“It’s a bit like Craggy Island”.
Whilst Arran is a rural island outpost and does necessitate almost an hour’s ferry crossing from the Scottish mainland, it’s still within easy reach of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Its appeal as a place to live is evidenced by the fact that many of its 5000+ residents are not native islanders but blow-ins from other parts of Scotland, Northern England and elsewhere.
Boasting the highest density of artisan food producers of any postcode in Scotland – and producing high quality fresh vegetables and herbs, cheeses, mustards, oatcakes, ice cream, beer, Scotch whisky and more – the island also appeals as a place where you can drink and eat, both locally and well.
What’s particularly impressive about the food production on Arran, though, is its truly co-operative nature. Taste of Arran and its founder, the aforementioned Alastair Dobson, have a lot to do with that.
When I met Alastair, he was busy serving his Arran Dairies ice cream to a long queue of people at the Brodick Highland Games. Supplies of their Great Taste award winning chocolate ice cream were gone by the time I got there, but Alastair’s favourite, the traditional dairy variety, was in plentiful supply, so I got busy eating.
Deftly passing out equal measures of ice cream and good cheer, Alastair talked about his progression from dairying to ice cream production and thence to the promotion and marketing of island-produced food with the establishment of Taste of Arran.
Taste of Arran is not only about shared marketing resources, though. It has fostered an extremely rich co-operative network on the island. You will find, among many others examples, Arran mustard made using Arran whisky, Arran chutney featuring Arran beer and Arran ice cream flavoured with Arran Gold whisky liqueur. You will also find local restaurants (such as the excellent Brambles Seafood And Grill at the Auchrannie Resort) proudly serving (and naming) the Arran products that they use.
The De Courcys, meanwhile, who run the charming Arran Barn, will proudly tell you that the makings of your breakfast will be locally sourced where possible and, where appropriate, will be harvested to order.
All of which explains to me why so many non-islanders have chosen to make this their home. It’s a place that not only gives good cause to visit Scotland but to stay.
Oatcakes might well be one of the definitive Scottish foods. Goodness knows, they’ve been around for a long time. According to my Little Scottish Cookbook, the 14th century chronicler Jean Froissart recorded that Scottish soldiers would carry a flat plate and a wallet of oatmeal. Using a little water, they could always make themselves an oatcake over an open fire.
In their traditional form, they are an austere kind of food. Just oats, salt and bread soda mixed with a very small amount of liquid fat and water. That doesn’t mean that they’re not good, though. I became very fond of the excellent bran oaties from Wooleys of Arran, which add wheat bran and a small amount of brown sugar to what otherwise seems a fairly traditional formula. Having very quickly eaten through my stash of said oaties, I found myself needing to recreate them and fast.
Taking Wooley’s lead and replacing some oats with wheat bran and adding a spoon of sugar, I ended up with something that wasn’t a bad approximation of the original. Not as crisp and perfectly baked, mind, but I was still happy to scoff them. I also took the step of toasting the oatmeal first to try and bring out its nuttiness, though feel free to skip that step if you like.
- 175g porridge oats (rolled oats) plus a little extra for rolling out, or substitute with fine oatmeal
- 75g wheat bran
- 0.25 tsp of salt
- 0.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tblsp demerara sugar
- 1 tblsp butter, melted
- approx 150ml to 250ml just-boiled water
You’ll also need:
- A couple of large baking sheets (mine were 30cm x 40cm) and a coffee or spice grinder for grinding the oats.
- Preheat your oven to 200C
- If using porridge oats and you want to toast them first, spread them onto the baking sheets and toast in the oven for 5-10 minutes, just until the flakes have browned lightly and being careful not to let them burn. Allow them to cool slightly and grind to a coarse flour texture using a spice grinder. Alternatively, you can grind the porridge oats directly or just use fine oatmeal.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the oats, bran, salt and bicarbonate of soda.
- Make a well in the centre and add the melted butter and about 150ml of the just-boiled water. Mix together to form a stiff dough – adding more water if the mixture is too dry. Knead the dough so that it comes together smoothly.
- Roll the dough out to a thickness of around 3mm on a surface sprinkled with some additional oatmeal. Cut into triangles, rounds or squares as you prefer.
- Place on ungreased baking sheets and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the oatcakes have firmed up and are starting to turn golden brown at the edges.
- Cool on a wire rack and enjoy spread with butter or topped with cheese.
- For regular oatcakes, replace the bran with additional oats. You could also try adding some grated cheddar to the mixture to make cheese oaties.
- Makes around 20 to 25 x 7cm round oatcakes.