Barnacles and Bones

I've heard good things about Barnacles and Bones, in the old police box at the Tram Stop Market. The tag line 'Bringing British shellfish and obscure cuts of meat to the plate' is a winner for me.

So on the first properly frigid day of the year, we decided our self-imposed ban on Saturday lunches out in November didn't include those eaten standing up.

I immediately regretted ordering the crab because: cold, but it was creamy and crabby and went so well on a bed of hot tarragon fries. I don't know what was in the slaw but it was something super-tasty too.

The husband and I were sharing the crab and a short rib beef, only I hate sharing with him because he is always forlorn and hungry afterwards and then I feel like I have divided unfairly. This may have something to do with him being 6'7" and built like a barn door and me being 5'8" and not. Also, I am an only child....

Anyway, the beef and salsa verde - or whatever it was on top - were lovely, and we bickered over the pickings. Barnacles and Bones will be at the new Pitt Street Market over Christmas too. And you get a free dog bone with every purchase...

The Edible Forest Garden Matures

Six years since we started planting it, the garden is finally starting to resemble an edible forest, with the problem areas falling into line. Or rather, not falling into line.

This area was too shady and then - following the removal of leylandii - too sunny for the shade-lovers I'd put in. It's settling down now and the blueberries, blaeberries and lingonberries are deciding who can tough it out for the long-haul and who can't. The ramsons haven't done as well as I'd hoped but the ferns have, and the bloody sorrel likes it far too much. This year I used the annual cuttings from the one existing leylandii as mulch around the berry bushes to save money on ericaceous compost, but I should check the ph next year and see if it actually has any effect.

The bed in front, which held Jerusalem artichokes last year but cast too much shade, has thrived and provided kale, tons of chard, perpetual spinach, nasturtiums and even some violas.

My aim for next year is to add as many flowers as possible (keeping to my colour palette) and I have sown foxgloves all over. They're poisonous rather than edible but long-tongued bumblebees love them.

The transplanted crab apple has survived and shown no sign of scab.

The side garden was long-neglected and still has a look of the allotment about it, but luckily I like allotments. The Jerusalem artichokes are now covering the ugly back wall (left) and there is so much rhubarb that we are planning some cottage industry for next spring. I have completely ignored the pond - and the disappearance of its plants - but I want to put a water lily in it next year so I am going to have to do some reading and address its murky greenness.

The strawberry monoculture has been broken but it is also apparent that the formal training of fruit trees (or anything - from dogs to students - frankly) is not my forte. Again, more reading and some remedial work is necessary.

But overall: not bad progress.

A Hug from a Badger

November is all fire and remembering.

Summer holidays seem as long ago as postcards and even the zombie wedding dress has been packed away for another year, the guisers' fun-size (sorry, Death) Snickers binged upon.

The deep-fried Nutella fest that is the German Christmas Market has yet to transform every errand run into a sugared-tinsel frenzy and it is still wholly unacceptable to drink alcohol in the am.

There is no money and it is cold.

We have cut subscription television services and turned down the thermostat.

Channel 4 and chill.

Good thing then, that G and I had paid upfront - in those heady, solvent summer months - for dinner at the crowd-funded Edinburgh Food Studio. (I don't know if I've mentioned it at any point but I had a landmark birthday earlier this year, as did G.) BRING ON THE FEASTING!

I should apologise for a) the unseemly relapse into taking [terrible] photos of my food which was triggered by b) knowing I would fail to recollect exactly what I was eating because I was talking to G instead of my husband. The different being that, over dinner, my husband and I talk almost exclusively about the food whereas when I am with G, whom I see less often, we first have to catch up on other important issues like our advance attack plan (stage 1: budgeting) for next year's Book Festival. So last night I briefly became like the couples in good restaurants that make me gasp and mouth to my husband, 'Why aren't they talking about the food??'. (My husband is possibly asking himself why I too am not gazing into his eyes adoringly and counting the ways I love him rather than the offal. To be fair, many of the ways I love him are based on his osso bucco so he's only got himself to blame.) Anyway, it was opening night, G and I had a long table to ourselves and it was a singularly lovely thing to be able to hear each other talk and not knock over anyone else's wine glass. And there was, of course, discussion of the food, just not to the usual anatomical, anthropological and etymological degree that cements every ingredient in my memory.

This was easy though: carrots, three ways. A big, purple, slow-roasted, pig fatty one, yellow pickled ones and crispy bits. All delicious and made me think of what I (my husband) might be able to do with the skirret in the garden.

Then there was a nice piece of plaice which has escaped having its picture taken because I clearly decided to eat it immediately from which I can only conclude that it was very good.

Next: a bowl of wintery roots and hedgehog mushrooms, under charred leek. (If I don't have to google at least one ingredient, I haven't come to the right restaurant.) This was like a big, warm hug from Badger in The Wind in the Willows when he is being sympathetic to Mole and less gruff than usual.

