I to the hills

Folk will have their own personal favourites among the mountain views in the north west, but I love the road west through Oykel Bridge which gives you the first view of Suilven from the east end of Loch Craggie.  I’m more than happy to admire it from the roadside – though all 3 siblings have stood on its top, as has the loon.

There’s a splendid view of it from the comfort of the Elphin Tea Room which  – praise be – is now functioning again.   On a beautiful day, you can sit outside and drink it all in.  I only pass through Elphin maybe a couple of times in a year and have been so disappointed recently when the Tearoom had the “Closed” sign up.  There are good toilets at Knockan Crag, just beyond Elphin but the Tearoom itself was like an oasis, especially if you’ve just been to the top of Cul Mor in sub-arctic conditions and you don’t have the strength to go on to Ullapool.

When I stopped last month, having seen the new signs and having had my hopes raised, the place was hoaching and the service was perhaps a little eccentric but I later learned that they hadn’t had a customer for two and a half days so no  wonder the rush had caught them off guard.  Yes, I had a bit of a wait but I had a very good pot of tea and a slab of ginger cake.

I called in at Elphin on my way back from Ullapool, having saved the afternoon tea slot for it.  Lunch in Ullapool is always at The Ceilidh Place which thankfully doesn’t change. I did get ice in my glass as I forgot to specify I didn’t want it but nor did I want to make a fuss.  But I will next time: it was October and yes it was a fine day but hardly tropical and the energy wasted on making the ice could be going on something that is actually needed.  Or saved altogether.

By the way, is it a sin to put your oven on for only one item?  This is what I was brought up to believe so after I made a Christmas cake today, I then used up some old eggs, out of date Stork and some poor-looking lemon verbena to make a version of Mary Berry’s lemon drizzle cake but in a loaf tin, not in a tray.  It was ready to go in when the Christmas cake came out.  Then when the lemon loaf came out, I was ready with some fish to put in to bake.  Now the oven is off (after 4 and a half hours) and the kitchen surfaces are littered, I’m wondering if I should be feeling smugly green.

Back to the C P.  A couple who came to sit at the next table left as there was no ham anywhere on the menu and I noticed some salad garnishes being taken away untouched from the plates of teenage boys.  How’re we going to become a healthier nation?  Folk complain loud and long about the supposed deficiencies of the NHS but what’re we doing to help ourselves and reduce the strain on it?

On the way south, I went to the Dairy at Daviot which is a place of calm, less than a mile off the madness of the A9.  It’s easier to get to going south from Inverness if, like me, you’re a bit feart of doing right turns on the A9.  You’re in a woodland setting, with a vast car park and a play area for children but watch out for the heavy wooden chairs – when you pull them in closer to the table , you run the risk of scraping the back of your ankle on a low bar.  They do Black Isle ice cream and try the bramble sorbet though you’ll spend the next hundred miles trying to get the seeds out of your teeth.

I overheard the following exchange there which gladdened my heart:

Young boy (possibly 5 / 6) with a used plate in front of him:  “Daddy, I want …”

Father: “No, you don’t”.

He immediately accepted it and a few minutes later, took his younger brother by the hand out to the play area while his parents were able to finish their breakfast in peace,  keeping an eye on their boys through the huge window.

Though now in the east and on my way south, the hills of the west were still in my mind: that last view of Suilven in the mirror until you get to the end of Loch Craggie and then see it no more.



To everything there is a season

This used to be true but I spotted my first Christmas item in August and now that Hallowe’en is past, it’s going full throttle.  What happens to the piles and piles of unsold Hallowe’en tat?   I note that plastic pumpkins are now a thing.

Why do we need all this stuff?  Some of the costumes for bairns are really expensive and if you’ve got several to dress up, it must come to a fair sum.  In my day, it was all home-made with apple-dooking and treacle scones.  I blame America – yet again – for commercialising an old festival  –  our old festival, by the way.  And the supermarkets are also in the dock.

I must confess to hollowing out a pumpkin to make my lantern, though in my defence, I used the innards to make soup, mixing them with lentils and adding lots of spices  –  it was ok, nothing special but I couldn’t bring myself to waste the pumpkin bits.  The last time I tried to hollow out a neep, I broke a knife and bent a spoon and gave up.  However, I’ve now watched a lassie on YouTube doing it and she succeeded quite well using a variety of implements, including an apple corer.  Next year, if I’m spared, I’m going to try  carving a neep again, with the toolbox at my side.

Back to the C. word.  I was in a Costa on Thursday there (2 Nov.) and the lassie at the till was wearing a Santa hat.  I asked her if she was going to have to wear it for two months and she said she had it on that day as they were “launching Christmas”.  In the name of the wee man!

I’m someone who’s always loved Christmas and I resent feeling annoyed at the way our faces are being rubbed in it just now.  Fair enough, let’s have dried fruit promoted  for the making of cakes and puddings and maybe the cards could come out in mid-November.  1st December is time enough for all the rest of it.

I want to get back to feeling joy, having something to look forward to in the middle of the long cold.

Where it all began

Matilda’s is on the site of the much-missed Heart Buchanan in Byres Road, Glasgow.  I’ve mostly visited for morning coffee, afternoon tea + cake and once had their full Scottish breakfast.  I’ve twice watched the loon having lunch in the middle of the afternoon as his meal system is a bit different from mine.  And I’ve watched Rama having breakfast pancakes with banana instead of bacon when he first turned vegetarian, at an hour I considered well past breakfast time.  The breakfast I did eat was with my favourite niece but I had to stave off hunger pangs for four hours after getting up.  Is it me that’s out of step: do mealtimes not exist any more?

What I remember most about that breakfast plateful was the chopped scrambled egg; how on earth was it produced?  Any time I’ve made scrambled egg, it’s formed clumps so how and why did they chop it up?  Can it be ‘machine made’ in some way?  Next time, I’m going to ask but only if I’m not with a teenager as I don’t want them passing out with the shame of it all.

Their flat white coffee is very good and I’ve enjoyed an individual lemon tart.  It was maybe not the freshest as the pastry was a wee bit soggy but it must be hard to keep them fresh and crisp, even over the course of a day.

They really need to do something about their toilet.  Yes, it’s unisex so that’ll keep the West End folk happy but it needs a good clean, a coat of fresh paint and a new bin for the paper towels as you can’t open the teeny one they’ve got with your foot.  Downstairs smells very strongly of damp but I don’t see how they’re going to get fresh air in that corridor.  Nor can they do much about the steepness of their stairs – ca canny when you’re going down and up.

I’m now fonder of it than ever before as it’s here that “Splendid, Bella!” was born.

 Jessie Biscuit in Milngavie is becoming a favourite.  It’s small, independent, decorated in cream and grey, tastefully bedecked but with maybe a few too many motivational sayings.  Their flat white coffee is excellent and they have a fine-looking array of cakes, including fly cemeteries which you don’t often see nowadays.  I was severely tempted by their Victoria sponge but then I remembered a saying of my auntie’s: “a moment on your lips, forever on your hips”.

They do have plastic flowers on their tables but they’re at the tasteful end of the scale.  There’s a radio on but it’s not overwhelming and is on a speech station.  They seem to have regulars coming in although there’s quite a choice of places in Milngavie now.  The toilet is clean and well-kept and has a couple of boards with biblical quotes so they’re catering for body and soul.

Enough of these witterings.  I’m supposed to be making leek and potato soup.  I wish I could remember whose advice it was to put in your leeks in three different stages; it has made all the difference to my life.  However, you need to seek out leeks with dark green tops for the third and final stage.  Don’t liquidise, though you can press on your tatties a bit with a masher.  And do not add cream as this is basic, healthy cooking.  Full recipe available on request.

