Local Heroes

2015 is the year of Scotland Food & Drink and programmes to promote it are already kicking off. This week I dropped in on a Taste Our Best workshop sponsored by Visit Scotland‘s Food and Drink Quality Assurance Scheme, which is “designed to drive change in use and promotion of Scottish produce.” Workshops were presented on how local businesses can benefit from the scheme- topics such as food tourism and quality assurance. In another room, area producers and processors showcased their products and services. Paradise Kitchen was there with famous preserves, jams and chutneys, Oban Chocolate Company showed off some dreamy concoctions and Great Glen Game was on hand with bites of to-die-for charcuterie. The Kitchen Garden, Oban’s home of all things gourmet and scrumptious, prepared an impressive spread of canapés and sandwiches stuffed with indigenous goodness such as smoked salmon, fruit preserves and savoury pickles.

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Paradise Kitchen at the Taste Our Best event

Local food is one of my passions. I had a small organic farm in Mississippi for ten years and ran a village farmers market. As an advocate for sustainable food issues, I got to see the blossoming of a local food culture in the American South over the last ten years-and even play a part in nourishing that culture. When I started in the late 1990’s, I was one of the few small organic producers in the area, but over the years, appreciation for all things local- from music to art to food-went from a resurgence to a trend to the norm in most Mississippi communities.  Today there are over 50 thriving farmers markets in the state. Shops and even chain grocers carry local goods. Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, subscriptions support dozens of farmers and their families. You can easily get everything for your plate-meat, milk, eggs, veggies, beer and value-added goods like preserves and herbal products- sourced from within a 50 mile radius.

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Will and Amanda of Native Son Farm in Tupelo, Mississippi at the Taylor Farmers Market

Now I live on a farm in the Scottish Highlands. The climate here is as different as can be from Mississippi, but we still manage to grow greenhouses full of vegetables in summer and enjoy the bounty of several types of fruit. I can’t grow my staples such as okra and blueberries, but, for once I can grow rhubarb and enjoy bushels of sweet apples from the tree. I don’t keep chickens here, and I sure miss my freshly laid eggs and the occasional plump hen for Sunday dinner. But sheep and shaggy Highland cows graze the sweet grassy hills here in the glen, destined for tables around Scotland, including ours.

Since arriving in Oban, I’ve enjoyed experiencing local food, Highland style. The best is the bounty from the sea- they don’t call it The Seafood Capital of Scotland for nothing. Sweet mussels, luscious oysters, moist salmon, succulent langoustines, tender haddock- yum! Highland beef, mutton and farmed venison abound on local menus and in shops, and local free range eggs are readily available for a reasonable price. No shortage of fine drink here, either-there are over a dozen of the world’s finest whisky distilleries in the area and several breweries. The only area which I find lacking is the availability of local vegetables. Most veggies can thrive only in greenhouses here, and doing that on a large scale is just not cost effective. I’m lucky to have access to the greenhouses, where I can grow my own tomatoes, courgettes, beans and cabbages, but I miss browsing those overflowing market tables of home grown exotic peppers, mushrooms and watermelons.

I got involved with Argyll-based Local Origins Rural Network (LORN), which supports and promotes locally produced food, fibre and art. They sponsor a biweekly farmers market in Benderloch, a few miles outside of Oban, and an annual summer Gaelic wool festival. The market features local seafood, meat, eggs, honey, breads and sweets, small batch canned goods and condiments, and lots of little lovelies from area artists and crafters-jewelry, textiles, wood carving and accessories. I’m doing public relations for LORN and after having shopped these outstanding vendors, I am getting to know them better. Their amazing stories practically write themselves. Individuals with passion, standing against all odds and working their fingers to the bone to bring high quality products to the people. They aren’t in it for the money.

