Food writer Murray Chalmers recalls happy times spent in Edinburgh and visits Clootie McToot in Abernethy…
It was only yesterday, in the unlikely confines of a second-hand record shop in Edinburgh, that I realised my life needed a reboot.
It had been a fun excursion to the capital, albeit on a day when it rained on our parade with Biblical ferocity. Nevertheless, whilst ignoring wussy complaints from friends in London about their intolerable heat – yet another reason to tell them don’t come here – we soldiered on, finding shops where we would feel relatively safe, both from the squall and the virus.
I’ve been going to Edinburgh since 1974 and it’s still such a thrill. As a teenager I would get the train from Dundee to see concerts; I think my fondest Edinburgh music memory is seeing The Clash headline their White Riot tour on May 7, 1977, at the Playhouse, although The Ramones at Clouds in Dec 77 was also a pivotal punk experience.
Whenever I go to Leith Walk now I still get flashbacks to the time I was hanging round outside the Playhouse and the legendary all female punk band The Slits emerged from around the corner and exploded their way up the street.
With each yard these women strutted they destroyed years of prim and proper convention – Edinburgh could only stop and stare, not sure what those beautiful, anarchic creatures actually were. If you didn’t get the point then you were just too old but for me it felt like the future was walking towards me, and I needed to be part of it.
The Slits were such a massive explosion of energy, all backcombed, dreadlocked hair, ripped knickers worn as outerwear and attitude. And that day in 1977 they stopped traffic on Leith Walk just by existing, because their progress towards the Playhouse stage was more like a vault towards freedom, for them and for us.
At once it seemed like Miss Jean Brodie’s girls had discovered punk, broken free of Cramond and were coming to get you, like it or not.
This was a defining moment for so many of us in Scotland who were young and desperate for change, determined to grasp a new life on a collective punk higher ground.
It’s probably worth pointing out here that early punk was always totally inclusive at a time when women were still banned from entering some bars and homosexuality was illegal in Scotland.
The Slits and two of the other Clash support groups, Subway Sect and Buzzcocks, seemed part of a thrilling future which would surely make stereotypical notions of gender, class and traditional aptitude seem as antiquated, pointless and hypocritical as Ruth “Boomerang” Davidson entering the House of Lords some 43 years later.
Yesterday, standing in the brilliantly named Elvis Shakespeare shop (clue; they sell music and books) brought so many thoughts and memories to my head that I could barely focus on rifling through the old vinyl.
On the eve of my 61st birthday I’m increasingly aware that my energy to challenge and fight for what I believe in is flagging and I think that’s the same for many of us right now. Every day can be a battle, inexorably plunging your thoughts to places of such stupidity, vapidity and hypocrisy, against which it seems increasingly futile to protest.
Twitter is a battleground that is only for the resolute and the mad. Facebook is full of slightly less vituperative anger and bewilderment but the sentiment is similar – how could we have let it get to this? How can we survive it?
How can we overthrow something that seems to grow a new arm every time we think we’ve disabled the old one? Just who are the people who vote for this? Where are we going and how many of us will be alive at the end of the journey?
Then the shopkeeper put on The Clash.
Now, I’m not one of these people who is evangelical about The Clash, however iconic they are. I always preferred the belligerent insouciance of the Sex Pistols and above them all I fell heaviest for the sonic tension, thrust and liberation of Siouxsie and the Banshees at full pelt.
I hope I’m not someone who lives in the past, much as I’m aware that punk shaped me and so many of my generation into the defiant, recalcitrant little malcontents we became.
But hearing the opening chords of that debut album by The Clash yesterday somehow inflamed me in the same way it did back in the 1970s when I was young, thin and looking for a kiss.
Some 44 years later the hair has gone, the looks have “matured” and travelled south along with the pecs, and you’d have to be crazy to want to kiss anyone who hadn’t signed a pre-nup, made a recent will, or had access to a chemist selling Viagra. The music of The Clash however is surprisingly still incendiary.
What struck me was the sheer power of the sound and the righteous anger expressed in so much of it. It completely mirrored our dissatisfaction with contemporary politics and culture. And even though The Clash seemed naïve and cliched to me even then, no one could deny the idealism and the sense of purpose engendered by their songs and the ferocity with which they were presented.
Naturally all that anger and revolt ultimately came to nothing; the world still turned and despite Poly Styrene’s prophesy, it didn’t turn dayglo – in fact it stayed resolutely grey. Punk was replaced by something else and the grown-ups still messed things up, oblivious to juvenile threats of anarchy in the UK, white riots and putting a safety pin through the Queen’s nose.
Admission of defeat
Decades later, when we actually are the grown-ups, it feels very much like plus ca change, which I think is just as much an admission of defeat as anything.
But the change in my generation was actually more profound and longer lasting. We gained a lifelong sense of anger, of the power of protest, of belief that we could fight injustice to make a better world.