Then 'something-something-something-something SMOKED OVER COBNUT HUSKS something-something*'. I am obsessed with cobnuts. Legend has it because I was suckled on their milk**. Roasting and smoking things over edible prunings and trimmings from the garden is something I want (my husband) to do in 2016. It tasted of sexy Buddhist anarchists overthrowing a stately home on Bonfire Night. Which is delicious.

*partridge, girolle?, blackberries (devil's-piss-free), puree of turmericcy(that's in Essex)-cauliflower?
**sadly this is a legend I started myself, last year.

Pudding was really cool: a golden raspberry and herb ice-cream sandwich in a sesame tuile.

To finish, a lovely little macaroon - one of my favourite confections - which, I was to learn, is traditionally made with my most loathed food on the planet: mashed potato. This is the second time Ben Reade has made me love mashed potato.

Restaurants like this have me wishing I had a more lucrative career than that of amateur lady poetess and volunteer ESOL tutor, so I could eat there all the time and ensure they remain open. Money is often wasted on those who don't even need bone marrow. (I feel like Don missed this out of his book of aphorisms.) Ben and Sashana have plans for lots of fantastic events in addition to dinners and I hope they are enormously successful.

This was, officially, my last celebration of a birthday I have drawn out for nine months, thanks to the generosity of my aforementioned, long-suffering, husband. And the Christmas Market opens tomorrow!

G. has complained that I didn't mention the exceptionally good bread - straight from the oven. This is because I am in carb-dodger denial about the fact I ate at least five slices of it and my jeans won't button up this morning. Likewise, I was trying to pretend I didn't have the locally-made Kitsch cucumber and fennel soda*** due to the blanket ban on sugary drinks in our house (that and eating crows...) so thanks for outing me to my kids. Lastly: apparently there was pumpkin and elderberry capers with the plaice BECAUSE G. WAS CONCENTRATING. But not hard enough to remember the 65° EGG YOLKS which just came back to me, eh? EH?

***Economising aside, we would have drunk champagne, pour la France, but G. was cycling...

Quince in Scotland II

The quince is my favourite tree in the garden. It's the tallest, having been gifted from the start - unlike my other favourite, the crab apple - as much sunlight as Scotland can offer, sufficient space and just enough sea breeze to produce by far the thickest trunk of the dozen fruit trees we've planted here. I still never expected it to fruit. I am Eeyore in a Tigger suit - I bounce around the garden prophesying the death of everything in it. The second year - the year Scotland had its first summer in living memory - we got three and a half quince and I was amazed at this once in a lifetime event. The year after we got eight. This year we got sixty-four. Vranja for the win.

Of course, as is traditional chez nous, the harvest took place in the dark at 6am on the morning of the first gales in October, with me in my underwear, frantically trying to gather the fruit before it was flung into the Firth of Forth by the winds.

Most were ripe, some still quite furry.

Like last year, at least half - and all the largest fruit - were split.

Nigel Slater has said this often and I am in complete agreement: it is worth growing, or even just buying, quince for their perfume alone. I keep a couple on the table just to scent the room, and the garage - home of paint tins and cat litter - smells like the most decadent boudoir.

The unsplit fruit have been roasted with meat, to which they give a delicious Middle Eastern sweetness,

or poached in syrup to be served hot with vanilla ice-cream

(Kids! Do you dream of being forty and still eating off chipped Ikea365 plates under Ikea rice paper lampshades? Then study hard for your honours degree in creative writing!)

and cold with [full-fat] Greek yoghurt the next day.

The split ones were made into quince cheese (membrillo) and jelly to eat with cheese and ham. 

The membrillo had to go into jars for lack of anything else suitable to contain it, but it should be sliced, not spooned.

One of the mysteries of quince - to me, at least - is how the pale yellow fruit turns ruby when cooked. One of the mysteries of our garden is why the Blenheim Orange produces just one apple a year. It is, admittedly, quite a large one (wildcat for scale). I'm hoping hanging out with the quince might inspire a sense of competition in it.

Back to the Gardener's Cottage

There is something very civilised about a candelit breakfast, especially somewhere as dark as autumnal Edinburgh.

In yet another joint celebration of fortiethness, an old friend and I had a wonderful day of long riverside walks between breakfast at The Gardener's Cottage, afternoon tea at Patisserie Madeleine in Stockbridge and dinner at Ting Thai Caravan (the latter being too cool to have a website or take bookings/cards etc...)

This was my second visit to The Gardener's Cottage and just as lovely as the first a couple of years ago. A cooked breakfast featuring black pudding, greens, hazelnuts, brioche and eggs Hollandaise can't really fail, can it? The Virgin Mary with beetroot juice was godly too. My friend had a huge Arbroath smokie, poached egg and greens: a veritable health spa on a plate.

