Archive for December, 2011

St. Kilda

St. Kilda

Many thanks to our new contributor Colin Muir for this first hand account of his visit to St. Kilda.  Colin works as a Stone Conservator at Historic Scotland and also specialises in close range 3D scanning of many of Scotland’s treasures. Smarty-pants extraordinaire, smok’n babe and my hubby, and you can read more about some of his “official” works here at the Historic Scotland’s “Scottish Ten” Link

As the winter storms start to batter Scotland (a near record gust of 165mph was recorded in the Grampian Mountains last week) it serves as a reminder of just how cosseted we are from the realities of the natural world by central heating, running water and electric lighting.  Not so our hardy forbears, and least of all those almost mythic inhabitants of St. Kilda, Britain’s most remote corner. I was fortunate enough to visit this memorable place in September of this year, just before the end of ‘the season’. (By October the visitors are too scarce, and the seas too dangerous to justify a seven-hour long, round-trip by boat that still may not manage to achieve a landing.)

The St. Kilda Island Location

Little known outside of Scotland, the St Kilda archipelago holds a special place in the Scottish psyche, in part due to it’s remoteness and also the incredibly hardy and self-sufficient nature of its inhabitants.  For over 3,000 years this harsh and isolated location had supported human habitation, and is today one of only 28 locations in the world to hold world heritage status for it built heritage as well as its terrestrial and marine environments.

Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, with the Island of Boreray to the right

This summer I found myself working on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, tantalisingly close to fulfilling one of my life’s quests – to land on Hirta, the once inhabited island within the St Kilda group. This is a goal that has become something of a secular pilgrimage for Scots of a wistful and hardy nature, as the islanders had been regarded as an extraordinary, and even “heroic” community.

From alpine peaks and pinnacles to 1600ft seacliffs

 There is no easy way to the island – it’s either by small boat, cruise ship or if in the military – helicopter. All of which are subject to be turned back at the very last moment by the extremes of weather that scour the ragged peaks and cliffs of these islands. Apparently the islands’ jagged demeanour is the result of having avoided the grinding glaciation that shaped the distinctive features of the rest of Scotland.

St Kildans on the Street, 1886

Human existence on these isolated, tree-less fists of land was entirely dependent on the abundance of seabirds, and it has been accurately termed a  “bird-culture”. The islands are a summer home to in excess of a million birds, with as many as 210 species having been recorded. Indeed a quarter of the GLOBAL gannet population nest in the area. It was said that in 1876 around 89,600 puffins alone were harvested for food and feathers; that does not take into account the fulmars and gannets that were also principle elements of the St Kildan daily diet.

The Puffin, the Fulmar, and the Gannet; staples of the St Kildan diet

These seabirds were snared and captured from the cliffs by barefoot islanders, and their eggs harvested for additional nutrition. They were the source of oil, as well as down and feathers. These by-products provided for a meagre subsistence economy and a modicum of trade.

An attacking ‘Bonxie’, or Arctic Skua; an aggressive ‘kleptoparasite’

The St Kildans rarely ate fish; as the fishing in the surrounding seas was considered poor, and extremely hazardous – they also preferred the taste of birds. Since the majority of birds migrated over the winter, those caught had to be carefully stored and dried to last through to the spring. To facilitate this, the islanders built in excess of 1300 ‘cleits’ of varying forms and functions; to shelter in, store provisions and dry birds. These unique dry-stone built structures pepper the island from Village Bay to near the summits of the highest peaks.

‘Cleits’ and dry-stone work as far as the eye can see.

The history of human habitation on the islands is complex and too rich to abridge here. However Martin Martin, who visited the islands in 1697 and wrote the first detailed description of the people and their customs adjudged them “.. much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty”. Ironically however, recent research has found evidence that this isolated community, long held to be the epitome of a natural, sustainable and holistic lifestyle, at one with its surroundings, may eventually have succumbed from their peculiarly waste-free lifestyle. The population dwindled as greater contact with the outside world led some to leave and the traditional skills that supported the islanders survival diminished. The community was susceptible to high infant-mortality, outbreaks of disease and became increasingly less self sufficient, to the point that it was finally unsustainable. In 1930 the remaining 36 islanders were, at their own request, evacuated.

The Remains of Village Bay

It is now believed that a contributing factor may have been that the islanders’ suffered from the gradual contamination of their homes and fields with heavy metals, from their continuous use of burnt bird remains. This was used as fertiliser in the narrow fields, and the ash as a flooring material in their homes. The fish on which the birds gorged had themselves ingested naturally occurring heavy metals from the surrounding sea. With each step in the food chain these concentrations were magnified, further compounded by generations of agricultural use on the same small areas of tillable land.

