“It was a cold, wet, inhospitable day and the rugged West Highland scenery looked menacing from where we sat inside the warm croft house. As the light began to fade Alistair got up to light the paraffin lamp. Then Maggie went over to a cupboard in the corner of the room and brought out some crisp oatcakes, home-made butter, cheese, jam and soft bannock, while Alistair put the finishing touches - chopped leeks - to the mutton broth which had been simmering gently over the peat fire.

Now into their seventies, they had lived all their lives on this remote croft on the Applecross peninsula, accessible only by sea until a road was built in the early 1970s. As we ate together, it seemed like stepping backwards into the past. But not a deprived past. These were rich satisfying flavours, tastes and textures. Everything was home-made, even the mutton for the broth was from Alistair’s own hardy Blackface sheep which had roamed the heather hills winter and summer.

I made my farewells and left. Driving back along the narrow twisting single track road I had no flash of inspiration that I must write about these people and the special tastes and flavours of their unique foods. But I realise now how much they influenced me.”

From the introduction to Scottish Cookery 1985

I grew up in a Glasgow tenement and was always keen to cook. My mother encouraged me. There were grannies, too, who let me mess about in their kitchens. One lived in a cramped tenement kitchen in Glasgow’s East End, while the other lived in an East coast fishing village where fish and shellfish - fresh from the boats - arrived daily. I spent summer holidays fishing from sandbanks and rummaging the beach for crabs and whelks. My first catering job (aged 16) was in a Clydeside dockers' canteen, filling crisp Glasgow rolls with fried eggs and bacon to start the day.

Later, there were other goals which took me into teaching catering and then into researching the potential of British Cookery at Strathclyde University’s Scottish Hotel School. For a while I was also a professional chef in hotels, one post taking me to the Loch Torridon Hotel in Wester Ross, which is where I first met the crofters Alistair and Maggie.

Writing about food in Scotland began when a publisher heard me talking about it on a radio programme. He wrote to say that I sounded so enthusiastic he was sure I could write a book. Scottish Regional Recipes was published in 1981 and the same year I began writing for The Herald in Glasgow, and a few years later became their food correspondent, writing weekly columns – including The Business of Food – for the next twenty years.

In between there have been other books. Also twelve years as restaurant critic for the Scottish Field. In the late 1990s, I joined Grampian and STV’s Scotland’s Larder, as co-presenter (with Derek Cooper), a series which celebrated Scotland’s traditional foods and artisanal products. Over the years there have been three Glenfiddich Food Writing Awards as well as the Guild of Food Writers’ Food Journalist of the Year in 2001. I am also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, as well as a member of Scottish Pen International and the Society of Authors.

In the last few years I’ve had a lot of fun with my grandchildren, fishing and foraging for shellfish and seaweed on Scottish beaches - they live on a Hebridean island. It was only a matter of time before this developed into a full-time research project leading to a book on the history and origins of Scotland’s remarkable seafood assets, a grateful celebration of the ocean’s bounty.

Catherine Brown

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Catherine Brown
Perthshire and Wester Ross, Scotland
email: catherine@foodinscotland.co.uk