Around this time last year, when I was deep in the research (and knitting) for our Argyll’s Secret Coast book, I read the “old” and “new” Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1791-45) for the parishes of the Cowal peninsula. This reading made me think about a lot of different things: the area’s unusual demographic changes (the population increasing, as that of other parts of Argyll declined); the relationship between fishing and farming, land and sea, and the evident love some of the contributing writers had clearly had for the landscape in which they lived and worked. For example, I particularly enjoyed the 1792 contribution of the Rev. Mr Charles Stewart, of the parish of Strachur and Strathlachan: a man with a point of view, and an evident poetical bent, who felt there was “no object in the highlands more pleasant than gentle sloping hills, skirted with wood, and terminating in the sea.” He was particularly fond of the wooded shores of Loch Fyne, which he describes as “raising feelings” in him “like that of comfortable clothing in a bleak and cold country.” If you’ve spent any time walking in the beautiful landscape of which the Rev Stewart writes, you’ll know exactly what he means.
One thing I found myself thinking a lot about, after reading the Statistical Accounts, was the diets of ordinary people in this part of Argyll. Eighteenth-century inhabitants of the Cowal peninsula ate a fair amount of herring (as you might imagine), alongside kale, potatoes, oats and bere: the ancient variety of barley that’s peculiarly well-adapted to cold, wet, northern climates – like that of Scotland.
Bere – pronounced bear – is probably the oldest cereal grain to be grown in Scotland. Cultivated since the neolithic period, by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries it was a crucial crop, both domestically (in small-scale crofting, like that which existed in Cowal during this period) and commercially (for larger scale use in brewing, flour milling, and baking). Later in the nineteenth century, when barley varieties with a higher yield were introduced, the cultivation of bere declined. This crop which was once so central to the diets of ordinary working Scottish people is now grown in only a few places: Bruichladdich distillery, on the Rhinns in Islay, has its own crop, as does the Barony mill in Orkney, which produces its own wonderful bere flour and bere berries.
Never having tried bere flour, and intrigued by its possibilities, last winter, I purchased a supply directly from the Barony mill, bought myself a traditional iron girdle (Scots for griddle, of which more later) and began experimenting. I also read quite a bit about Scotland’s history of bere cultivation and cookery – if you are interested – here are two books I’d recommend.
If you’ve never tried it, bere has a wonderfully rounded, nutty flavour, which makes it brilliant for baking. The Barony mill in Orkney recommend substituting it for a third of your usual wheat flour: a simple rule that has worked very well in every recipe I’ve tried.
My style of baking tends to be quite simple: I love making cakes and pies, scones and bannocks. These are the kind of no-frills treats that have long been central to the Scottish kitchen, at breakfast or high tea, and I’ve particularly enjoyed my beremeal experiments, which have really made me think (through reading, cooking, and of course eating) about the history of Scottish fare. So here’s a beremeal tea loaf for you, which you’ll particularly like making if you, as I do, enjoy the kind of cake which involves just mixing everything together in one pan before popping it in the oven.
cup of tea and bere loaf
This simple to bake tea loaf brings together several of my favourite things – tea and whisky, dried fruits and walnuts. The nutty flavour of beremeal really adds something to this tasty cake. If you are unable to find bere, you might try another flour that’s produced in your area, such as spelt. Due to my upbringing, I really enjoy eating this tea loaf with cheese (Lancashire, or Wensleydale): you might prefer to accompany it with a large cup of tea, or perhaps a wee dram of whisky.
For the pan:
450g / 16 oz mixed fruit. (Sultanas, currants, chopped dates, dried cherries, apricots – whatever takes your fancy)
1 tbsp marmalade
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
dram of whisky (50ml)
cup of black tea (about 200ml)
170g / 6 oz butter
170g/ 6 oz soft brown sugar
255g / 9oz flour (6oz self-raising, 3oz bere)
50g / 2 oz chopped walnuts
1tsp mixed spice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
Preheat oven to 140C (130C fan) and grease and line a 2lb loaf tin (or 2 x 1lb tins if preferred)
In a large pan on a low heat, place the fruit, marmlade, tea and whisky. Let the mixture simmer for about an hour (the fruit should plump up and absorb the liquid), then add the butter, sugar and raising agents. Mix well, take off the heat, and allow the pan to cool.
Combine the flours, nuts, and other dry ingredients and, once the pan has cooled sufficiently, stir into the mixture, adding a little at a time.
Beat the eggs, and stir into the mixture. Everything should be well combined.
Tip the mixture into the lined loaf tin and place in the centre of the oven for approximately one hour and 30 minutes.
Check the cake with a skewer after an hour and 15 minutes: if it comes out clean, the cake is done.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before turning out onto a wire rack.