Tag Archives: food

Transition Turriefield

Transition Turriefield was set up in 2011 as a community run growing project, to provide locally produced fruit and vegetables in Shetland. It was established to demonstrate a reduced fossil fuel approach to food production within the isles, to reduce Shetland’s food related carbon footprint, increase Shetland’s food security and ultimately to change the way Shetland thinks about importing food.

Subsistence days …..

Before the era of cheap oil and global food transportation, all Shetland crofts had a yard to grow crops. It was the only way to have fresh vegetables. The most common produce grown, along with the cereals bere and oats, was Shetland kale, neeps and potatoes [see note below]. Produce was used as winter livestock feed, as well as supplementing the crofter’s diet of lamb and fish. These crops were hardy and coped well with the Shetland conditions.

Nowadays yards can be seen all over Shetland, lying empty and unused. Tastes have changed and, along with the rest of the western world, Shetland residents expect more variety and an ‘out of season availability’ of produce that their grandparents could never have imagined. Regular ferry sailings and flights have made food available from all over the world, twelve months of the year, weather permitting.

Encouraging island residents to consider reducing CO2 emissions, personal carbon footprints and make positive food buying choices is an uphill struggle. It is hampered by a belief by many that the alternative means a return to the kale and neep eating of the pre-1960s.

Transition Turriefield has been determined to show local food production can provide better choice, fresher produce, reduce carbon footprints and be available even when bad weather prevents supplies arriving. From the beginning the project has focused on demonstrating that a wide range of produce can be grown in Shetland at market garden scale.

Now small-scale ecological engineering

Based on a small croft on the far west mainland, the challenges for economically sustainable food production are huge. The land is designated by the EU as a ‘severely disadvantaged Less Favoured Area’, of poor land quality and suitable only for rough grazing. The season is short, weather unpredictable and the climate extreme. None of which encourages bountiful crops.

There is no doubt that kale and neeps are the easiest and most productive crops to grow. However, using innovation, along with experimentation to create micro-climates, and combining old fashioned farming methods with modern technology, more exotic produce has been made available to the community instead.

Of the 21 hectares of land belonging to the croft, approximately 1.3 hectares are suitable for vegetable production. Just under 1 hectare is currently in production and includes 500 square metres of  polytunnel space and 110 of raised beds as well as outside field space. The main growing area is at the lowest point of the croft. Soil here is either deep and peaty (drained bog) with clay patches, or shallow and stoney, with clay and low in organic matter.

Soil nutrient analysis shows a pH of 6.3 with low phosphorus. Structurally the soil is compacted below the surface and low in oxygen due to the water content. Field drains and ditches have been put in and this has made a difference to the moisture content of the soil during the drier part of the season. As the land is worked season by season, effort is made to build soil and raise the growing area, improve structure, texture and nutrient content.

Muck, seaweed, ash, compost, turf

Beds have been cleared using pigs and hand tools rather than machinery. Muck, seaweed, ash from peat and wood, compost, and loam from composted turf, are added each season in various combinations and quantities depending on type of crop to be grown in each bed. Digging is kept to a minimum and is limited to using forks to aerate topsoil and improve drainage where necessary. When beds are empty they are covered with black agricultural plastic, weighed down with old tyres, to reduce weeds, and lessen nutrient leaching from increasing rainfall. Use of the plastic is new as of January 2017 and has allowed an earlier and more rapid start to our sowing/planting season. Biodegradable, corn-starch based weed suppressant has also been used on experimental beds this season and has reduced weeding markedly.

Using horse powered land-working equipment to reduce labour has been experimented with as part of the commitment to tackling climate change and reducing fossil fuel use. Strong horse working skills are required and it has taken time to learn methods and teach the horse too, but it does show potential. Unfortunately, the land has become markedly wetter over the last five years and is remaining so for longer periods. As yet it is unclear whether horse drawn equipment will be viable on the land without major soil improvements in the long term.

And perseverance pays

Even with poor growing conditions Transition Turriefield perseveres with organic practice as an essential part of reducing fossil fuel use and protecting the environment. The project is not registered as organic due to the expense of ongoing registration and the impact of maintaining wider crofting practices in a rural and remote area.

