For many years, I’ve dreamt about returning to Elgol, a remote village near the black Cuillins on the Isle of Skye. During a previous visit 17 years ago, Elgol became a fantasy village promising isolation, a place to write that novel or master the fiddle. During a recent return visit, this time for a longer look around and a boat trip across the sea from Elgol to Loch Coruisk, I finally put that fantasy to rest.
The road to Elgol is a single lane narrow road with plenty of passing places: it can still be quite alarming during the high tourist season. Most side roads off the main route are similar: the combination of distracting scenery, concentrating on the hairpin bends and tourists who are unused to driving on the left hand side, makes for an ‘interesting’ journey at times. There are, fortunately, many wider verges for the obligatory photo snap.
There’s not much in Elgol itself, just extraordinary beauty. Most visitors come to take a boat across the water to walk around Loch Coruisk. Two companies run boats which leave from the small harbour in Elgol. If you go in August, expect to book your place as these trips are popular. The trip takes around 30 minutes each way and includes 1½ hours stopover on the island for exploration. One boat has some covering for inclement weather, the other, run by Misty Boat Tours, the one we chose, has none. Be ready to get drenched en route if you choose the latter. There’s no shelter on the island, except for a small bothy used and paid for by trekkers, and no toilets or trees! The boat you travel on departs once you have disembarked. This is a journey for those who are happy to experience the wild and are prepared to rough it.
If you don’t like walking on rocks and boggy grass, you would be better taking the tour minus the stopover. Grass and bog are an ever-present feature of walking in Skye, requiring waterproof walking shoes, waterproof jackets and a sense of adventure. The rocks, fortunately, are not slippery when wet, making walking up steep surfaces quite safe. Wild beauty comes at a price.
One of the most common complaints of the traveller is the dearth of vegetables served along the way in any type of eatery, cafe, restaurant or pub. Despite veggies being in vogue, we don’t see many on the plate, other than a token salad or a potato, the latter usually in the form of the dreaded chip. After 6 weeks on the road, we were longing for our own apartment or little house, just to be able to cook a pile of vegetables, a soup or vegetable bake, as well as catch up on some washing. It’s rather ironic really, that these simple domestic tasks become so overwhelmingly desirable when you no longer have them.
Our first pot of soup, a leek and potato soup, seemed fitting for our little kitchen in Aberystwyth, Wales. Our York apartment, a spacious Ikea fitted out place in a converted office building, provided the means to cook, but as we were also visiting friends that week, we had little chance to use it. My dear friend JA made some wonderful salads and dishes loaded with veggies from her Lottie ( affectionate English name for an allotment garden), the most memorable dish being her Summer Pudding, filled with plump, ripe blackberries picked from verges, along with raspberries and blueberries cured inside a mold of organic white bread. Ecstasy. There’s an art to making these carmine concoctions that taste like berry velvet.
Now that we’re in Skye, our little stone cottage by the sea has enabled some real cooking to take place. But first, before driving across to the island, we did a big veggie shop in Inverness. Vegetables are much cheaper in Britain than Australia, so long as you stick to seasonal ingredients that are locally grown. My big bag of vegetables, including a cute Wonky cabbage, cost very little, necessitating a few little add ons, such as box of raspberries, some odd looking flat peaches, French butter, lovely cheeses, some Scottish and others a bit too French, and of course, a bottle of single malt whisky. All in the name of keeping up with the locals, of course. Or as the late Angus Grant, fiddle player from Shooglenifty would say, in the only words I have ever heard him sing, ‘Suck that mother down,’ during his live solo on the tune ‘Whisky Kiss.’
Wonky vegetables are NQR shaped produce, an idea that has also taking off in Australia. We don’t need perfectly shaped vegetables thankyou, and we definitely don’t need them wrapped in plastic. Most of my bargain veggies came pre -wrapped or bagged in acres of plastic. I’m wondering if the ‘War on Waste’ campaign is happening in Britain and Scotland. The other aspect I found unusual about the local supermarkets was the volume of pre-prepared foods. You name it, it’s available, pre-cooked and ready to ding. Fish cakes, fish pie ingredients, including the sauce, pre-cooked mussels, all sorts of meals, mash, even mashed swede. I’m not sure that Jamie Oliver has made much impression on the English diet.
