Walking with experts – pilgrimage

I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles.  We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us.  It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm).  I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish.  In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days.  They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.

So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda.  Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.

When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting.  We still got lost but in different places.

But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much.  On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops.  Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval.  Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer.  The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface.  What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off!  – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think.  No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.

On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman.  As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed.  He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount.  I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local  power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.

Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.

All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment.  I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours.  I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold.  The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again.  As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.

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The Littleton Wassail invitation arrives.

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7271a5a92013314423f264e49d8abac1At last the email from Mike arrived today inviting me to take part in the Wassail in early January. He’s not often as late as this and I was beginning to worry that something had gone wrong – or perhaps the Cider Club was blaming me for the poor season this year. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that my official blessings may not have the same efficiency now I’m no longer on the payroll as it were, but in truth I think it was ‘the Beast from the East’ that did the damage. Wassailing, if you didn’t know, is an ancient (well – medieval) tradition of blessing the apple trees and driving out the demons to ensure a good crop in the following season.  I was the parish priest of Littleton on Severn for a decade and so it fell to me to bless both cider apple trees and ploughs in my parishes as part of the old New Year traditions.  But our connection to the orchard goes back far beyond that because Madame worked as assistant to the trials Officer at Long Ashton Research Station in the early 70’s and she was responsible for producing the budwood for the orchard that subsequently became the home of the Littleton Cider Club. Who could resist the lore and language of cider with varieties like “Slack ma girdle” and ‘Goose arse’ Here’s my journal entry for last year:

Bigger than ever this year, and I was invited back to bless the orchard after the Green Man’s completely pagan poem and a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver being drunk by everyone except me. I felt a bit of a fraud ordering a pint of bitter at the bar, but I find the cider too scrumpy -like for my taste (and my digestion as well).

It was so nice to meet up with old friends, and everybody was really pleased to see me back. As the Wassail was taking place, the full moon was just rising behind the orchard. In the darkness the shotguns spurted smoke and flames from their barrels. Whether Mike had loaded them with black powder for the effect I don’t know, but it was very impressive. T quizzed me on which church I was attending and he chided me mildly when I said I wasn’t going anywhere. There were many extra visitors from far afield and one of them told Madame that they’d abandoned the Priddy Wassail because the health and safety brigade had all but ruined it. Happily no considerations of safety prevented the usual Littleton anarchy, and the fire was thrillingly dangerous after half an hour’s dosing with meths and heaven knows what else by way of accelerants. We had the Barley Mow Choir singing all the wassail songs they knew and later we watched the Mummers Play. All very patriotic with a youthful St George being raised from the dead and Beelzebub being booed lustily by us all. A great deal of rather rude banter. Good to be back!”

3b03c9ff55c93f267ce33a1d091ab6afSo that invitation to one of my favourite places and events cast a cheerful air on the rest of the day and later we grabbed the dry weather with both hands and went up to the allotment to carry on building the raised beds.  My earlier (and gloomy) ruminations on the quantity of topsoil we’d need to find have been mitigated by the way we’re constructing the beds. IMG_4050I’ve written earlier about the problem of waterlogging, so we’ve been constructing the paths between the bed as dual purpose soakaways and paths.  In practice that means a good deal of hauling up and back to the woodchip pile.  We’ve seen it suggested that woodchip robs the soil of nitrogen, and that would certainly be true if we just dug it into the beds, but used as a path material it supresses weeds, makes a comfortable all-weather path and also seems to rot down quite quickly, needing replenishing from time to time. We’ve not found any depletion of the soil in the beds at all, and we hope that these large reservoirs of composted material will add to the general condition of the plot in the long term.  I fix the bed edging boards in place first, and when they’re secure I dig out the path to about 18″ deep by just over a foot wide and throw that soil up on to the bed.  It doesn’t do the job entirely, but it adds around 20 cubic feet of soil to each bed. With compost added as well, the beds are raised by another four inches – all adding to the depth.  The photo is of two beds we constructed on the same principles earlier in the year.

Home later we feasted on a chicken and leek pie with our own carrots, leeks  and savoy cabbage. I love savoys, the flavour is so intense.  At first sight the leeks looked a bit messy with a touch of rust and the usual wear and tear on the outer leaves, and I wonder if that’s why so many people reject home grown in favour of the supermarket variety.  But 2 minutes with a knife and our veg are more than equal in appearance and twice as good in flavour than anything you could buy in a shop.

Feijoada -the perils of translating food

IMG_4476Isn’t that the prettiest railway station you ever saw? I took it on a trip to Lisbon in 2009, and it popped into my mind yesterday when madame was going through an old sketchbook in which she’d handwritten the recipe for feijoada from our friend Denis some time in the mid-1970’s. Here’s the first trick of the memory, because I’d always assumed it was his own take on the Brazilian Sunday lunch, but written alongside the recipe in pencil was the name Ursula Bourne, and the name of the dish was not feijoada at all but “feijao frade com chourico”.

