31 Oct 2009

Samhain among the ancient oaks


Right this way, if you please:

There are many ways to spend the day that is synonymous with spirits and other worlds: trick or treating, donning costumes, consuming candy, or just lighting the candles and watching the heavy moon sail through the black sky.

For weeks I have been hoping for good weather for Samhain because I wanted to visit the old oak forest in Dalkeith, not far from Edinburgh. This time of year the clouds often roll in by 11am, so I got up early in order to be there while the sun was still blazing through the branches.
What is left of the ancient forest of Caledon is like a whisper compared to what used to be, but each tree is now like a gem. Some of these trees are more than 700 years old, their trunks twisting like spines stuck in yoga postures. All of the trees are numbered. My favourite from today is 721, the trunk of which is like a coil of bulbous growths. I also loved the many fallen trees, some of which have deep slits down their middles. Even some of the oldest, collapsed specimens still have branches that bear leaves. The cycle continues, their deaths the longest, softest sigh.
I was too late for acorns. The fallen leaves have created a thick blanket on the ground and the squirrels rush through the branches, gathering anything that may have been left behind. It is the leaves themselves which are now the best part of the show. They range from still slightly green to deep yellow, to dark brown and curling at the edges. Every gust of wind brought down a shower of them and at times I would hear a hissing sound on the trail behind me and turn to where I expected to see a cyclist or an animal, only to watch a small wave of leaves being pushed along the ground.

At first I pointed my camera frantically around, desperate to catch the pageantry of death that was the falling leaves. But after just a few clicks I laughed at myself and fell silent, content to just watch them and to breathe in the damp scent of decay blossoming underfoot. I saw a tiny spider climbing onto a dying leaf, not a safe bet for the start of a new web.

If you are ever in Edinburgh and have had enough of cobbled streets and old buildings, and you want to see something that will truly work a spell on you, visit this place. It is magic.

Wishing you a happy, spirit-filled Samhain.

24 Oct 2009

Build your own Cranachan, take 2

Once again I take to the kitchen in an effort to create this most traditional Scottish dessert. I attempted this once before, but somehow it all went wrong.

If you have oats, cream, and raspberries, you can make Cranachan in some form. Some will say that the recipe is nothing without a shot of whisky in the cream, but the recipe I have specifies either vanilla or rum for flavouring the cream. It’s the first Maw Broon’s Cookbook, which I assume packs a respectable amount of time-honoured culinary weight.

You will find Cranachan on many dessert menus around the country, and all seem to have their own way of doing it. Some stack it high, others make Cranachan-inspired ice cream or tarts. That’s the beauty of it - it’s just so tasty and comforting whatever you do.

Step 1. You will need some oats. Luckily, my recent obsession with oats has left me with a glutton of them. You will then need to bring out a slightly nutty flavour in said oats by lightly toasting them, either in the oven or in a dry frying pan. I speak from experience when I advise you to watch them closely, lest they burn and fill your home with smoke.

Step 2. Go to the farmers’ market, allow yourself to be overcome with greed and buy far too many raspberries. Forgive yourself.

Step 3. Whip up some cream with a bit of caster sugar and a drop of whatever you fancy for flavouring. I had no vanilla and so far have not developed a love of whisky, so rum it was. (*hic*)

Step 4. Add some of your toasted oats into the cream, making sure the cream stays the dominant force in the mix.

I have not included any measurements because I didn’t use any. And it doesn’t matter anyway -this isn’t that kind of dessert. It’s this kind of dessert:

Happy Scotland-loving weekend.

18 Oct 2009

Big Skye Love

17 Oct 2009

Autumn treat winners

Welcome to Saturday in the middle of October. Thank you for your many enthusiasms regarding porridge and hauntings. I have dug my hand through the hats and can now reveal that Chris from Life on the Hill has won the charming beechwood spurtle and Deb Salisbury will be learning about Scotland's haunted places.

Next month the true purpose of my treat giving will become clear, as I will be asking a big favour...

11 Oct 2009

Porridge and Ghosts: Winter Staples (& treats!)