Access to organic animal feed for example, is not economically viable and accessing organic compost for seed sowing is an ongoing battle. Compromises too, have had to be made with fossil fuel reduction, for example where plastics are used for polytunnel covers and weed suppressants. Maintaining best practice, financial viability and sustainability will always be an ongoing balancing act.

Crops are grown outside where possible, keeping the limited undercover space for the produce that really needs warmth and protection. During the short summer season aubergines, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, sweetcorn, pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers and even melons can be grown undercover. By experimenting with sowing times and cultivars and using heat and light to start seeds off early, growing conditions can be manipulated to recreate suitable conditions and a long enough season.

Maize (sweetcorn) and pumpkin as a mixed crop (left), parsnip (top right) and chillies, courgettes and tomato (Transition Turriefield)

Timing is crucial

To achieve maximum production from the short summer season a strict sowing programme is used starting in January. Crops are sown in modules timetabled to enable plants to be ready to ‘hit the ground running’, once conditions are suitable for planting out either in the tunnels or outside. Celery and celeriac for example, are sown in the second week in February under lights and on heated mats at 18-20C, potted up, grown on and hardened off to allow planting out in the field by the 3rd week in May. Harvest begins in late September.

Without additional heat and light, conditions would not be suitable for germination until April and the plants would not mature to a reasonable size before the growing conditions became unsuitable. A similar system and timing is used for aubergines, planted in tunnels and ready for harvest from mid-July onwards.

Raised beds are used for some crops and are proving useful for manipulating conditions to increase productivity. Both garlic and parsnips have benefitted from the warmer, better drained soil in the beds. Mini tunnels are used to improve crop performance when needed. Garlic appreciates the extra heat to produce good sized bulbs unattainable in open ground. Experimenting with black plastic as an aid to warming raised beds from March onwards has enabled earlier sowings of parsnip and beetroot, with crops producing excellent sized roots. Sowing in the field cannot usually take place until end of May due to low soil temperature and waterlogging.

The future

Produce is sold through a veg box scheme, to rural community shops, a wholefood retailer in the main town of Lerwick and local hotels. The veg box scheme operates using a Community Supported Agriculture model. Box customers commit to financial support of the project for a season as well as contributing voluntary hours to vegetable production. This has been a successful method of encouraging community participation in local food production and raising awareness food related CO2 emissions. Additional income is generated through training courses and workshops sharing the learning and supporting others to grow their own. The project works with both children and adults; schools, community groups and the local authority to raise awareness of climate change and encourage carbon footprint reduction.

The largest limiting factor for the project is the ability to grow enough produce on the site—to generate enough income to pay sufficient staff—to grow enough produce, and so on. These particular issues are no different to other, similar, small growing projects throughout the country. Though small the project already cultivates and brings to market a huge variety and quantity (10 tonne+) of crops each season. With further investment, soil improvement, increase protected growing and further experimentation, there is the potential to double the quantity of fresh produce for the Shetland community.

Author and Contact

Transition Turriefield is run by Penny Armstrong and Alan Robertson.

Address: Transition Turriefield, Sandness, Shetland ZE2 9PL. Tel: 01595 870272. Web: www.turriefieldveg.co.uk. Facebook:  www.facebook.com/turriefield.

Note on crops for our overseas readers: bere is a landrace of barley, kale is a leaf vegetable member of the brassica family, and neeps is turnip or swede.

The Garden’s vegetable bounty

A vegetable bounty this year – leaves, flowers and ‘roots’ of all shapes and sizes have appeared in the Living Field Garden. Gladys and Jackie have nurtured a fine array of eatables, which many long term Garden observers say is the best yet, and that’s from a year which has not been ideal for crops.

Here are just some of my favourites (writes Geoff).

This red cabbage (sometimes called blue) matured late and kept well, outside in the shade, for at least a month after being cut. Half was pickled, and sat on a shelf with the others. The rest was eaten as a raw or cooked vegetable.

