November 21, 2006
Cold, curried-beef sandwiches are bad news in a packed lunch. It happened to me one sharp spring day while fishing Loch Awe and ever since I have investigated each slice before the first bite. I suppose it depends upon your attitude towards food; you may be the sort of angler who considers a break for lunch as only so much wasted fishing time, me, I like my nosh, and have a very healthy respect for the needs of the inner man.
Just because one is out in the hills, or in the middle of a loch, is no reason for lowering standards. It is perfectly easy to make the lunch at least as interesting and exciting as the fishing. However, I suppose I’m luckier than most because my wife, Ann, also fishes, and applies the same care and attention to the preparation of lunch as she does to casting a neat fly, on a short line, over a rising trout. Over the years we have developed a pattern and have now got it down to a fine art and lunch is, fishless or otherwise, something that I always look forward to.
For many years we lived close to the Tweed. If non-fishing friends visited us, particularly those from south of Mr Hadrian’s Wall, we would prepare a special picnic and take them to our favourite spot on the banks of the river. It was in a proper wood, with beech, sycamore and oak, old and majestic, nodding over the stream. The way in is hard to find and it seems that one is driving into a solid wall of hawthorn and hedges, but the ground is hard and it is possible to take the car right into the wood.
This little haven is a sheltered garden, full of bluebells, primroses, eye-bright and wood sorrel; a warm, sunny day, a gentle breeze and rising trout soon persuaded doubters that fly-fishing was the most rewarding and exciting of all pastimes. Lunch sealed the bargain: melon, game soup, cold chicken, Greek salad, strawberries and cream, washed down with ice-cold Reisling; the sound of the wind in the ancient trees, the murmur of Elgar on an old battery operated gramophone. Our companions didn’t stand a chance – they became anglers.
Twenty-five years ago, before we were married, we used to fish Portmore Loch, south of Edinburgh. It was exceedingly dour and fish were few and far between. But a good bottle of wine and huge, French-style sandwiches encouraged one mightily. At that time we often fished with friends who used to come through from Glasgow for the day and we took turn about in producing lunch; there was only one rule, that the wine supplied had to cost no more than 15s 6d a bottle.
Our source of all things excellent in wine and food in those days was Messrs Valvona and Corolla, Elm Row, Edinburgh. It was, and still is, an Aladdin’s cave of culinary delight where nothing is ever too much trouble and every purchase, regardless of the amount of money involved, is treated with the utmost courtesy, interest and consideration. Producing an interesting picnic or packed lunch is really only a question of pre-planning, which is why my Ann does it. I make grunting, encouraging noises when asked for advice but have long learned that my most useful course is to keep out of the way and attend only to the tackle and transportation, and the drinks. I’m quite good at that.
One of our finest hours regarding drinks occurred a few years ago when we had taken two friends out for a day’s fishing, their first ever. The loch we proposed to fish involved a stiff two mile walk over the moor in Strath Halladale, Sutherland. Our northern moors are bog-filled and soggy and it was a hot day. When we arrived at the loch our companions were tired and weary and not persuaded that fishing was all that we had claimed.
We settled upon a grassy bank and moments later I handed out their favourite tipple; one large Campari and soda with ice and lemon and a similarly adorned gin and tonic. Instant good humour. Lunch was avocado pears with lumpfish-roe filling; turtle soup with sherry, chicken legs, lamb cutlets, salad, cheese, celery and biscuits and piping-hot coffee. Wines on offer were Chablis and Beaujolais. The day’s fishing produced 15 trout and our guests caught four each. The biggest fish weighed 2 lb. It was a perfect day.
I wouldn’t like you to get the idea that we always eat like that when we go fishing, we couldn’t afford it, for one thing, but we do try to avoid the standard recipe for indigestion so beloved by many of the supposed fishing hotels that snare the eager angler: curled sandwiches, a chocolate biscuit and an apple or orange. There are few things more soul-destroying, after a hard morning lashing away in the pouring rain than to be confronted at lunchtime with shrivelled hunks of cheese-filled bread and lukewarm coffee.
Over the years, it has given us just as much pleasure to be able to produce a really first-class picnic, miles from anywhere, as it has given us to see our friends catch their first wild brown trout. Nevertheless, some of the most memorable meals that Ann and I have enjoyed have been prepared from the simplest and most readily available of ingredients. What can compare with the delight of freshly caught trout, cooked in the embers of a lochside fire — not a lot, I can tell you, and when all else fails, that’s what we go for.