2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon – Part 2: Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire

The most direct route to our next destination, in Buckinghamshire, was the A1M, a road I loathe with a passion, so instead we headed for the M1. Not much better, I grant you. Here we got our first reminder or what the UK’s roads are like: congested, polluted, and full of bad drivers.  We’d allowed a leisurely 4 hours to get to my Aunt’s in Olney.  It took nearly 6. We arrived choking on diesel fumes and sweating in the blistering heat.  Thank goodness for mobile phones.  We’d alerted my Aunt to the delay and she had curative tea and cake ready on our arrival, served on her best china.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone get out the best china for me before!

We spent a happy few hours chatting and sharing our wedding photos.  We tried to keep the balance between people getting to see a few pictures of our ‘Big Day’ and boring them silly, and I think we succeeded; that or people were too polite to complain.  Eileen was our shortest stop.  We were keen to see her as she’d been unable to make the wedding, but we didn’t want to stay too long and tax her as she’s recovering from a stroke and tires easily.

Next to the deep dark south – Surrey – by means of the M1 and the dreaded M25.  The jokes and jibes about the biggest car park et al are still true.  We queued.  And queued.  We were supposed to arrive in Dorking around teatime and didn’t arrive until 20:30.  The lovely Sylvia kindly waited for us and cooked a meal when we arrived, and Darryl, our friend’s son, spent the evening and following morning entertaining us when he probably had much better things to do.  Sylvia is the mum of a friend I’ve known since childhood although I’ve probably not seen her for 30 years.  It was lovely to feel so welcomed and looked after, especially given the fact that our friends were away and had offered their home as a stop-over in their absence.  The kindness and generosity of friends was a recurrent theme during our road trip and we were both amazed and delighted.

The following day we headed further south and west, on through Hampshire, stopping off at my parents on the way.  It would have felt strange to drive almost past their front door, even though we couldn’t stay over.  It was a different experience seeing them when we were the ‘visiting relatives’ rather than the other way around.

A short hop to Salisbury in Wiltshire should have taken under an hour but took well over an hour due to road works on the Salisbury by-pass.  I will never get used to the amount of traffic on the roads and the time wasted sitting in queues.  Having spent over 8 hours in the car you’d think we’d be quite happy to sit or walk for the rest of the evening, anything but drive about.  Well we were happy to sit and chat but we were also more than happy to take David up on his offer of a ride in his restored Austin.  She’s a beauty of a car and even managed to pull 4 of us up hill  not long after starting.  I did think we’d have to get out and push at one point. Thankfully not.

It was as well we took the opportunity for motoring on a sunny summer’s evening.  The following day the rain was non-stop and torrential. Visiting David’s allotment was out – we did a drive through as a token gesture – and touring the city wasn’t a great option either, so we plumped for visiting Salisbury cathedral instead. The impressive medieval building was started in 1220 and completed around 1266.  The spire was added later, around 1320 and has been the tallest in England, standing at 123m, since the 16th century.  The building is impressive and worth a visit.  It’s amazing to think of the skill and time it took to build in a period with little mechanisation.  The model of the construction is fascinating, giving some idea of how many people were employed in its building.  It brought to mind ‘The Spire’ by William Golding, loosely based on Salisbury cathedral’s construction and fraught with human desires, aspirations and failings.  The workforce would have formed a community in their own right and there would undoubtedly be plenty of stories to tell.  We had plenty of our own stories to tell, and catching up with friends, chatting, eating and socialising was a huge part of the enjoyment of the trip.

There were many highlights on our journey around the UK, and food provided some of both the high and low points.  In Salisbury we were introduced to Lebanese food at Baroushka where sharing and solo mezze dominated the menu.  The food was hearty and interesting.  Apparently simple dishes were layered with flavours and textures and quite unlike anything else we’d tried before.  If you get the opportunity to try authentic Lebanese cuisine, give it a go.

A bit of Friday Excitement

 

wp_20170203_003I get excited whenever Friday comes around.  Not, as you might expect, because it’s the weekend.  I don’t dislike my week days and see each new day as an opportunity.  No, it’s because on a Friday I get to drink tea.  Loose leaf Assam Tippy Golden Pekoe to be precise, although it’s not the type of tea that’s important.  It’s simply that after a week of abstinence I get to drink something I love.  That’s the cause for the celebration.