The cabbage shown above was cut in half with a big kitchen knife and photographed. It is shown as a ‘reverse image’ to bring out the structure of the folded leaves.

The cauliflower, below, was football sized and too large to show its halves side by side. One half went the same day as it was cut, eaten as cauliflower cheese – a strong brassica taste with a milder cheddar-type cheese sauce, in this case Mull (but Anster is also good for this), sprinkled with grated parmesan, and then paprika to give it spice and colour.

The other half was cut into small pieces and pickled with wine vinegar, onion seed and peppercorns, to be eaten over the winter. It is now waiting in a jar.

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The carrots (below) grew into complex shapes this year. They are not deformed, just natural.  Some of this year’s carrots looked like an octopus, orange tentacles clasping the main body. Others reclined languorously on the table top, waiting to be peeled and cut. Still others were more or less straight with lumps in strange places.

But  there’s no reprieve whatever the form. Roasted or boiled with herbs, very tasty, real carrot, soon eaten.

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The onions looked a bit ragged on harvest, but were unblemished inside their protective leaves. The smell when cut is definitive, to be savoured and remembered. The layers of leaves, filled with winter storage, are distinct, all white near the centre but with red outers towards the edge of the bulb.

The onions that came to our kitchen from the garden this year were all pickled with seeds and spices in wine vinegar. They are also waiting in a jar, next to the cauliflower.

 

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The beet went the same way as the cauliflower – one half pickled, this time in red wine vinegar, the other half eaten. But the revelation for me – not a great fan of beet – was the chunks of it, coated in oil (try cold pressed rapeseed) then roasted in foil and eaten with Maris Piper. What a taste – fresh cooked beet like this is up there among the great vegetables of all time. Thanks to those pioneers of crop selection who managed to get these red chunks out of wild sea beet.

[more vegetables cut in half to follow, as they are harvested later in the year … ]

You can see more of Gladys and Jackie’s efforts on display at Open Farm Sunday 2017 and at Vegetables on the Garden pages.

Bere battered fish

Grannie Kate’s back with a new use of bere meal ….. she writes …

“Fed up of ‘days old’ fish from the supermarket? Try stopping a local fish van to see the beautiful produce on sale!

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This was what I did last Friday morning at 9.50 a.m. precisely and bought some haddock (landed that morning) from a mobile fish merchant from Anstruther.

The van horn was tooted loudly in the Main Street and behold people silently appeared to purchase from a wide selection of sea food displayed in the back of the refrigerated van. The old word ‘fishmonger’ seems to be out of fashion these days, ‘fish merchant’ now the preferred description

Home made fish and chips then, for tea, using my mother’s recipe for coating the fish before frying in oil. Haddock (and other white fish) tend to break up in the frying pan if they are fried without coating them first.

Fresh haddock from the sea and …… earthy bere meal from Barony Mills!

What to do

  1. Place a large tablespoon of bere barley on a plate and then (if preferred) mix with white flour, e.g. another large tablespoon or less depending on your taste.
  2. Grind sea salt and black pepper into the flour to season it.
  3. Crack a fresh free range egg into a small jug and whisk it until the yolk is well mixed with the white.
  4. Wash the fish ( this is important especially if the fish is not as fresh as you would wish and actually smells; remember, fresh fish does NOT smell!). Cut the fish in half lengthways to give 2 portions. Then cut again diagonally across the portion to give two or three smaller pieces or goujons. You now have about 6 goujons of fresh haddock.
  5. Dip each goujon into the egg, shake off the excess egg wash then place onto your flour, rolling it around until it is covered. Repeat for all the haddock pieces.
  6. Add some light cooking oil into a frying pan and heat – to test the temperature is right add a little bit of flour to the oil and it should start to bubble up immediately.
  7. Add all your goujons to the oil, fry for about two or three minutes on one side, then two or three minutes on the other on a medium heat.
  8. Lift out with a fish slice onto some kitchen towel and blot lightly to remove excess oil.

The goujons should be light brown with a thin crispy coating of bere meal on the outside.

Serve with fresh garden peas and homemade chips. Add salt and vinegar or wedge of lemon and perhaps some tartare sauce!

