April 29, 2009 § 8 Comments
Dogfish, Stornoway Harbour, Isle Of Lewis. Via Bluewave
Though fish were always a plentiful part of the islander’s diet it was important to make provision for leaner times and seasons when men could not get out to sea due to bad weather.
The drying of fish was an easy and effective method of preserving fish and the Dogfish, being a common catch and particularly oily creature, was ideal for the process. However, any and all fish caught could and were handled in this way.
First of all the fish would be opened out flat and laid on a bed of salt before being covered with salt again. After ten days or so the fish would be firm and ready to hang (alternatively they could be soaked in a heavy brine). On St Kilda the famous cleits were used for this process allowing the winds to blow through the stored fish. Elsewhere, the fish would be hung from frames somewhere dry and airy. Once dried the fish would last for ages and when required needed only to be cut and soaked in repeatedly changed water for half a day.
Even with provision made for hard times, occasions arose when starvation grew near and anything that could provide nutrition was turned to. The abundance of seaweed that lined the shores, more usually harvested for animal feed or fertilizer, could be taken as food for the people as well. Dulse, an edible seaweed which, along with Carragheen, grows widely along the shorelines of the island has been harvested as a source of food for thousands of years. It continues to be popular in Northern Ireland, Iceland, and parts of Canada.
The best place to find dulse seaweed is in the intertidal zone, the area of the shoreline alternately covered and exposed by the tides, although dulse also grows in deeper water. It is characterized by long trailing red to purple fronts which can measure as much as 16 inches in length. Harvesters collect the seaweed and either eat it fresh or spread it out on netting to dry. It is a good source of dietary requirements and just a handful will provide more than 100% of the daily amount of Vitamin B6, 66% of Vitamin B12 and a day’s supply of iron and fluoride.
Here is an amazing dessert recipe you might like to try with another common Hebridean seaweed. If you can’t pick your own then a visit to your local healthfood shop should come up with the goods.
225g carragheen seaweed
1.1 litres milk
thick cream and good jam to accompany
Put the carragheen, milk and sugar into a pan and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes.
By this time the seaweed should have half “melted”
Strain the liquid into a bowl and place in the fridge to set. It should turn out easily once it has.
Serve with a very rich, thick cream and a blob of the good jam.
This may sound like a bland milk pudding but let me assure you the carragheen gives the dish many particular qualities, some of which are hard to put one’s finger on…
April 29, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Taketori – The Japanese Treeplanter is a poem by Lewis bard Daibhidh Martin.
The poem tells of old Tormod out for a walk on the moor near Baile Na Cille when he rests and watches a sparrow. He follows the sparrow along the Lewis coastline to a cave where he finds a bag of golden seeds and a young Japanese man by the name of Taketori. Taketori tells a cynical Tormod he is looking for the land where the seeds can grow a golden tree and bring riches to the land’s people. When Tormod returns a week later to see if the tree has grown he only sees moorland and a sparrow still flying in the distance…
A comment on the decades of promises, big plans and schemes on the island or just a nice wee story?
Anyway a young Glasgow based artist is currently etching and illustrating a book to accompany the work and is considering making a digitally printed version available if their is sufficient demand.
Interested in owning a copy? Then please click over to her blog and let her know!
April 29, 2009 § 2 Comments
April 29, 2009 § 2 Comments
James Matheson was born in Lairg, Sutherland and having made his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade returned to Scotland and, in 1844, purchased the Island of Lewis for £190,000.
Matheson commissioned the renowned architect Charles Wilson to design his new island residence, Lews Castle, on the site of the Mackenzies’ Seaforth Lodge. Building work started in 1847 and the £60,000 project took seven years to complete. A further £49,000 was spent on transforming the rough grazing land around the new Castle into extensive woodlands and private gardens.
The creation of the Castle Grounds involved the clearance of tenants and the re-routing of public roads, which did not endear the new proprietor to the local population. He also presided over a policy of encouraged emigrations from his land and heavy-handed evictions and treatment of crofters by his factor Donald Munro leading to the Bernera Riot of 1872.
To balance this, it must be noted that during his period of ownership, Sir James Matheson provided employment, funded famine relief and many other social and economic projects for the benefit of the island community. Sir James even had a plan to remove the island’s covering of peat, and transform it into tar, but this was unsuccessful.
On his death in 1878 at the grand old age of 102, the estate fell to his widow Lady Mary Jane Matheson and subsequently to his nephew Donald and grand-nephew Colonel Duncan Matheson.