When I had to give up caffeine and alcohol as a result of a bladder disorder, I was gutted.  How would I manage to live without these ‘necessities’?  Well, it turns out you can.  I can. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt to most things, with both positive and negative results.  As it turns out, I don’t miss alcohol at all (well, maybe the odd glass of red…) but I do miss tea.  A lot.  Given that caffeine is one of the substances that causes inflammation in my bladder (which lacks a proper lining) I’m not supposed to drink it at all, but I find that one small cup once a week is fine if I don’t already have a flare up.  So, Friday is the day.  I have an engagement with the teapot around 3pm and I do get very excited about it!

It occurs to me that we would all appreciate a lot of things a whole heap more if we weren’t swamped with them day in day out.  There’s an article in the news today about a shortage of Iceberg lettuce in the shops.  This made me laugh and despair in equal measure.  Salad belongs with summer, and if we ate more seasonally we’d appreciate our food, especially fruit and vegetables, a whole lot more.  That ripe strawberry, and many other food stuffs, become delicacies when eaten during their short periods of availability; think wild garlic, asparagus, artichokes, soft fruit.

Whilst you may conclude that my life must be lacking in excitement if I can get worked up about a cup of tea, I might equally speculate that we would value things more, not only food, if we weren’t able to get anything we wanted any hour of the day or night.  At some point in the not too distant future, that theory may well be tested.

In the meantime, happy Friday, and cheers!

The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.

60 Degrees North

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A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited.  Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK.   In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland.  The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough.  It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.

I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing.  It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next.  Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape.  There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.

I was hooked the first time I visited.  A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back.  I felt in-tune with the place instantly.  The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline.  Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic.  The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true.  Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life.  Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies.  Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food.  Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character.  I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!

The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not.  Shetland is also the place to see otters.  The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand.  You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.

Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales.  One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.

There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline.  Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world.  There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.

Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle.  Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain.  I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was.  It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.

If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food.  Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus.  There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants.  I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally.  On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry.  He refused to take anything for the catch.

The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary.  Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime.  People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community.  People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!

It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure.  The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter.  In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people.  All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.

There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example.  You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]

For me, Shetland is about wildness, the elements and particularly the sea, and I’m sure I will be returning to immerse myself in its enchantments again before too long.P9250223P9250223

Growing Japanese

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When Debbie and I were talking about what might make a good choice of guest post topic for her blog, she mentioned her current interest in Japanese cookery. It’s a part of the world I am interested in, too, although my understanding of Japanese cuisine is in its infancy. But a lot of the plants we grow in the UK originally came from the temperate regions of the Far East, and so I thought it might be fun to look at some of the plants we can grow that have ‘Japanese’ in their common names. It might not be that they all originate from Japan; the naming of plants (with their common names, at least) is a murky business full of intrigue and confusion. Welsh onions, for example, don’t come from Wales, although they will happily grow in gardens there.

In the early days of my garden I planted Japanese onions. Some of the varieties of Japanese onions have Japanese-style names; others don’t. The difference between Japanese onions and regular onions is the time at which they’re planted. I chose them because it was autumn and I wanted to plant something in my garden. Japanese onion sets are put in the ground in the autumn, overwinter and produce bulbs slightly earlier in the year than their spring-planted relatives. There’s some suggestions that they don’t store as well as maincrop onions, but I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s quite hard to grow as many onions as you need in a year, unless you have an allotment or a very large garden. Some gardeners grow Japanese onions for an early crop, but give the majority of their space over to maincrop onions. Both can be grown from seed, as well as sets, and are readily available from seed catalogues and garden centres.

A plant that isn’t as well-known as is should be is the Japanese wineberry. It grows like a raspberry, and its berries are very similar, but until they are fully ripe they are encased in a calyx (like a shell) that keeps the birds from pilfering your harvest. The plants are very pretty, with dark green leaves on their scrambling stems, white flowers and their bright red fruit. They are quite bristly though, so don’t plant them right next to the garden path. Assuming any of your harvest makes it back to the kitchen (and one day I will grow enough to make that happen!) then you can use them in the same ways as raspberries, but they have a delightful flavour all of their own.

When people talk about growing quinces, they’re normally talking about Cydonia oblonga, a small tree that grows large, yellow fruits that are as hard as rocks. They’re sought after by foodies for making quince jellies and jams, or including in pies. Most people who grow the Japanese quince (Chaenomelesspecies) grow them for their ornamental qualities – they produce stunning blossom in the spring time. They’re also smaller plants, suitable for smaller gardens. A lot of people don’t know that they also produce edible fruit. One of the tastiest is said to be the popular variety ‘Crimson and gold’, and you can probably guess what colour show it puts on for you!

