Stevie WilliamsComment

The Trip to Mull

Stevie WilliamsComment
The Trip to Mull

Mull in the Oxford Dictionaries:

 

(verb) Think about (a fact, proposal, or request) deeply and at length.

 

(verb) Warm (an alcoholic drink, especially wine or beer) and add sugar and spices to it.

 

(noun) Humus formed under non-acid conditions.

 

(proper noun) A large island of the Inner Hebrides; chief town, Tobermory. It is separated from the coast of Scotland near Oban by the Sound of Mull.

 

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Field trip to the Isle of Mull:

 

Friday 20th October

 

On Friday, we left Edinburgh in the evening, heading straight for dinner at Mhor 84, a restaurant and motel in Balquhidder. They source much of their food from their farm at Monachyle Mhor, and have a sister bakery and fish café in Callender.

 

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Fabulous dinner of Aberfeldy wood pigeon, baby beetroot, black pudding purée and Balquidder chanterelles; Isle of Skye langoustines with saffron aioli; and Monachyle pork chop, chorizo and chickpea stew, savoy cabbage, and three-mustard dressing:

We then headed to Crianlarich Youth Hostel for a night in bunk beds.

 

 

Saturday 21st October

 

The following morning, we headed straight out for breakfast in Tyndrum at the Real Food Café, where we set ourselves up for the day with plenty of coffee and various combinations of sausage, black pudding, bacon and egg in rolls.

 

After travelling through Glen Coe, we boarded the Corran Ferry for a quick hop across Loch Linnhe. We were greeted on the other side by some families running a bake sale, which of course we supported with great enthusiasm.

 

 

Next, we carried on to Ardtornish Estate in Morvern, run by Hugh and Jane Raven. Hugh spoke to us about the history of the estate and how the poor soil and climate have affected the land use. Prior to the Highland clearances, kelp was harvested, in particular for soap- and glassmaking, oak was coppiced for charcoal, and the land was also used for subsistence farming. In the early eighteenth century, the potato arrived as a crop, causing a huge rise in population. At this time, there were around 2500 people living in Morvern, in comparison to the current population of around 330. Patrick Sellar was responsible for the clearances in this area, coming to Morvern in the 1840s and making money from sheep farming in order to buy the Ardtornish Estate. Sheep and shepherds were brought up from the south, and today the fourth generation of the Laurie family are still working at Ardtornish.

 

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Hugh explained that in the 1880s, refrigerated transport was introduced, meaning it was cheaper to bring over carcasses from Australia and New Zealand. He said that the only two times in the last 100 years that a profit has been made from sheep at Ardtornish was during the First and Second World Wars. During the 1800s, there was a change in land use to keeping red deer and cattle. Queen Victoria started the fashion for hunting deer after buying Balmoral and using it as a hunting estate. Incidentally, she looked at a house in the Morvern area, but was put off by the midges and rain. The rich began buying sporting estates for holidaying, as well as fishing for salmon and trout. Many Highland estates were sold not just by size, but also by the number of deer you could shoot on it per year.

 

The landscape at Ardtornish, bought by the current family in the 1930s, was greatly affected by human use. Hugh and Jane are trying hard to work with the land and the community in order to make the estate more sustainable. They are reducing the number of deer in accordance with recommendations from Fauna & Flora International. They are also reducing numbers of sheep and cattle, and focussing on quality rather than quantity. Animals are sent to the slaughterhouse on Mull, before being sold locally. As well as renting out rooms at the estate, Hugh and Jane are building 22 new houses to encourage young families to come to the area. They are also generating energy from hydropower, via an Archimedes screw turbine on the estate, which at the moment is sold to the grid, however they would like to find a way to make sure it can go directly to the local community.

 

Jane prepared a fantastic lunch of pea and black pudding soup, plus an array of sandwiches, which we ate before going on a walk around the estate. As well as seeing the Archimedes screw and their biomass boiler, we looked at the kitchen garden and the bothy by the side of the natural and artificial lochs that provide the water power. We then drove down to the harbour to join Jane at The Whitehouse Restaurant, which she runs separately to the estate with a business partner.

 

 

From the restaurant, we caught the ferry over to the Isle of Mull and drove to Arle Lodge, where we would be staying for the next three nights.

 

After drying out, we were treated to a wonderful dinner made by our travelling chef, Lesley Gillespie, who is also an alumnus of the Gastronomy course. First, we were introduced to Rachel Hammond of Hammond Charcuterie, who prepared a spectacular board of cured meats, including nduja and prosciutto. Following a bowl of warming broth with bread and two butters (for comparison), Lesley presented us with three types of venison to try: wild red deer, farmed red deer and wild roe deer.  A show of hands saw roe deer as the overall winner, with a stronger flavour than the farmed venison but subtler taste than the gamey wild red deer. After a dessert of stewed apples with ice cream and a crumble biscuit, and a wee dram or two, we were ready to hit the hay.