April 28, 2009 § Leave a Comment
The first in a series of notable island figures!
William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme, lived from 19 September 1851 to 7 May 1925. He was born in Bolton, Lancashire and built up the Lever Bros/Unilever conglomerate. More usually referred to as Lord Leverhulme, he was an English industrialist, philanthropist and colonialist who, amongst many other ventures, for a time owned the whole of Lewis and Harris and had a profound and lasting influence on the island.
Having first seen the Hebrides on a vacation cruise in 1884, he bought the Isle of Lewis in 1918 for £143,000 and a year later acquired the Isle of Harris. In little over three years, Leverhulme spent some £2million on industrialisation schemes, largely based on fishing, which he believed would transform the economic and social conditions in the islands.
Leverhulme had ambitious plans for Stornoway and commissioned the artist Raffles Davison to draw up his future vision of the town. This, incidentally, included a bridge linking the harbour at Bayhead to the Castle Grounds. Leverhulme gave the Castle electric lighting, central heating, numerous bathrooms and intercom telephones. An enthusiastic dancer, he extended the ballroom by combining it with an adjacent drawing room. He hosted many famous visitors and invitations to balls at the Castle were eagerly sought.
For the next five years a state of conflict reigned in the Hebrides. Island seamen and servicemen returned from the war to discover a new landlord whose declared aim was to uproot their identity as independent crofter/fishermen and turn them into tenured wage-owners. They fought back and the confrontation resulted in riot and land seizure and imprisonment for the islanders but, ultimately, defeat for one of the most powerful men of his day.
As his businesses elsewhere failed and demoralised by the continued resistance by crofters to his, albeit well intentioned, plans, Leverhulme retreated his plans to Harris and in 1923 Lord Leverhulme gifted Lews Castle and 64,000 acres of land to the people of Stornoway parish and the Stornoway Trust was established to manage this substantial estate on behalf of the community.
The excellent book The Soapman paints a beguiling portrait of the driven figure of Lord Leverhulme, but also looks for the first time at the infantry of his opposition: the men and women of Lewis and Harris who for long hard years fought the law, their landowner, local business opinion and the entire media, to preserve the settled crofting population of their islands.
April 27, 2009 § 2 Comments
Freshly cut peats. Via Rudhach
Spring and better weather brings with it the cutting of peat on the island. While once upon a time it was the practice for the whole village to turn out and share the work of cutting, stacking and carrying the peats home, nowadays it is more common to see folk out in pairs or small groups cutting for themselves. I can only remember going to the peats once as a kid (with my cousins D & M?) and coming back black but happy after a good day out.
Here’s a little info but click the link at the end to get to the good stuff.
Traditionally, peat has been an important natural fuel source for most households throughout the rural communities of Lewis and Harris. Peat cutting and harvesting was/is hard work requiring specialist skills which were/are handed down from generation to generation.
In previous generations, the whole process had an important community aspect to it too, involving friends, relations and neighbours in the more labour intensive aspects of the process, eg. cutting the peat where a team of 3 or 4 ‘irons’ would be working together in one household’s peats. A person from that household would then be part of the squad in another team member’s peat cutting the following day/week etc.
Thus, nearly the entire peat supply of a typical household could be cut in one day – with the team involved over a few days/weeks cutting the annual peat supply of their neighbour, friend or relative who were part of the team.
Although reliance on peat as a fuel resource had greatly decreased over the past two decades, it is now experiencing a slight recovery as the price for the alternative, modern and more convenient fuel sources of oil, gas, coal and electricity have become significantly more expensive.
Please check out the excellent guide to harvesting peats via this Comann Eachdraidh page. (Thanks to Rudhach for the tip-off!)
April 25, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Modern tub of Crowdie with oatcakes. Via clairofmountgrove
At one time it was common for crofters to keep three or four cows although latterly as breeding produced better milkers, the tendency was to just keep one. The cow provided valuable milk all year round and often allowed crofters to provide excess milk to their neighbours without charge. When eventually the keeping of a cow died off and milk was imported from the mainland to meet demand, the custom of not charging for milk was a hard one to break!
The milk taken from the cow never went to waste and when even it went thick and sour it was often made into a cheese called Crowdie or Gruth in Gaelic.