Delicious………!
Links

The bere meal was sourced from Barony Mills in Orkney. For more on Orkney bere, see: Bere line rhymes with hairline and Landrace 1 Bere.

And for other bere recipes on this site – Bere bannocks and Bere shortbread and Seeded oatcakes with bere meal …..

 

ScoFu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish Tofu

Chantel Davies writes:

As a long-time vegetarian and fan of Asian food, particularly tofu, in recent years I have limited my consumption of soya due to the sustainability issues of soya production and potential negative impacts on health.

Beginnings

My inspiration grew from a Japanese anime series, ‘Yakitate!! Ja-pan’ (i.e ‘Freshly Baked!! Ja-pan’), which follows the adventures of the young protagonist, Kazuma Azuma, as he follows his passion to invent an authentic Japanese bread of which the Japanese people can be proud. In a similar vein, I have embarked on a quest to produce an authentic Scottish tofu, using local ingredients and some gastronomic daring.

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I acquired some faba bean powder (flour) from the Institute’s Pete Iannetta, who is growing beans in experimental fields at the Dundee site (and using them to create new bean-based products including craft beers).

My first experiment, ScoFu No. 1, was to test the production method and make some technical adjustments. It was marginally successful, but the quantity of final product after pressing resembled a crêpe with a lot of left-over okara (bean pulp). Not really what I was aiming for, though the okara could be used for faba bean falafel – an experiment I will save for another time.

ScoFu No. 2

For ScoFu No. 2, I increased the quantity of ingredients and modified the processes. Firstly, I produced the purée. After a bit of culinary alchemy, and a handy little tofu box, I managed to produce a very neat-looking block of tofu (image below).

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Block of ScoFu made from faba bean (Chantel Davies)

After a little more magical waving and muttering, the tofu became a delight of pan-fried strips, infused with chilli and garlic, served with spicy rice and a dash of soy sauce. The texture, although soft and crumbly, held together nicely when cutting and cooking.

The flavour was definitely faba bean, with a hint of bitterness due to the preparation method (and maybe the coagulant), but also a touch of umami; beany flavours are often preferred in East Asia. On a firmness scale of 1 to 5, with five being very firm, I would put this at 3.5, or ‘momen-dofu’ as the Japanese would say.

A rather delicious stock was produced in the formation of curds, which could form the base of type of miso soup, or vegetable stock.
Whilst this has been a success, there are so many different variables to consider when making tofu that can influence taste, texture and firmness that I feel my adventure has only just begun. Onward to ScoFu No.3!

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Stir fry with ScoFu (Chantel Davies)

Contacts, sources, links

Chantel Davies email: chantel.davies@hutton.ac.uk; c.davies@growing-research.com

The beans used to make the Scofu are locally grown faba beans Vicia faba. 

Also on the Living Field web:

Feel the Pulse – our exhibition on beans at Baxter Park with Dundee Science Centre and Legumes in the Living Field garden.

Related: SoScotchBonnet – our search for the truly indigenous crop.

[Published 27 June 2017; updated with new images 21 July]

Fermented turnips

Continuing our series on the culinary delights of that most wonderful of plant families, the cabbages.

Paula Pongrac sends this recipe from Prekmurje, Slovenia – Slaughtered turnips. And just below is a photo from the region by Erik Kavaš.

Slaughtered turnips?

“No, I am not suggesting taking the biggest knife you have and attack the turnip! Rather I want to tell you about another delicious way to prepare turnip (especially in winter time as it is a real winter-warmer) and of when this dish was typically consumed in Prekmurje, eastern part of Slovenia.

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Mill on River Mura in Prekmurje, photograph by Erik Kavas

 

“The name may suggest that Slaughtered Turnip (“Bujta repa” in the Slovenian dialect of Prekmurje) was, and of course still is, a dish prepared when slaughter takes place (typically of pigs). It is essentially a stew with pork, fermented turnips and millet grain, but believe me, this is an experience to remember.

