Sunday 30 November 2014

Not just in Wimbledon...

Agriculture is a big employer in Orkney. Farming has been a way of life here for 5000 years and it is pretty much the main industry on the islands.

A result of this is that there are loads of silage or haylage bales produced each year, which are all wrapped in plastic sheet. The sheet comes in various colours: black, green or white. It is even possible to use two colours at once, making each bale look like a giant humbug (he said, warming to the festive spirit). Fortunately, there are opportunities to dispose of all of this plastic in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner, once the silage/haylage has been unwrapped to be fed to cattle or sheep. One such scheme is this one, run by Solway Recycling.

Inevitably, with a lightweight, thin material and Orkney's windy weather, a fair bit of silage wrap is blown about the countryside, at least until it meets a barbed wire fence. This is certainly unsightly and can be downright noisy in the wrong conditions.

At this juncture, around the environs of Tense Towers, Our Lass goes into wombling mode, collecting stray wrap and disposing of it in an appropriate way. That is to say, it disappears into our household rubbish bin and eventually ends up at an incinerator on Shetland to provide heating in Lerwick.

Just don't mention the words 'Madame' and 'Cholet', or you may be chased around the kitchen by an irate woman brandishing a sharp utensil.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Tin can ying-yang

Yesterday morning saw me carrying out a recycling survey in Kirkwall, with the help of a colleague. Not for us the dusty analysis of dry statistics, but the 'boots on the ground' collection of raw figures. Think of it as the opened-baked-bean-tin cutting edge of environmental data. This is possibly as exciting as my life can be at the moment! Yes, really! A heady concoction of plastic, glass, paper and cans, amidst some adrenalin-fuelled data-gathering, brought on by the critical nature of the timing of the survey.

This is because if we're too early, it's not light enough to see, or perhaps folk haven't yet put their bins out for collection. But then again, if we're too late, the local council will have been around and whipped all the data away in their big orange recycling lorry.

Fortunately, our timing was perfect. As we were about a quarter of the way around the survey area, the bin lorry appeared and followed a similar route to us, so we were able to maintain a healthy gap between our data gathering and their recycling collection.

After that, I gave my colleague a lift across town to pick up an undelivered parcel from a courier's office, which was located in an industrial estate. This meant a little guesswork on our part as to where to go. Our first attempt was down the wrong road and we ended up in a cul-de-sac at the Orkney Cheese factory. As I hadn't previously known where this was, I mused that the trip had turned into a fromage of discovery. Second time lucky, we found the correct street and retrieved the parcel.

During the survey, I had also discovered a wallet in the pocket of the waterproof I was wearing. The wallet belonged to another colleague who had borrowed the coat the weekend before, so being the good Samaritan that I am, I dropped it off at his address as I left town.

This good deed was rewarded with some amazingly quick karma, because as I drove passed the airport, a male Hen Harrier flew along the road beside me. A grand view of a grand bird.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Johnny Depp never had it so good

It's probably fair to say that Our Lass is a down-to-earth sort, a gal driven by life's priorities and who is a firm believer in the old mantra of 'success is all of what you need and a little of what you want'.

For example, my nearest and dearest cooks but does not bake. To live, we all need to eat food, so Tense Towers is a home of tasty, few frills, nutritious meals. OK, we ship in, or I bake, the occasional cake, but that's where the 'want' comes in.

So, it's probably an indication of our changed lives that, today, Our Lass decided that a little frivolousness was called for. As we're fans of dark chocolate and only slightly dark movies, 'Chocolat' is a perennial favourite at OTT. So much so, that we even have a recipe book inspired by the film.

And today was its day!

Our Lass reckoned we could do without the whipped cream, the sprinkles were optional, chilli flakes would suffice for a whole chilli, but the alcohol was a necessity. See? Priorities!

A pint of milk, a cinnamon stick and the chilli flakes were simmered in a pan.

Then, a bar of dark chocolate (85% cocoa) was broken up and melted into the pan.

This was then whisked, whilst off the heat...

a little brown sugar added, and the mixture allowed to stand for 10 minutes to infuse. This was the difficult bit, as Our Lass is not THAT patient :o)

Then, a bit more whisking, before returning the pan to the heat to bring back to simmering point.

Finally, the mixture was sieved into two mugs (MINE had sprinkles!) and then the last ingredient added...

a shot of Cointreau.

And the  verdict?

Vianne would've been proud!

Friday 14 November 2014

Chuffed chef

Our Lass was watching Masterchef on television last night. Several young professional chefs were given scraps or leftovers and asked to make stunningly tasty and aesthetic-looking dishes. From a Love Food/Hate Waste point of view, I thought this was a spiffing idea.

Unfortunately, simply cooking nourishing, hearty food isn't good enough, of course. Therefore, although I would have happily eaten any of the dishes produced, staple fayre doesn't make for great television viewing, so there were some harsh criticisms of perfectly good food and several dejected chefs wandered off into the night.

Tonight, after a dreich day with gale force winds and driving rain, some warming, wholesome grub was required to lift the mood at Tense Towers. Yours Truly was ushered into the kitchen, whilst herself disappeared off for a rendezvous with a lusciously hot bath.

