Gaga’s Hebridean Kitchen and Other Stories
Updated: 6 days ago
Gaga (as we called Gran) was a prolific baker and was neither remarkable nor unusual in this. In her day, so populated were the Highlands and Islands by great bakers and knitters that conceding you couldn’t do either was received with suspicion. “Strange. Your mother was a great baker, and her mother before that,” they would say, leaving the words “what’s wrong with you,” hanging in the air, unspoken. Even now the Hebrides reigns supreme for its plethora of talent in the form of home knitters and bakers, most of whom remain anonymous. They do what they do without fuss or ceremony.
It was clear to anyone who heard her speak that English was Gaga’s second language but not immediately obvious that Gaelic was her first unless you were a teuchter yourself. She would frequently and seamlessly combine her native tongue with broken English and confused grammar. “Put them air a bhòrd,” she would say, meaning, “put it [the shopping] on the table”. To this day my Gaelic remains as poor and broken as her English was.
By the time I was born, elements of Gaga’s weekly routine had been ingrained for almost half a century. Monday was baking, Tuesday was butter and crowdie, Wednesday was shopping, Thursday was washday and Friday was ironing. I don’t recall Saturday for anything in particular other than preparing for the Sabbath.
Sunday, from dawn to dusk, was all God. Mercy and necessity were (and remain) the only
reasons permitted for breaking the Sabbath and in this Gaga was fastidious. Anything that could be done in advance was prepared before midnight on Saturday; soup, potatoes, vegetables, the meat for the roast – even our church shoes; polished and lined up in the hall. Those were the days when we all dressed up to go places and attendance at church was considered a most important occasion to dress up for. Hat and gloves were obligatory, regardless of age. For Gaga, it was a day of rest, reflection, praying and bible reading. For us, it was the day to hone our skills in sneakery and deception. We didn’t appreciate the irony of this at the time. We were permitted to read anything from the bible and venture outside as long as we weren’t going anywhere in particular. There would be no playing of any kind, or sewing or knitting. Playing cards or whistling were the work of the devil on any day of the week but doubly so on the Sabbath. And so we found ways around all of it, as children do. None of this is news to anyone over 50 with links to the Hebrides. It’s how it was for everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.
Gaga's flour was stored in large metal, lidded dustbins on the floor of the pantry, of which she had two; one containing plain and the other wholemeal. There was no self-raising. Raising agent was made by combining cream of tartar with baking soda, the ratio varying according to need. She would have been perplexed by baking powder; it would have thrown her off her stride. A jug of fresh milk was set aside on Wednesday to be soured for five days, primarily for the scones. Eggs at one time were straight from the hen but latterly bought locally. I don’t recall her ever referring to a recipe although she must have done at some point. In keeping with most recipes handed down through the years from mother to daughter (males seldom baked), it was all a dash of this, a teaspoon of such-and-such and a cup of that.
I attempted on many occasions to record recipes from Gaga, mum, and other relatives, and still have them now in various written and typed forms, but I must say recording them was excruciating. “Wait - ‘a spoon’ - what size of spoon?” and “A cup? What size of cup? Do you mean a mug? What’s a dash – half a teaspoon? Would you say half a teaspoon…??” And then the egg... “When you say ‘one or two eggs’, do you mean one egg or two?” The most difficult to quantify was ‘the handful’, which applied to every recipe. I mean, really – what would you call a handful? I have reasonably big hands, my mother’s were tiny and Gaga’s were huge.
When it came to imparting recipes, mum was no better, “Just use common sense,” she would say dismissively, having repeated a similar cup-here-spoon-there recitation. Some recipes took three return trips to complete on paper and have taken years to replicate successfully. I came to realise that the missing instruction for all recipes-from-memory is the trial-and-error allowance, and the importance of it. It’s good to be encouraged to think for yourself, to keep trying until it becomes what you want, and that’s what hand-me-down recipes force you to do. It also imprints a part of you in the recipe, maintaining the indelible link between us and the memories we create and share through food.
Soda scones, wheaten scones and pancakes were made directly on the hotplate and oatcakes, shortbread and plain scones in the Raeburn oven. Dumpling was boiled in a pan. She made butter and crowdie on Tuesdays – crowdie being a form of cottage cheese but much thicker and without residue fluid.