 

 

Sunday 22nd October

 

On Sunday morning, after a breakfast of porridge and toast with whisky marmalade, we headed off to the Mull Slaughterhouse. The community-owned abattoir is a key part of the food industry on and around Mull, and almost every person we visited during our trip spoke about how important it is to their business. Prior to the opening of the abattoir, animals would be taken off the island to be slaughtered, before being brought back to Mull to be sold. Having a slaughterhouse on the island puts the community back in control of their produce.

 

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Ardalanish Weavers was our next stop. Both a farm and a weaving mill, Ardalanish uses wool from their Hebridean sheep, as well as that from Shetland and Max Loaghtan breeds brought in mainly from the Highlands and Islands. The fleece is processed in Yorkshire before being brought back to be woven on the 1920s and 1950s looms. Although much of the wool is used in its natural state, some are dyed with natural dyes from plants onsite. The weavers are also the designers, with the designs very much inspired by the landscape. For example, one pattern has been influenced by the mottled colours of the Mull granite. We got quite excited in the shop and almost everyone made a purchase. I chose a scarf with wool from all three breeds of sheep, the colour of which is named Bùrach, after the Gaelic word meaning ‘mess’.

 

 

Next, we headed to the coast to pick up our dinner. Neil Jardine of Iona Seafood provided us with an abundance of crabs, lobsters, and velvet crabs, plus pollock and coley, which we would be preparing later. He spoke to us about his passion for fishing, and about the anticipation of pulling up a creel to see what lies inside.

 

 

After loading up the minibuses with our seafood feast, we visited Nigel and Rosie Burgess at their croft at Taigh Foise. Firstly, Nigel, who also works in renewable energy and looks after several wind turbines on the island, gave us a tour of the croft, which he said in the past would have been rented by three separate families. The land is rocky and harsh, but Nigel and Rosie have managed to make the land work for them by keeping sheep and chickens, growing fruit and vegetables, and harnessing wind and solar energy to power their house. They use traditional and organic principles in their farming, and their main fertilisers are seaweed and manure. Nigel took great pleasure in telling us about the bronze fork he uses on the soil, which was made according to the principles of Viktor Schauberger, similar to the ideas behind anthroposophy and biodynamics, that cultivating the soil with copper is beneficial to its nutrient content. Although there is a lot of unusable land on the plot and it is a rough landscape, Nigel said he feels a sense of deep spirituality about the place and enjoys being closer to the origins of his food and energy.

 

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Rosie then showed us around the garden and the shop, where they sell produce from the plot, meat and wool from their sheep, as well as local bread and organic store-cupboard goods that they order in. The sheep are slaughtered at the local abattoir and the wool is sent to Cornwall to be made into yarn, as there is too much produced on the island to be spun there. The couple also have a holiday cottage on the site, and host WWOOFers, who help look after the garden.

 

 

We took the scenic route on the way back, getting some stunning views of the coastline. Then it was time to prepare our seafood for dinner, under Lesley’s watchful eye. It was a lengthy process with a lot of crustaceans to kill, but it was a really valuable learning experience for us to follow the whole journey of the animal, from the boat, to the chopping board, to the pot, and finally, to our plates. The final result was quite spectacular!

 

 

Monday 23rd October

 

As Monday mornings go, this was up there as one of the best: eggy bread for breakfast and a visit to Isle of Mull Cheese. We were shown around Sgriob-ruadh Farm and the cheese factory by Chris Reade, who runs the business with her sons. Initially the family came to the island to make milk, but during the winter, when the tourists left and they had a lot of surplus, they began making cheese. They renovated the buildings on the site as a family, and all the sons stayed on the island, with two working in the cheese business, one working as a sculptor and the other running Island Bakery.

 

Chris took us first to visit the cows, and introduced us to her son, Garth, who looks after them. He keeps 150 Friesian and Swedish Red cows to produce the milk, and pigs, which are sent to the slaughterhouse and made into products such as sausages and hams at a small onsite butchery. The cows are fed on grass as well as draff from the distillery in Tobermory, although the distillery has now closed for a two-year refurbishment, meaning draff has to be brought in from elsewhere. This is a challenge for Garth, as a slight change in diet could alter the taste of the final product.

