Sunday, 26 May 2013

A Hoy Old Man

We were blessed with a good day for our visit to Orkney and The Old Man of Hoy. A misty morning yielded as the John O'Groats ferry arrived at Lyness on the island of Hoy and the sun broke through. The Highland Council Rangers herded us onto the bus for the journey round the edge of Scapa Flow. Just outside the village we pass the Naval Cemetery, a reminder of the sacrifice paid by many sailors during WWII when Scapa Flow was a major Navy base. The bus then meandered, following the shore as far as Graemsay, the westerly guard island opposite Stromness on the mainland. At that point the bus turned east to cross the wilderness on upland Hoy, past the Dwarfie Stane to Rackwick Bay, nestled between two high headlands. From there the steep climb up the northern headland takes us past the cottage once owned by master of the Queen's music, composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies currently in hospital in London being treated for lukemia.
A well made path heads north towards the final objective, the mighty red sandstone stack standing 450 feet tall on its basalt plinth. It's one of the most famous climbs in the world, first executed in 1966 by Chris Bonnongton, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey. Nowadays, it is climbed around 50 times a year, including during our visit. The photo shows a climber spreadeagled across the crack that furnishes the main route to the top. The other picture looks north from the stack towards St John's Head, the highest sea cliff in Britain. We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the stack on what was turning out to be the warmest day of the year, an amazing bonus. On the walk back we were entertained by a pair of eagles harassing wildfowl on a lochan.

On the ferry back to John o' Groats we passed the Cantick Head lighthouse that highlights the south east corner of South Walls. We had hoped to spot orcas or dolphins on the sail back across the Pentland Firth but none obliged.

The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder- Buy Links

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon



Saturday, 18 May 2013

NSM - New Smoking Materials


This  acronym is emblazoned on my heart.  If you Google the letters, you are offered variously, A Naval strike missile, The College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Nationstar Mortgages, The National Seating and Mobility Company and less desirably, The National Socialist Movement.
     For me however it means New Smoking Material, the subject of a major 1970's joint research project between Imperial Chemical Industries and Imperial Tobacco. The objective was to produce a safer smoke. In the Times at the weekend, I noted an article on electronic cigarettes that deliver only nicotine, a niche market with prospects, now attracting the major tobacco companies. The article actually mentioned the NSM project that I worked on and brought back memories.
     From 1970, I spent six years on the NSM project in a variety of roles. The work ethic was awesome, driven by a director who survived WWII as a Japanese POW. It had become clear fairly early on in the research that it was fairly easy to make a substrate that would burn at the same rate as tobacco in a cigarette, producing far less toxins. The big problem was making it taste like tobacco and the imponderable within the problem was nicotine, the poisonous and addictive component that defines tobacco. While research continued on deconstructing tobacco flavour and looking at means of delivering nicotine, the project priority was to produce a neutral healthy substitute that could be mixed with normal tobacco to reduce cigarette toxicity by dilution.
     The UK government was an interested party within two of its departments. The problem of regulatory approval of tobacco substitutes was delegated to the Hunter Committee chaired by Professor Robert Hunter. They developed a list of short and long term toxicological tests to which such materials had to be submitted. Some of the long term tests were performed on dogs (The Smoking Beagles), attracting lurid tabloid headlines and the aggressive attention of the animal rights lobby. This exposure was partly responsible for a change in sentiment within ICI. One ICI director referred to Imperial Tobacco as 'the merchants of death.' The manufacturing plant eventually built to produce NSM was a 100% investment by Imperial Tobacco.
       The other UK government department that took a keen interest as we approached commercialisation was the Customs and Excise. They were concerned that their lucrative takings from tobacco might be threatened by substitutes, so they decided to tax them more or less in the same way. A minor concession was the application of the so called 'commonwealth preference rate' designed to give then Rhodesian tobacco a marginal advantage over the American flue cured variety.
      There were competitors, most notably American Celanese with their Cytrel product. ICI had a patent dispute with Celanese requiring visits to arcane counsel chambers in London and a session at the patent court. We were keen to protect our discoveries with patents. I have a vivid memory of smoking a substitute cigarette in the US Patent Office in Washington on my first ever visit to the US. We got the patent.
     In July 1977 Imperial, Gallahers and  Rothmans launched a dozen versions of cigarettes containing 20-30% of NSM or Cytrel. Health groups criticised them for still delivering substantial doses of toxins, an unproven half measure, they said. In addition many consumers said that they didn't like the taste. Sales turned out to be very small and the products were withdrawn after a few months.
      For ICI, it was an object lesson in how a long term project with laudable aims can be undermined by changing times. The wind had turned round, blowing the smoke back into ICI's face.

