Mike Donald is having a Proustian moment. Fork in hand, he’s chewing, swallowing and sighing all at once. “Ah, this takes me back. It tastes like home – it’s like the salt of the sea,” he says dreamily.
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Better known as guga, the birdmeat looks like duck but tastes like a cross between anchovy paste and high-strength cod liver oil. It’s salty, fishy and very gamey, due to the fact it has been dead for almost 10 weeks. So it may come as a surprise to hear it’s also a most sought-after delicacy because it’s only available once a year, and is the end product of a tradition that has been practised since at least the 16th century. Eating it in Glasgow, as we did, is a rare treat because traditionally it’s only enjoyed by islanders on Lewis. Donald, 35, who was born in Stornoway and whose family hail from Ness, co-owns MacSorley’s pub and Biadh, the restaurant within it, in the city, and has acquired two birds through his island contacts. In true Hebridean style, he’s invited a few friends round to try it with boiled local potatoes and a glass of milk.
The group includes his friend from Ness, Donald S Murray, a poet, journalist and the author of The Guga Hunters, an acclaimed book about the 10 men who continue to carry out this dangerous – and controversial – cull. Although he now lives and works in Shetland, Murray returns to Lewis regularly and has eaten guga “hundreds of times”. At our lunch he feasts hungrily on the seabird while the mainlanders among us try not to gag. In between mouthfuls, Murray advises us not to eat the skin because its concentrated flavour and chewy texture is not for the fainthearted.
The killing of wild seabirds is outlawed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but the guga hunters are granted a special licence from the Scottish Government to continue their tradition. The 10 men of Ness travel by trawler each September to the remote and rocky island of Sula Sgeir, where they are allowed to harvest no more than 2000 guga from its cliffs. The birds are killed by a single blow to the head at the phase of their development where they are older than downy-feathered babes and younger than fledgings, which are too difficult to catch. The guga have never flown, yet are reputedly able to swim as far as Spain. The men then singe the feathers, behead and de-wing the birds, split them then move them to a circular cairn where they are salted and stacked in round cairns for about two weeks. Then, weather permitting, they are transferred via a purpose-built wooden chute down to the boats and back to Ness – and, sometimes, the mainland.
Back in Glasgow, Sam Carswell, the head chef of Biadh, is grousing. “I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, and this is the most obscure thing I’ve ever prepared,” he says as he holds his nose and points to his two crumpled guga. Though nervous about the birds, Carswell is a legend in his own lunchtime, winning MasterChef in 1998. Last week Biadh took the title of Scottish Licensed Trade News Pub Caterer of the Year 2010, in recognition of Carswell’s innovative cooking using well-sourced, seasonal Scottish ingredients.
Carsell has worked with the likes of Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc after training at the Central Hotel, Glasgow, and at Gleneagles. Even so, he’s never cooked guga. He is careful to wear yellow rubber gloves when handling the birds, because their smell is difficult to remove from the skin if direct contact is made. Carswell lifts them out of the brine they’ve been soaking in for almost eight weeks. The black claws are curled up, the skin is wrinkled and when the birds are flipped over it’s a surprise to see four pieces of succulent-looking dark meat: two legs and two breasts. In between are globules of oily fat. Carswell lays the birds out gingerly on his cutting board and chops them into four. Black oil oozes out of the skin as he scrapes it ahead of immersing the pieces in a pot of boiling water for 90 minutes, with a change of water every half-hour, to get rid of the salt they’ve been preserved with. He’s clearly vexed about the stench his kitchen will be polluted with afterwards, though in the event there is no smell whatsoever.
Once the birds are cooked Carswell has a clever way of presenting the shredded guga, stuffing them inside hollowed-out Ness potatoes to make cute little canapes of them. For all their fashionable appearance, though, it’s something of an understatement to say they are an acquired taste. Luckily Carswell has also devised a fulsome menu to follow, including lobster and hogget, designed to remove the overpowering taste of the guga.
Nonetheless it’s a treat and a privilege to be able to taste this booty of the Hebrides, especially since this could be the last year of the centuries-old hunt – at least, if the Scottish SPCA has its way. Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn says, “We have concerns if any animal is killed inhumanely and is caused unnecessary suffering.
“We do not believe that the current method used to kill gannets, where the bird is struck on the head with a heavy implement, is humane and would therefore support a ban on this practice.”
But a Scottish Government spokesman said: “This is a tradition going back centuries. We are satisfied there is no conservation risk to the local gannet population posed by this traditional hunt. We are also satisfied that, provided it is done effectively and competently, the method used to dispatch the birds is not inhumane.”
Donald S Murray believes anxiety over the cull is “mainly an urban concern” among those who appreciate their aesthetic appeal when flying. “Guga is the only UK seabird that is legally allowed to be consumed by humans,” he says. “Everyone in Scotland ate them at one time. The Union of Crowns destroyed the national taste for seabirds, because eating them was not seen as the mark of a civilised society and they were not consumed at court. We tend to mimic the behaviour of our social superiors, so suddenly it became unfashionable. Even Mary, Queen of Scots shunned them because she was very influenced by the French.”
Murray even touts the theory that there is a sound health reason for Scots to eat seabird meat: because it is loaded with essential vitamin D, which is in short supply due to lack of sunlight and the often difficult conditions for growing green-leaved vegetables.
“The highest UK rate of multiple sclerosis – said to be caused by vitamin D deficiency – is in Shetland, followed by Orkney and the Western Isles,” he says. “Could that be because the people no longer eat seabirds?”