Sunday, 30 November 2014

Burger van (no burger). And Co-op whisky/wine bargains

I've taken to making raids on Lerwick (the big toon, 11,000 people, 40 miles away, has a Tesco) accompanied by Dexter the Devil Dog, which isn't really a problem. It hones your reaction times and driving skills. Veering in front of (and then away from) massive pipeline lorries at 80 mph with a Staffordshire/Collie cross dancing on your lap keeps you sharp.

There is a small but committed I-would-rather-die-than-shop-at-Tesco section of the Shetland populace. I am not among them. There is nowhere else you  can get Beurre D'Issigny, for a start. The other supermarket, the Co-op, has better meat, wine and cheese and so any trip to the toon is a two-checkout affair. The Lerwick Co-op (they have smaller shops in Brae and also in the South Mainland) used to have a not great but incredibly cheap café, but they have closed that and, foolishly (many Co-op management and strategic decisions are foolish, as you may have noticed in the media) replaced it with a clothes chop called Peacocks. I have never seen anyone buy anything there. Ever.

Just quickly, let me say that last week I bought a bottle of Aberlour 10-year-old Speyside single malt for £20 in the Co-op,  the best of all the cheap over production malts that pop up in supermarkets (Glen Moray, which is awful, Pulteney, which can be good but not in the expressions you find at those prices, and Jura, which is almost characterless). The Aberlour 10-year-old is a fine, heavily sherried malt, with all sorts of stewed tea and Christmas cake action going on. I'm told that these are cheap overstocks from the French market and not the same as the UK expression of Aberlour 10, but it's still good. Sometimes you'll find the occasional bottle of cask strength Aberlour A'Bunadh knocking about around £40. if so, buy one. It's the same as the cheapo 10 only much more so. Add water or your teeth will dissolve.

Also, they have the excellent 2011 Chateau Vieux Manoir Claret in stock. The price is around £7 and it's worth double that. I was advised to try it by an independent wine dealer who reckoned it was the best value supermarket wine in the country.

But it's to Tesco for bulk shopping, dog food (Harringtons) and because, with the dog in attendance, I can get lunch in the car park from the JK Mainland burger van. No burger for me, just the (carefully and freshly made) bacon, cheese and mushroom baguette. With chips. Delicious!

Shared with Dex the Dug of course. Stops him trying to clamber into my lap while I'm driving.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Shetland hall teas, and the Great Oven/Griddle Bannock 'Controversy'

It is a wonder and a glory, one of the greatest aspects of life in Shetland, and it involves, as you may have guessed, food. I am talking about the ‘hall tea’, which can sometimes morph effortlessly into the ‘school tea’ or just ‘eight o’clocks’ which may happen at 8.00pm, or earlier, or later. But what we are really talking about is home baking.

In summer, the ‘Sunday hall tea’ is a weekly event in one or other corner of the isles, with local women and (some) men baking and staffing a Sabbath afternoon extravaganza at one of the (oil-funded and rather luxurious) Shetland community halls, from Unst in the north  to Sumburgh in the south. You pay a set amount, usually, and can then drink as much tea or coffee as you like, filling your plate beyond the brim with sandwiches, quiche, pie, scones, bannocks and ‘fancies’, which can mean anything from cupcakes to gateaux, chocolate crispy crunches to brownies. Surplus delights are sold as takeaways. It is a fantastic opportunity not to cook, and to guess who baked what if you’re a member of the local community concerned. All profits go to either the hall itself, or a charity of the organisers' choice.

This past week has seen a hall tea and a school sale in our village, Hillswick, both fuelled by local baking of the highest possible standard. Two legends of Shetland bannock making, Peter Sinclair and Maria Parker, had examples of their work at the ‘Bake it for the Beatson’ event on Sunday, an opportunity for bannock connoisseurs such as myself. The Shetland bannock is a kind of buttermilk-fuelled scone which can be griddled or oven-cooked. There are as many recipes and twists to the basic technique as there are puffins on the cliffs, but a good starting point is Margaret Stout in the seminal book Cooking for Northern Wives, as channelled (‘top’ and ‘bottom’ bannocks) here: .

For those who wish to compare and contrast the Parker/Sinclair approach, I have unearthed Peter's recipe here: , while, with apologies to Maria, I have lifted hers from a local Facebook forum, and it is as follows:

I swear by Scoop flour - a bit mair dan 1lb, baking powder, salt, a sloosh o oil ( about half inch in da bottom o a pint jug) a tub o buttermilk an I ken da old Shetland folk mibee didna but I pit an egg in. I bake dem fur aboot 12 mins at 200c. Da girdle eens I dunna pit an egg in an use a girle or a heavy bottom frying pan.

Now, both Peter and Maria's default position is the 'oven bannock' with an egg included. Their bannocks are both supremely light and fluffy. For non-Shetlanders I should say that Scoop flour is loose-bagged plain flour from the deli Scoop in Lerwick, while Voe Bakery Flour is commercial self-raising bannock flour from (surprise!) the Voe Bakery, widely available in local shops. The significant differences in the recipes relate to Peter's use of yoghurt and self-raising flour, and Maria's of baking powder and plain flour. And that mysterious 'sloosh o oil'!

