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Monday 27 February 2012

Welsh Cakes....

Today the house is filled with the smell of freshly baked Welsh Cakes and memories of childhood. I am connecting with my "inner baker" this winter and trying various cake recipes old and new.  For various reasons I haven't baked welsh cakes for over 20 years.  The old planc (Welsh for a cast iron baking stone) went rusty years ago and was discarded when I moved to Orkney. This week I bought a new one via Amazon for £15. Oooh my joy when it arrived! When Mick the postman delivered the package he said "I think there's a lump of metal in this" - without even opening it I knew what it was and shrieked "Oooh goody it's arrived!" - his opinion that I am bonkers deepened.

The preparation of a new planc is like a pagan ritual - wash in hot water, bake in the oven for 20 minutes, wash again, then rub in salt and butter and heat on the hob (hotplate) till it goes black, wash again in hot water, and leave to dry.  It still needs much more usage to make it a truly seasoned baking stone but after completing this yesterday I was ready this morning to start on the dough for the welsh cakes.

Most Welsh women will know how to make welsh cakes. The recipe I used was my mother's, an English woman, who learned to bake these iconic cakes from her mother-in-law in South Wales during the War (WWII). She lived with her In-laws while my dad was serving in the RAF.

Back to today - it was a wonderful feeling working the butter into the flour, the softness of the crumbs drew me back down the years. Adding the raisins, sugar, egg and just enough milk to make a soft dough, but not enough to make it sticky... I could hear my mothers voice telling me what to do.  I was pleased with my attempt and cut out the rounds, enough to make 20. I used to make batches of 50, but I was afraid I'd lost the skill so wanted to start small.

The tricky bit was baking them on the planc.  I'd only ever used a plan on an electric hob, so had to try and judge it right on a gas ring.  Three minutes each side, flipping over, moving them around the stone.  The first ones on the plate looked so inviting, but I resisted. I wouldn't eat one till all were done, sprinkled with sugar and then I would make a cup of tea and taste.

I was pleased with how they looked when ready - the test would be eating.  I'd cheated slightly - well adapted the recipe. Instead of using lard and margarine I'd used only butter.  Oooh I think that was an improvement and one that Mum and Granny would have approved of - in their day butter was a real luxury and not used for baking. The taste was worth waiting for. Buttery crumbly texture, juicy raisins, and the sweetness of the sugar all came through. These are best eaten warm from the stove - so I ate three!  Though they are OK eaten just at room temperature, and freeze well too. A little butter spread over them is allowed too....

Not a bad first experiment with my new planc......

Sunday 26 February 2012


Well it's still a little early for Spring but everything is bursting forth.  Above are some delicate crocus - fortunately safely tucked under the trees, nestled in last year's leaves and dead grass.

The willow trees are covered in furry buds too. I do fear for them - a severe wind and the law will be scattered with fluffy buds - I speak from experience.  Though the trees do seem to recover.  Everything is so early due to such a mild (though wet and windy) winter.  When I first visited Orkney in May 1999 the daffodils were still out, along with the summer plants. The winter had been so bad everything was very late.

And here - you are never alone when you have hens......

And this one has gone off alone to rootle around near the shore. You can see we suffer from coastal erosion. About 40 years ago apparently you could drive a tractor past these buildings, now they are slowly slipping onto the shore.

Pier Arts exhibition

I was over on the Orkney Mainland on Thursday so took the opportunity to look at a couple of new exhibitions by artist Rik Hammond. Rik came to Orkney via Hastings, Falmouth, and Hartlepool - he now lives in St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay, one of the linked South Isles.  Rik works in a wide range of media. His own exhibition at the Orkney Museum is of drawings he created between 2010 and 2012.  As you can see from the photo below, Rik is a contemporary artist, working here largely in "abstract". These are drawings using ink, graphite and pencil.  I read one of the comments in the Visitors Book placed on a desk in the exhibition room. "Not for me" was the last comment. Well no it's not for everyone. Rik's work isn't the traditional "representative art". I, however, like abstracts - I can respond to the shape, colour, form, texture. It speaks to me in a way I can't formalise in words.

Rik also had a genius idea of video recording himself creating a series of abstract pictures. The film was speeded up, and just showed the artist's hand, with brush and ink. It was fascinating watching the process (yes, dear reader, even in abstract art there is a process!!).  The film ran for 10 minutes and I watched it,  twice!  Were it not for a lunch appointment I may have watched it again.

Then after lunch I travelled back to Stromness and went to Rik's other exhibition "Being and Remembering" at the Pier Arts Centre. Rik has a short residency in conjunction with the Pier Arts Centre and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology where he has been able to explore visually some of the sites that make up "Neolithic Orkney" including the ongoing dig at the Ness of Brodgar, as well as the Ring of Brodgar. The residency has a web-page "Symbols in a Landscape" where you can see some of the process. As described in the exhibition leaflet, he used his "direct and immediate method of drawing and mark making, as well as his research-led approach". His work ranged from "the traditional landscape to the symbolic, through to the quirky and conceptual."  The picture at the top of this post is of a series of drawings that fit the description of "traditional landscape to symbolic".  I like that the picture is on a corner wall - it makes the landscapes feel more 3 dimensional.

And here below is one of my favourites that most certainly fits into the "quirky and conceptual" bracket!  The "sand-castles" are made out of spoil from the dig at the Ness of Brodgar. Taken at this angle it looks like the castles outside the gallery are either arriving through the hole in the wall, wanting to join with the others, or they are living true to their form of "sand castles" and are escaping and heading back to the beach!

And while you may be feeling like the person who wrote "not for me", bear in mind that during excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, archaeologists uncovered stones that had been painted. Very primitively with blocks of colour, but painted nonetheless.  Maybe neolithic peoples looked at that and thought "Not for me". However we respond to art, we are linked through thousands of years to the Neolithic people in Orkney who daubed some stone with colour. I like that!

Note: And there is a review of this and another exhibition at the Pier Arts here. Gives a bit more info about Rik's exhibition too.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Sunshine and showers....

Mixed weather today - windy this morning, then lunchtime, what weather forecasters call "Sunshine and showers"?  Still quite mild, and lovely that the days are getting longer. Sunset today was 5.30 (though the sun got lost behind the cloud).

Just a "pottering" kind of day today.  Doing some domestic chores, and making a few flapjacks too.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Cold but no snow....

..... to speak of anyway.  Snow showers and showers of tiny white frozen balls that hurt when they hit your face, but no soft snow to crunch underfoot.  Not that I'm complaining really!  I do fear for my plants which had thought it was Spring.  Thee early daffodils are a dwarf variety but are WAY too early. The crocus are so fragile but have so far evaded the wind with protection from the stone dyke behind.

Pretty crocus among the willow trees

Daffodils (narcissi) among the willow trees - these are dwarf daffs - so the snail shell in the foreground isn't a giant one!

Definitely baking weather.  I have returned to my Welsh roots baking Bara Brith. Well I'm only half Welsh, as my father was from Brynamman in South Wales, but I was brought up in a house full of Welsh culture - I still support Wales at Rugby! Sadly I never learned my Dad's native language. For him Welsh was his first language. In a rather poignant story - during his last few hours of consciousness at the end of his life he could only speak Welsh. As you can imagine this was a traumatic experience for him and us, his children, as we found it almost impossible to communicate. There was a bit of a bizarre pantomime with my brother rushing to a phone to try and repeat what Dad had said to a Welsh speaking relative. But it was like Chinese whispers and didn't work very well so we resorted to hand signals. He could understand US but we could not understand him. As you can tell it's something that has stayed with me over the last 20 years. But is an interesting reflection upon how our brains work - bearing in mind he hardly used to speak Welsh after leaving the valleys in the mid 1930s to find work in the south of England.

Anyway in a lighter vein, I've had a go at baking Bara Brith (translated this means speckled bread) - it is often made with yeast and is more of a bread, but I choose the one which is more like a cake (of course - given my passion for Cake).

