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  1. di red portrait



    If you like cooking and enjoy sleuthing for unusual ingredients, here’s a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to source chillies from a home in the Outer Hebrides …

    Back on Christmas Day 1983, my parents gave me a great cookery book called The Spice of Life, which was written to accompany a C4 series about the history of spices and the European empires that were built on them.

    One of the recipes is for a Mexican dish of chicken cooked in chilli and chocolate. I was very interested in giving this a go, but getting hold of the correct chillies was problematic. In Bradford, I could get any number of Asian chillies, but this dish called for specific South American varieties – ancho, pasilla and mulato – which were impossible to find.

    A few years later, a copywriting buddy of mine on a round the world trip announced he was on his way to Mexico City. I immediately sent a begging letter, and when he returned a month or two later, he had a carrier bag full of chillies, and lavish descriptions of the specialist chilli shop where he’d found them.

    A year or two later, we had moved to the Outer Hebrides and I had all but run out of my South American treasures. In a flash of inspiration, I contacted the Mexican Embassy in London, who kindly supplied a list of wholesalers exporting chillies to the UK. Unfortunately, most of them were only interested in selling by the sack, so with a sigh I put the list of addresses, which included everywhere from Mexico to Buenos Aires, Rio and Bogotá, into the dashboard of the car, and forgot all about them.

    At this time, the car was playing up, and an acquaintance in the village recommended a bloke up the road. “He’s the best motor mechanic in Europe,” he said extravagantly. “He’ll do anything for a bottle of vodka.”

    The man in question did indeed turn out to be a fine mechanic, diagnosing an extremely subtle fault in the engine. We got the car back, paid in the proper spirit and drove it home.

    A few days later, I had a call from a friend, who said she had no idea we were cocaine barons and how cleverly we had concealed our activities. It transpired that while working on our car, the mechanic had gone into the dashboard looking for the manual, and come across the list of South American addresses. As far as he was concerned, the only products that came out of South America were illegal drugs, and we were obviously running an elaborate operation from the privacy of our blackhouse.

    I was never entirely sure that my cover story about trying to get hold of some ancho chillies was believed. Now we have the internet, it’s pretty easy to pick up any kind of chilli you care to mention – with no risk at all to one’s reputation.




    People from the mainland are always curious about what you miss from life back in England. In the first years, I missed pubs and decent beer. As a student, my consciousness was raised regarding the merits of real ale, and I have fond memories of CAMRA festivals and sampling many examples of the brewer’s art. Moving to the Highlands, I had grave doubts about being able to find a decent pint.

    One of my earliest writing jobs involved a trip to Orkney to interview the people who had recently established the Orkney Brewing Company at Quoyloo. I can’t remember their names now, but I do remember the master brewer had come from Boddington’s in Manchester and I will never forget the pint of Red MacGregor I drank there, straight from the brewery tap. Fantastic stuff – strong, hoppy and full of flavour, it reminded me of the London bitters I used to love, like Fuller’s ESB and Young’s. I have never seen it for sale from the cask since, although you can get it in bottles, which isn’t quite the same.

    Nowadays we have the Skye Brewery and its excellent Young Pretender bitter and the Hebridean Brewery, which does produce cask ales but you can never find them – at least not here. And there is always something hand-pulled on offer at the Carlton, which we still call The Whalers, so real ale is not something I miss so much anymore.

    But one other thing I still miss from the mainland is shopping in the market. Bradford and Leeds both had great covered market halls, and every Saturday we’d go there for our meat, fish, fruit and veg. I think the only things we bought in the supermarket were loo rolls, dog food and baked beans.

    There’s an atmosphere about a market that doesn’t translate to the supermarket. It’s so informal and cheerful, and there’s the constant element of surprise – you never know what you’re going to find, and you can pick up great bargains. I can remember leaving one of our favourite stalls one Saturday near Christmas with a box of asparagus for the princely sum of £2!

    On another occasion, I went to Leeds market with £10 and strict instructions to buy food for the weekend. But Leeds market is an eclectic place, liable to overcome sensible intentions. I came home with two boxes of mushrooms – fabulously cheap! - six punnets of strawberries – impossible to turn down! - a carp – a shoddy attempt to divert my fisherman husband’s attention from the fact I had failed to fulfil the brief - and a wok – think of the future possibilities, the next time I went shopping and actually bought food that could be turned into meals!

    I’ve always loved cooking and the shopping was - should be - an important element of the enjoyment of preparing a meal. Chatting with the market traders, waiting while your fish was filleted, the buzz of a busy hall filled with people, is definitely a lost pleasure. Our butcher, Mr Hare, was a brilliant consultant on cuts. During my first stint as a professional cook, he introduced me to Pallas Ribs – lean slabs of beef that required long, slow cooking and made the most amazing stock for French onion soup. This cut was also perfect for spiced beef, an extremely old English treasure that takes a week to make and was a great centrepiece for buffets.

    Great as Tesco is, and grateful as I am for its presence, it doesn’t offer the conviviality of food shopping amongst a welter of stalls with piles of vegetables and fruit, meats, cheeses and tiny little speciality emporiums like the Polish and Italian delis and West Indian food booths that were tucked enigmatically into the jolly chaos.

    Now, our beloved Bradford market is no more, although the one in Leeds still thrives. In these days of shrink and plastic-packaged food, where everything carries a health and allergy warning, and we are increasingly restricted to what the supermarkets decide to supply, we’ve lost that sense of fun and excitement, and the possibility of being surprised, that used to be so much a part of our food shopping, especially in a multi-cultural city like Bradford.