As those songs blasted out I couldn’t help but wish we could harness that same collective strength and power now, when we need it so badly.
A demonstration of anger and urgency in Labour’s Westminster opposition would be a start but really, the UK now feels like a country on the precipice with the rope going to snap very soon, much like it felt in the mid 1970s.
At a time like this I don’t want fancy food. In fact I don’t want fancy anything. I want to live as simply and as close to the earth as possible and conserve my energy to try to effect some change. For this I’m not interested in sitting down to a 12-course tasting menu, however decadently anachronistic this might be.
For those lucky enough still to have disposable income it feels wrong to just expect to turn back the clock to pre-pandemic times and party like it’s 2019. Everything has changed.
Right now I want food that tastes strongly of itself, cooked with conviction, precision and respect for the constituent parts. I want to buy from people whose ethics I don’t need to question, and who sell to me because they are producing something they’re proud of, despite what their balance sheets might tell them.
This week I’ve been thinking about ethics and clootie dumpling because I went to a fantastic place in Abernethy called Clootie McToot. It’s a small business which, like many, has just reopened after lockdown. It’s a gem.
Meeting founder Michelle Maddox when I had a light lunch there last weekend, I discovered a woman who combines a great business sense with ethics and morals and who is as likely to serve a frozen meal as I am to marry Douglas Ross. Her story is poignant and delightful and shows true triumph over adversity.
“The shop opened in May 2018 in this building that used to be a bakery, although originally it was a stable. My degree from Dundee University was in food and I had worked on the BBC Food and Drink show with Antony Worrall Thompson and Oz Clarke, but then my career moved into another area,” she said.
“In 2015, however, our son Jacob wanted to be behind a market stall at the school fete yet they couldn’t accommodate his needs. Jacob is autistic and it was thought that he couldn’t be behind a stall for longer than 10 minutes.
“So I hired a stall myself for £5 and decided to make six clootie dumplings; my gran had brought me up on them, I knew how to make them well and it seemed foolproof. We sold out that first batch in 15 minutes and I then went back to my day job.
“The same thing happened the year after when Jacob wanted to be behind a stall again. But this time a customer took me aside and said I should make the dumplings as a business. Jacob looked at me and asked me to do it; I left my job, worked on the brand and started up in April.”
Opening the shop has allowed Michelle to let Jacob and the rest of her family feel a sense of ownership with the business but has also meant that her strong sense of tradition and ethics have flourished. Whilst renovating the interior they recycled as many materials as possible, a difficult process which also saw Michelle lacerate one of her husband’s arteries as she moved some corrugated roofing, necessitating a quick trip to Perth Royal Infirmary.
Why is tradition so important?
“We love history and we love how the village looks,” Michelle added. “The 900-year-old tower is next to us and it’s important to keep the village how it used to be. Tradition is a big thing for me. Clootie is tradition!
“I love that we skelp every single dumpling we make, which brings good luck. I also have a strong ethos towards sustainability and using as much local produce as possible. Our packaging is reusable and biodegradable.
“Our labels are recyclable. Our sugar levels are low. Everything is thought through. My family are involved in the business too. My mum works here and she makes all the cloots for our dumpling kits on my granny’s old Singer sewing machine.”
“The model train we have in the shop is because Jacob loves model trains, as does one of his friends in the village, who is also autistic. So we brought in an expert who worked with the boys to introduce the train into the shop.”
What’s the appeal of the clootie dumpling?
“It’s traditional. It’s Scottish. We make them as your Granny would. It’s nostalgic for some but also there’s a curiosity from people who might want to try one of our 14 different dumplings, some of them quite quirky,” said Michelle.
“I enjoy food development so we do seasonal things like strawberry and prosecco, rhubarb and ginger, chocolate orange and Baileys. But we have six core dumplings on offer all year, including the traditional, which is my granny’s recipe that never gets changed. It’s your typical comfort food, really.”
As well as dumplings Michelle sells a brilliantly curated selection of products including coffee, jam, home-made tablet, candles and lip balm – the latter two clootie flavoured of course. Watch out for some very special clootie flavoured chocolates when they go one sale before Christmas.
We have six core dumplings on offer all year, including the traditional, which is my granny’s recipe that never gets changed. It’s your typical comfort food, really.
Michelle Maddox, Clootie McToot
Michelle serves a special food menu in this old curiosity shop once a month. It’s a treat. “I do everything from scratch. If someone wants an egg mayo sandwich we boil the eggs and we make the mayo to order. I keep it special, just like our brand. It’s just looking after the food, really. And people like watching their food being made.”
What a joy this place is, built as it is on love, tradition, respect and an idea of community. And what’s more, Jacob still has clootie dumpling every single night. The proof is definitely in the pudding!
Clootie McToot, Main Street, Abernethy, Perthshire. PH2 9JB. Tel: 01738 850795; www.clootiemctootdumplings.com