And I learnt that you can make elderberry capers!

Unfortunately I am nearing the end of the food fest that was my fortieth year, but I will be bringing my husband here - and for dinner this time - when he hits fifty, which is sooner than he would like...

Le Chat Noir

I feel it is my duty to report that I have been to a cat cafe.

Before Christmas there was crowd-funding for a cat cafe featuring rescue cats from Edinburgh Cat and Dog Home that needed adopting. I promised my younger son a visit as a Christmas present because, despite the fact we have two cats and our neighbourhood is home to another 7 million or so, he can't get enough of felines (hence highlights of our holidays in Crete and Rome were feeding our gyros leftovers to litters of kittens and visiting the cat shelter in the ruins of 

However, by October it still didn't seem to have opened and several people we knew had been to another. I was skeptical because the cats therein were both non-rescues and pedigrees and I don't usually support either, but I paid up the hourly fee and tried to be open-minded.

The cats were beautiful. Like us, all our friends have moggies in various states of decay so I've never actually met Norwegian Forest cats, Bengals, Maine Coons and Ragdolls before (and can I just say: let's not ever name any living thing after a child's toy, eh?). They were really, really pretty. I was especially enamoured of the huge Maine Coons with their feathered paws like silkie chickens. I can see why people want them. But I'm not a fan of buying animals from breeders while there are hundreds of thousands of unwanted ones in rescue.

Maybe the cat cafe offers an alternative fix. For me it didn't really work because I prefer being in close proximity to strange cats than strange people and there were just too many people there. I grew up with dogs but soon learnt from cat lovers that you never go to a cat, you let a cat come to you. At the cafe, nearly all of the cats were sleeping and soon surrounded by visitors. Luckily, my son was very happy with a gorgeous Norwegian Forest kitten who jumped onto his lap, because every other feline stayed as far away as possible. And that, actually, was the best thing about the cafe for me: the whole place is full of high walkways and tunnels where cats can both escape and perform a wide range of natural movement. Even the human furniture is hollow, for hiding in, or scratchable. It made me realise how little we cater to cats' needs in our homes, particularly those which house multiple cats, dogs or small children, from whom it is so important to have inaccessible feline escape routes and beds. But usually we just expect cats to cope with human-scale interior design.

We've been having some problems with my rescue black cat, Billy No Mates, who has been living up to his name in a long term impasse outside the neighbour cats' back door, which is stressing out all concerned. I've always been torn when it comes to cats: I can't imagine one being kept inside permanently any more than I can imagine a dog never being allowed to go outside. Sunshine! Grass! Trees! But with cats there is also: Killing Birds! Neighbour Conflict! Getting Hit By a Car! etc. Billy No Mates is ten now and has never been a hunter, just a stealer of other cats' food. His favourite thing in the world other than food is playing fetch with his daddy's Xtra Strong Mint wrappers. So, inspired by the cat cafe fittings, I've been trying to make the house more cat-friendly and keeping him inside more. I'm awaiting delivery of a cat tree although every other toy I've bought so far has been disdainfully ignored (then stolen by the ferret), except for the lovely 'rare breed wool' ones which are immediately and enthusiastically shredded. But he's eating half of his food from a Kong instead of a bowl and I've taught him to do one trick for treats so far. Mainly he has become my little black shadow again, like when he was a kitten.

A couple of days after the visit to the cafe, I was in the area again having a pumpkin spice ice-cream and hot chocolate float with a visiting friend at the lovely Mary's Milk Bar (great ice-cream, unusual chocolates, castle views),

and took her past the cat cafe windows to show her. My god. If I had thought it somewhat odd to be inside, then from the outside it looks like ABSOLUTE MADNESS. Gangs of grown adults were crawling around on their hands and knees in pursuit of fleeing cats who, when finally cornered, were ritually poked with 'toys'. It was like some bizarre art installation commenting on the cult of celebrity. But maybe I am just lucky to never have known what the throes of cat deprivation can drive a person to?

UPDATE: Cats are disdainful of cat tree.

UPDATE: Cats now OBSESSED with cats tree and seldom off it.


One of my life goals, when I turned forty, was to stop inciting expressions of awe from waiting staff at the magnitude of my food orders, such as:

'Wow, you must be really hungry!'
'Are you sure? Because that is a LOT of food.'
'You're just bad, aren't you?'
*snorting noise* (This with regard to the Diet Coke I asked for with my burger, Cajun fries, dip, battered onions rings, slaw, giant pickle etc.)
'But you've ordered more desserts than there are people!'

Whilst I enjoy pandering to these admiring comments like a performing seal ('Throw me MORE fish! Arf! Arf!'), and have usually walked five miles to the restaurant and will walk five miles home again so am justified in my appetite, it's nice if there is room on the table for the other person's food too, no? Also I am not forty every year and thus need to accustom myself to less celebratory portions again, in the absence of being paid a regular wage for my midlife crisis poetry.