The Village and ‘Fields’

One tale in particular highlights the rigours and tragedy of the St Kildan’s way of life, and their almost superhuman hardiness, and is one of remarkable human survival. In 1727 three men and eight boys were dropped off on the near vertical  ‘Stac an Armin’ (at over 600ft high, the highest sea stack in Britain) on a bird-hunting expedition that was intended to last a couple of days before the boat came to retrieve them from the pinnacle.

Stac an Armin

However, the boat did not return. In the interim the islanders on Hirta had been afflicted by a smallpox epidemic that was to leave only one adult and eighteen children alive. None of those that survived were able to handle a boat on such a perilous voyage, and most tantalising of all – the Stac was in clear view from the top of the main Island of Hirta. The men and boys were only finally rescued when the Factor (the landlord’s agent and rent collector) had come for his annual payment, found the island all but empty, and heard of their plight. They had all survived through pounding Atlantic storms, and the cold of a Scottish winter, on nothing but rainwater and dried seabirds for an astonishing nine months! After such an ordeal it must have been a tragically bitter sweet rescue for them to then hear that almost all their loved ones and neighbours had perished in their absence.

Stac an Armin and Boreray, seen from Hirta

Whilst a journey to St Kilda today is still an uncertain one, liable to be cancelled at the last moment, or turned back within sight of the island by treacherous conditions, it is one very much recommended. I travelled with these good folk and would recommend them highly

(check out their gallery in particular).  It’s a journey that certainly fills you with admiration for the early peoples that not only braved this crossing in much more rudimentary craft, but also managed to thrive in an environment both harsh and beautiful. It is a vigourous, fresh world of wind-scoured moors and salt-sprayed cliffs that, that when blessed with a shard of sunshine, feels like an Eden on the edge of the world. Most importantly it’s a place that lingers in the memory and the soul of all that experience it.




Cardamom Rolls

Cardamom Rolls

I have a confession, I am having a food affair.  And it is all the fault of this woman; my friend Linn from Sweden.  While I am indeed totally committed to exploring and sharing Scottish ingredients and food with you, Linn’s cooking and even more so her baking is just too distractingly good – so I must widen my scope to include some of her Swedish delicacies.  Truth be told, there are loads of folks here from other countries that are cracking cooks (so this will end up quite a multi-cultural jaunt around the world), but for now let me entice you with these babies – Cardamom Rolls from Sweden.

Linn – the Swedish food seducer

Early in our friendship our mutual friend Jessica asked me if I had tasted any of Linn’s baking yet.  When I answered, “no” she grabbed my arm, shook her head and rolled her eyes heavenward.  Her mouth hung agape for a moment while she tried to gather some strength to properly communicate how important it was that I remedy this situation immediately saying , “Oh my God, you must –  you simply MUST…Linn makes cakes that the angels would eat in heaven!”.  Well, you don’t have to tell me twice.

She is also a midwife specialising in home births just to push you over the warmth and comfort edge – but don’t be fooled by her angelic looks, she is super sassy and can swear like a sailor.

Linn arrived at my house early on a Friday morning with a pretty unassuming bunch of  ingredients. Since I have had the privilege of enjoying these staples of Swedish hospitality before,  I was curious to see how the magic was going to happen.

I want to say in advance while I have clearly lost the plot in my picture taking, this is not a terribly complicated recipe.   As I am a very visual person, I appreciate seeing each stage of a new technique before undertaking it myself, so hopefully you will be inspired to do the same.  No step is terribly tricky and you can get on with other things when dough or rolls need time to rise.  The result is totally worth it I assure you!

50 grams of fresh yeast = 14 grams or 2 envelopes of dried yeast

Straight away she cracked out this slightly whiffy block of yeast.  Apparently, this is compressed live yeast and a fundamental ingredient in most Scandinavian baking.  Having only used dried yeast myself my first thought was, “holy moly that’s a lot  of yeast!”.  My fretting was for naught as 50 grams of live yeast is the equivalent of two envelopes (14 g) of fast action dried yeast.

Better yet I was able to procure this yeast cake for free at my local Tesco supermarket!  If you ask at the bakery counter they happily hand over the live yeast but limit the amount to 50 grams per person.  They explained that they are unable to sell the product, so they are required to give it away but only in small amounts, which was handy as this recipes call for 50 grams of live yeast.  After checking on the etiquette, I was assured that there are several people who come in once a week for their allotted live yeast.  You can also get in at most whole food stores or on-line from speciality websites.

