Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 31 - Fields of Gold

Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Fields of Gold

Sue Lawrence provides a few recipes using that most traditional of Scottish ingredients, barley

I can think of few places in the world where there is evidence of a similarity of diet spanning 5,000 years.

But in Orkney, I was lucky enough to visit the fascinating Skara Brae, a Neolithic village dating back to 3,100 BC, centuries before the Pyramids of Giza were even thought of.

At Skara Brae, the best-preserved Neolithic village in Europe, you can see inside these houses built in the middle of the Stone Age. They had a central fire and a large stone to cook their bread or bannocks on at the side; you can see the “saddle querns” where barley was ground between two stones; and it is known that as well as sea birds such as fulmars, gannet and auks, the villagers of Skara Brae ate shellfish, fish, cheese, meat, game – and barley.

This diet pretty much reflects what we eat nowadays, apart from the sea birds, but the interesting feature of this diet is barley. It would have been the ancient variety of barley known as bere, grown since Neolithic times on these islands.

Barley continues to form the basis of many traditional Scottish dishes, from Scots broth to barley bannocks, but it also has a crucial role in whisky production.

I was delighted to visit a distillery to see whisky made in the traditional manner on Speyside. Glenfiddich has been making whisky since 1887 and though, today, some barley must be imported to accommodate its requirements, local barley is used when possible.

The barley is first steeped in water to start it germinating.

Germination lasts about a week after which it is dried on a floor above the kiln (mostly coal-fired but some peat is added; Islay whiskies use more peat smoke, to give their characteristic flavour. This whole procedure (steeping or soaking, germinating then drying the barley) is called malting.

My recipe for whisky fruit cake was inspired by one made by Ashers the bakers in Nairn, a half hour north of Speyside on the Moray Firth coast. I find it fascinating that the Asher family have been bakers since 1877, a mere 10 years before Glenfiddich was distilling whisky.

They make wonderful whisky cakes, three different cakes each using a specific whisky: one uses a whisky from the islands; one from Speyside; one from the Highlands.

The difference in flavour is remarkable: the islands cake has such a lingering peaty aftertaste you could be forgiven for thinking that with one bite you are transported to a peat fire on Islay. The Highland and Speyside cakes are also excellent though with less of a distinctive peatiness.

Having seen the barley malting procedure, I now appreciate just how this character comes from the amount of peat in the fire when the barley is dried during the malting procedure.

Try these simple recipes while contemplating the heritage of barley, Scotland’s most ancient grain.


These are really “cheat’s blinis” as they use barley flour instead of buckwheat and a raising agent instead of yeast.

Serve with sour cream into which you have stirred some horseradish sauce and then top with a twirl of smoked salmon or trout.

Makes two blinis or 24-30 cocktail bite-size blinis
75g / 2 3/4 oz self-raising flour, sifted
50g / 1 3/4 oz barley flour/ meal
1 level tsp baking powder
1 large free-range egg
150 ml / 5 fl oz milk butter to cook

1. Place the flours, baking powder, egg, milk and a good pinch of salt in a food processor and process until smooth (or whisk by hand with a balloon whisk).

2. Place a large heavy-based frying pan (or gridle) on a medium heat and lightly butter the surface, using kitchen paper.

3. When the pan is sufficiently hot (test by dropping a teaspoon of batter onto the surface – it should bubble within one minute), drop one dessertspoon of batter into the pan and repeat thee times to make four pancakes.

4. After one or two minutes you will see bubbles, so that is the sign to flip over.

5. Cook for a further one minute or so, until batter does not ooze out when lightly pressed with your fingers.

6. Remove to a wire rack and cover loosely with a tea towel. Continue making the pancakes until the batter is all used up.

Serves 6
50g / 1 3/4 oz butter
1 onion, peeled, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 fat garlic cloves, peeled, chopped
150g / 5 1/2oz mushrooms, cut into chunks
300g / 10 1/2oz pearl barley
450ml / 16fl oz hot chicken stock
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
50g / 13/4 oz freshly grated parmesan
20g / 3/4 oz flat parsley, chopped

1. Heat the butter in an ovenproof casserole and gently fry the onion, celery and garlic for five minutes then stir in the mushrooms.

2. Cook for another five minutes then add the barley. Stir to coat in the butter then add the hot stock and 3/4 tsp salt.

3. Grind in some black pepper, bring to the boil, stir then cover and remove to a preheated oven (170ºC / 325ºF / Gas 3) for 30-35 minutes or until the liquid has all been absorbed.

4. Stir in the oil, add the parmesan, check seasoning then stir in the parsley just before serving.

5. Serve with shaved parmesan and flat leafed parsley.

If you are making this cake with whisky connoisseurs in mind, then try it with an Islay malt; if you simply want a good whisky hit with no discernible smokiness, then use a Highland or Speyside.

Makes one substantial cake
300g / 10 1/2oz raisins
300g / 10 1/2oz currants
100g / 3 1/2oz mixed peel
350ml / 12 fl oz malt whisky
150g / 5 1/2 oz butter, softened
150g / 5 1/2oz dark muscovado sugar
3 large free-range eggs
200g 7 oz self-raising flour
2 tsp mixed spice 40g / 11/2 oz ground almonds

1. Soak all the fruit in the whisky overnight.

If it is really warm I put it into the fridge overnight then bring back to room temperature well before mixing.

2. Cream the butter and sugar together until soft and light. Add the eggs one by one then tip in all the fruit and whisky.

3. Sift in the flour and spice, add the almonds and combine well.

4. Spoon into a lined 81/2 -9” / 22-23cm deep cake tin. I line the sides of the tin with high lining paper which protects the surface from burning, but it is a good idea to cover loosely with foil towards the end of cooking, to prevent any fruit poking out from burning.

5. Bake at 170ºC / 325ºF / Gas 3 for two hours or until done: test by inserting a skewer into the centre: it should come out clean. Remove to a wire rack and leave until completely cold before removing from tin.