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded Japanese knotweed, a plant that was introduced for its ornamental value but has rapidly become invasive in the UK. If you’ve got it in the garden you need to be careful how you remove it – improper disposal of Japanese knotweed is illegal, and one of the ways in which it is spreading to new territory. Enquire of your local council what facilities they have for safe disposal, but there are people who go foraging for it to eat like rhubarb, so you could always try eating it into submission.

One you may not be familiar with is the Japanese prickly ash, which is one of the Zanthoxylum species used to grow Szechuan pepper. It’s a small, fragrant tree – and yes, it is prickly. Just one would give you more Szechuan peppercorns than a family could use in a year, even if you’re very big fans of Chinese 5-spice (for which it is one of the main ingredients). Not only does it give you the opportunity to grow one of your own spices, you can use it to play tricks on unsuspecting guests. One quick nibble of a Szechuan peppercorn will set your mouth vibrating for quite some time. It’s not unpleasant, but it is unexpected!

Other less familiar plants include Japanese parsley, or mitsuba – an annual herb that’s easy to grow, and for which seeds are readily available. Japanese ginger, mioga, is a little harder to track down (try Poyntzfield Herbs) but is a hardy plant that grows outside in the UK. It’s the flower shoots that are used (rather than the roots of regular ginger), and you do have to be wary of slugs, who find it just as delicious as we do. Japanese horseradish is wasabi, and you can grow that here too, although most of the wasabi we buy in shops is (apparently) regular old horseradish with a bit of green food dye. And, of course, there’s Japanese burdock, or gobo, which is a plant with impossibly long, edible roots.

I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten, so if you can think of one you can add it in the comments!

 

Many thanks to Debbie for hosting a stop on my virtual book tour. Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is my new ebook about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. You can find out more on the book’s homepage (http://emmacooper.org/jade-pearls-alien-eyeballs) and read a preview at Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/414476). The book is being published on 1stMay, costs $2.99, and will be available in a wide range of ebook formats.

 Jade Pearls

 

My Virtual Reality, Reality

Virtual book TourWith most things in my life, I have been a late starter -the exception was reading- and I am certainly a later-comer to digital, social media, and e-pubs.  I have only owned a Kindle for 12 months, and have been tweeting and blogging for a little over 24.  Late to the party though I may be, I am making up for it now!  It’s not that I don’t have a life, or that I have loads of free time, but rather I have seen the benefits, and potential benefits of being ‘connected’.

In my short time on Twitter I have connected with like-minded people about writing, gardening, organics and the natural world.  I have signed petitions and joined campaigns.  I have had lots of questions answered, and found out lots of information, particularly about gardening.

Up until a couple of weeks ago I had never heard of a ‘virtual book tour’.  The lovely Emma Cooper posted an invitation on Twitter for people to host her, on her virtual reality book tour of the UK, and my interest was piqued immediately.  For people that don’t know Emma, she is a freelance writer, photographer, blogger, podcaster, master composter and very keen gardener.  She is the author of three gardening titles already, and the aforementioned tour is set to show case her fourth book, ‘Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs’.  What intrigues me about this approach to marketing a publication is that the virtual reality translates into something tangible:  in this case a fascinating read, from someone who is passionate about sharing their knowledge, and encouraging other people to grow food and experiment.

A virtual book tour is a fabulous way of reaching an audience with a shared interest, without humping a ton of books around the country, and creating a massive carbon-footprint in the process.  There is no doubt that people like book signings from commercially successful authors, but this is a far remove from the quiet, steady plod of relatively unknown authors who must graft continually to make a trickle of income from their writing.  Perhaps this tour will be a new model for independent authors; I hope so.

So, the important information:  Emma will be featuring as a guest blogger on April 15th from 10 am onwards, when you lucky readers will be treated to her expert knowledge on an exciting topic from her latest work.  No spoilers here though!

Although behind the curve as usual – Emma is my first guest blogger- I’m right on the case with the virtual book tour, so watch this space, and don’t forget to flag the date in your diary.  Emma welcomes comments, and I’m sure she would be happy to respond to any questions.