Live or dried just crumble the yeast onto a large mixing bowl.

Now the best results come from activating the yeast, and this is done by heating up 100 g or 1/3 cup butter until melted.  Add 500 ml or 2 cups milk and stir to combine.  Gently heat the mix until it is warm when you stir it with your finger (please make sure your hands are clean before this act).

Now you bring the warm mixture back to your bowl of yeast and add a small amount of the liquid.

Stir to dissolve and activate the yeast.  Once completely dissolved add the rest of the warm butter and milk mixture.

Now you just add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the 100 ml or 1/2 cup sugar.  Mix to dissolve and slowly add the flour – with the mixer running if using – until all the flour has been incorporated into a dough.  Mix with enthusiasm for about 5 minutes.  The dough with begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl after about 2-3 minutes so be sure to continue for about 2 minutes after that signal.

Fling a tea towel over the bowl or mixer and let rise in a warm place for 40 minutes.  The shot on the right  is the glorious vision that awaits after proper rising.

Now before we go on I just have to say I had never seen dough rise covered in a mixer before, but it is quite a common sight whenever you visit Linn’s house.  Between settling the kids and preparing tea or coffee she will simultaneously tell you how between work, kids and the house she just doesn’t feel on top of anything and absent-mindedly roll, shape and bake the most exquisite tasting thing that you have ever encountered.  And I have encountered a lot of baked goods in my day.  Self depreciating humour, off colour jokes and fantastic food make Linn’s kitchen one of my all time favourite places to hang whenever I get the chance.

Whilst your dough is rising to silken loveliness, it is time to prepare your cardamom filling.  Cardamom hails from India, and while in Britain it is more often associated with curries and Pilau rice (it is the big green seed you can unexpectedly chomp into), the Scandinavian countries use the ground seed inside the pods in much of their baking.  Those Viking did get around didn’t they?

Linn had a packet of the cardamom seeds (brought back from Sweden) that were ready to be crushed. (The seeds need to be crushed right before use as they lose their intense smell and flavour if left for too long).  As luck would have it these are not readily available in the UK, but the green cardamom pods are very easy to find.  The pepper-like black seeds inside the green pods and are easily released with a bit of smashing in a mortar in pestle or by putting into a sealed plastic bag and crushed with a rolling pin.  I was able to crush and separate out 1 Tablespoon of seeds while on the phone with my sister and it was not a hassle in the least.

One last thing – if cardamom is not to your taste or too hard to find, you can easily substitute ground cinnamon in its place.  And apparently, if you would like to illicit the amorous attentions of a Swedish male *wink, wink* serving these buns with cinnamon is a sure-fire aphrodisiac.  (Top tip for the day).

For the filling, cube up 150 g or 1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon of butter and add 50 ml / 70 g/ 4 Tablespoons sugar.  Then simply add your crushed cardamom (or cinnamon) and mash with the back of a fork to thoroughly combine.

When your dough has risen, roll out on a lightly floured surface into a large rectangle about 5 mm or 1/4 in thickness, and place the spiced butter mix on top of the dough.

Once you have evenly spread the spiced butter mixture to the edges of the dough, pull the far edge of the dough over itself  toward you, covering the butter mix inside.

Using a blunt knife cut about five “ribbons”  approximately 5mm or 1/4 inch wide, discarding the first ribbon on the grounds of scruffiness.  Pick up one folded “ribbon” and lightly hold at each end between your thumb and forefinger.

Gently twist the dough in opposite directions (without stretching or crushing) until it looks like the image on the right.

Working from the top,  loop the tip of the twist to the centre point of the ribbon.  Then bring the bottom tip underneath the loop tucking the end into the circle.

(In my seven years of friendship with Linn, I can’t recall a single disagreement let alone raised voices.  But trying to photograph her twisting  these things at lightening speed was a challenge indeed.  Literally, she was barely aware of what she was doing, as her hands blurred cranking out perfect knot after perfect knot. Please appreciate these images with a hearty “slow down, Slow down! Stop!  Hold it right there, Stop!” – in your mind.)

Place on a greased metal baking sheet (ceramic ones don’t heat up fast enough for the short cooking time) or use baking sheet liners or muffin cases for less mess, and cover with a tea towel and let rise for 20 minutes.  While the rolls are rising,  pre-heat your oven to 250 C/ 500 F/ Gas Mark 10. Don’t worry, they only bake for a few minutes but the oven needs to be screaming hot.

