box lodged high up at the apex and, when I pointed this out to my nephew, he was keen to know how the bats had managed to get their house up there.

He marveled at a smooth indent and groove in the rock where the waves continually splashed in and ran back down to the sea. I explained about the endless action of the sea wearing away the rock. He seemed to take the notion of geological timescales in his small stride. And, probably because it was time to return home, he really didn't want to leave that place. The trip back slowed from dog-whelk to limpet pace and the backtracking requests multiplied. We must have covered miles of that same stretch of shoreline.

Gastrobeach looks just as inviting today as sunlight glistens on the smooth water. The mountains are, once again, hazy blue; like some far-off and enchanted mythical realm.

I am too grown up to believe in mythical realms but I can, at least, rejoice in the magic of reality: an amazing world where skewers can be pushed through inflated balloons and water can wear away solid rock.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A Walk to Radio Rock

A walk to the point last weekend, in the chill March wind, was a welcome antidote to 'morning after' fuzziness. We headed out, along with a friend who was staying with us for a short break, scrambling over progressively larger stones until we reached the sharply-spiked rocks at the eastern tip.

There's a small cove just round the headland, where the waves ebb and flow through rounded pebbles. Our friend noticed that a rock to the side of the pebbles was making a strange noise, not unlike radio static. The sound was created by the sea, bubbling away through a crack in the rock.

We scrambled up the hill from the shore, hauling ourselves up through the sturdy heather. The view was worth the effort: a sweep of grandeur - all snow-capped peaks, blazing low sun, scudding clouds and steely sea. We followed a sheep track until we were heading back in the direction of home, facing west. The Cuillins rose ahead of us, way beyond the russet moor, before the view was swallowed by an incoming hail cloud.

Five minutes from home the hail shower hit us: a freezing deluge, mixed with sleet and cold rain.

Steaming bowls of thick lamb broth, back at the house, revived us soon enough. We sat and watched the weather close in, warming up and looking forward to another evening of good wine and good company.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Shellfish Gene

We hit the surf clam motherlode on our last foraging trip. There's a particular place in one of the streams flowing back down to the sea which must have just the right combination of temperature, nutrients, sand and wee stones to provide them with an ideal home (surf clam style). They were still small but we have learned from experience how tasty they can be in a chowder.

My brother found an enormous shell from a recently-deceased native oyster Ostrea edulis. I'd never seen a true oyster shell that size; it must have been fully 16 centimetres across.

We also found a decent number of cockles and my mother insisted on collecting a load of wilks, common whelks, limpets and slightly gritty mussels. We banned those from the ensuing chowder. She also accepted a gift of a large bag of razorfish from a passing salt-wielding forager.

It took us about an hour and a half to clean and prep all the shellfish. We scrubbed them all and removed the beards from the mussels, then I cut open the razorfish and extracted the tastiest bits. My brother made a base for the chowder which included stock made from prawn shells, cream, herbs and potatoes. He then added the surf clams and cockles to cook until the shells opened. Meanwhile I boiled up the mussels, limpets, wilks and whelks in a separate pot. A dusting of flaked chipotle, garlic salt and chili-sauce provided the appropriate flavourings for the razorfish, which I then attempted to flash fry. I must now admit to having a condition known as frying-pan-not-hot-enough-because-my-mother's-stove-is-rubbish rage. I'm seeking treatment but it's quite specialised. The razorfish ended up rather rubbery as a result of half-boiling in the pan rather than truly frying. They were better raw as my brother conceded until I pointed out to him that the pieces were still moving at the time he tried one.

We already had enough shellfish to feed a rugby team and make 70s-style shell-covered table lamps for all their extended families, when my mother announced that this lot was just our starter and that we were also having main course and dessert. The chowder was rich, flavoursome and wonderfully messy to eat. I also managed a few mussels, a couple of bulots (whelk) and even a vulcanised limpet.

Another excellent family meal scavenged from Gastrobeach for free (apart from the smoked ham joint and chocolate ice cream).

