The best of times
Photography: antonia pesenti
11:05AM, Jan 24, 2012
I was having a potentially reflective time last week, doing a short stint in hospital having my battery changed. Hospital is naturally a place for reflection of happier times past.
My best times have been spent on a Hebridean island off the coast of Scotland. Confusingly, these are meant to be summer holidays, but the wind blows and it can rain for a month at a stretch. But when the sun appears, it is heaven. I've got a Cat in the Hat Dictionary with an inscription by my mum saying "Happy 4th birthday" and the name of the island, so we must have been going for 44 years. But don't think this gives me any kudos there. Shona at the co-op barely betrays a glimmer of recognition that we danced passionately at the céilidh some years ago. Nan the butcher no longer starts talking Gaelic when you walk into his shop.
It's not a big island - about 800 people, swelling to twice that number in summer. The island's size means that everything is possible, in good time. The islanders are crofters who farm small holdings, most of which have lobster pots. A huge truck full of saltwater tanks arrives to take the lobsters to Spain, and if you ask a crofter what they think of lobster, they'll reply, "Aye, too expensive. Rum old do!" On top of this, everyone wears several hats: you might see the phone mechanic in that guise in the morning, but by lunch he'll be picking up his lobster pots, and the same night he'll be pulling pints at the Lodge Hotel. It's a very rounded life.
I always have my birthday on the island. Let me give you a small taste of my heaven. Breakfast is devilled kidneys on toast. The lamb, having eaten wild thyme and been blown about by the salty wind, is self-seasoned. The kidneys, shining like jewels, are delicious. We toss them in a spot of flour seasoned with English mustard powder and cayenne pepper, pop them in a pan with a knob of butter, cook them for a few moments on each side, add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and chicken stock, and let the pan contents get to know each other. Removing the kidneys onto buttered toasts, we add a little more butter to the pan, shoggle until emulsified, then pour it over the kidneys. One or two Black Velvets - half Champagne, half Guinness - and you're ready to face whatever the day might bring.
A fortifying and uplifting breakfast.
Then it's on to the issue of which beach to go to for lunch. "Not that one. Last time we went there were two other people on it." Apart from the requirement that no one else be there, driftwood is a deciding factor in choosing your beach. Since fish boxes are no longer made of wood, driftwood gets more and more scarce. It's dismal to pack your picnic then discover you've got no fuel to cook it over. It's almost as bad as forgetting the corkscrew.
Most of our picnic equipment is old plastic that has been misshapen in a Gaudì-like fashion by straying too close to driftwood fires. A bap is the standard delivery vehicle for lunch. Ox tongue, mackerel, leg of lamb, fillet of beef, lobster, sausages - all need lubrication, so a battery of condiments is essential. The oatcake-and-cheese moment is about as good as it gets, revitalising your thirst for red wine.
The sea is a bit like a perfect gin martini: painfully cold. But this is ideal for the lobsters and crabs, and the freshly caught mackerel grilled on the barbecue. The island itself is covered in machair, a splendid mixture of wild thyme, orchids and grass growing in a thin green layer on sand. The rocks and houses pop out of the machair like mushrooms. It's satisfactorily bouncy and therefore makes for a very soft landing after too many drams. I fear I am talking from experience.
Malt whisky of the peaty Islay nature complements the salty wind, and when it's taken with shortbread, you commence upon an almost unbreakable cycle: a little steadying shortbread, as we all know, puts great demand on your spittle levels; one takes another wee dram, followed by another little bite of steadying shortbread, and on and on and on. There goes the afternoon.