Box of Delights

Organic Veg Box
Organic Veg Box

The red van draws up by the kitchen window, and I know something is about to be delivered.  The excitement of a parcel arriving never dulls for me.  Before you protest, I don’t have a rampant internet shopping habit, it’s simply that I live in what the census would describe as ‘an isolated rural hamlet’, and the niceties of shopping civilisation are a long drive away.

Of all the things that arrive, the Friday delivery is my favourite.  I can’t wait to rip off the tape and reveal the goodies inside.  It might surprise you, if you don’t know me, to note that it is not clothes, shoes, household furnishings, or indeed, any commodity that might generally be thought to inspire glee, but rather a box of freshly picked, mostly UK grown, organic fruit and veg! As I peel back the tape and the prise open the cardboard and packaging, it feels like Christmas; even though I obviously know what I’ve ordered, the suspense is palpable.

Before you consign this article to the bin -though I would rather the compost heap- let me explain further.  This time of year is not known for its wondrous abundance of fresh fruit and veg – most of the root veg are stored over winter, and there’s certainly no local fruit about, however, we are just beginning to see the first peeps of asparagus, and the blush of the first rhubarb; and purple sprouting broccoli –vastly superior to calabrese, in my view, the bog standard green broccoli on sale in supermarkets- is coming on stream, a saviour in the gap between the winter veg and spring greens.  New season Scottish carrots are making an appearance, and the cauliflowers are superb.  The local herb growers are producing the first bunches of the year, and this week I allowed myself a treat of the first lot of artichokes (albeit from Italy).

As I solicitously unpack this seasonal cornucopia, my mind starts racing with all manner of meal ideas, tasty treats and recipes.  The delectable artichokes will be devoured for lunch tomorrow, with a garlic and herb oil, and maybe some bread, plucked leaf by leaf, until the prize of heart is discovered, and divvied up for dunking; the cauli and coriander will make a delightfully fragrant curry along with store cupboard chickpeas, and the rhubarb, of course, will make a healthy, oaty crumble.  The possibilities are endless, and my imagination takes flight!

I generally get a local organic veg box each week from The Natural Vegetable Company, but this is only available when I can collect it from town – an 80 mile round trip which is unjustifiable when I’m not at work.  Otherwise, my Friday order from Real Foods is the norm.  The company has been established for 50 years, and excels at supplying fresh local organic veg from their Edinburgh store.  Although they do stock some imported items, their extensive fruit and veg list is based largely on UK suppliers, often local, so the list is predominantly seasonal.  For me, this is what makes the deliveries so exciting: the first rhubarb and asparagus, the last of the Seville oranges – for a whole year- and when the time is right we will get the first strawberries and Scottish raspberries.  It’s inspiring.  The same can’t be said of the supermarket fruit and veg aisle, and whilst I won’t make this a ‘bash the supermarket’ moment, there is no way they can compete with the freshness and vitality of this calibre of fresh produce.  You will see exotic items from all over the globe, no doubt, but the quality is dubious –even though they may be the same shape and size- and the flavour is always a disappointment.  A strawberry ‘fresh’ from a plastic punnet, is nothing like a ripe, un-refrigerated berry, carefully packed and rapidly shipped to the dribbling-mouthed recipient.  For organic veg you will probably find that the price of a box from a local box scheme, or a local supplier, or farm shop selling their own produce, is very favourable compared to supermarket equivalents, and very often cheaper. 

I would encourage you to give an organic veg box scheme a go.  If you live in Scotland you can order from Real Foods, though if you’re concerned about food miles try a local scheme.  Other national suppliers include Abel and Cole, and Riverford, both of whom I can recommend.  Give it a go, and you could soon have your own box of delights racing its way to your door!

Bottoms Up!

Dave and Si Sumo Hugh with Salmon 

I think there must be some trend at large that until now, I have been unaware of.  It concerns the antics of men of a certain age, or to be more precise, male cooks of a certain age, who appear on TV.

My TV viewing repertoire is generally limited to programmes about food, horticulture, and some drama.  I’m not fussed about ‘reality TV’, soaps, sex or violence, although please note that I am no prude, and will see just about anything live on stage no matter what the ‘material of an adult nature’. 

