PORT AN DROIGHIONN, Scotland — There is no need for Elizabeth David’s or anyone else’s cookbooks in the kitchen at Port an Droighionn, the location of our vacation home. The cooking there is very basic.
My mother shares some of the challenges faced by British women after World War II: The west coast in the early 1970s is not a place where garlic and olive oil are to be easily found. So tins of Spam, baked beans, tomatoes, corn, peas, haricot beans and any other kind of meat and vegetables my parents can ﬁnd in the supermarket two hours’ drive away mount up on the shelves.
Anything in a can or a tin or a jar, or anything dried and nonperishable, is stockpiled. Anything fresh is cooked and eaten fast.
My mother is limited to two gas rings fueled by an orange canister that leans against the house outside the kitchen and an outdoor barbecue that my father built from stones and a metal grill. And she has the Esse.
With no electricity, a solid-fuel stove is the only option. The hulking white-painted metal Esse — a pygmy Aga, really — squats along a wall in the kitchen, hungry for coal and spewing smoke out of a chimney and, often, into the house. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and once a week my father spends two hours on his knees, raking and gouging, cleaning the innards of the Esse. My sister and I keep out of the way when it is cleaning day.
The Esse has two settings: incredibly hot and so tepid it may as well be off. On the “incredibly hot” setting of the Esse, my mother tries out a traditional Scottish recipe that requires just such a ﬂat, hot metal surface as the “girdle” — the Scots dialect name for griddle — on the top of the Esse. Drop scones are little pancakes made from a batter of self-rising ﬂour, golden syrup, salt, milk or buttermilk, sugar and eggs. She stands in the warmth of the kitchen and mixes the ingredients in a ceramic bowl until it forms a light-yellow batter. The coal in the Esse has made the girdle so hot that a drop of water sizzles into nothing in a panicked instant.
She lightly butters the girdle and immediately starts to drop the batter onto the surface from a tablespoon. The drop scones form in rounds, a dozen of them ﬁtting on the girdle at once. She watches the batter on the upper side begin to bubble slightly and then she ﬂips them over. The sweet warm smell ﬁlls the kitchen. When the drop scones are done, she piles them up on a plate, in a tea towel, and covers the pile to keep them warm.
She reaches for the brass bell with the black handle that sits always on a side table in the kitchen, walks outside and onto the slight hill behind the house, where the single, weather-beaten hawthorn tree clings on against the Atlantic winds. She rings the bell, and the noise carries across the hills and the bog to wherever we are. We know that there must be something good on the kitchen table.
We spoon honey and jam onto the warm drop scones and eat dozens, until we can eat no more.
With the supermarket so far away, ﬁnding fresh food in Ardnamurchan is a problem.
My mother begins to make compost and turns the front north-facing part of the garden into her vegetable patch. The cold and the salt and the stony ground make it tough going — lettuces don’t stand a chance, nor do most things that grow above ground — but soon we are eating her carrots, radishes, potatoes and red currants. My mother boils the potatoes and slathers them with butter.
There aren’t many of them and they’re rather small, but they are the best potatoes any of us has ever tasted.
My father shoots some rabbits with his .22 riﬂe, and my mother roasts a couple. The gun isn’t up to shooting deer, but the local farmer, Alistair, has a larger riﬂe. He brings over some venison. My mother grabs what she has — red wine, oil, some dried herbs — and sinks the lean ﬂesh of the red deer stag into a deep marinade. It sits in its pot for two days before she cooks it. It is tender, gamey and extraordinarily delicious.
Alistair’s sister makes some black pudding — a thick blood sausage — and even my father, a fan of black pudding, ﬁnds it a little too rich and bloody.
The sea is more bountiful than the land. We collect huge mussels from the bay, and my mother scrubs them and makes moules marinieres as Elizabeth David has taught her. My parents befriend the owners of the local wild salmon ﬁshery, and there is a ready supply of the world’s best salmon, fresh and smoked.
Andrew, the slightly unpredictable man who dynamited and dug our road, has failed at his house-building business and has turned to diving for scallops. He comes down to the house one day with a whole sack of the maroon and white and dun half-moon shells, and my parents pick out which ones they want. My mother pries them open at the fan end of the shell with a table knife and a spoon, running the knife along the inside of the ﬂat side of the shell. She takes the spoon and scoops out the ﬂesh, separating the white scallop meat from the bitter skirt that surrounds it. My father lingers over the stove as she fries them in butter. They turn the shells into ashtrays and mouse-poison holders.
We have a white ﬁberglass and wood dingy with an outboard engine and a couple of oars. My father buys three secondhand lobster creels connected on a rope that ends with a pink buoy. We push quite far out into the sea when the weather is good and unfurl from spindles ﬁshing lines of about eight hooks, with white and colored feathers bound next to them. These are mackerel lines.