 

 

We were then taken around the cheese cellars, where the 25kg cheddars are matured for one year. As a sustainable business, the dairy is powered by a hydroelectric plant, and the heat reclaimed when the milk is cooled, is used to heat holiday cottages and a swimming pool. Apart from being a bit of a luxury for guests, the building of the swimming pool was prompted by a tragic accident in the sound between Iona and Mull in 1998, when four young men drowned after their dinghy capsized. The incident was devastating for the close-knit community, and so the pool was constructed as a place for young people in the area to learn to swim.

 

 

Following our tour, we were treated to a magnificent lunch in the beautiful Glass Barn café, including cheeses, bread, sausage rolls and paté. After stocking up on plenty of cheese, as well as other delights from the shop, we headed on to Glengorm Estate.

 

 

The afternoon was spent foraging for seaweed at Glengorm Estate. We began with an introduction from Kerry Froud, the estate’s wildlife ranger, who gave us an overview of the different types of seaweed and how to forage for them sustainably, as well as a brief history of how seaweed was used. Before mineral deposits of potash were discovered in Germany in the early nineteenth century, kelp from the Outer Hebrides was used in glassmaking, including in Murano, and for soda in soap-making. Dulce was toasted on embers and eaten on toast with vinegar, laver was used to make laverbread, and carragheen was used as a thickening agent in milk puddings and ice cream. Now, after going out of fashion, seaweed is being promoted as a ‘superfood’ and has gained in popularity.

 

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We walked through the estate to the sea to forage some seaweed for our dinner, being careful to take only one-third of the plant so that it can grow back. When we returned to the castle, we were able to try some of Kerry’s seaweed cakes with a cup of tea, while the owner of the estate, Tom Nelson, spoke to us about the business.

 

The castle was built in 1860 by James Forsyth, a sugar baron who was responsible for the clearances in the local area, pushing two villages out of the estate and burning the houses. Tom Nelson’s family only bought the estate in 1969, and it now comprises a B&B, self-catering rooms and a farm. Having Kerry as their ranger, the Nelson family promote the biodiversity of the estate, offering nature walks, workshops and seaweed foraging courses. They keep Highland cattle and Blackface sheep on their 5000 acres, almost all of which are sold on the island, as their ethos is to keep everything very local. They also run a café and bakery in Tobermory, where some of the meat is sold, both fresh and as pies and sausages to use up all the cuts. Tom is on the committee of the slaughterhouse and helped Garth build the butchery at Isle of Mull Cheese.

 

 

We then drove back to the lodge for sausages, slow-cooked Blackface lamb and mutton, followed by an enormous chunk of Isle of Mull cheddar.

 

 

Tuesday 24th October

 

Tuesday was the last day of our trip, so after some pancakes and gathering together to mull over what we had learned over the past few days, we packed up and set off for the ferry to the mainland. Thankfully we had time to stop off at the seafood shack in Oban to gorge on yet more local shellfish.

 

 

Our next stop was the Dawnfresh trout farm on Loch Etive. After our cookery session in week 4 with Gastronomy alumnus, Scott Fraser, who works as their Group Innovations Manager, we were now able to see where the process begins. After changing into some fetching waterproofs, we boarded our boats to go out onto the loch. We were taken around the different sites on the loch, each of which consist of a few pens that can hold up to around 50,000 fish. With bags of fish feed costing up to £1000, it is important for none to be wasted. As well as hand feeding, Dawnfresh have a computerised feeding machine, with a monitor to watch the trout so that the fisherman can judge when to stop the machine. Computers are also used to weigh the fish without having to take them out of the water. There are regular health checks and if there is any sign of ill health, chemicals can be used in line with SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) guidelines. Expansion of the fish farm has been halted due to resistance by locals, who say that it is an eyesore, although it would be interesting to know if opinions would change if some of the trout was sold locally, rather than all being sent away for supermarket processing.

 

 

Our final visit was just down the road at Inverawe Smokehouse. Robert Campbell-Preston, who started the business with his wife in 1974, run the smokehouse in a very traditional manner, handmade, with no computers, resulting in an ‘authentic’ brand. Robert learned to brine and salt when working for Birds Eye. When setting up the smokehouse, he rejected the more popular Loch Fyne and London systems of smoking, instead choosing a 2500-year-old method originating in Poland. Although not local, it was a traditional system. Robert explained the curing and smoking processes, and showed us the smokeboxes in which they carry out both cold and hot smoking over oak. He said that a big challenge for them was getting hold of good quality fish, and that fish farming would need to stay in order for them to remain a sustainable business. Their market is changing, with less English tourists and more Americans and French visiting the shop to buy the products, but also with an increase in local trade.

 

 

We had a taste of both the cold and hot smoked salmon, before buying up a large portion of the shop between us. Then we started our journey back to Edinburgh…of course with a stop for fish and chips along the way.

 

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