The start of the dark season is filled with so many wonderful distractions in Scotland. It seems to me that the Scottish take the coming of winter very seriously, as along with the growing shadows and the wind that turns the body to an icy sponge, there is a sense of ritual, of facing off with the gloom.

This post is dedicated to two staples of Scottish life: a hot bowl of porridge, and a good ghost story.

First, to porridge. Dear reader, I ask you to lift your spoon in salute, for today is a great day. Yes, today the World Porridge Making Championships took place in Carrbridge in Inverness-shire. Known as The Golden Spurtle, this competition takes place each year in celebration of one of Scotland’s most beloved dishes. Contestants from around the world have taken part, and today American Matthew Fox was awarded the coveted golden spurtle trophy.

The organizers of The Golden Spurtle event have taken their passion one step further and teamed up with the Scottish Charity Mary’s Meals, to dub today World Porridge Day in a bid to help feed children in some of the poorest countries in the world.

But I digress. What on earth is a spurtle? Dating from the 15th century, the dowel-like spurtle has a place in most Scottish kitchens, where it is used to stir soups and (you guessed it) porridge.

I was unable to make it to this year’s big event, however I still wanted to mark the occasion, so on Saturday I wandered over to Edinburgh’s Farmers' Market. There in the centre of the market, just where I knew it would be, sat the wee Stoats Porridge hut.

I love the Stoats Porridge people. They don’t just offer pots of organic porridge, they tempt us with porridge with white chocolate and toasted hazelnuts, or whisky, honey and cream, or the always popular Cranachan recipe, which features raspberries, honey and cream.

If you don’t fancy a pot of porridge, you can buy one of the bars and become utterly, hopelessly addicted until you find yourself offering to bribe the salespeople for the recipe. On Saturday I opted to skip my usual choice of white chocolate and hazelnuts and go for a Cranachan porridge. And the lovely porridge girl even let me take her photo - hurrah!

As my own way of encouraging Scotland lovers to dig out their oats and get cooking, I am giving away a spurtle! Alas, it’s not golden - it’s beech wood. But it does come with a little recipe attached so you can get cooking right away.

But wait! Before you throw your name in the hat for the Scottish spoon of excellence, what about ghosts? Didn’t I say that the dark season was full of delightful distractions?

The annual atmosphere of eeriness is being set around the country, with various events marking the approach of Samhain, better known as Halloween. The Pagan New Year, Samhain is a time for telling stories and honouring the thinning veil between our worlds. In Edinburgh, the various ghost tours become busier as the flying leaves and black cobbles give the evening walks an extra ambience of the other-worldly.

The Scottish Storytelling Festival will soon be kicking off, with events planned around Scotland. As always it includes a special session dedicated to ghost stories on Halloween night. I have attended this event in the past and the walk home always takes on a wonderful chill that delights me in ways I cannot describe.

Over in the forests of Perthshire, the lights of the Enchanted Forest will once again astound visitors. The theme for this year’s event, which also ends 1 November, is Scottish Myths and Legends.

If you’re looking for the basis of a ghost story to tell your kids this autumn, there is nothing like a good old fashioned haunting, and Scotland has no shortage of buildings said to house restless spirits. The second edition of Martin Coventry’s Haunted Places of Scotland has just come out, and this is my second treat for the month of October.

But here’s the rub: you have to choose. Do you want to throw your name into hat for the spurtle, symbol of Scottish porridge goodness? Or do you want to read through a list of frightening spectres like the phantom coach of Dumfries House or the spirit of the monk said to haunt to cloister area of Melrose Abbey?

As usual, entering is as easy as leaving a comment and specifying your choice of the porridge hat or the haunted hat. To comment on this post is to enter your name in the draw, so if you don’t specify a choice, I will choose for you and you will just have to be surprised. If you don’t have a blog that you can link back to, you can email me at scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com and include “porridge ghosts!” in the subject line. Those who won the last giveaway won’t be able to play this time around, but you can join in again for November.

I’ll be drawing the names on 17 October, so get your names in before then!

***********This giveaway has now finished. Congrats to Chris and Deb Salisbury:)********************

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