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Seashell Sanctuary

It's been an uplifting, gastronomic and romantic few days on and around Gastrobeach. It is amazing how a long weekend at home can turn into a wonderful and fulfilling mini holiday. And having that extra time coinciding with decent tides at useful times of day is neatly serendipitous. Lots to talk about, so I may spread it over a few blog posts.

I decided to cook a special meal on the Friday evening, to kick off the long weekend in style. The food available in the supermarkets here is often boringly generic so I took to the wee shops to gather my main ingredients: a couple of juicy venison steaks from the butcher and around half a kilo of fresh prawn tails from the seafood deli.

I fried up garlic and parsley with a lot of butter and some rapeseed oil, then added some lemon juice to make a hot, lemony garlic-butter dip. I simply plunged the prawn tails into boiling water for a couple of minutes. If you've never experienced the messy delights of shelling hot prawns at the table, and eating them dipped in tangy garlic butter, then you may be the sort of person that got scolded by their mother for being a messy eater and has now developed an unhealthy complex or two. You'll certainly be the sort of person that is missing out.

I had seasoned the venison steaks and marinated in Port for an hour or so. Using the garlic-butter pan (complete with tasty caramelised garlic bits) I began making a reduction for the steaks. A good glug of cassis, some more Port and a couple of teaspoons of blackcurrant jam, added to the leftover venison marinade, made for a rich sauce reduction. I boiled some chopped celeriac and potato then whizzed (with some lemon juice and butter added) to make a smooth puree. Venison steaks are excellent flash-fried but they are quite dense, so you'll need to fry them for a bit longer than beef steaks to get to the equivalent level of cookedness. I left ours quite rare but then rested them for a while out of the pan while I fried some baton-cut courgettes in the meat juices. I then returned the steaks to the pan for a final heat. Somewhat better than the pizza and a movie I had originally planned.

There was dessert too: chocolate and vanilla cheesecake by those people. We now have loads of those wee glass dishes they come in, but they make passable ramekins if you are a ramekin sort of person. Is that a person that likes little rams? The liquid accompaniment to the whole meal was a refreshing cava de Codorniu.

Saturday was dry if a little overcast. Humans ventured onto the shore around 2pm to follow the still-receding tide line. My brother and mother joined us for a "fun but serious" forage. We were mostly seeking surf clams to form the basis of a bumper seafood chowder but were often distracted by the other fascinating sea-life revealed by the low tide. The image I've used is a wee taster of this: a hermit crab in a beautiful conical shell.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

All Wellie and Good

Orion from Ayrshire
A beautiful winter shot of Orion over the Ayrshire coast. Photo by John Spooner via Flickr.
It's a crispy-cold and sunlit day, with scratchy snow showing on the mainland peaks. It looks like t-shirt weather from in here but, at around 2 degrees with windchill outside, I wouldn't recommend it.

The bright, dry weather and longer days have been thoroughly liberating. My wife came home from work early on Monday and we had time for an hour-long trek along the 'flotsam' side of the bay before the light was gone. Along the way we spoke to a friend who had caught up with us in his quest to claim a dented blue plastic barrel, which he intended cut down and use as an animal feed container.

We made it as far as the jaggy rocks two-thirds of the way towards the point before accepting that we were running out of daylight. The wobbly, rounded stones along this stretch of shore aren't conducive to surefootedness in low light, especially when you're wearing too-big Argyll wellies. My wife has snug snowboots with chunky and grippy soles, so she was somewhat more gazelle-like (in relative terms) than me in the failing light.

The views (combined with the cold air) were quite breathtaking. Two ships passed in the dusk far out in the Sound. A heron hunched, old-man-like, in the steel-flat water. They seem to like these low light conditions - I assume that it's easier for them to spot the flash of small fish than when the sun is higher in the sky.

The bright stars of Orion were just beginning to show in the east as we tramped, happy and becalmed, up the drive to our cosy-warm house.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Guvec Kind of Love

We took a short break away in Inverness at the weekend, just to dissect the bleak and incessant-feeling month of January into manageable chunks. The sales, it seems, are still in full swing (not that we're much interested in them) with desperate, flagging chain stores hawking their miserable generic wares.