I do like a good cooking programme though, especially if there are some cultural elements involved, or a type of cuisine I would like to experiment with, so the recent series, Skandimania, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure have hit the mark on   both counts.  What has perplexed me about these programmes is the inclination of these presenters to get their kit off, especially as I’m usually eating my dinner when the programmes air!  The sight of Mr FW’s bare bottom easing into an outdoor tub, or Mr Myers and Mr King in the altogether, dipping into an Asian Jacuzzi, is not my idea of tea-time viewing pleasure.  Apologies chaps, I have nothing against your nudity per se, but I do object to bare bottoms when I’m eating (and in fact I’m not sure I want to see those particular bare bottoms at any stage).  I don’t think I’m being ageist, anti-chefist, or have stereotypical ideas of what the human body should conform to, I just don’t want to see bare bottoms – anybody’s bare bottom to be honest- when I’m chomping on my tofu and mung beans!

So, more interesting cooking shows please, but less flesh!

And it seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed; another blogger has made reference to Dave and Si’s propensity to get their kit off, here: http://slowrisinglifeform.blogspot.co.uk/  graced with a lovely cartoon

Life is a Box of chocolates – J Ross 1961 to 2013

smallerIt’s taken me eight months to write this blog entry.  Not that I’ve spent weeks writing draft after draft, searching for mots justes; it’s been more of a distillation process, where the content needs to bubble and brew, mature over time, and the distance that gives.

When Jacqui died, there were no national headlines announcing the fact, not even an article in the local rag of the area where she had lived for over 20 years.  There was no display of national mourning, just ripples of grief from friends and family that spread locally, washing over people who knew her.

Jacqui was an amazing person.  She struggled with serious health issues, as well as being an amputee, and having bi-polar.  What made her so amazing was that despite everything she was cheerful, grateful, generous, kind, and very talented.  In her circumstances I’m not sure I would have been so positive about life.  One of Jacqui’s enduring features was her courage in the face of adversity, her zest for life.  She was never possessed by negativity, but had resilience, in spite of her lack of self-belief.

Jacqui was a mum, a family person through and through, who would do anything for those she loved.  She bought up a bright, cheerful, well-adjusted daughter through all the turmoil and challenge of her own life.  Jacqui was full of kindness and bright ideas, and a genuine community spirit.  Despite her dislike of crowds, and many social settings, she was the baking hero of her local village, and churned out thousands of bakes over the years, raising money for local and national causes alike.

Jacqui managed to hold down a job, and didn’t claim state benefits, to which she would have been entitled.  She forged her own way after her marriage break up, and lived independently.  Jacqui was always shy of new people, but that didn’t stop her making friends, or referring herself to the befriending service where I first met her.  She constantly challenged herself to do new and difficult things.  She continually stretched herself and didn’t ever shy away from what she found hard.

Jacqui liked Christmas, and at this time of year I remember her enthusiasm for planning, for choosing the right presents for people.  As a talented baker and professional chocolatier, as well as an accomplished crafter, Jacqui was often able to make unique and memorable gifts for people.  A Christmas without Jacqui, and her fantastic chocolates, will be a poorer one for sure.  She was great at thinking of present ideas for people, and with the merest information could suggest a range of potential gifts.  I used her skill on more than one occasion!  Jacqui liked her own company and could find people hard to understand, but she always invited people for Christmas; as well as her family there would often be an elderly person, who would otherwise be on their own.  Jacqui was good at putting her fears aside and doing what she felt was right. 

Sometimes life could overwhelm Jacqui.  She could deal with most things, but when a spate of disasters came her way, the cumulative effect of circumstances and mental illness could mean she would be unable to cope.  Frankly, I have no idea how Jacqui coped even with the everyday trials of life.  She had a sleep disorder, which meant she rarely got more than a couple of hours sleep a night, and she was on copious amounts of medication which would have grounded most people.  Inevitably there were frequent stays in the local mental hospital while she recovered her equilibrium enough to cope with the world again.  I often wonder how the sleep deprivation impacted her mental health.  I’m struggling with lack of sleep myself right now, and can attest to the many negative impacts it has on day-to-day living.  For Jacqui this was a constant she had to endure, as despite heavy doses of melatonin, her sleep disorder was never resolved.  It is testament to her courage, tenacity and resilience that she managed to get up and go to work and carry on a normal life.  I know people with half the troubles she had that are unable to achieve that.

When Jacqui was low, she could be really low – her complete demeanour changed and she took all the negatives personally.  She felt everything was her fault and she must be a bad person.  It’s very sad to see someone you care about crumple in this way due to what is thought to be a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Usually energetic and motivated, Jacqui became listless, lacking in energy, and full of self-loathing.  She usually had awareness that she was becoming low, and a part of her could often see it for what it was, but often the depression consumed her, and it was difficult to reconcile this person with the Jacqui I had come to know and love.