The process of making crowdie and butter was similar. Both required draining through muslin. Her proficiency with the butter paddles fascinated me and I still see her now, almost juggling the butter between them, forming it into shape with the speed and dexterity of a lifetime’s practice.
She used the same large square of muslin for butter, crowdie and dumplings. After each use it would be soaked, hand washed and dried and folded back into its small freezer bag, together with the dumpling string, until the next time. She never discarded a container without rinsing it out first, be it bottle, carton or tin. She would even wash out plastic bags, both freezer and shopping, and peg them to dry on a length of string above the sink which had been fashioned specifically for the task, nailed to the wall at one end and the side of the tall kitchen cabinet at the other. I grew up looking through a window obscured by this same string, made untidy with empty pegs waiting for rinsed plastic bags.
Gaga maintained this baking routine until she died in the late 1970s and, as long ago as that was, her methods were dated even then. Self-raising flour and baking powder were readily available, as were many labour-saving devices that she never used, such as electric whisks, blenders, timers and thermometers. All the things I wouldn’t be without and which, if I’m brutally honest, allow me to pass for a baker of sorts in a way that their absence would not.
Baking back then was functional. Oatcakes, scones and pancakes were considered staples of a healthy diet and nowhere near as sweet as many home-made bakes today. Apart from dumpling, with its abundance of dried fruit, the only truly sweet thing I recall Gaga making on a regular basis was trifle at Christmas. Dumpling was the treat, made once or twice a month. And we often fried that. Just as we fried pancakes, potatoes from the previous evening, fruit pudding and anything that was beginning to go stale. I’m not sure why more of us didn’t keel over with heart-disease but I’m guessing the long hours and hard work required in maintaining a croft helped enormously in keeping it at bay.
We never referred to dumplings as ‘clootie’ dumplings. It was always plain and simple ‘dumpling’. I use ‘Clootie Dumpling’ on the website because it identifies a Scottish tradition.
The word ‘cloot’ is defined in Chambers Scots Dictionary (1911) as ‘a patch, a rag, or a garment’ rather than ‘a cloth’ as most assume it to mean. Hence, the dumpling mixture was boiled in a piece of rag, which of course, for some, would have been an old cloth. Such ‘cloots’ were not only washed and put away properly afterwards and retained solely for the purpose of baking, but they were also scalded before use; a method of sterilising them briefly in boiling water. I still do this now from habit, even although my rags are not rags but specifically-purchased squares of muslin that are soaked, rinsed and put through the washing machine after each use.
The humble scone, although commonly laden with jam and cream, is not very sweet and contains much less sugar or butter than, for example, biscuits or your average sponge. Scotch pancakes (drop scones to those further afield), on the other hand, made with Gaga’s recipe, are far sweeter than their plain appearance suggests. But before you go rolling eyes at the spurious ‘healthy diet’ of us Scots, we are not the creators of Pasties, the home of Greggs or the birthplace of the humble Brownie, all of which, individually, contain more fat, salt and sugar than our scones, pancakes and oatcakes combined. There is a reason for the universal popularity of Brownies, and it’s not their health-giving properties, but I make and sell a lot of them, so let’s gloss over that and move on.
I was the one who always said ‘I can’t bake or knit’ (the latter because I’m left-handed and learned to knit awkwardly as a result). And I was the one often told how great my mother’s and grandmother’s baking was but, following several disastrous attempts as a teenager, I was a mother in my thirties before I was brave enough to return to baking. I’m still very much a learner now, but I can bake some things well and am no longer afraid to adapt recipes to my own taste. We all know traditions play a big part in forming who we are or become, however subconsciously, and for all the difficulties I had in recording mum’s and Gaga’s recipes, they were worth pursuing and practicing, because making them now takes me with fondness to a place that has nothing to do with scones or pancakes or sugar content. Nostalgia is big business for good reason. An added bonus is that both my son and daughter have used these recipes too on occasion (although they are infinitely easier to follow, it must be said), thus taking them into the next generation and, I hope, the promise of a future. No credit to Mary, Nigella or Delia, although perhaps a little to The Great British Bake Off, but otherwise this is all Gaga’s doing.