Returning to Glasgow from a week on the stunning coast of Wester Ross travelling down the A9 I allowed myself a wistful stop off in Aviemore. It was more of a bathroom necessity to begin with, but suddenly I saw signs that I remembered from 25 years ago when I would visit as a child. The same signs from the 1980s. Really? Well why wouldn’t they be? I spent a large part of my childhood in the Eighties, I had just started primary school when Another Brick in the Wall ushered in a new decade and would be 15 when a much changed country would welcome 1990 with a sigh of relief.
The 1980s for me were always shaped by music and sport, or so I thought. World Cups and Commonwealth Games sat alongside The Smiths and The Bangles, still evoking memories of geography field trips with Mr Hynd as I drove north through pine forests this year. But what I’ve come to realise is that food was also finding its way into my psyche. The food and drink and history of my nation. Summer camping holidays in places like Lochaber, Applecross and Speyside or across the Minch to the Isle of Lewis all brought different local and seasonal flavours to my subconscious. However it took a sign on a B&B advertising each room with COLOUR TV (imagine!) that I can recall from those childhood days to bring these memories to life in a moment of realisation.
But what is this memory, this land of fire and smoke? To me it’s the memory of so much cooking outside, in the open, on various different modes of heat with whatever could be found locally or even caught yourself. Gas stoves, altar fires (half an oil drum on a stand), barbecues, beach fires. Anything portable or almost portable that could hold a flame. It’s something that I’ve always taken for granted, if you have food, or find food, or catch food, then you can easily build something to cook it on.
One memory springs to mind vividly as I was stood in the campsite where it happened today. Walking in the forests around Aviemore we stumbled on a sight that will still excite me more than most. A glut of wild raspberries. Quite simply nature’s finest fruit in my eyes. Pick enough for yourself and leave plenty for others was the way I was always brought up. So we did. But what to do with a carrier bag of wild raspberries when camping? Quite simple. Make jam. One sturdy stick, one index finger and another carrier bag filled with sugar later and there was a rolling boil on the stove. Enough for two pots. One for eating and one for swapping with the fisherman returning to his tent with his catch of trout fresh from the crystal clear waters of the Spey. Freshly barbecued trout with the smoke crisped skin and tender delicate flesh followed by wild raspberry jam on bread is a barrage of flavours for the young mind. Not easily forgotten.
From my earliest memory of dangling an orange line over the edge of Anstruther pier and throwing back John Dory(!) as being no use, looking at the creels piled up, each telling a story of a life at sea then getting up early for freshly baked warm rolls with sausage for breakfast, these little towns and their histories and traditions of food have appealed to me. Have drawn me in. Catching mackerel and cooking it for dinner in Carloway, Lewis having walked to the pier at the bottom of the croft with my rod or eating Stornaway Black Pudding there without even knowing what it was. Pints of prawns and my first ever taste of scallops in Applecross looking at the sea from which they had just come would soon follow and add to the memories of my cuisine that were being formed.
But these were not what made the most impression on me. It was the ones that I never tasted. The ones that were still the promise of fulfilment of my flavour journey that lasted longest in my mind. Whisky and venison. Whisky, the ubiquitous spirit of Scotland. The history and tradition of each one, reading of the smoke of Talisker, or the fieriness of Ardbeg, or the medicinal nature of Laphroaig; names which conjoured romantic notions of days gone by hiding from exisemen with Whisky Galore. Collecting miniatures of this wonder with the promise of one day releasing the elixir therein. And venison; the rich, gamey meat of the red deer especially. Each summer spent looking for these wonderful creatures on forest walks, hearing of their exotic flavour and how strong it was. To my recollection I rarely if ever saw it on a menu but always dreamt of tasting it.
And taste them now I have. No longer the anticipation of the unknown from my childhood. But still the same excitement before eating wild venison or when tasting a new whisky. That never changes. And these flavours combine perfectly to deliver a unique flavour of cooking outdoors in Scotland, and also of cooking by the traditional method, over an open flame. For although in the black houses and tenements quick lighting charcoal wouldn’t have been the norm, peat and wood and coal would have. The Laphroaig, with its smoky, medicinal flavour of peat and sea really brings the gamey flavour out of the venison and then provides a beautiful note of the Islay spirit at the end. You can try other whiskies, I’d be interested to see the effect of a Sherry rich Speyside malt. Maybe next time.
Barbecued Laphroaig cured venison steak
2 venison steaks (around 250-350g each)
Glass of Laphroaig
6 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
6 juniper berries
Salt and pepper
1. Bruise the bay and rosemary with a pestle and mortar or a heavy knife and bash the juniper. Pour over the whisky and mix round to release the oils into it.
2. Pour over the venison and make sure that it is well coated. Leave for an hour.
3. Remove the venison, oil gently and season.
4. Barbecue over hot coals for 2 minutes each side which should hopefully deliver a rare steak. Amend time to your preference. Delicious served with skirlie and a dram.
Recipe featured in Guardian Food, 30th November 2013