I was hoping to find a farmer’s market on Skye to supplement these goods. It turns out that farmers markets are quite rare, but then given the climate, I can understand why. We found one at Glendale in the north-west of Skye, a longish drive. We arrived early to find 7 stalls huddled together against the wind: one lady had a pile of fresh organic chicken carcasses for stock, another chap had one small bag of rainbow chard and black kale, nearby was the cucumber specialist, with two kinds on offer, on another table were a few carrots and apples and further down a lady with some sticky buns. And in the midst of all this I found the lady from Tinctoria, a specialist hand spinner and dyer from these parts. She has been hand dyeing since the 1980s and grows her own herbs to make the most extraordinary colours. Needless to say, I wanted them all.
My vegetable stash is lasting well. In my Skye kitchen I’ve made lentil and vegetable soups, swede, onion and Orkney cheddar bake, pan scorched green beans with garlic and lemon, ( loving the very skinny beans here), caramelised whole shallots in olive oil, butter and beetroot glaze, Cullen Skink full of undyed smoked haddock, pasta with veggies, mushroom risotto, cauliflower cheese and loads of salads. My cooking has taken on a distinctive Scottish style- the view outside my kitchen window, the rain and the ever-changing Skye light having a profound effect on my cooking and pastimes. It’s odd, given my gypsy tendencies, how homely and settled I feel here.
Fat Raspberries, sweet and seasonal, lead to the obvious choice of dessert- Cranachan- except that I was rather heavy-handed with the single malt and the toasted oats. It ended up more like an alcoholic breakfast. Mr T has promised to pick some neglected black berries along the verges, down near Maelrubha’s well; before we leave this special place, I’ll try to make a more restrained blackberry version.
I could go on and on about the wonders of Skye and how inspired I feel here, but I’ll save it for another time, another ramble into the mist. The media file below depicts views from our cottage. It’s hard to stay sane around such ever shifting beauty.
Every evening in the gloaming, this lone chook comes down to the beach to graze on the machair and dig about in the seaweed. And then she wanders back home. I want her eggs.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about Skye, and about that young girl, Marion, who left here during the clearances 180 years ago, and the voices that I hear down by the stream of Maelrubha, the Irish red-headed bald monk who came to preach to the Picts in 671 and the healing water of his well. And about the Norwegian Viking princess who was buried, along with her servants, on top of a stark mull in the Cuillins, and of the warrior queen, Scáthach the Shadow, who lived in the Dunscaith castle on the edge of wild sea at Toravaig in Sleat. Legendary figures surround me, they seem to live and breathe.
I am struggling in my search for superlatives: none will do. My English language doesn’t fit this place: it’s too modern and limited and fails to describe what I see. Older words portray these land forms and features, some of them still in use today and if we say them aloud, we might hear our ancestors speak. This is a land of heather and bracken, of cairns, crags and tors, forges, braes, straths and burns. The colours of tartan are spread across rock cuttings and moors, colours mixed by rain and light: heather with burnt orange bracken and oat, scree with mustard seaweed drying at low tide, lichen on birch, black slate and rowan berry. Sometimes the heather is dun, sometimes purple and pink. These are the colours of hand dyed wool woven into the plaid of old.
When it rains, which is often, the Isle of Skye weeps from every cranny. In the mountains it floods with tears as waterfalls rip and carve great channels through these bald hills. The roadside verges gently seep. Black rock faces flash wet glint, the burns and creeks darkly rush. Tread lightly on the sodden machair, that deceptive verdant sponge by the sea, now solid grass, now quagmire, now submerged. The sun appears in the late afternoon, a watery limpid glow that seeks out new colours of the evening. Rocky crags, hidden by morning mist, appear as if a new day. And then in late summer, that mystic light returns as the gloaming beckons, inviting exploration before the tide and the night come rushing in.