I thought I was doing pretty well, especially with sweets - I now split my favourite rosewater sorbet at the lovely Hanam's three ways - until the nice lady in The Chocolate Tree remarked, 'How decadent!' when I bought a single sandalwood truffle to go on top of my scoop of their chocolate sorbet (which is hands down the best frozen dessert in the world by the way and, yes, I have been to Italy several times.) See also: the chocolate hazelnut ├ęclair with chaser of chocolate macaron at Patisserie Madeleine the other day. The latter I had to actually chase up since no-one could believe I was ordering two cakes - quelle horreur! - instead of one and three forks. In my defense, it was the first patisserie I had had in nine months and I couldn't choose.

Perhaps I should accept that what I save on petrol I need to spend on pudding?

Dark Mornings

If I had a houseful of my favourite animals, it would be a murder business.

Wildlife Hospital: First Aid

Alors, I have been once again on a wildlife hospital training course and, on this occasion, I took my husband. He was slightly nervous, like the time I took him to meet our lovely humanist wedding celebrant and he was worried he'd have to renounce Christ three times. On both occasions, I am happy to report, tea and biscuits were served and there was no wrangling with The Beast.

He did have to pick up a swan though. We all did. 

We were rewarded with a tame fox cub

and a seal pup.
I also got to look down a herring gull's throat and meet dozens of pipistrelle bats, a barn owl...

and a bald hedgehog.

We took four non-bald hedgehogs away with us to rerelease at my friend V's beautiful farm in Ayrshire, under the superbloodmoon. 

Comrie Croft: Not Just For Mountain Bikers

Comrie Croft has some great little mountain bike trails but it isn't only a campsite for the sort of person who takes their bike to bed with them.

There is plenty for their non-wheeled loved ones.

My bestie turned forty just after me, and ten of us went for the weekend to celebrate with frothing mugs of prosecco and grilled steaks in the High Meadow.

 There are no photos of this because I was incapable it was dark. We missed the aurora borealis by a day but the stars were incredible. Like the permanently blue skies above the clouds that you only see from planes, I forget all those stars are there, plainly visible, away from the city glare. It's so important to be reminded. They made visiting the compost toilets in the night well worth the excursion. 

What I mainly want from camping is to have no one or thing man-made in my field of vision or hearing, except for my tent, because the payoff for eschewing a hot bath and down duvet is perfect solitude and natural beauty. I want to be able to sleep wherever my legs tell me the day's hike needs to end and I don't want to pay for the privilege. Ideally, I want to cook freshly gathered mussels on a driftwood fire. But there are other kinds of camping: there's just wanting to get together with friends, outdoors; there's desperately needing to lure your thirteen year old away from screens for a weekend. Both of these are only made possible by easily accessible locations, hot showers, phone charging lockers and limited wi-fi - all things you might want to hike a mile from under less sociable circumstances.

Most of the camping I've done has also been on foot or public transport which is worthy and righteous but, after twenty-two years and counting as a car-free adult, I now value the times I have access to a grown up with a driving license and a vehicle. It enables the transportation of French presses and catering-size blackberry and plum crumbles made the night before from the glut of garden fruit and eaten cold for breakfast.

Add to this, the further luxury of an undercover open air tea garden and we were still very happy campers despite a day of heavy rain.

Because everyone knows survival against the elements requires a few of these little essentials, like condiments and garnishes.

And forget baked beans - for any nights when you've left it too late to wait for the embers for grilling meat or cooking camp toasties on the fire, rucksack-forbiddingly heavy jars of Polish bigos, pulpety and fasolka on the Trangia are the thing when weight doesn't matter.

You still have to have a fire though. Always a fire.

Maybe it was the weather or the fact that coffee-drinking hikers were heavily outnumbered by tea-drinking bikers, but I did virtually no walking at all. I average about ten miles a day in my city life and, for the first time in months, my post-tibial tendonitis eased up and I stopped fretting about problems and concentrated on the small, pressing tasks of fire and food. I love this about camping.

We did walk around the short site trails

and into nearby Comrie,

past a few of Perthshire's big trees, but Ben Chonzie will have to wait. It's probably not going anywhere.

My menfolk and I stayed a day longer than everyone else

and woke to thick mist

that sank into the valley revealing blue skies and sunshine.

Next time I want to camp on one of the lovely woodland pitches that make it easier to pretend you're not on a campsite. My family have already complained they are too dark/midgey/scary but I thought they were utterly perfect.

They are full of ferns and streams and bats and PINE MARTENS.

There are also nordic katas with wood-burning stoves and sheepskin beds for the winter. 
I wanted to stay.