During a manic episode, Jacqui was never totally disinhibited or reckless, as some people are.  She became more buoyant and cheerful, and often thought of things to do that she would never usually entertain.  I once remember her arranging a party for herself.  Jacqui was a born organiser, so it was no surprise she liked the idea of organising a party, but there was no way she would ever be the centre of attention amid a host of people!  The invites didn’t go out thankfully – she would have been mortified!  Whatever frame of mind Jacqui was in she was always kind and considerate of others, and although in some of her moods she may have had an unintended impact on people, there was never any malice of intent.  I liked Jacqui when she was ‘high’; on the way up you got a glimpse of the joyful ebullient character she might have been without the impediments of illness.  She was less self-critical and more confident, less apologetic and more assertive. 

The thing about bipolar is that it subsumes your personality in some ways, and the medication can dull people into shadows of themselves.  I suppose both ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ were intrinsic aspects of Jacqui’s personality, but it’s hard to know where ‘illness’ ended and the ‘real Jacqui’ started.  I suppose that the truth is more complicated than that; Jacqui was not her illness, any more than someone with cancer is, but the nature of mental illness in particular affects personality in a way that other conditions don’t.

Jacqui was Jacqui.  She was one of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege to know.  And six years was way too short a time.  She was my friend and I miss her.

 

Bipolar Scotland

Why I‘m Not Mourning the End of Summer

Woodburner smallI work in a sector where the colder days and dark nights are a cause of dread.  If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or depression of any sort, the cold gloomy days ahead can seem interminable, and the fact that we’ve had a good summer this year seems to make it worse, by highlighting the contrast.

I’m the last person who would trivialise peoples’ anxiety about winter, especially those who have mental health issues, but I’m one of those people who are lucky enough not to suffer from SAD, and can see the benefits that the cooler days bring. 

For a start, I love the autumn colour: Glen Affric in the autumn is a delight, particularly if you get one of those cold bright days, which we sometimes do.  Who doesn’t like crunching about in autumn leaves and collecting conkers?

Admittedly I don’t like the cold – not one bit- so living in the northern most part of the British mainland may seem like an odd choice, but as Billy Connelly said, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing’, so as long as I can wrap up and keep warm I’m happy to engage with the colder weather on my own terms!  I love putting on my winter woollies, which my mum knits, and walking on a deserted beach; I actually really like seeing the first snow fall on the mountains, and watching Ben Wyvis, which I can see from my utility room, turn white at the summit.  I even love crunching the white stuff underfoot and building snowmen (well, snow pigs in my case, but the point is the same).  Also, I am in love with my wood burner.  There I’ve said it!  I will be delighted with the new opportunities this season presents to stoke up the fire.  There’s something magical about being toastie-warm in front of a real fire, whilst it’s blowing a gale outside.

There are many other seasonal benefits to be had – the darker night skies provide much better opportunities for stargazing, and if like me, you’re lucky enough to live in a ‘dark sky’ environment you’ll appreciate the clear night skies at this time of year.  The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) are also only really visible in the autumn and winter months, and although I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing them, the north is one of the best spots in the UK to do so.

Food is always a pet subject of mine, and at this time of year there are plenty of seasonal delights from blackberries and other hedgerow food, to chestnuts, game and stews.  Gone are the summer salads, in is hearty, wholesome, warming grub in extra big portions to give me energy for keeping warm: steaming piles of fluffy creamed potatoes, soups of every kind, stodgy puddings, and back on board are the lovely shellfish too.

I enjoy getting out and about, but the cold short days are also a good excuse to curl up on the sofa, in front of the fire, with a good book, or a good film, and not feel guilty.  I do miss the exercise I get in the summer from gardening, but I can sit inside smug in the knowledge that all the tending has been done and my sprouts are doing their thing in time for Christmas.

I said the ‘C’ word.  I’m aware it’s not something that sets everyone’s heart alight, but I do love Christmas and all the traditions associated with it:  Candlelit carols, wrapping presents, sending cards, visiting friends and family, and all the food sights and smells that go with this time of year –the Christmas cakes, pickles, hams, cheeses, mulled wine, and all the Christmas spices.  And let’s not forget the start of the citrus season too!

There are lots of things to enjoy as we move towards cooler weather, and of course, there’s always the spring to look forward too!  Would we appreciate it as much, do you think if we didn’t have autumn and winter?