The best lunch in the Highlands

This is to be had in a small village café in Sutherland.  I’m reluctant to give its name in case you all descend on it but I’m maybe kidding myself there: I doubt there’s many folk going to be reading this blog.  The loon might, because he set it up for me and he could be keen to see if I’m able to follow his instructions.  I was going to say it was “so far, so good” but I accidentally deleted my first two paragraphs and I’m now trying to recreate them.

I’m recently home from a week in the Highlands.  I was in The Pier in Lairg for the first time though it’s been open for a while.  For once I was one of the younger customers in a popular eating place.  It’s got a lovely setting with big windows looking out on to Loch Shin. I had a good bit of non-flabby salmon with savoy cabbage and crispy potatoes.  I ordered a sparkling water which came partly poured into a glass with ice and a straw – two of my pet hates in one go.

It wasn’t a bairn’s birthday party so what was the straw about?  These nasty plastic tubes are completely unnecessary and go straight into landfill or, even worse, into the ocean.  On the way out, I mentioned it to the lassie at the till and a youngish man, who I believe is one of the owners, helped her out by joining the conversation.  To give him his due, he was aware of the issues and thought that a tax was coming in and maybe a ban.  When he worked in a Glasgow bar, he said they got through about three boxes of straws a night. What wicked waste.  I suggested he kick off the ban and set an example.  I kept quiet about the ice for once.  The toilets are unisex so that would please the loon.

In Dornoch, there’s a new café open – Cocoa Mountain.  They’re the same folk who have a business in Durness making chocolate and they have their products for sale in the café.  They’re expensive but very fine.  You can have a selection of small chocolates with a coffee or hot chocolate and they do the usual croissants, cakes etc.  They could maybe do with stocking a couple of products for children; their stuff’s in low baskets at the perfect height for children to pick out of but it’s adult stuff and adult prices.  It’s a good big space – the old gift shop in the main street – nicely done up in my favourite shades of cream and brown and orange.  More gender neutral toilets here too.  I was in three times and had a flat white each time; the first one was definitely the best so the staff have got varying skills but they’ll be new to the trade and will get all get better,  I hope.  I’m still fond of Gordon House for coffee or lunch; it’s in the back street on the other side of the cathedral.

I’m very pleased to say that there’s a new place open at the Shin Falls though it’s maybe on the small side.  Most of the space inside is café with a small gifts area on one side; it doesn’t have all that tat from before but I’d have liked to have seen more space for local products.  There is Tain Silver jewellery but it’s pretty expensive. The building itself is of wood with lots of glass and has a curved walkway in from the carpark with boards telling about salmon etc.  There’s a great photo of the old green-painted wooden café which is what I remember as a child.  This new building is salmon-shaped which I hadn’t realised at first.  It’s table service in the café which is better than that long wait to approach the till with your food cooling on a tray system that was in the previous building.  I had very good – and filling – haddock and salmon chowder with a brie and cranberry sandwich; I’d to wrap up half the sandwich and put it in my bag for later.  Maybe it’s the materials used inside but I found it kind of noisy.  I wonder what they do when a bus party turns up to be served but maybe they don’t stop any more.  The outside space is very nicely done with the crazy golf and the children’s play area much the same as before.

And that “best lunch”?  It’s in Bonar Bridge’s Caley Café and is their Lentil and Cheese wedge salad.  Everything on the plate is just right: the wedge, the potato salad, the avocado, the plain couscous and the always-fresh salad leaves with firm cherry tomatoes and olives.  You get olive oil and balsamic vinegar to add if you wish, none of that drench of vinegary dressing you get in some other places.  It’s usually plenty but I’m occasionally tempted by their apple crumble or strawberry ice cream that tastes of real strawberries.  Soups are freshly made and served with their own bread.  No fancy coffees though.

“Better a dinner of herbs …… than a stalled ox …….”

Get off that North Coast 500 and explore the rest of Sutherland.