Now for the final touches, mix one egg in a cup and coat each bun with a pastry brush.  You can either bake straight away and glaze with a little icing sugar mixed with water AFTER they come out of the oven, or you can be tres authentique and sprinkle on some Parlsocker BEFORE you bake the rolls.

And what, you may ask is Parlsocker?  Well it literally translates from Swedish as “pearl sugar” or “sugar pearls” and really is just that. The consistency looks like pretzel salt and it sweet but not overly so.  It doesn’t seem to melt or scorch at the high cooking temperature so if you can find some I can happily recommend its use, but if not a little post bake glaze will be totally yummy as well.

Place each tray, one at time into the upper third of  your super hot oven.  Keep a close eye as these only bake for about 5-7 minutes until beautifully browned.  When done remove from tray to a cooling rack.

 And this is the wee bundle of perfection that rewards you for your efforts!

 If serving immediately, place on a plate whilst still warm and pamper your guests further with coffee or tea.  If not, cover with a tea towel on the cooling rack while still hot.  When all the heat has left you can place the rolls in a plastic bag and freeze.  You can thaw and serve them with a few minutes notice or place in a hot oven (from frozen) to warm and crisp again.

So as Linn would say, “Njut” which means “Enjoy”, or as you offer your guests your delicacy,“varsegod” which means “please help yourself”!

This recipe makes 36 rolls so you can always have a great home-made treat on hand at the ready…..

or if you have a houseful of hungry gremlins, they will all be gone in 24 hours and you are back at Tescos for more live yeast!

A fun weekend or after school project with the kids and something as beautiful as it is tasty!  Hopefully, this is just the first of many contributions from my super snazzy friends as we all hunker down for the cold grey months ahead.

Cardamom Rolls

Yield: 36 Rolls

Cardamom Rolls

Recipe and step-by-step guide to making these fantastic staples of Swedish hospitality.


    For the Dough
  • Yeast - 50 grams for live (OR) 14 grams - 1 1/2 Tablespoons for dried
  • Butter -100 grams - 3 1/2 oz - 1/3 cup
  • Milk - 500 ml - 16 fluid oz - 2 cups
  • Salt - 1/2 teaspoons
  • Sugar - 100 ml - 1/2 cup
  • Flour - 1300 ml - 5 cups
  • For the Filling
  • Butter - 150 grams - 5 oz - 1/2 cup + 1 Tablespoon
  • Sugar - 50 ml - 70 grams - 4 Tablespoons
  • Cardamom - 15 ml - 1 Tablespoon
  • Egg for wash
    Pearl Sugar or Icing Sugar for Topping


    For the Dough
  1. Place yeast into a large bowl.
  2. Place butter into a medium pot and place on hob/ stove top.
  3. When butter is melted, add milk to the same pot and heat gently until warm.
  4. Drizzle a small amount of the butter and milk liquid onto the yeast - stir to dissolve.
  5. Add the remaining butter and milk liquid to dissolved yeast.
  6. Add salt and sugar to mix. Stir to combine.
  7. Slowly add the flour to the mix until combines. Stir or mix for about 5 minutes. (Dough will begin to come away from the sides of the bowl after a few minutes, continue to mix for 2 minutes more).
  8. Cover mixing bowl with a tea towel and let rise for 40 minutes.
  9. For the Filling
  10. Cube cold butter into a medium bowl
  11. Add sugar and cardamom (or cinnamon).
  12. Combine with fork.
  13. To Assemble
  14. Roll out dough into a large rectangle about 5 mm or 1/4 inch thick.
  15. Add the butter, sugar and spice mix and spread evenly over the rolled out dough.
  16. Fold the dough in half pulling the far edge toward you to cover the butter mixture.
  17. Cut ribbons of 5 mm or 1/4 inch width about 5 at a time.
  18. Twist in length and then fold twisted dough into a knot.
  19. Place on a metal baking sheet (not a ceramic), cover with a tea towel and let rise for 20 minutes.
  20. Pre-heat your oven to 250 degree C / 500 degree F / Gas Mark 10
  21. Mix up 1 egg and brush over risen rolls
  22. EITHER add pearl sugar before baking OR drizzle with dissolved icing sugar AFTER baking.
  23. Place one tray at a time in the upper 1/3 of an oven.
  24. Bake for 5 - 7 minutes.
  25. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack.
  26. Serve immediately or cover with a tea towel to cool completely.
  27. Once cool can be frozen and thawed to serve or warmed in a hot oven,
  28. Serve & Enjoy.


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