There are, as you can see, no exact quantities in Maria's recipe. And variations and tweaks on these recipes abound, notably the addition of extra baking powder (and sugar) along with the self-raising Voe flour in Peter's approach, just to give a bit of extra lift.

I have to say that my daughter Martha's opinion is fundamentalist: she believes that the 'oven bannock' is technically a scone. My son James, as in Great British Bake Off,  agrees and has a very traditional recipe for griddle-bannocks only in his book Brilliant Bread. Plain flour and baking powder. All the bannocks from these sources are delicious, though I have to say I prefer the oven versions. Maybe because I am a sconeoisseur at heart...

Anyway, back to the hall teas. There was, perhaps inevitably, an overabundance of excellent baking on Sunday, and as Susan was one of the organisers, we purchased a lot to take home for freezing. Thursday was school sale day, again with lots of terrific baking, as well as the availability of commercially-produced Vidlin Pies . The eating has been good this week. 

But as one friend and neighbour said as we packed everything away on Thursday, ‘I’m aa fancied oot!’. 

Though I could actually go a bannock...preferably with saat beef or reestit mutton, of which much more at a later date...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Belfast, Ayr, Glasgow, Bellshill, St Andrews, Aberdeen!

Right, a quick swerve through recent jaunts to Belfast, Glasgow, Ayr, St Andrews and Aberdeen. Just too busy to do separate posts, though frankly all of these places deserve it.

Over in Northern Ireland for a delightful celebration of my grandson Dave’s fifth birthday, my son Sandy and daughter-in-law Elaine took us to a variety of eateries, notably Havana in the city centre. A kind of sleek bar/diner with loads of Guevara paraphernalia on the walls, the staff were welcoming on a level way beyond the call of duty, especially as we had a five-year-old in attendance. The food was Irish in origin and style, and exceptionally good. Fantastic rib-eye for me, perfectly cooked with proper, home-made chips. Good value too. 

On our last day we went to the Titanic museum, but hadn’t realised that on a holiday you have to book in advance online - it was full. The cafe and separate restaurant were rammed too, so we wandered over to the adjoining, and very impressive marina, where we found the famous Mourne Seafood Bar’s kerry-oot facility, or takeway van. Spectacular burgers and fish supper later, we were warmly ensconced in the unique Dock Cafe, a multi-denominational Christian endeavour which allows, indeed encourages you to bring in your own food. And serves tea, coffee, soup and cakes on a give-what-you-can-or want basis.
It may sound a bit gospel café-ish, but it was very cool and non-intrusive. There should be more places like this.

Back in Glasgow, our old haunt Smile in Queen Margaret Drive, the tiny Italian café run by genuine Florentines, was celebrating its ascendancy to Number One Restaurant in Glasgow on Trip Advisor (now slipped a bit, but not much). Remarkable, considering it’s essentially a lunch, breakfast and coffee place. But what coffee. They use Kimbo bean and make better drinks with them than anything I tasted in yer actual Italy. Sandwiches, cakes and desserts are also extraordinary.

Newly opened down the road is Cottonrake, on the corner of Bank Street and Great Western Road. Essentially a craft bakery, the selection of breads is impressive but the pastries are truly out of this world. The coffee’s good, and it’s a great place to sit, swoon over the raspberry and chocolate tart and watch the truly trendy heading for Papercup along the street, the absolute epicentre of bohemian caffeine in Glasgow. Yes, even more so than Artisan Roast or Avenue G, which are both terrific and trendy. But Papercup does Clever Coffee (a kind of techy filter) as well as your V60 (Japanese filter) and various other coffeesnob accoutrements. their flans are good too.

Speaking of Artisan, the new Artisan Lounge in Ayr, an offshoot of the excellent Su Casa and using the beans roasted there, is very good and a sign of the ancient town centre’s redevelopment. Great red pepper soup and probably the best coffee in southern Scotland outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's a vegetarian restaurant open until 9.00pm Wednesday to Saturday. The rosewater and cardamom cake I had there and at Su Casa, made by a local specialist baker, is one of the best things I have ever tasted.

A quick mention for the Horizon Hotel in Ayr, which is right on the beach, cheap, friendly and - especially important for us - not just dog friendly, but canine encouraging. Thanks for putting up with Dexter. And for swopping the unsmoked haddock for smoked at breakfast. Not the first time that’s happened to me.

Hotel breakfasts I have known: We stayed at the Hilton in Bellshill (remarkable deals available, known as Hilton Strathclyde) which had one of those irresistibly massive buffets, and a very good one too, with exceptionally fresh-baked/reheated croissants. Good spa/pool to work it off, too. Slightly better, I would say, than the gargantuan choice available at the hilariously grand Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, where we stayed for Susan’s University Year Club do.  It's an exceptionally well-run hotel, sumptuous and hospitable as you'd expect at this price range. But attention slipped at breakfast. Two kinds of bacon, one inedible, and bad, over-cooked, over-herbalised sausages. The Hilton was a fraction of the Old Course’s overnight price, too. But then, there’s this view...

Finally, for me, it was lunch with daughter Martha at the Inversnecky Cafe on Aberdeen’s seafront. Sometimes a chilliburger and chips is all you want or need.