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Highland smoked salmon at the LORN Community Producers Market

It seems that the Scottish Highlands are at different stages in the local food revolution than in the U.S. For example, the Buy Local mantra has not caught on here as much as it has in America. Local food is generally higher priced than factory big box brands, and this is a big obstacle to getting folks to fork over their hard earned cash. On the other hand, Scotland’s restaurants, in general, source more of their food locally than American restaurants. Back in Mississippi, I found it was more often the chef than the individual consumer that wouldn’t pay for local, sustainable quality.

I believe these obstacles will be overcome- here and back home. As local food goes from a trend to the norm here, higher demand will mean more local farmers, which eventually will lead to lower prices for the consumer. As consumers become more aware of sustainable food issues and the benefits of eating locally and in season, they will adjust their spending so they can afford to fit local food into their budgets. As constituents demand government agricultural policy become fair to the small producer and not just Big Agribusiness, family farming will become a more viable way of life.  At the rate the Buy Local movement is going, I can definitely see a future where fresh, affordable local produce can grace every family’s table.

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The Art of Adventure

Last night I dipped a toe outside my comfort zone again and experienced a real Scottish institution, the Women’s Rural Institute. My lovely landlady and neighbor Margaret is a member of this 100 year old organisation and is always going to some event or another. She shows me things like embroidery and stuffed animals that she makes to enter into contests. She speaks with great passion about how she was quite the wallflower until she joined the Institute, where she gained self-confidence and blossomed into a respectable painter and maker of pretty things. She has been trying to talk me into going to a meeting, but I’m an introvert, not a joiner, and I have zero crafty skills. So I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. But last night was an open house fundraiser and once again Margaret invited me. I didn’t want to be rude, and, besides, this would force me to get out and meet people. (I do enjoy meeting new people, I’m just not very good with small talk. I prefer to creep around the periphery of a scene and observe- I think it’s a writer thing.)

At the appointed time, Margaret and I met in the driveway to wait for our ride- another neighbor down the glen. The SUV was already full of eager ladies in high spirits, some of whom I already knew from the pub, geared up for their version of a night on the town. I was the youngest in the car by easily 35 years, but I didn’t mind. I very much enjoy the company of “ladies of a certain age”- they are wise and funny- and they know what is important in life and what is not- exactly how I hope to be someday. There was much wisecracking and giggling on the ride over, and they made feel just like one of the girls. At the village hall, we piled out and I helped to carry in baked goods and flats of plants for the fundraiser sale.

Inside the hall, ladies were scurrying about setting up tables and chairs so I pitched in, all the while making the acquaintance of the other members, who introduced themselves and chatted me up most congenially. The Scots are among the friendliest and most unpretentious folks I have ever encountered, and these gals didn’t disappoint. For a wallflower like me, their generous hospitality warmed my soul like a crackling fire on a chilly Highland night.

Soon more ladies piled into the hall, not just Institute members, but other ladies out to show their support. I was relieved to see my good friend, Michelle, and her daughter, as well as few other familiar faces from the glen. The emcee instructed everyone to take seats as the “Beetle Drive” was about to begin. Beetle Drive? Did I hear that correctly? We shuffled to the tables, four chairs each and took our seats. Little slips of paper were distributed to each of us-a 12 block grid with a crude drawing of- yes, a beetle- at the top and numbered instructions: 1 for the head, 2 for the body, 3 for the antennae, etc. A cup with one die graced each table. In turn we tossed the die, and, depending on the number rolled, drew a part of the beetle in one square on the grid. You got to draw the next part assigned only if it was connected to a part you already had, so you had to roll a 1 to get started drawing the head and then could build it up from there, the object being of course to complete the beetle. It’s a bit like Bingo- on crack. The cup passed furiously from one to another and we collectively groaned or cheered at our luck. Finally someone shouted “Beetle!” and everyone stopped rolling to count up their points- one for each beetle body part. The two top scores for each table moved on to the next table, so for each round I had a new group. This was a great way to meet folks without pressure- just time to introduce yourself and then get rolling. At this rate, I was able to meet most everyone there. I even won a round!