The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder- Buy Links

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon



Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Gravadtrout- A delicacy from a humble fish

Fishers often wonder what to do with the trout they catch. The fish can be bland and boring and soon disappear from the menu. Cold smoking is a good option if you have access to a facility run by a friend. An even better option available to the home cook is to make the trout equivalent of Gravadlax (literally grave salmon) which I'm calling Gravadtrout. It works especially well with fish around 3lbs or larger, the weight of the two tiger trout in the photo, caught when the snow was still on the ground in Yorkshire.

First of all, wash and gut the fish, then remove the two fillets with a good filleting knife. Take out the pin bones with tweezers feeling carefully with the tip of your finger to locate each one. As an alternative you could  buy ready prepared rainbow trout fillets from the fishmonger/supermarket. They will probably be smaller so scale down the ingredients.

2 fillets from a 3lb trout, skin still on.
2 tablespoons of vodka or whisky
60g salt
60g sugar
1 teaspoon of  ground black pepper
Large bunch of dill, coarsely chopped
200g cooked beetroot, grated (squeeze out most of the liquid)

Mix the sugar, salt and pepper together. Lay the fish fillets flesh side up on a piece of kitchen foil and rub with half of the salt/sugar mixture. Drip the alcohol over the fillets. Mix the dill, beetroot and remaining salt/sugar mix and place on one of the fillets. Place the second fillet on top of the mixture skin side up to form a sandwich. Wrap the foil around the fish carefully to retain the liquid that will be generated. Slip the foil parcel into a plastic bag and retain in a small roasting or baking tin. Place in the fridge to cure and leave for 2-3 days, turning occasionally to expose both fillets equally to the curing mixture.
     To serve, remove the foil, scrape away the dill/beetroot cure and pour away the liquid. Pat clean with kitchen roll. The fillet will be the deep red colour illustrated left. At this point its a matter of personal choice whether you cut carefully along the fillet to slice in the manner of smoked salmon or take slices across. For presentation I prefer to cut across. With a sharp knife or better an electric knife, cut just less than half centimetre wide slices across the fillet, removing each  from the skin. Take each slice and roll it up starting with the thick end. These little rolls shown in the picture right, resemble roses, especially since the beetroot colour only penetrates the upper layer of the flesh giving an attractive variegated petal effect as shown in the photograph.
    In the starter presentation shown, I served with equal amounts of the same trout cold smoked, along with asparagus and dill sauce. For a centrepiece I cut down a hard boiled hen's egg and topped with fresh crab. An alternative centrepiece would be quails eggs topped with lump fish caviar. Enjoy with a glass of Sancerre.

The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

HMS Warrior at Portsmouth

After ships like HMS Victory had won an almost permanent peace in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, the next major innovation in warship design delicately embraced the possibilities of steam. Early examples followed the French who began to iron clad wooden ships and install steam engines. However, HMS Warrior, berthed at the historic Portsmouth naval Dockyard near to HMS Victory, was designed from scratch as a true iron hull with thick armour plating. It is still a hybrid vessel, using both conventional sail and steam power. This does not reflect conservative ambivalence on the part of naval commanders but the technical reality of the relative inefficiency of early Victorian steam engines. Fully coaled, Warrior had a range of only about 2000miles, not enough to cross the Atlantic. In addition the navy had not then established its worldwide network of coaling stations. Long journeys were done under sail, using the engines for close work and in harbour. When sailing, the telescopic funnels were lowered and the large propeller raised clear of the water.
When accepted into the navy in in 1861, Warrior was the most advanced battleship in the world, making all others obsolete. Napoleon III described her as 'a black snake among the rabbits.'  This advantage stemmed from her firepower, ten new 110-pounder breech-loading guns firing shells capable of piercing iron clads, and her own thick armour plating. These guns were supplemented by twenty six 68-pounders of conventional design but with 5 times the destructive power of Nelson's 32-pounders. The guns were placed along a single gun deck, 100 feet longer than in any previous warship. The gun deck was also home to 600men. Such was the deterrent value of HMS Warrior that her guns were never fired in anger by the time she was retired from active service after less than 20 years.
The preservation of the warrior owes much to luck. After various harbour navy roles she served as an oil terminal at Milford Haven in Wales for nearly 40 years, by which time she really was unique and a candidate for restoration, which took nearly ten years before her return to the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard in 1987.   
While the cramped conditions of the crew were little better than those of Nelson's time, the officers quarters were more spacious with a splendid wardroom where they relaxed and took their meals. The Captain's quarters were spacious with a day cabin/dining room, an office, pantry and sleeping quarters. Her first captain was a Cochrane, grandson of the famous Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, the model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian's famous novel series including Master and Commander.
The next major innovation in Naval warfare came in 1906 with the launch of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Her high speed and deck mounted 12 inch guns rendered all other battleships obsolete including those of Great Britain, many of which were less that ten years old. This started an arms race with Germany which ended in a huge indecisive sea battle off Jutland in 1916. However after that the German fleet stayed at home so a tactical victory was won by the British.
The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder - Buy Links

Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon