Box of Delights

Organic Veg Box
Organic Veg Box

The red van draws up by the kitchen window, and I know something is about to be delivered.  The excitement of a parcel arriving never dulls for me.  Before you protest, I don’t have a rampant internet shopping habit, it’s simply that I live in what the census would describe as ‘an isolated rural hamlet’, and the niceties of shopping civilisation are a long drive away.

Of all the things that arrive, the Friday delivery is my favourite.  I can’t wait to rip off the tape and reveal the goodies inside.  It might surprise you, if you don’t know me, to note that it is not clothes, shoes, household furnishings, or indeed, any commodity that might generally be thought to inspire glee, but rather a box of freshly picked, mostly UK grown, organic fruit and veg! As I peel back the tape and the prise open the cardboard and packaging, it feels like Christmas; even though I obviously know what I’ve ordered, the suspense is palpable.

Before you consign this article to the bin -though I would rather the compost heap- let me explain further.  This time of year is not known for its wondrous abundance of fresh fruit and veg – most of the root veg are stored over winter, and there’s certainly no local fruit about, however, we are just beginning to see the first peeps of asparagus, and the blush of the first rhubarb; and purple sprouting broccoli –vastly superior to calabrese, in my view, the bog standard green broccoli on sale in supermarkets- is coming on stream, a saviour in the gap between the winter veg and spring greens.  New season Scottish carrots are making an appearance, and the cauliflowers are superb.  The local herb growers are producing the first bunches of the year, and this week I allowed myself a treat of the first lot of artichokes (albeit from Italy).

As I solicitously unpack this seasonal cornucopia, my mind starts racing with all manner of meal ideas, tasty treats and recipes.  The delectable artichokes will be devoured for lunch tomorrow, with a garlic and herb oil, and maybe some bread, plucked leaf by leaf, until the prize of heart is discovered, and divvied up for dunking; the cauli and coriander will make a delightfully fragrant curry along with store cupboard chickpeas, and the rhubarb, of course, will make a healthy, oaty crumble.  The possibilities are endless, and my imagination takes flight!

I generally get a local organic veg box each week from The Natural Vegetable Company, but this is only available when I can collect it from town – an 80 mile round trip which is unjustifiable when I’m not at work.  Otherwise, my Friday order from Real Foods is the norm.  The company has been established for 50 years, and excels at supplying fresh local organic veg from their Edinburgh store.  Although they do stock some imported items, their extensive fruit and veg list is based largely on UK suppliers, often local, so the list is predominantly seasonal.  For me, this is what makes the deliveries so exciting: the first rhubarb and asparagus, the last of the Seville oranges – for a whole year- and when the time is right we will get the first strawberries and Scottish raspberries.  It’s inspiring.  The same can’t be said of the supermarket fruit and veg aisle, and whilst I won’t make this a ‘bash the supermarket’ moment, there is no way they can compete with the freshness and vitality of this calibre of fresh produce.  You will see exotic items from all over the globe, no doubt, but the quality is dubious –even though they may be the same shape and size- and the flavour is always a disappointment.  A strawberry ‘fresh’ from a plastic punnet, is nothing like a ripe, un-refrigerated berry, carefully packed and rapidly shipped to the dribbling-mouthed recipient.  For organic veg you will probably find that the price of a box from a local box scheme, or a local supplier, or farm shop selling their own produce, is very favourable compared to supermarket equivalents, and very often cheaper. 

I would encourage you to give an organic veg box scheme a go.  If you live in Scotland you can order from Real Foods, though if you’re concerned about food miles try a local scheme.  Other national suppliers include Abel and Cole, and Riverford, both of whom I can recommend.  Give it a go, and you could soon have your own box of delights racing its way to your door!

The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.

Bottoms Up!

Dave and Si Sumo Hugh with Salmon 

I think there must be some trend at large that until now, I have been unaware of.  It concerns the antics of men of a certain age, or to be more precise, male cooks of a certain age, who appear on TV.

My TV viewing repertoire is generally limited to programmes about food, horticulture, and some drama.  I’m not fussed about ‘reality TV’, soaps, sex or violence, although please note that I am no prude, and will see just about anything live on stage no matter what the ‘material of an adult nature’. 

I do like a good cooking programme though, especially if there are some cultural elements involved, or a type of cuisine I would like to experiment with, so the recent series, Skandimania, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure have hit the mark on   both counts.  What has perplexed me about these programmes is the inclination of these presenters to get their kit off, especially as I’m usually eating my dinner when the programmes air!  The sight of Mr FW’s bare bottom easing into an outdoor tub, or Mr Myers and Mr King in the altogether, dipping into an Asian Jacuzzi, is not my idea of tea-time viewing pleasure.  Apologies chaps, I have nothing against your nudity per se, but I do object to bare bottoms when I’m eating (and in fact I’m not sure I want to see those particular bare bottoms at any stage).  I don’t think I’m being ageist, anti-chefist, or have stereotypical ideas of what the human body should conform to, I just don’t want to see bare bottoms – anybody’s bare bottom to be honest- when I’m chomping on my tofu and mung beans!

So, more interesting cooking shows please, but less flesh!

And it seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed; another blogger has made reference to Dave and Si’s propensity to get their kit off, here: http://slowrisinglifeform.blogspot.co.uk/  graced with a lovely cartoon