By the sixth round, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one tiring of this silliness, which was fun for a bit but was growing old fast. I suspect some ladies were at least contemplating cheating just to get the thing over with.  We tallied our points and prizes were given for the highest and lowest scores. Finally it was time for tea and snacks.

We enjoyed a lovely spread of sweets and savouries and browsed the tables full of baked goods, used paperbacks, scarves, candles and such bric-a-brac. I scored a bag of freshly baked fruit scones for a pound and a little embroidered purse for 10 pence. Raffle tickets were on offer for 50 pence. I never win raffles, but my number was called and I walked away with a tin of luxury chocolate biscuits with chocolate and orange preserves- kudos to me!

The non-members began to file out of the hall and I was told there would be a brief business meeting for the members, so I had to stay behind with my glen friends. Luckily the meeting was indeed brief, and before long we were stacking away the chairs and washing teacups. I got a very low pressure sales pitch about joining the SWRI and was politely non-committal. But I had some new friends and many new acquaintances.

When you start your life over in a new country, you cannot underestimate the power of kindness. I went from having a circle of girlfriends who did everything together to being a stranger in a strange land. But the women here have made the difficult process of rebuilding a network of mates so much easier. And like all the amazing women I have met in Scotland, The SWRI welcomed me with open arms. They key to meeting all these people, though, is that you have to get up your nerve and do things you might not ordinarily. As every expat knows, it’s the little things, the small kindnesses that make a place feel like home. You just have to put yourself out there to discover them.

“A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, travelling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints.”-Wilfred Peterson

A Highland Fling at the Argyllshire Games

Nothing evokes the spirit of wild Scotland like the Highland Games. All over the world, from New Zealand to Russia, the Scottish diaspora and the Scottish at heart gather for a celebration of all things Alba- piping, dancing, racing, feats of strength, food and Gaelic heritage.

Legend has it the origin of the games lies with King Malcolm III, who, in the 11th century, summoned the fastest runners of the realm to compete in a foot race to determine who would be his royal messenger. The first recorded games date to 1703, when members of Clan Grant, bedecked in their Highland coats, gathered with “gun, sword, pistol and dirk” to compete in feats of arms. Today’s version of the games is basically- like the clan tartan- a Victorian invention developed after the Highland Clearances- a romantic pastiche harkening back to a culture that, had it really existed, would have been wiped out by the English. But the tradition took off like wildfire, and today there are over a dozen Highland gatherings in Scotland each year, and many more all over the globe- from Switzerland to the Bahamas. In the United States alone there are at least 150 games!

I went to the world’s largest games, The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in Linville, North Carolina, many years ago. Upwards of 50,000 folks gather for this annual event. Scots Americans take great pride in their heritage and they pull out all the stops there. But it was high time I went to a real Highland Games.

The 2013 Oban Games fell on a beautiful sunny day in August, with temperatures in the mid 20’s (mid 70’s Fahrenheit) – positively roasting by Scotland standards!  I arrived in mid-afternoon on foot. Traffic was backed up all the way out of town. The smells of barbecue and fried sweets filled the air before I even caught site of the field. The stands were quickly filling up and the games were in progress. A large field was partitioned off into areas for the various sports- caber tossing, stone putting, hammer tossing- as well as piping and dancing, and all the while runners circled the track. The stadium was a riot of bagpipes and tartan, so much to take in, so much to see. And more kilts than you can shake a stick at.

On the green, colossal men resplendent in kilts and t-shirts (hubba hubba!) showed their prowess in hurling very heavy objects as far as possible. These guys were massive- well over six feet tall, with arms like rocks and calves like tree trunks. They were the pride of the Highlands and Islands- representing Mull, Tiree, Fort William, Inverness- and even the big cities like Edinburgh. They mostly seemed to be rural boys, though. And speaking of tree trunks, the caber, from the Gaelic for “wooden beam,” is a 6 meter, 80 kilo tree trunk made from larch. The tosser carefully balances it upright, then flings it- thud! My favourite strength event was the Sheaf Toss, in which the tosser hurls a 7 kilogram burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar with a pitchfork. It was easy to see how these events got their start with robust farm boys showing each other up while doing chores on the homestead.