On her return, a freshly-pampered Our Lass was treated to a Spécialité de la Maison:

Steamed Heritage Winter Vegetables,
on a bed of Yorkshire Pudding,
with a Sweet Potato Purée
and a Jus de Knorr et Bisto

The judge's comments ranged from "Nothing wrong with your portion control" to "Nice sprouts", which modesty barely allows me to take as constructive, yet piquantly saucy, criticism. Or even saucily piquant.

I mentioned that I thought I had prepared the gravy before. "Déjà vu?" Our Lass asked. "No," I replied, "Dévà jus."

Wednesday 12 November 2014


I have an undeserved reputation for "Bah! Humbug!" when it comes to Christmas festivities. I am not anti-celebration at all, merely pro-celebration at the appropriate time. More of a Twelve Days of Christmas kinda guy, than a twelve weeks of Christmas commercial zealot. I'd rather hear a paean to paganism, than the electronic beeping of checkout tills.

Even so, I had a very strange experience last weekend, which in some ways, I'm still trying to understand.

Voluntary Action Orkney, an umbrella organisation representing a whole raft of Orcadian charities, sponsors a Charities' Christmas Bazaar every year in the Kirkwall Town Hall. At this year's event, there were more than 20 charities taking part, all selling festive fayre and raising money for good causes.

I was helping out on my employer's stall, which covered two of our projects, 'Love Food, Hate Waste' and Steptoze Yard. One table was laden with all manner of tasty homebakes, with hot soup or non-alcoholic mulled wine also available. The other table featured a range of recycled gifts, things handed in at our re-use yard, from candlesticks to soft toys.

But, yes, it was only the 8th of November. And there's something rather surreal about decorating a stall with tinsel and lights, whilst still wearing your Remembrance Day poppy.

Don't say a word, just don't...

Sunday 9 November 2014


Fifty three years ago, in 1961, approximately halfway between the time that Our Lass was born, in West Germany, and when the infant Tense first grizzled his way into the world, in north east England, the East German authorities constructed the Berlin Wall to divide East from West.

We were each blithely unaware of the others, or, at least, I know that Our Lass and I were not introduced... and neither of us were keeping tabs on East Germany.

Some time later, Our Lass and I found ourselves living together in West Germany...

Then, twenty five years ago, we left Deutschland to return to Britain. Twenty five years ago, the Berlin Wall came down.

Weird, huh?

I was thinking these odd Cold War thoughts, this morning, as Our Lass and I stood on the cliff tops at Hobbister, looking out across Scapa Flow and observing a two minute silence for Remembrance Sunday. As it is one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War, the occasion seemed to have a deeper significance still.

The 'safe' anchorage of Scapa Flow has seen its share of tragedy in the past century. In 1917, an accidental explosion aboard HMS Vanguard resulted in the loss of over 800 men. In 1939, the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat, also saw the loss of over 800 men.

This morning, the skies were overcast and sombre, there was not a breath of wind, allowing sounds to travel much further than normal.

After our respectful silence, remembering the sacrifice that others had made, we lightened the mood by wandering along the path, watching Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks on the sea below. Their calls rang out through the still air, mingling with the gentle sounds of waves on the shore. Amongst an array of grebes, divers and Black Guillemots, one small bird stood out. We looked at it... we looked at each other... and then we looked at it again. It was tiny, really small. Squat and compact in shape, mostly black but with white cheeks and breast, it had a short bill and a hint of an upturned tail. I could only think of one possible bird that would fit the description, but neither of us had ever seen one before, a Little Auk.

We will certainly remember today.

Monday 3 November 2014

Local loop

For the beginning of November, this morning was absolutely peachy... bright sunshine and the softest of breezes. The sort of morning when all of your plans, no matter how important they were, go out of the window, along the road and off into the wide blue yonder.

I opted for a local loop, all on single track tarmac roads, so boots and car could be left at home. Grabbing my bins but eschewing the camera, I made my way along Cornquoy Road, which together with Greenwall Road and The Tieve Road make up the circular walk that I refer to as the Kirk Loop.

As I dropped downhill towards St Nicholas' Kirk, a few waders could be seen in neighbouring fields: lapwing, curlew, redshank and golden plover.

On a flooded field behind the church, eighteen teal watched me warily from the water's edge. Where the road skirted the cemetery wall, I could see dozens of birds sat on the tarmac. This was a bit of a conundrum until I realised that, with the high tide, huge swathes of seaweed had been thrown onto the grass verge, and swarms of flies were emanating from this 'aromatic' mass. The starlings and pipits were having a grand time! Rounding a bend in the road brought me out of the lee of the cemetery wall and into a suddenly stiffer breeze. All the flies and other invertebrates were being propelled along by this wind, so that it felt a bit like walking into a living hailstorm.

Once away from the shoreline, the situation improved, so I could stop to take a few more photos with my phone.

The gentle climb up to Greenwall (reputedly the oldest, continually-occupied current dwelling in Orkney, at approx 400 years) emphasised just how warm it was. I was wearing way too many layers, which isn't something you can say too often around here.