Eating out was the high point for us. It's a treat to be able to go out to a reasonably-priced, quality restaurant that isn't aimed at formal-dining well-heeled toffs and landed gentry, as some rural 'country house hotel' restaurants are wont to be.

We chose Aspendos Turkish restaurant for our Saturday night out. Turkish, and Middle-Eastern cuisine in general, is really growing on me. The flavour combinations are really quite different to what you generally find in Western cooking and there's a wholesome 'big-heartedness' to the style that is unfussy and refreshing. Tastes such as the bitter/sharp tang of sumac take a bit of getting used to but they are grown-up, exotic flavours that my palate is ready and eager to learn.

I ordered Kalamar Tava (deep fried squid rings) and my wife chose Gumus Tava (deep fried whitebait) for starters. They were really fresh and substantial starters but she found the whitebait a little salty and so we swapped. I didn't find them too salty but then I probably wouldn't have noticed, being something of a budding halophile myself.

My main, Balik Guvec (mixed fish cooked with onion, peppers, garlic, tomatoes and artichoke), was a splendid, bubbling cauldron of fish stew. It was hard to identify the type of fish under its delicious and blistering tomatoey blanket, but I think it might have been chunks of hake and salmon. My wife had Visneli Jumbo Karides (king prawns, roasted almonds, spring onion, cherry, coriander, onion and peppers). This, also, was superb, and the unusual combination of the prawns and cherry chutney really highlighted a different approach to appreciation of seafood flavours.

Our final course, though we were now fast approaching bursting point, was Baklava for my wife and Kezkul (a sort of milk pudding, not unlike panacotta in consistency, with rosewater, sugar, coconut, pistachio and cornflour) for me. Both portions were so enormous that we couldn't quite finish them, and we just had space to squeeze in some hot and viscous Turkish coffee to round off the meal.

I love fish stews, soups, chowders and gumbos, and will need to make a point of experimenting with them further. I hear you can make a passable bouillabaisse out of any scrappy wee rockfish and shellfish, and there are plenty of those kicking (well, wriggling and wallowing) about on Gastrobeach.

Monday, 16 January 2012

La Mer du Mercure

The sea looks like quicksilver this morning: slow, smooth waves of liquid metal illuminated by the flat peach-coloured light of the still-hidden sun. It's a cold beauty.

Struggling out of the warm nest of bed in the morning seems harder in January than during the pre-Christmas buzz of December, despite the fact that the days are lengthening again. It's that realisation that winter festivities are over but spring is still some way off. So I find myself coming up with strategies to alleviate the dark-day effects: getting outside for a while each day; staring at the patches of blue sky when they appear (to absorb the precious blue wavelengths); taking vitamin D; using one of those wake-up lights as a poor substitute sunrise.

The vast store of Christmas luxury food has now dwindled. The last mince pies were consumed at the weekend; a delicious but hard-to-digest reminder of festive scents and flavours. A few treats still remain: some excellent smoked salmon; a small piece of wine-infused pickled pork; a sliver of Manchego cheese. We've accrued enough bottles of booze to last until next Christmas.

Walks on Gastrobeach in bracing weather have helped to blow away the cobwebs. Our stroll along the shore the day after a storm revealed a plethora of beached sea-life: many starfish; a lone feisty squat lobster; a small fish stranded in a pool; several sea-urchins. I found an oyster of the Crassostrea virginica variety yesterday and later consumed it as a flash-grilled snack doused with chilli sauce.

Looking back over this post it seems a little melancholy. I suppose that's just the way it came out, but it wasn't really my intention. I have had a wonderful festive season and enjoyed every minute of contact with family and friends. We celebrated like we meant it.

I don't make resolutions but I think I need, for my own balance of mind, to have upcoming treats to look forward to throughout the winter. It shouldn't be one great blast of enjoyment then three months of hunkering down til springtime. So we'll line up some treats and breaks away; we'll keep the sparkly-lights shining and we'll keep in touch with family and friends.

It's not a resolution, just a practical solution, for partial diminution of the winter blues.