We’ve been away. Not for the whole time since the blog was last updated… that would be getting closer to a gap year than a holiday. Just a week away, staying in a little house on the Isle of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been reading two fabulous blogs which document life on this windswept, beautiful chain of islands – Food and Forage Hebrides and Croft Garden. Despite the wonderful descriptions and amazing photos on these blogs, I still wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful the scenery was in reality.
There are long, white sandy beaches, backed by dunes. Lochs surrounded by heather-studded grass. Views across the sea to humpy, uninhabited islands. And so many wildflowers – harebells, clover, yarrow, ox-eye daisies and devil’s bit scabious among them.
And the colours… blue skies (ok, the skies aren’t blue everyday), white sheep and brown cows, grey and pink rocks, the dark brown of the peaty water, the vivid greens of mosses, lichens and grasses, and an array of yellow, blue, purple, pink and white flowers. My favourite among all these colours was a translucent, light green in the waves as they begin to break with the sun behind them. This colour proved impossible to catch with a camera – I did try…
We rented a house to stay in and arrived at our home for the week to find a welcome pack of local produce. The chocolate fudge disappeared very quickly. Then there was seaweed shortbread which was perfect with coffee. And a packet of Hebridean sea salt – just waiting to be sprinkled over focaccia dough before baking.
Baking in a holiday rental house can be a challenge. It’s a different kitchen, a different oven and different utensils to work with. Luckily, bread-making isn’t an exact science. In fact, the holiday focaccia turned out better than any I’ve baked before. The flour and yeast, bought from the supermarket in Stornoway, were brands I’ve used before at home. So the difference is probably down to either the oven or the water… Hebridean tap water is very soft. Or maybe it was the lack of precision in measuring out the ingredients. With no kitchen scales and no measuring cups, it was a case of using whatever came to hand.
This is a recipe to try, then adapt to work best with your own way of measuring out ingredients, your own oven, and your own local ingredients. It really is an easy loaf to make – great with salads, pasta dishes, soups, and any that is left makes fabulous toast the next morning.
½ glass warm water
¾ tsp sugar
1 tsp dried yeast
3 mugs strong white bread flour
2 tsp salt
2 spoonfuls extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle over loaf
about 1½ glasses cold water – enough to make a soft dough
sea salt for topping loaf
Dissolve the sugar in the warm water, then whisk in the dried yeast. Leave to sit for 10 minutes or so – until a foamy froth starts to form on the top.
In a mixing bowl, (or large pan if there are no mixing bowls to hand), mix the flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture, olive oil and enough cold water to make a ball of dough. Mix in the bowl/pan until the dough comes away from the sides, then tip out onto a clean work surface and knead for three minutes. Form the dough into a ball, cover and leave to rest for three minutes. Knead for a further three minutes, rest of three minutes and knead again for three. By this stage the dough should be smooth and elastic. Return to the bowl, cover and leave to rise for about 2 hours at room temperature.
When the dough is roughly doubled in size, tip it gently on to the work surface. Shape into a round, then leave to rest for 10 minutes. While the dough is resting, oil a baking sheet and turn the oven on to 200oC/ 400F/ gas mark 6.
Put the dough onto the baking sheet and use your fingertips to stretch it out to round about 1cm in depth. Lightly oil the top of the loaf, then cover with cling wrap and leave to rest for 30 minutes while the oven heats up. When the bread is ready to bake, pour a little more olive oil over the top, then sprinkle with a good pinch or two of sea salt. Bake for 20-30 minutes in the preheated oven – until the base gives a good hollow sound when you tap it, and the top is golden but not too brown.
Cool on a wire rack before slicing and devouring.