“Unfortunately, it is not easy to get hold of fermented turnips outside Slovenia, but there are some relatively easy recipes for home-fermentation of vegetables available on-line (search term “turnip kraut” yields good results, although the term is clearly wrong as it means “turnip cabbage”) or just decide on visiting Slovenia and have a taste.

“In case you get lucky and you get hold of all the ingredients, this is how you make Slaughtered Turnip.”

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Ingredients:

1 kg fermented turnip (grated), sometimes referred to as turnip kraut
1 kg pork bones with meat
150 g millet grain (proso millet)
1-2 tablespoons of oil
1-2 tablespoons of flour
One onion
3 garlic cloves
Salt
Red sweet paprika
Black pepper
2 bay leaves

How to make it:

Place the fermented turnip into a big pot with pieces of meat, add some ground and whole black peppers and bay leaves, and cover with cold water. Bring to boil and simmer for 30 – 60 minutes until turnip is tender and the meat is almost done. Then add washed millet grain and some extra water and cook until the millet is no longer crunchy.

For the roux, fry the sliced onion and garlic in oil until onion and garlic turn golden. Add the flour and stir for few seconds, then add some water, bring to boil and cook for 2 minutes. Add red paprika and extra water if needed to keep the roux smooth.

Just before finishing the turnip-meat-millet mixture, add the roux and bring everything to boil. Add salt to taste and serve with blood sausage or other meat, and bread.

For best experience, Slaughtered Turnip should be reheated at least twice.

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Field of gladiols in Prekmurje, photograph by Erik Kavas

 

Notes, Sources

Paula Pongrac, from Slovenia, is working at the James Hutton Institute in 2016/17.

The slaughtered turnip in the photograph was prepared for this article by family Barbarič from Prekmurje. With thanks.

Images of the turnip dish supplied by Zoran Kuzma.

Images of ‘Mill on river Mura in Prekmurje’ and ‘Field of gladiols in Prekmurje’ supplied by photographer Erik Kavaš.

The millet used in the recipe is dehulled proso millet, known as ‘proso groats’. Dehulling takes the protective covering off the grain to make it more edible in stews (as pearl barley).

Links on this site

Link to Paula’s other turnip recipe: Turnip strudel – a Croatian version

For the turnip’s close relative, the swede or neeps: SoScotchBonnet  and the painting Neep by by Jean Duncan;.

 

Turnip strudel – a Croatian version

Turnip strudel is a typical strudel in the Međimurje County in northern Croatia …. writes Paula Pongrac …. where my parents are from. Also, very popular are cabbage and pumpkin strudels.

All the ingredients (turnips and walnuts, or cabbage and pumpkins) were available even in times of scarcity and were typically made when there were not enough apples or cottage cheese (these two versions of strudels are more common in Slovenia and Austria).

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Here is how you make a turnip strudel:

Ingredients (are not to measure so the strudel tastes different every time):
Turnip
Walnuts (ground)
Sugar
Filo pastry
Sour cream
Butter
Oil

Peel and grate one large turnip. Place it in a bowl with salted water and bring to boil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Drain it so you get rid of all the water. (When cooled you can use hands to squeeze it). You can stop at this stage and freeze it for later.

Otherwise or when defrosted, put some oil in the pan and place the drained turnip onto it, add sugar and ground walnuts and fry for some time, mixing frequently. Make sure, the walnuts and sugar are evenly mixed with the turnip. Cool the filling down.

Spread Filo pastry (two or three layers), sprinkle it with some oil and add the turnip-walnut filling. Roll it and place into buttered oven-proof pan. Repeat until you run out of Filo pastry layers and the filling. Spread sour cream over the Filo pastry and bake it until golden on the outside.

Cool the strudel down and enjoy.

Recipe by Paula Pongrac

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Paula’s captions for the photographs above (top left clockwise): ‘walnut trees are very common’; ‘…. or just for a pet’; ‘fruit trees make the area colourful and pretty’; manmade streams for field drainage’.

Bere and cricket

The Living Field’s resident bread expert, Gill Banks, has been out and about, speaking to people on the merits of real bread, as part of The Crunch.