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I took a walk around the field, visiting the various booths and vendors, and enjoyed a Highland roast beef sandwich. I met the Duke of Argyll, the officiator of the games, resplendent in his tartan and feathered tam. I squeezed my way to front of the standing room only crowd to catch the wee pastel- tartaned Highland dancing lassies, skipping and jumping with grace and exuberance. Piper after piper climbed a soapbox to show off their skills, and pipe bands of kilted young folk marched across the green.

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I found a grassy place to sit on the spectator hill and settled in. All these different events were taking place at the same time on the field, so there was plenty to see. I met some nice ladies from London sitting next to me and we enjoyed chatting about the spectacle. They were of Scottish heritage and never missed an Oban Games, they told me.

After the professional races, it was time for the audience to join in. The announcer called category after category and urged onlookers to come down for a 100 metres footrace. First, the kids’ race, then the Over 50’s men and women. Next, he announced, it was time for people from other countries. The London ladies looked at me- “Come on,” they urged, “Go for it!” Shy foreigners slowly took to the field. I hesitated. But a bottle of whisky was on offer to the winner. Oh, what the heck, I thought. So I kicked off my boots and scurried down to the track. The announcer asked our names and where we were from- we intrepid racers were representing from all over the world- South Africa, Switzerland, and several from the U.S., including a gal from Kentucky. Dixie is in the house y’all! Ready, set…the gun shot and we were off! Huff, huff, huff…I only wanted to finish without tripping over my own feet. The guy in the lead fell, I made a final push. Kentucky first, Sweden second….Mississippi fourth! The crowd went wild! I didn’t win the whisky, but Dixie still took the day and that was good enough for me.

A bit sunburned and tuckered out from my debut as a Highland athlete (I hadn’t run at flat out speed since I was, oh, ten?) I headed home, following the Oban Pipe Band through town to the tune of Scotland the Brave.

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Shellie’s Wellies

I am a writer, an archaeologist, a cook, a grower of things, an outdoor girl. I like to hike, swim, paddle, watch wildlife and travel,  I seek life’s back roads,  always on the lookout for local food, culture, history and music wherever I go. Off the beaten path I find the most interesting things.

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Follow me as I discover my new home, Scotland, kitted out in my near constant companions- my wellies! Look for my reviews of attractions, trails and recreation areas around Scotland, where I’ll rate them on a scale from one to five wellies. If you have a favourite outdoor destination you’d like to share, let me know.

Snow Day in Glencoe

Last weekend my wellies saw some snow. Real, honest to gosh, feet and feet of snow. I grew up in the Southern U.S., where it snows once every few years- and then only up to a few inches. Even a slight dusting of snow is considered The Snowpacalypse to us- schools close (yeah!) businesses shut down and anyone brave enough to attempt to drive is taking her life in her hands, as Southern people LOSE OUR MINDS in winter weather. Vehicles in ditches, store shelves cleared of all the milk and bread. You get the picture. We had an antique Radio Flyer sled (called sledges in the UK) that belonged to my grandfather, and on the rare occasion that we could use it, my sisters and brother and I would put on our “snow clothes” and hit the hills. Southerners, who don’t normally own hard core winter clothing, tend to look like homeless bag ladies in the snow. We pile on layers of pyjamas, sweatpants, sweaters, windbreakers and borrowed sock hats. And, not being skilled in the ways of the sled or the ice, someone usually gets hurt- but, never to let a good snow day to go waste, our motto was “It’s not fun unless you almost die!”

As an adult, I vacationed out west a couple of times so have seen real big snow. But snow is still a novelty to me, and since I’ve moved to Scotland, I’m still like that Mississippi kid when even an inch of the white stuff blankets the glen. Being on the coast, we don’t get snow that much. But from the hill behind our house, I love to see the snowy peaks of Ben Cruachan. I had been wanting to actually play in it, so when we finally got a nice weekend, we took a day trip to find the snow.