The thick and soured milk was put into a large put and hung over a slow fire keeping the pot just warm enough. After a while the Crowdie would gather on the top as curds while the whey fell to the bottom. It was then lifted out by hand and squeezed to remove any remaining whey, formed into shape and perhaps salted or a little cream added to taste. Depending how much you squeezed would determine how dry the crowdie cheese would be. This solid mass was then left a while to become a cheese and it soon developed a thin grey rind as it became ready to eat.
Crowdie is delicious, with a creamy, tangy flavour and soft consistency it is delicious on oatcakes. My local Somerfield sells it in small tubs as shown in the photo above so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to track down.
April 25, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Sheep flock, near Bru, Isle Of Lewis
Sheep farming experts generally agree that mutton refers to meat from sheep that are over two years old (lamb meat is generally from animals that have been reared for five months). Traditionalists argue that mutton is always the meat from a wedder / wether (a wedder is a castrated male sheep; it is thought that castration improves the taste of some meats). A more contemporary view is that mutton comes from a breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life. According to William Kitchiner in The Housekeeper’s Oracle (1817), the finest mutton came from a five-year-old wether.
Although mutton can be available all year, the best meat is produced from October to March. This is because the sheep have access to nutritious summer and autumn grass and heather, and are able to put on fat before being slaughtered.
Hebridean, Herdwick, Romney, Shetland, Southdown and Welsh Mountain are just some breeds of sheep with an historical reputation for producing delicious mutton.
A group called Mutton Renaissance aims to ensure that mutton is consistently of the quality expected by chefs and home-cooks by setting industry-wide standards for meat sold as mutton. Their guidelines specify that sheep must be over two years old, that animals must have a forage-based diet (for example, grass, heather and root crops), should have a given amount of fat cover and be matured (for example by hanging) for at least two weeks. Mutton producers must be able to provide full traceability records showing where an animal is reared, its breed and age at slaughter.
April 24, 2009 § 4 Comments
With the exception of a few early spring-born lambs that are slaughtered in late autumn and winter, very few animals go beyond their sixth month, and most are killed at around their fourth or fifth. Yet without doubt the best sheep meat I have ever eaten has come from animals over a year old. In old-fashioned parlance, a lamb in its second spring and summer (i.e. one year old plus) becomes a hogget, and from its third onwards, the meat from it is known as mutton.
Today, mutton and hogget barely exist in the mainstream meat market – and have the reputation of needing very slow cooking. This is a grievous misunderstanding. Sheep slaughtered in their second or third year are still young animals in the prime of life. Their meat is quite superb, and can be roasted and served pink, like the best cuts of prime beef.
In fact, it is in comparison to beef that mutton may be best understood – mutton is to lamb what beef is to veal. The key, of course, is that to reach its full potential, mutton does need to be properly hung – like the best beef, for at least two weeks, ideally three…which is why you don’t find it in the supermarket!
As so often, the answer lies in direct contact with producers, feel free to try Heather Isle Meats!
Once you get hold of some then try the following recipe…
ROLLED SHOULDER OF HOGGET WITH CAPERS AND ANCHOVIES – Serves 6
This is a lovely way to serve hogget or mutton, as the robust flavour of the meat stands up to the highly piquant stuffing. The juices will also be wonderfully well flavoured.
1 boned shoulder of autumn lamb, hogget or mutton, weighing about 1.5–2kg
6 anchovy fillets in oil (easy to get in tins)
1 tablespoon capers (easy to get in jars)
2 garlic cloves
A small bunch of parsley, stalks removed
1 teaspoon mustard
A good squeeze of lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil (from the anchovies if you like)
1 wine glass of white wine
1 wine glass of water
Freshly ground black pepper.
With your biggest knife, or a mezzaluna, chop the anchovies, capers, garlic and parsley together on a large board till all are well mixed and fairly fine. Transfer to a small bowl and mix in the mustard, lemon juice and olive oil. Season with pepper.
Lay your joint skin-side down and spread the mixture generously all over the inside of the meat. Roll up the joint and tie it securely with butcher’s string. Place in a roasting tin and put in the centre of a hot oven (220°C/Gas Mark 7).
After about half an hour, when the joint should be nicely browned, pour over the wine and water (this will give you a delicious gravy).
Turn the oven down to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and cook for a further 30–80 minutes, depending on the size of the joint and how pink you like your meat.
Serve with roast potatoes or risoni (rice-shaped pasta), plus wilted greens, and a gravy improvised from the juices.
(Lifted shamelessly from RiverCottage.net)