At the first event, at the Maxwell Centre, Dundee, on 1 July 2016, Gill and Linda Nell contrasted some of the ancient grains grown in Scotland, such as emmer wheat and bere barley, with modern cereal varieties, and showed how fine, nutritious bread could be baked from bere and other corn.

Here we look at the raw materials used to make bere bread ……. and also Gill’s experiments with something more exotic.

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Bere bread

Bere is an old form of barley, known by that name for at least a few hundred years. It is still grown in Orkney, from where the Living Field got its first stocks of bere seed. The crop is now grown in the Living Field garden each year. Seed is harvested and saved for next year’s crop.

Bere grows easily to form an attractive stand shown in the lower of the images above. As the heads or ‘ears’ fill with grain, they bend on their stems and hang down (upper left). Each grain has a long thin awn sticking out from near its top. The grains are typically 7-10 mm long but the awns  are 15-20 cm long. (A long-awn corn!)

The image top right shows mature grain (light brown) harvested in a previous year, the awns removed; and for comparison, some green, unripe grain from this year’s crop,  the awns still attached. The thin panel centre right is a closer view of the grain.

To make meal or flour, the awns and outer protective coating of the grain have to be removed and then the grain is ground between  stones. The Living Field can grind bere and other grains in its heavy rotary quern, but the meal Gill uses to make bread is bought from Barony Mills in Orkney.

[Gill’s recipes for making bread with bere will be  published in separate post.]

Cricket bread

Following the first event in The Crunch, at the Maxwell Centre Dundee, Aisha Schofield from Dundee Science Centre suggested adding cricket flour to one of the bread recipes. Cricket flour is made from insects.

An experimental insect loaf was duly produced from Gill’s kitchen, using  a meal mix that included ‘cricket flour’ from Cornish Edible Insects (images of their insect produce below).

A tasting panel was quickly assembled. All agreed that the bread had the taste and texture of a wholemeal or ‘ancient grain’ loaf.  Nice and fulsome with butter. There was no evidence (by sight, feel or taste) of insects in the bread – there were no wings sticking out of the slice and no unusual pincers or other crunchy bits.  It was just tasty wholesome bread.

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By coincidence

A student from AgroParistech France, Benjamin Lepers, visited the Institute in 2015 as part of his project year. He studied diversity of wild plants in farmland and also the invertebrates (insects and spiders) living on different types of vegetation, such as the barley crop, grass patches and mixed dicot weed patches.

He then went on to work for a few months at a new enterprise called Entomo Farm – Farming Insects for Animal Feed, which started in 2014, based in Bordeaux France. Their web page states that Entomo Farm has developed a self contained and transportable system for insect farming called the Entomo Box, which enables mass production of insect meal and insect oil anywhere with very few resources.

Benjamin was intending to move on to Laos. He’ll find plenty of insects and exotic foods there. The Living Field would love to hear from him about his exploits.

…. and more on Gill Banks’ experiments with bread to follow ….

Sources, references

Barony Mills bere meal http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm and see the following on the Living Field site Landrace 1 – bere and The bere line – rhymes with hairline. And for other bere recipes – Bere shortbread, Bere bannocks and Seeded oatcakes with bere meal.

The Crunch – The Wellcome Trust https://thecrunch.wellcome.ac.uk/

Dundee Science Centre The Crunch

Other Hutton Crunch events: Feel the Pulse

Cornish Edible Insects http://cornishedibleinsects.co.uk. A business started 2015 aiming to produce ‘high quality foods and cooking ingredients using some of the finest insects the world has to offer.’

Entomo Farm Read more about the Entomo people and their aims and methods at: (link disabled, Jan 2017).

 

 

 

Bere shortbread

Ingredients

10 oz self-raising lf_brbsc_750_gsflour ( not plain)

1.5 oz dried semolina

3.5 oz bere barley flour

8 oz butter

5 oz castor sugar

and a pinch of salt.

I make shortbread biscuits regularly with my 3 year old granddaughter Ellie, who loves making a mess and  ‘helps’ me.

