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Personal Glimpses of Gravir V: Plain Food
Personal Glimpses of Gravir V: Plain Food
An account of life in Gravir, by Calum Macinnes, 8 Gravir.
V Plain Food
The food preparation methods used in the barn were carried on in the new house. Cooking utensils consisted of: cast-iron, three legged pots (we had three at one time, I think), a wide, cast-iron frying pan, a cast-iron kettle, a tea-pot, and a griddle (greideal) for cooking flour scones, oatcakes and, when eggs were plentiful in the summer, pancakes. These cooking utensils were suspended above an open fire by means of a device we called 'slabhraidh' (chain), the entire device consisting of a horizontal iron bar embedded in the chimney some distance above the fire, a length or iron chain - of the type used for fishing boat anchors - and an iron hook, made by a blacksmith, the top loop of which was placed in a link of the chain. The bottom loop held the utensil and heat was controlled by raising or lowering the hook as required.
The hearth of the new house had two raised portions (cagailt), made of stone and clay, one on each side. The fire irons were embedded near the tops of these portions. Their surfaces were used to keep pots and food warm, to provide a warm surface for the teapot and to complete the cooking process eg. to dry oatcakes after their removal from the griddle.
As the greater number of three-legged pots suggests, most food was cooked by boiling. Potatoes were washed and scrubbed but not peeled. They were boiled until a trial piercing with a knife or fork allowed easy penetration. This took fifteen to twenty minutes depending on the heat of the fire. Sometimes potatoes were roasted in the hot embers of the fire. The elderly widow at No 19 (Banntrach Choinnich) often greeted visiting children on a cold winter's day by placing a warm roasted potato in their hands.
Salt herring was always boiled, as was salt white fish. Fresh herring and fresh white fish were sometimes boiled in salty water, but were often fried in suet, although summer herring were so fat that a frying agent was rarely necessary.
Salt meat - mutton and beef - was always boiled after soaking in water to remove some of the salt. Tender cuts of meat, including mutton chops, were often fried. The three-legged pots were also used to make delicious soup from mutton or beef stock, barley, onions, turnips, cabbage and carrots. The last four of these vegetables were invariably home-grown. Crowdie was made by simmering, very gently, the thick milk left after the removal of the cream (bàrr or uachdair). A real gourmet delicacy on a winter's night was Lob Scouse made by cooking peeled potatoes with salted and cleaned sheep's offal and mashing the concoction before serving. (This dish is, I think, of Scandinavian origin. I once ate it on a Ben Line cargo/passenger ship on a voyage from the far East). Tea was really brewed, that is, it was placed near enough to the fire, or on the embers of the fire, to allow it to boil for several minutes. The resulting infusion was strong and black and greatly appreciated by the old ladies.
Porridge was a daily breakfast staple food. Made by simmering oatmeal in salted water in a three-legged pot, it had to be stirred continually to eliminate lumps. Traditionally, it was served in a bowl and another bowl was used to hold milk or buttermilk (left after butter had been churned from cream). The practice was to fill a spoon with porridge and dip it into the milk or buttermilk before eating it. Sometimes sugar, syrup or treacle were added to the porridge before eating it. Desserts or sweet puddings were less common but sometimes custard was served as a special treat for Sunday lunch.
Duff, or dumpling, was made for special occasions like the bi-annual Communions or at times of peat-cutting when friends and neighbours came to help. Called clootie dumpling on the mainland - from the cloth, or clout, in which it was boiled for about three hours - it contained flour, suet, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, sultanas and/or currants, treacle, syrup, eggs and milk to mix. The pudding cloth was dipped into boiling water, dusted generously with four and after the mix was put into it, it was tied securely with string but allowing a large enough air space for the pudding to expand. Duff was eaten hot, cold and sometimes fried.
Without doubt the food we ate in those early years was wholesome and nutritious, if lacking in variety. Sweets were a very occasional luxury. If a boy was lucky enough to get a penny or a halfpenny from a visitor he could go to the local shop - bùth Dhomhnaill Moil (Donald Morrison's shop) which was about four hundred yards from our house. There he could buy a penny's worth of boiled sweets or a slab of toffee. This was a rare treat, but, in general, children in the early twenties of this century did not eat sweets often and as a consequence Hebridean children of the time were said to have the best teeth of any children in Britain. The situation changed as more money circulated in the late thirties and forties and now the teeth of Hebridean children are no better than those of their contemporaries elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Fingers Preceded Cutlery
During my childhood solid food was always eaten using the fingers. This included the staple diet of salt herring and potatoes, and also fried herring and indeed fried or boiled fish of any kind. A meal of meat and potatoes was also eaten with the fingers, but the meat was cut by my father using his versatile pocket knife which was an indispensable tool carried by all male adults at that time. It was every boy's ambition to own a pocket knife like his father's. It could be used for many purposes - both legal and illegal. In the latter category was the surreptitious carving of initials in the church pews during a boring sermon. These initials, and thus evidence of the carvers' identities, are still legible!
The spoon was the most widely used time of cutlery because of course, it had to be used for liquid or soft foods, including soups, porridge and stews. Knives and forks became popular as the variety of food increased. For meals such as bacon and eggs they were soon regarded as de rigueur and although cutlery is now regarded as essential, some, among the older generation, still prefer to use their fingers particularly when eating potatoes and salt herring. It was considered mandatory to wash the hands before meals but this edict was sometimes 'more honour'd in the breach than in the observance' among the youngsters - and sometimes among the elderly. One old lady of my acquaintance always spread the butter on scones with a rigid forefinger and the washing consisted of licking the finger before each application!