DZIEN dobry. I’m practising my Polish. Nazywam się Alen. Bardzo mi miło. I’m in a Polish mood because there’s a billy of borscht waiting for me in the car park in Glen Tanar. It’s that time of year, you see. Beetroot surplus on the allotment. Two varieties if anyone’s interested: Cylindra and Bolthardy. I occasionally grow Detroit as well, but they have a very high sugar content and tend to attract as yet unidentified nocturnal foragers . . .
There are many reasons why people feel the need to write about their wanderings – some spiritual, some educational, or just an enthusiasm for touching nature and passing on the experience. Today, mine is the beetroot surplus, which is pretty mundane. James Hogg, pictured right, might have appreciated the rustic simplicity of this notion as he tramped empty-bellied to his homestead in Ettrick – perhaps even penned a few verses on the subject. John Bunyan, the grumpy one below, would have shaken his head sadly.
There are other reasons for this article, the main one being the ascent of Mount Keen from Glen Tanar. There is also a requirement to fulfil a pledge made in an earlier post (A Mountain Ritual – Czech Cabbage Soup) to pass on a first-class borscht recipe to sustain the weary traveller at the close of a long and dusty day. As I possess more beetroot than the province of Warmińsko-Mazurskie, now is as good a time as any to unleash it on the world.
I have never felt attracted to Mount Keen, so I’m climbing it because it’s there. The name is curiously off-putting. It sounds like it should be situated in a forgotten corner of the Empire, having been discovered, climbed and named by a General Rupert Randolph Keen as an aside to a hunting expedition. So it’s gratifying to learn the name is an Anglicisation of Monadh Caoin (the Gentle Hill), which is much more pleasing on the eye and ear. Someone should start a campaign to have the Celtic version reinstated on Ordnance Survey maps, just to stir things up if nothing else.
Glen Tanar is also pleasing on the eye and ear, but a bit hard on the backside of the mountain-biker. It is quite possible to walk, of course, the seven-and-a-half miles from the car park to the foot of the mountain. John Bunyan would have had us do it carrying stones. But seven-and-a-half miles there and back again equals 15 miles – and that doesn’t include the mountain itself.
So I mount the bike and trundle off up the glen, bypassing private land and large houses where rich people live, through native pine forests on a track that is stony, sandy, rocky, uncomfortable, torturous, bliss, painful, endless – and always uphill. After one hour and twenty minutes I arrive at the foot of Monadh Caoin and ditch the bike behind the walls of a ruined shieling.
Monadh Caoin is a pleasure to behold. It is a shapely black pyramid with the old Mounth track slicing up its flank. And this place near the shieling where I sit having a quick bite to eat, this empty glen with its springy turf and rushing river, is an unexpected delight.
I am soon on the summit, where a cold wind blasts from the west. This wild, empty country is known as The Mounth – another corruption of monadh, apparently – a range of hills to the south of the Cairngorms. It’s a place where the spirit soars. And it’s a place where people have been wandering for thousands of years.
On the descent, beneath the point where the summit track splits from the Mounth right of way to Glen Esk, I spy a hoary old cairn away to the east – not far from the track, about 20 yards or so. I trudge through the heather and discover it marks a depression running down the mountain, parallel to the track. Is this the original Mounth road marked with its original cairn, I wonder? And if so, why has the route now shifted a few yards to the west? The Mounth road is, after all, one of the old rights of way that crisscross the Highlands and has been in use since ancient times. To pinch a phrase from another Celtic poet, it’s an Ancient Highway.
The return ride down Glen Tanar, incidentally, which is seven-and-a-half miles of freewheeling, takes a mere 40 minutes. James Hogg would, perhaps, have frowned. Bunyan would have called it the work of the Devil.
BORSCHT is good mountain fare. I once heard Chris Evans interview a chap on the radio about the health benefits of beetroot. It really is a super-veg. Beetroot is packed full of calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, folic acid, manganese and potassium. It also has the highest sugar content of any vegetable – so if you need an instant boost, look no further. Apparently, it’s also good for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and can prevent cardiovascular disease. It does, though, make your pee red – which is extremely alarming if you’re not expecting it. And if you’re a messy eater, don’t wear a white T-shirt.
There are many varieties of eastern European borscht comprising a diverse array of ingredients. Polish borscht is a clear soup that sometimes contains pasta or noodles, which give the weary traveller a useful carbohydrate supplement. It is also delicious and refreshing. Like most soup, it tastes even better when warmed up the next day. So it’s ideal for shoving in a billy and reheating at the end of a walk. Borscht freezes well – but cooked pasta doesn’t. I freeze it without the pasta.
Like the recipe for Czech cabbage soup, this borscht recipe was gleaned from a website that drifted unnoticed into a cyber black hole many years ago. I am indebted to the unknown person who first shared it with the world. Dziękuję bardzo.
- Five large beets, peeled and grated
- Two onions, chopped
- Two pints of stock – vegetable, chicken, beef or ham
- A tablespoon of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- Handful of pasta or noodles (optional)
- Put the first three ingredients in a pan, cover and bring to the boil, simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, then allow to cool.
- Strain off the liquid, pressing the cooked matter through a sieve. The vegetable matter is now almost devoid of food value, so feed it to the hens or chuck it on the compost heap. If you discover a better use for it, let me know.
- Add the lemon juice and seasoning to the liquid, bring it back to the boil, add the pasta or noodles (optional) and simmer for a further fifteen minutes. Your borscht is now ready. Some people add a spoonful of sugar, but I find it is sweet enough. Borscht is also eaten chilled.