A few circular lead weights tied to the end take a line to the seabed. When we feel the line go slack, we rewind the spindle several turns so that the hooks ﬂoat a few feet above the bottom, invisible to us. We pull the lines up and down with one hand, smoothly, holding the spool with the other hand just in case something tugs suddenly and powerfully at the nylon twine. When a mackerel takes a hook, the line quivers; then it begins to scythe across the surface. My father teaches us to control our excitement a little bit and to stay seated where we are, so that we don’t all end up in the Atlantic. There is no standing up in the boat — ever. There is no moving from your seat without permission.
Occasionally, brilliantly, when we are fishing in the boat, there are silver ﬂashes darting around on all eight hooks in the darkness of the water as we wind in the lines, turn by turn on the spool. I learn to thwack the heads of the ﬁsh on the wooden bench in the boat, dumping them onto the bloody hull when they’re dead. I’m allowed a knife, and when we get to shore I slice off the heads, slit their bellies from the anus to the neck, and pull out the guts.
My mother fries them. And, in a metal box she has bought for the purpose, she smokes the rest. There are often too many to eat fresh.
Some of the ﬁsh become bait for the creels, stuffed raw into little pouches inside the traps of netting and rusty, heavy metal frames. There are two funnel-like entrances in each creel. Lobsters are not smart enough to ﬁnd their way back out.
We drop the creels from the boat into the sea about 50 yards off the rocks and leave them there for two or three days. I look at the pink buoy from the shore, wondering what’s happening down below the waves. Hauling them out of the sea after a couple of days is thrilling. Each yard of rope my father pulls into the boat brings the creels closer. The ﬁrst one forms a vague smudge of paleness in the water, and slowly it comes more into focus. To counterbalance the tug of the creels, either my sister or I have to sit on the other side of the boat. It is agonizing for the one whose turn it is to miss the emergence of the lobster pots, as we call them. Sometimes there is disappointment: The creels are empty.
But sometimes my father lifts them into the boat, dripping with cold seawater and smelling of something alive. That means they are holding treasure. Huge hermit crabs hiding in their borrowed, barnacled shells; purple starﬁsh spreading their sucking tentacles across the netting; spiky sea urchins my sister and I keep and then drown in freshwater so that we can make decorations out of their shells; once, a brindled dogﬁsh, whose ﬁn cuts through the salty water in our bathtub for an hour and makes its escape into the bay only because my mother, the judge and executioner, decides it won’t taste very good; a huge conger eel, as thick as my father’s arm, its sharp teeth a horror from the depths. The conger goes the way of the dogﬁsh, slithering out of the creel into the rocks in the bay when we return to shore. For years afterward I expect it to bite me as I swim over those rocks at high tide.
But the crabs and the lobsters are the gems. My mother drops them into pans of boiling water, the deep-blue lobsters squealing and turning instantly pink. When they’re done, she dresses the lobsters with mayonnaise and sits at the white Formica table cracking open the huge crabs, scooping out the edible meat, discarding the rest, and reﬁlling the shells the size of my father’s hand with all the good bits.
At the end of one summer, a local farmer sells us two sheep, gutted and headless. “This is not strictly legal,” my father explains to Jane and me, smiling as he wraps the two carcasses in black garbage bags and straps them to the roof of the car. Slaughtering and selling whole sheep is against governmental health guidelines. The farmer is extremely keen that our cargo escape the notice of the police. It is a ﬁve-hour drive to Edinburgh and we have a full car, our yellow Vauxhall station wagon. There is only the one, single-track road out of Ardnamurchan, and along the way we will have to drive past the tiny police station in a small town named Strontian, where in 1798 strontium was discovered in a lead mine in the hills. We will not be stopping for a bathroom break in the public toilets in Strontian. Sometimes the region’s only policeman is encountered along the road. We will have to take our chances.
As we wind our way along the road, we can hear the ﬂapping plastic on the roof. We make baaing sounds and joke about being arrested as McAllester sheep stealers, and my father retells a nonsense story about the unusual spelling of our last name that his father used to tell him when he was a boy: The McAllisters were sheep stealers, and one day they were found out, their dastardly crimes exposed. “So they slipped away and, in a moment of cunning and wile, they changed the i in McAllister to an e and escaped detection forever,” my father says.
We, too, escape detection, and two hours after setting off down the single-track road we make it to the Corran Ferry, where we have to wait in line for the boat to take us across the sea loch to where the road opens up to two lanes and heads south toward Glasgow and Edinburgh. We get out of the car to inspect the sheep on the roof. Their raw legs have torn through the black plastic and stick upward. They are very obviously the legs of two dead sheep.
A couple of pools of blood form on the yellow-painted roof. The four of us look at one another with silent, laughing faces, not meeting the eyes of the other people waiting for the ferry.
We eat mutton in Edinburgh, every way my mother can think of cooking it, for weeks afterward.
Read additional excerpts from Matt McAllester's recently released memoir, "Bittersweet: Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen":