Thursday, 27 September 2007

Last defiance of supper

It's the harvest moon at the moment, which equates to low tides here. So it was out off the shore of a Hebridean island to go find some unfortunate scallops.

They're an interesting creature. They get around by shooting jets of water out of their shells. This works well when submerged. However, it's a bit of a design fault for scallops when the tide is very low and they are exposed to people like me, looking for a free meal, as it seeks just to make it very obvious where they are. Here's one from earlier today:


(Turn up the sound, and you may also want to make the picture large so it's visible).

In the net, then in my saucepan.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Sunday Times wine club

I'd previously stuck with Virgin Wines for our bottled excellence. However, on the recommendation of several other Bernerians, I joined the ST wine club and made the first order a few weeks ago. And here's our first delivery:


My knowledge of wine is practically nil. I usually prefer red to white, but that's as far as it goes. So many times I've had the intention of "Right, time to make notes of every wine that is consumed here." But after the first glass, such endeavours are forgotten.  

First impressions of the ST selection? (1) Most important - tastes good (2) They seem to select wines with brightly coloured tops (3) The case arrived quickly.

Unfortunately - or fortunately - I forgot to cancel the Virgin Wines regular case order. So there's now a rather full rack of wine to "work through". It's going to be a good winter.

Luddite requires companion: reply using pen and ink

As spotted by Lorcan (why's he looking there?) - a personal ad from the classified section of the London Review of Books. Unsurpringly, unlike most of the other classifieds, he has a box number and not an email address to respond to:

+ + + + +

You know you were born in the 50’s and are currently enduring this absurd century when:

  • A shop-spoiled T-shirt, seemingly stitched together from two separate, inside out decorator's overalls and given a thorough going over with a parmesan grater by an enthusiastic catering student, is not turned into a duster but rather, costs £140 and is worn with pride and impunity by your son on a Friday night.

  • Salad was a wholesome and substantial compliment to a meal, not a baffling array of delicate flora scattered eagerly across your plate as if by a leaf blower.

  • Your chirruping, idiot staff spend all day giggling like imbeciles over inappropriately modified Excel sheets full of fatuous predictions and ersatz cultural paraphernalia from about half an hour ago.

Divorced, 1950’s born man, deeply at odds with the frivolous and incomprehensible nature of everything outside of this typeface and that pair of brogues seeks absolutely anyone who isn't on Facebook at box no. 18/04.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Stornoway cuisine: food for bloggers

Sussed it; this wall-to-wall coverage of the Northern Rock banking "crisis" is all just a cover story to distract us from the big development of the week. Note all the experts telling us that the "Rock is sound"; so what's the issue diverting our attention from? The real shock story of the week: Paddington Bear has dumped Marmalade and now promotes ... Marmite?!!! Seriously. Is nothing sacred? 

Back to Stornoway. It's an odd place; it's by far the largest town in the Outer Hebrides (arguably the only town, as other places are villages of variable sizes). Sometimes, in the summer when the weather is good and everything is open it's not a bad place at all to be. Wheras in the depths of winter, on a day where nearly everything is firmly closed and the wind is blowing you down Cromwell Street (Why was that name chosen?) I'd rather be anywhere else.

What it does have, surprising many visitors, is quite a good choice of places to eat and drink in. At the cheap and cheerful end of the market, there are various chippies, an Indian restaurant, and several Chinese and Thai takeway and restaurant establishments.


James Morrison has scanned in the current menus of some of these establishments and put them online, along with their mapped locations, for examination (or, if you are a Stornoway resident, for easy selection before you reach for the telephone).

There's plenty of other options, including several hotel restaurants. My favourite three eating places in the "big city" are:

  1. the Tapas restaurant; good choice, comfy place to eat (here reviewed by senior resident) - yes, you read that right, a Tapas bar in the Outer Hebrides - why not?

  2. the An Lanntair arty centre; good coffee bar with lots of comfy seating, and a restaurant (with partial harbour/sea view) that does large portions

  3. Digby Chick restaurant. Quite upmarket, but they let a tramp like me through the doors, so it's a relaxed place. Evening meals are pricey, but the lunchtime specials are very good value. Two courses and a drink for under a tenner, then up the road to An Lanntair for a coffee to finish off

Anyway, am looking at these options with a view to a bloggers meal out in Stornoway at some point. Some Harris and Lewis Flickerites have already met up, and previous blogger meetups centred around the BBC Island Blogging community organised for An Lanntair. I wonder what the cuisine of choice of Outer Hebrides bloggers will turn out to be (hopefully nothing containing marmite)?