Glencoe is less than 50 miles north and has had great snow all year. The drive is always beautiful, and even more so among the white topped mountains. Feeling a bit peckish, we went into Glencoe village for a coffee and cake before we hit the slopes. Glencoe Café was the first place we spotted and what a little gem, as it turned out. Adjacent to a B and B, the small yet bright and airy café had a lovely selection of cakes, pastries and light lunches on offer, featuring local produce- and the hosts, Jimmy and Justine, welcomed us warmly. Local art adorned the walls and a couple of shelves of regional gift items such as jams, candles and soaps provided a nice touch. We settled in some comfy seats by a window looking out over the village with the backdrop of mountains and dug into a Lockerbie cheddar and herb scone and a huge slice of lemon cake with latte and tea. The scone was cheese and butter heaven- perfectly light in crumb but rich enough to fortify me until lunch. The frosting on the lemon cake was just tart enough to offset the sweet moistness. Rab declared the latte “creamilicious” and I had to concur. We could have sat for a while enjoying the peace and quiet of this idyllic little café, but there was sledging to be done so we headed up the mountain.

We arrived at Glencoe Mountain Resort a bit after noon and the place was buzzing. We donned our waterproofs and queued for half day lift tickets. There was one lodge at the bottom, with a café and toilet accommodations. The café was full of folks enjoying apres ski tea and snacks. There is a small ski shop next door and changing and shower facilities. The setting is remote and beautiful and the rustic facility fits in perfectly.

I didn’t care about skiing- I am past rusty- and Rab is less than a year after back surgery and while he is fully mobile now, there is no need to go crazy. But the ride up the mountain on the lift was worth the price of the ticket. As you ascend the mountain, the barren brown winter landscape gradually transforms into a winter wonderland.  Icy waterfalls cascade below. There is a peaceful feeling but also excited anticipation of what lies on the other side of the mountain. The ride lasts less than ten minutes then suddenly you crest the hill and arrive in a winter wonderland.

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Surface lifts take skiers and snowboarders further up to the runs but we trekked up. It wasn’t very far but the deep snow made for quite a trudge. A café stands at the top, and beside it, a selection of little plastic sledges free for the borrowing. We found a hill that no one was skiing on and a few folks were already sledding, but it wasn’t crowded and there was plenty of room for the intrepid sledger. Yes, those skiers and snowboarders look so cool whooshing down the mountain, but they couldn’t have been having any more much fun than we were sledging down a bunny slope. Other non-snow sport oriented grown folks like us were giggling and screaming “wheeeeeeeeee!” with abandon. It was like being a kid again.

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After a few runs down the hill, we grew tired from trudging back up and returned our sledges. We would have liked to enjoy a coffee in the café, but it was the size of a water closet and there was a line way out the door. I’m not sure why they would even have such a small café at all. Maybe this was an exceptionally busy time but there certainly weren’t lines for the lifts. At any rate, the afternoon was getting on and we decided to go for lunch.

The Clachaig Inn is a popular stop for Glencoe travellers, with its sign that reads “No hawkers or Campbells.” In 1692, after the Jacobite uprising, members of the clan Campbell accepted the hospitality of the clan McDonald, then massacred them -for the “crime” of not pledging allegiance to William and Mary. This betrayal of one’s guests is known as “murder under trust”- doubly heinous in the eyes of Highlanders, and, by tradition, Campbells are still not welcome. We, however, received kind hospitality and a lovely meal. I got the “Cajun” salmon and chorizo jambalaya, which were surprisingly fairly authentic tasting. This spicy dish definitely warmed me up, and the relaxed atmosphere made for a perfect après sledge.

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My snow itch was well scratched and it was time to head home. We are lucky to live in a place where you can go from the beach to the snowy mountains in an hour, and I look forward to another “snow day” before the season is over, which some are predicting may not be until well into summer. I give my Glencoe Mountain Resort experience three wellies-the facility is so-so but we had a great time.

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