The recipe is below - I eat it with a little butter spread over it, reminiscent of visiting elderly relatives in Wales for tea on summer holiday visits. I'd be sent up the road to "Frances the Baker's" bakery, knock on the back door and hand over some pennies for a lovely crusty loaf, which would then be sliced wafer thin by Great-Auntie Rachie and spread with Welsh Butter (quite salty), and eaten along with bara brith, and froice (welsh crepes), welsh cakes (more of welsh cakes another day) and accompanied by a strong cup of tea in delicate china cups. I loved watching Great-Uncle Lewis drinking his tea. His knarled miner's fingers would delicately hold the cup and pour the tea into a saucer and then he would drink from the saucer! I would watch round eyed at this, but politeness instilled in me by my parents prevented me ever commenting or indeed asking WHY?!

Bara Brith (note - you need to soak some of the ingredients overnight!).

50g currants
100g sultanas
1 mug strong tea
75g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 teaspoon mixed spice
350g self raising flour, sieved.

1. Soak the currents and sultanas overnight in the tea along with the sugar (warm tea, not too hot).
2. Line a buttered loaf tin with parchment and preheat the oven to 150C/Gas mark 2 (reduce heat a bit for fan ovens).
3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the fruit mixture and stir. Add the flour along with the mixed spice. Turn into prepared tin in a preheated oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool in the tin and turn out to cool completely.
4. Enjoy!

Friday 17 February 2012

Around Graemsay

Here are some more photos taken on my journey around Graemsay on the way home from town last week. bove is a closer view of Hoy High. The island in the background is Flotta which has the oil terminal and also a wind turbine (you can just see the three blades of the turbine to the right of the lighthouse).

And here is the other lighthouse on Graemsay - Hoy Low, with the lookout tower and searchlight huts dating from WWII. Just in the foreground of the lookout tower is the base of the old gun.

Here are the houses and small crofts at the foot of Ward Hill on the island of Hoy.

Back on Graemsay this is the old kirk (now a barn), with the kirkyard attached (still in use), and the road leading up over the island. The derelict croft of Dean is just above the kirk on the left. Kirk Services (Church of Scotland) would have been held every Sunday here, with folk in their "Sunday Best" walking down the road to the kirk.  Nowadays any services are held in our community hall on the other side of the island.

More old crofts on the island.

This is Scarratain, with a traditional turf roof. Now uninhabited and some of the buildings are very nearly in the sea. Coastal erosion is ever present.

Along the shore here is (just out of shot to the left, Clett), then Crookshouse, Windbreck (on the hill), Scarratain near the shore, and Hoy High Lighthouse to the right, with just in front of it, the derelict house of Moan.

And here ends the sail around Graemsay! Hope you enjoyed it.

Monday 13 February 2012

Diving in Scapa Flow

Noooo - not ME!  But I found this short film via Orkney Live on Facebook and thought I'd share it with you.

Scapa Flow is very popular because of the various wrecks that were deliberately sunk here during the wars - some as part of the scuttling of the German Fleet and some to block the movement of U-Boats, while the British Naval Fleet was anchored here. These later ships were often known as "Block Ships" and some stood just above the water line. There was one off Graemsay right up until a few years ago when it sank below the water line.  More on the ships here and here.  Any ship where there was a loss of life, such as the "Royal Oak" are war graves and diving is forbidden.

The film starts with the journey of  a group of divers last September from Germany, arriving in Scrabster then across to Stromness, which is the heart of the tourism diving industry in Orkney.  There is some film down among the wrecks, lovely undersea flora and fish; a visit to the Scapa Flow Museum; and then a stunning few minutes footage of diving with seals!

Sunday 12 February 2012

Journey home from Stromness

I've had a sociable weekend. Friday night we had a quiz night on the island. A number of folk couldn't make it, but there were enough for two teams - I was in the team that lost - by one point! It was a fun night and Irene of Breckan did well as Quiz-Mistress.  Daphne of the Manse had decided we'd have pancakes in the interval as it was the only event we would have near Shrove Tuesday (still a couple of weeks away). So she made delicious pancakes served up with a generous helping of sugar and lemon juice. I had two - yum!