Friday, 14 September 2007

Victoria plums

I grew up surrounded by orchards in the Vale of Evesham. My folks were into the market gardening thing, owning a hillside of apple, plum and pear trees. The produce of these was either sold on our little farmshop, or went into making jam or a particularly vicious form of scrumpy (bad for the head, good for getting your five portions of fruit and veg, great for quickly flushing out your system).

Summers for me, at what would now be an illegally-young age, were spent picking fruit, weighing it and selling it. It left me with an appreciation for growing things that you eat. Plus knowledge; my crowning achievement in pub quizzes was grabbing victory for our university team by knowing the names of twelve varieties of plum.

So it was with some amazement that, while shopping in MacLennans in Benbecula, Outer Hebrides a few weeks ago, I came across Victoria plums, from the Vale. To be more precise, from an orchard near the village of Cropthorne. Here's some of what was bought:


The Victoria is not my favourite plum - that would be the Marjorie Seedling (singular), which is large and purple and full of flavour, tending to crop when the Victoria and other early to mid season plums are mostly gone. However, the "Vic" is still a likeable plum and is the most well-known variety, being enduringly popular for its sweetness and appearance as the typical traditional plum. Through the 70's, 80's and 90's, we would sell thousands of 6 pound "chips" (baskets) of these to tourists and passing people. Odd, but you rarely see them sold in that unit size now - people usually buy a few plums in a plastic bag, rather than several pounds in one go.

After tracking down the owner of the orchard in the Vale where the bought and photographed plums came from, an email was sent off. We're now conversing online, which is kinda strange, bearing in mind he lives and works in the part of the world I grew up in. And how were his Victoria plums? Excellent - large, at the right level of ripeness, and as sweet as you can get. Plum bliss.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Burrowing bees on Berneray

And you thought bees lived in hives...? 

Various news media (e.g. BBC, Times) and local bloggers (e.g. Stornoway rebel) today bring news of ... bees. The Outer Hebrides has quite a few variety of these, and thankfully less of the wasp (along with the midge, the most pointless creature ever). One variety of bee in particular - the Northern Colletes mining bee - has produced this attention:



It turns out that Berneray is a stronghold of this particular bee, which has the peculiar habit of mining. The bee makes a burrow on the edge of the machair in the sandy soil. Quite a big burrow at that - were the bee the same size as a human, proportionally it would be building burrows over 100 feet long. I may have encountered this bee before, as there were a few of them, flying at a very low level, around a particular rest spot between the machair and the beach.

Here's some more from the ScienceCentric website:

"Adults of the northern colletes bee are active from mid-June to late August. The male bees emerge first a day or two before the females. The females are probably mated soon after emergence. The male then dies and the mated female constructs a nest burrow which can be up to 26 centimetres deep — a considerable excavation job for an insect just over one centimetre long. The females tend to lay in proximity to others, so the nest 'aggregations' are formed.

They produce a secretion from glands in their mouths which they use to coat the inside of the burrow before laying their eggs in individual sealed cells. Each cell contains a food reserve comprised of regurgitated nectar and pollen that will feed the larva and then support the pupa through the winter while the bee develops. In June, the male bees emerge first and fly around the nests waiting for the females to emerge, and for the lifecycle to begin again."

Local crofting practises mean that this is one of the very few places where such a creature could survive; in the pesticide-soaked, intensively farmed wheatbelts of mainland Britain, it would not have a chance. Not surprisingly, the bee is vulnerable to all manner of things, such as coastal erosion and stormy weather.

All credit to this species for hanging on here, especially when faced with events such as the January 2005 hurricane which disrupted many of the Uist beaches. On reflection, underground makes more sense than a beehive. Apart from the lack of trees to build one in, a brisk spring gale here would quickly deposit every hive in the sea.

On a slightly related point, it's noted on the Western Isles biodiversity list that the scientific name for the Bumble Bee is Bombus distinguendus :-)