Shortbread biscuits can be a bit dense so I always use self-raising flour (or a mixture of SR and plain flour). I usually add semolina to give a slight crunchiness to the biscuit. However, I had only a small amount in the bottom of the packet. So, I substituted bere barley for the semolina.

The resulting dough was too dry and so extra milk (or buttermilk to be more traditional) was added – about 2 tablespoons – so the dough could be rolled easily without it breaking up.

What to do

Preheat oven to 150 C or gas mark 2. Melt the butter or soften in the oven for a few minutes then cream the butter and sugar together ( use a hand held electric whisk) until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add all the dry ingredients, then mix again. Add milk to make the dough stick together.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface and then use cutters to make the biscuits into rounds or other shapes. Transfer to a greased baking tray or use baking paper and make small pricks in the biscuits using a fork.

Bake for 20 min then turn the trays around and bake for a further 20 minutes. Remove the biscuits when they are a light golden brown. This makes a good 40 biscuits or so, depending on the size of the cutter. Cool them (if you can) before eating!

Variations

Add a handful of dried cranberries or sultanas to the mixture before you roll it out. Little helpers love doing this, but often eat the fruit before it gets into the biscuit mixture!

Comments from the tasting panel

“Shortbread can lack body. The beremeal gives it serious character.”

“Good cohesive strength when wet  – doesn’t disintegrate between tea-mug and mouth.”

“A real biscuit – you can taste the bere.”

“Can’t stop eating them…”

Sources, links

Recipe by Grannie Kate

Beremeal from Barony Mills Orkney

Links to pages on this web site:

More baking with bere barley: Bere bannocks, Seeded oatcakes with bere meal

The bere line – further links and pages on the history and uses of bere barley

Landrace 1 – bere – for information on the Orkney bere landrace

Bere, bear, bair, beir, bygg – variation on the name in Old Scots

Food production from the first crops to the present day

Sponsored by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group (The Field) at Birnam Arts, 23 November 2015, 7.30

A survey of crops and croplands – from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival here of settled agriculture in the late stone age; through the developments of bronze and iron to the ill years of the 1600s; through the major improvements in the 1700s that gave hope; through the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine; to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, and society choosing the latter; to the present state of soil degradation and reliance on imports for food security; and to a sustainable future, perhaps … with some tales along the way of life and farming when horse was the quickest way along the A9.


More …

Settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history. Domestication of crops from wild plants, as recently as 10,000 years ago, produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today. Maize and potato were domesticated in the Americas and could not cross the Atlantic at that time and rice was too far away in Asia, but wheat, barley and oat came by land and sea across Europe to the north Atlantic seaboard where around 5000 years ago, they found a welcoming soil and a mild climate.

The grain crops enabled a settled society. In good years, there was food to last the winter, giving time to think and make things. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region. A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals (except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day).

Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agriculture unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s? Starvation and famine.

Then came the age of improvement after 1700 – lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, the levelling of the rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest, the global search for guano, the coordinated management of crop and stock – benefits that allowed outputs to rise in the 1700s, but not yet to the point where famine was memory. That came later. It was not until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe.

But these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability. They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began here.

The first was that grain and other crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure. Grain could be grown more frequently, on more area and with more inputs – eventually encouraging a phase of intensification after 1950 that increased yield but in many places to the detriment of soil and the wider environment, and now with a diminishing return from inputs.

The second was that local production became separated from local consumption. The increasing wealth and global trade of the 1900s – the legacy of the industrial revolution – meant that people no longer relied for their subsistence on what was grown in local fields. This second decoupling became so great that by the 1990s, all cereal carbohydrate eaten in Scotland, except oat, was grown elsewhere and imported.

There are some big questions therefore. Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? And is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption?

So what of the future! Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems.

Geoff Squire

James Hutton Institute, Dundee UK

The speaker illustrated his talk with some ancient cereals and a bag of grain, all grown in the Living Field garden.

The quotations from Andrew Wight’s journals from his travels by horse are now available free online:

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books.

His notes on bere, oat and flax in the region of Dunkeld and Birnam will appear in a later article on this web site. Any further enquiries: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)
The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)