Then Saturday evening I went over to Stromness for a "night out"! A few of us were getting together at a friend's to watch a DVD of the film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and I had volunteered to collect the fish suppers (fish and chips) from the van at the harbour. It's very popular (Peedie Chippie) and there was quite a queue, but it's well worth the wait. The batter on the fish is very light and melts in your mouth. The film was good too, though I think it helped because I'd read the book AND seen the TV series with Alec Guinness.

This morning it was back home on the boat. Sometimes returning home means a sail round via Hoy and that was the case today. But it was a beautiful morning so I didn't mind.  The photo at the top of this post is of Hoy High Lighthouse - the one next to my house. The light was stunning.

Below the boats and town were reflected in the water in the harbour.

The sun on the sea

A rain shower over the Hoy Hills

And coming round again to Hoy High lighthouse and the Graemsay pier

Thursday 9 February 2012


I took this photo yesterday as I was on the "early" boat to Stromness. This was taken at 0810. It was a beautiful sunrise, though later in the day the wind got up and it rained...a lot.... again......

The fulmars seem oblivious to the weather. Usually they nest on high cliffs, but they seem quite happy with there low rise abode on Graemsay!

Meanwhile I spent some time on the other side of the water in Orphir (visiting Mrs OrkneyFlowers), looking back at Graemsay (yes I know I got window reflection - it was cold, wet and windy and I was NOT going outdoors to take this photo!). It's descriptive not artistic ;-)

Monday 6 February 2012

More chickens.....

....than I know what to do with!  And NONE of them are laying any EGGS!  (Well if they are they are well hidden)....sigh. I even had to buy some eggs the other day.  I need to explain the deal again to the, shelter, free range in return for the odd egg.....  As you can see they are eager to greet me for their morning rations!  In windy weather it's a bit hazardous going out to feed them as, although they are "in flight" they are rather ungainly, especially with a tail wind. Well wouldn't you be!  And this young "chook" is very cheeky, ready to fly into the feed bin as soon as I take the lid off!

The "flock" love to wander around the front of the house in the sun, rootling around in the undergrowth or on the lawn.

The other day Irene of Breckan spotted an interloper among the flock - an oyster-catcher!  Maybe s/he has heard about the aforementioned deal and realises I'm a soft touch - all will be provided even without the provision of eggs.....

Beautiful day here again today. While the rest of the UK seems to be freezing, we had 7 degree C temperatures of temperature (that's about 46F). But in the sunshine it was much warmer. I even stood outside leaning against the door frame, in my t-shirt, to enjoy my morning "cuppa" (cup of tea).  Lovely!  And the daffs (daffodils) are really quite early this year, though these ARE a miniature and quite early variety.. Another aspect of the mild winter.  I remember the first time I visited Graemsay in May 1999 the daffs were giving a fine display as they were late that year. I noted that winter clearly stayed around longer than "south".

Note - and the days are getting longer! Sunrise today was at 0809, and sunset at 1643! Whoo hooo!

Sunday 5 February 2012

In the company of hens and cat.....

Today has been a lovely day, just a breeze (no really, just a breeze), sunshine and, unlike most of the rest of the country, No Snow!  So I made the most of the day with a walk to the beach for a little solitary ruminating on life... well it would have been solitary had I not been pursued by the chickens and shadowed by Button! Still they were well behaved and good company and we all enjoyed "taking the air".

Button, keeping both eyes wide open for the hens with their pecky beaks!

Here the hens are enjoying rootling around the seaweed. All adds to the flavour of the eggs!

I did begin to feel a bit like the "Pied Piper" though with them all following me.

They were determined not to lose sight of me.....

Button made it home before me

And of course a nap was in order upon return.....for some! I had domestic duties to perform and a cake to bake!