From Breakish on Skye. Skye fills me with yearning. More words will come.
Mr Tranquillo’s post on Skye is here. His great grandmother, Marion Grant, left Breakish on Skye as a young child during the Clearances, travelling to Australia and eventually marrying Alexander McKenzie from Ullapool in the Highlands. Their children never returned to Skye, but all their grandchildren and some of their great-grandchildren have. Speed Bonny Boat.
Lists of English words with Scottish Gaelic origin.
When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.
And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica withcrusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.
One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.
Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.
I tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large stick celery, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
300 ml water
250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
1 bay leaf
250 ml milk
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives
In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.
Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,
Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.
* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.
An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.
Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?
In the depths of winter, Minestra di Farro alla Lucchese, or Farro soup Lucca style, hits the spot. For me, it’s a one dish meal, un piatto unico, especially when served with good bread, olive oil and grated parmigiana. It is also a kind of Tardis soup, a little ‘time machine’ bowl of goodness, flying me back to Lucca and the Garfagnana hills nearby.
Many restaurants around Lucca list Farro soup on the menu, especially in the popular touristy places offering piatti tipici Lucchesi. After experiencing a few good ones, and some not so good, I set about copying the local version during our extended visits to Lucca back in 2008 and again in 2011. On the first occasion we rented a little apartment close to the railway station and just outside the walls of the city. Being close to the station enabled us to choof up into the Garfagnana hills, the home of Italian farro, to spend the days visiting the villages of Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, steep hill towns that at certain times of the year seem forgotten in time.
The first time I visited Barga, the dark slippery cobblestoned lanes echoed with the sounds of the Celtic fiddle. It turns out that there was a Scottish musician in residence and his little studio faced directly onto the street. There are a few other Scottish peculiarities around the town-a genuine fish and chip shop on the outskirts, most unusual in Italy, and advertisements around the place about a visiting delegation from a sister town in Scotland. Many folk from Barga emigrated to Scotland in poorer times. Perhaps the landscape looked familiar. Some returned as adults, hence the strong connection. Well, Barga me!, said with an Italian/ Scottish accent.
On the second occasion, we rented a small house around 7 kms out from Lucca. La Casa dello Scrittore, a small rural house in the grounds of Casale dei Tigli, is situated close to vineyards and olive groves. The charming young man and owner, Guido, delivered beautiful gifts to us each day- magnificent olive oil, a great local red wine or two and a Buccellato, the sweet fruit studded bread of Lucca. The car was essential for forays back into Lucca or further afield into the hills and small villages, to visit restored villas and their gardens or to lunch at my favourite Italian restaurant, Antica Locanda di Sesto.
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The terrace. Casa dello Scrittore, Lucca
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Minestra di Farro Lucchese/Farro soup from Lucca
100 g dried borlotti beans ( fagioli scritti)
100 g Italian farro
EV Olive oil
1-2 sticks celery
5 cloves of garlic
1 potato (optional)
a few leaves of cavolo nero ( Tuscan Kale) (optional)
1 can of tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
fresh herbs such as sage and marjoram
Soak the borlotti beans overnight. The following morning, cook the beans in ample water, with a few herbs, until softened. Also soak the farro for an hour or so.
In a large soup pot, make a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery. Chop them finely and cook gently in olive oil. Add the garlic towards the end.
Add the farro, cooked beans, tomato paste, can of tomatoes and chopped herbs. Cover with enough water. Cook until the farro is soft and ready . You may need to add a little more water along the way. Add the finely shredded Tuscan kale, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Serve with a drizzle of good oil and grated parmesan.
Many versions of this minestra cook the beans and other ingredients first, then puree half, returning them to the pot, before adding the farro to the mix. I prefer to leave the beans whole as they shed enough thickening as the soup cooks. The pureed version is extremely thick and the farro tends to catch.