Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Scottish Picnic

It's been a year and a half since my last post, but I have a good excuse: I finished my dissertation and am now free and clear of graduate school, PhD in hand!

I've been celebrating by spending the summer doing a lot of the kind of essential, soul-satisfying cookery that I didn't have time for during the academic year. I've put up plum and peach preserves, thanks to the bounty of my neighbors' gardens; I've been baking bread and cakes, making pesto and hummus, stuffing grape leaves and zucchini (more about the latter in another post); I've revisited old favorite dishes and tried new recipes for the first time in many months. In short, I am rediscovering the pleasures of the kitchen after a year of dully repetitive subsistence cooking, those endless parades of kale-and-quinoa salads and turkey sandwiches and quick pastas, Sunday soups made to stretch through a week's meals, tasty and nourishing but wholly unimaginative.

Another great summer joy is the theater festival where I've had the privilege of working as a dramaturg for the past four seasons. The stage is outdoors in a stunning natural setting, a glen of redwood trees, and there is nothing better than settling into the "groundlings" seats with a picnic and a bottle of wine and the best view in the house, and enjoying some good theater. Last night was the opening of The Scottish Play, or -- as those of us call it who don't believe in curses -- Shakespeare's Macbeth. Since I was putting together together a picnic dinner for myself and a few friends, I decided to take the setting of the play as a cue for a Scotland-inspired menu.

I went to Scotland two years ago. A dear college friend lives in Edinburgh, and she and her family were kind enough to host me for a few days when I was coming to the UK on a research trip. I had no other connection to the place, no Scottish ancestry or relations, but I have rarely fallen in love with a new country as hard and fast as I fell for Scotland. The night I arrived, in a blustery September storm, S. met me at the station and took me straight to a weekly dance and folk music gathering at her friends' flat. There, with a sweeping view of the city from a spacious wood-paneled room lined with antique instruments and lit only by candles, a woman played the harp and sang in Gaelic, and I was transported.

The next day we did some tourism around the city and stumbled into a farmers' market under the looming shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Wee venison pies!
Beautiful cheeses and luscious golden-yellow Jersey butter.

Screamingly fresh seafood, and gorgeous chanterelles at the far left. Next time I go to Scotland I'll make sure I have a kitchen to cook in so I can take full advantage of all this goodness.

There was no end of beautiful fresh produce and locally made artisanal goods (cured, pickled, smoked, etc). And the cheeses! And the late-summer berries and damson plums. And stunning breads and baked goods. Having made no other plans for lunch, we gathered up some goodies for a picnic.

From left to right: raspberries; red currants; strawberries; a hard cheese (cheddar?); venison sausage; cold-smoked venison; meat pies; fresh cheeses (caboc and crowdie); oatcakes; pickles; cherry tomatoes; bread and butter.

The food was straightforward and delicious. The berries were perfect, and the red currants in particular were a nostalgic treat; I used to love to eat them as a kid during summers spent with family in France, but they aren't widely available in the US. The bread was the platonic ideal of a rustic oat-studded loaf, the butter splendid, the venison good and gamey. The real revelation, though, was the cheese. Oh, the cheese. I still dream about that caboc, which is a preposterously rich fresh double-cream cheese rolled in steel-cut oats. I don't think it can be found outside of Scotland, and apparently the recipe is proprietary to the company that makes it, so I haven't been able to find a recipe for it online (you can, however, find lots of recipes for crowdie, which is a simple fromage blanc style curd).

In fact, I thought about making my own crowdie for the Macbeth picnic yesterday, but didn't have the time. Plus I was going more for the spirit of the Edinburgh picnic than an exact reproduction, and so happily took advantage of my own bountiful farmers' markets to put together a similar spread. There's a local dairy that makes a splendid fresh sheep's-milk cheese, and that, along with some good cultured butter and a hunk of creamy havarti, made up our little cheese plate. I was lucky enough to get my hands on some actual made-in-Scotland oatcakes, and rounded out our feast of snacks with smoked salmon, shelling peas, radishes, and hardboiled eggs. The only things I actually made from scratch were salad and bread.

Kale salad with apples and hazelnuts.

 The kale salad, ubiquitous at California summer picnics, was dressed to fit our theme with chopped toasted hazelnuts; shavings of sharp cheddar; the first apples of the season, thinly sliced; and a vinaigrette of hazelnut oil, Dijon mustard, and apple cider vinegar.

The bread was an experiment, and I'm pleased with its success. I used my go-to bread recipe, which is absolutely foolproof and consistently produces beautiful results. But instead of using all white flour, I blended 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour with 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup Scottish oatmeal (which I think is ground slightly finer than most steel-cut oats in the US). I added a little more water than usual for the oats to absorb, and let it rise for about 20 hours, then baked as usual. The result was a flavorful loaf with a crackling crust and a fine open crumb. It went into the picnic basket still warm, the ultimate comfort food for a cool and breezy evening.

Homemade wheat-oat bread with butter.

Dessert was shortbread and strawberries picked that day. One of my dining companions brought a bottle of Scotch, suitable accompaniment for both the meal and the play. Good food, good company, and great theater: a perfect night.