Friday, 16 April 2010

No 61. FOOD, or Pickled, Salted or Dried.

Young gannets, the grey ones, called guga on Sule Sgeir off Lewis.
Guga on Sula Sgeir. Via Malcom Murray
“The ile is full of wild fowls, and when the fowls has their birds ripe, men out of the parish of Ness in Lewis sail and tarry there seven or eight days and to fetch with them home their boatfull of dry wild fowls with wild fowl feathers” – Donald Monro, Archdeacon of the Isles, 1549.

No 61. FOOD FOR WINTER. Groat - 16th April, 2010

Today we come home from the supermarket, unload the boot of the car, take the packets of already frozen plastic wrapped plastic tasting food out of the insulated bags and straight into the freezer compartment of the fridge/freezer. Not so frozen bits go into the upper fridge compartment. But we had no fridges in my early days. We had never heard of “Sale by dates”. So how did we survive at all? Should we not have all been food poisoned into extinction? Certainly if one listens to all the pundits we should not now be alive. From my memory the list of things we stored and later ate is much too long, but we will give it a go.

Winter coming meant laying down food in summer for winter use. Prime one was making jam with home grown berries, or rhubarb from the garden with added ginger. An absolute special was jam made with ling heather berries from Rothiesholm Head, all too small in quantity but so exquisite in taste. It was a day adventure going there and collecting them, 5 long miles away. Jam making meant days of wonderful smells coming through the house from the large brass jam pan bubbling away on the stove, the rattling of jam jars being boiled to sterility in large pans of water, then set out round the sink or table for filling with a large soup ladle or a spouted jug dipping into the scalding jam. Cooled, a waxed disc of paper on top of the jam, a paper cover on top of all with a rubber band to hold it in place. Then into the pantry to be stored on the shelves or in the cupboards in serried rows of this or that with stickers on their sides telling if blackcurrant or rhubarb or whatever, and the year of making. Well made, it would last for years of need be. Different houses had different tasting jams, even with the same ingredients. I never worked it out.

Bottling fruit was also part of winter, the surplus of summer being sterilised by boiling and stored in spring clip topped glass pressure jars which when they had cooled down created their own vacuum. Difficult to prise open the lid later. Our mother dried apple rings but they were not home grown, getting a large case of apples from J. & W. Taits in Kirkwall. Peeled, cored, cut into thin rings and strung on a string in the open air on a sunny day. They lasted well, nicely chewy. And of course they were reconstituted and made into stewed apples, apple puddings and apple crumble later in the winter.
Butter of course was in surplus in summer, some was salted down in a medium sized brown earthenware crock. Practically uneatable but it was done, the bothy boys seemed not to notice. Hunger is the greatest of all sauces!! It was almost unspreadable as well. Best used for cooking.
There were numerous big brown earthenware crocks, glazed inside, stored in the cool dairy until needed. Sizes differed. There were smaller ones for butter, one to open, one to keep for another day. Once opened the butter deteriorated slowly. Very salty indeed, but in mid winter the cows were not milking much except maybe one or two for milk for boss and the men. No fresh butter available, nor long life milk, nor milk powder. The best we could come up with was Nestles Condensed Milk in tins from the van.
The newly made soft butter was worked over in the dairy on the butter working roller tray, backwards and forwards, how much salt I cannot remember. It was worked until a high degree of saltiness was achieved that the expert taster said was enough. Then it was packed into one of the brown crocks and a thin layer of melted white suet fat poured carefully over the butter. Sealed perfectly, store as cool as possible.

Cheese. Kept long enough. Rubbed down with salt for several days when new made, turned over each day on the flagstone shelves. The salt gave it a hard durable rind. Then stored on a high shelf out of reach of varmints. Green mould on an opened cheese was just scraped off, not thrown away as today as if it had turned to poison. A good cheese did not last long once on the table, vanishing in thick slices on bere bread or oatcakes. Or just a fly slice on its own. Again varying tastes or flavours in different houses.

Long years ago in the 1600s, and maybe not as long ago as that either, the Mertinmas beast was just that, the killing of an ox for whom there was not enough winter feed. Came November – Martinmas - and he had to go. So the meat was pickled with much rubbing in of salt on the flagstone shelves of the dairy, then sunk for the winter in salt brine in capacious 50 gallon wooden barrels. When taken out for cooking it needed a fair degree of soaking in many changes of cold fresh water for a couple of days before it was edible. Sometimes boiling with plenty tatties helped which took some of the salt out of it, throw away the tatties!! The last of the barrel was almost inedible came Spring but it was used.

We never did kill a cattle beast at Whitehall, though there was one half grown calf that someone hit with a too well thrown stone just behind the ear, killing it instantly. It was butchered on the spot and made good use of, shared out even to the thrower!! .

Sheep meat from a yeld gimmer, or a ewe hopefully not too old, home butchered and salted down for winter in the usual capacious barrel of pickle. We called it mutton but now it is unobtainable unless a farmer kills his own, which is getting a scarcer practice as time goes by and there are less people on the farms. Lambs were never home killed unless a casualty like a broken leg, tender but pretty tasteless when compared to mature mutton. It was not that long ago that mutton made as good a price as lamb but fashions change, and the wedder hirsels on the hills of Sutherland with up to 4 year old male castrated sheep are long gone.

I do know a couple, I cannot possibly say they are old fashioned, who got two Blackface sheep carcases from the Western Isles for their recent Golden Wedding. I was told the meal was very acceptably memorable.

Pig meat was normal, killing one every six months, but that I will deal separately as it was another big adventure.

Fish of course were plentiful, evenings out on the water with fishing rods called wands and fitted with white goose feather lures on the three hooks for cuddin, called caithes in Stronsay. Or mackeral. Or a long line with lures for bottom fish such as haddock, ling, skate, cod, occasionally a dogfish but not to everyone’s taste. Should have been called catfish as many found their way to the cats who relished any fish at all. These acceptable fish such as sillocks, caithes, saithe, ling, cod especially, were either salted down into a barrel of pickle or split and wind dried on a long line hanging on the cottage wall facing the sun. The firkin of salt herring (fourth of a barrel) was of course obligatory.

Eggs were set aside for winter, stored in a crock in either a heavy salt pickle or in isinglass, a gelatinous substance obtained from certain seaweeds, which sealed the shell. They lasted a long time in either medium but definitely did not taste like a fresh egg. Possibly used more for baking but at least it made good use of a surplus of eggs in summer.
This is just a taste of some of our winter provisions. In places like St Kilda and Foula and the Guga of Ness in North Lewis, or Copinsay in the days of my great great great grand father Edward Pottinger, split, salted or dried young sea birds were stored for winter. Fishy tasting I am told!! Taken just before being able to fly, going down the cliffs on long ropes to get them. Again, hunger is a great sauce!!!

Young gannets, the grey ones called guga, on Sule Sgeir off Lewis.
Guga on Sula Sgeir. Via Malcom Murray

“The ile is full of wild fowls, and when the fowls has their birds ripe, men out of the parish of Ness in Lewis sail and tarry there seven or eight days and to fetch with them home their boatfull of dry wild fowls with wild fowl feathers” – Donald Monro, Archdeacon of the Isles, 1549.

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