Denis was young, Portuguese and a wonderful singer who could light up a party just by walking through the door.  He was an olympian drinker and smoker whose lifestyle finally killed him when he was absurdly young, and he could sing Fado so powerfully that ‘though you couldn’t understand a word, you knew it was dragged wailing out of a very dark place. We had some memorable times and parties – once, I recall, involving a huge quantity of alcohol liberated from the Venuzualan embassy by the son of the ambassador’s chauffeur.  We were all working together at an old-school mental hospital that was in the throes of  moving out of the eighteenth century Bedlam it had become. I still dream about some of the stuff I saw there.

But it was Denis that first cooked that meal for us and (I was quite certain) called it feijoada. I remember the discussion we had at the time about the impossibility of cooking it properly because so many of the ingredients were unavailable in this country and so he had ‘translated’ it into something close enough, using – as I discovered yesterday – Ursula Bourne’s recipe. I recalled then that I’d bought two of her books secondhand last year for next to nothing and so I grabbed them out of the bookshelf and double checked.

So the story I’d made my own was that you needed all sorts of meat, goose, bacon and sausage which you cooked with beans and a kind of chopped greens only grown in Portugal. The Denis/Ursula Bourne version was made using garlic sausage and celery with a bit of cream and lemon juice added at the last minute, and for years we enjoyed cooking and eating it.  It was cheap and cheerful but very filling for a growing family with no money.

IMG_4751Then, as funds permitted and the food culture changed, I was once able to try it in a real Brazilian restaurant in Bristol where my son was working as a chef. It was OK but absurdly expensive and sanitized from the description Denis had planted in my mind. Over the years I’d been cooking and learning about other cuisines and my collection of cookery books was growing and so I’d made a resolution to try to eat as many of these disppearing recipes as I could whenever I came across them; which was why when we arrived for a week in Lisbon we set about hunting a couple of them down. There were two in particular – one I called ‘stone soup’ which Denis had talked about but never cooked.  Its real name is Acorda Alentejana and it couldn’t be simpler – or harder to find. We trailed around the cafes and restaurants until eventually we found a cheerful waiter who spoke good English and knew what I was after.  Except he point blank refused to sell it to me – “it’s horrible and you won’t like it” he said. But I pressed on and promised that however disgusting it was I wouldn’t blame him or complain and that I’d pay in advance if that was what was needed. He went and talked to the chef and eventually he brought it to the table shaking his head and, not for the last time that week, he hung around waiting to see what I’d make of it.

Well, it was pretty basic. A couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a slice of bread covered with boiling water with a raw egg broken into it and a sprinkling of parsely on top. I finished it off and it was, as he’d said, pretty disgusting, but I thanked him, shook his hand and ticked it off my to-do list. The cafe did not, however, do feijoada and he didn’t know anywhere that did.

Later we wandered around what was then a market but has now turned into a foodie venue.  We found the required cabbage, called ‘couve’ heaped up in the market next to what looked like a victorian chaff cutter which they used to cut it into fine shreds.  But nowhere we visited had feijoada on the menu and no-one knew where we could buy it.  We were followed by many curious glances wherever we asked, until eventually ( as if he were confessing to a mortal sin) someone told us about a cafe down near the market that occasionally offered it. They were open.  It was on the menu. I almost had to beg for it but eventually they relented and we sat outside in the sunshine drinking beers and waiting for the final reveal. There was everything short of a miltary fanfare as a really huge cazuela was brought out, probably enough for four hungry peasants, followed by the entire waiting staff who came and surrounded me curiously as if I’d just landed by helicopter in the main square.

I cannot adequately describe the contents which included a big chunk of pig’s skin, a great number of bones from various animals, and – I swear – a tooth! But true to my resolution I ate about half of it and the crowd drifted away.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and – like the curate’s egg – was good in parts. Memories of Denis were swirling around me as I ate, and later in the day we visted the Fado museum to see if we could find a photo, but we didn’t.

But in answer to my own question about translating food there are two things to add. Isn’t it interesting that the more obsessive about “authenticity” we become, the more homogenous the food culture seems to be. Adding new ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean accessing another culture. What generations of poor people ate (still eat) out of necessity doesn’t translate at all when you’re wealthier beyond their wildest dreams.

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.

 

Buying fish in Newlyn

Bit of a rave from the grave, this one – but I thought the amateur cooks like me  might enjoy it.

Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)

The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham when we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, ‘though I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.

Looking back (and of course that’s the only way to get a nice joined-up narrative with no loose ends); looking back the lyrical and epiphanic experiences always had an additional element. There was more than food going on. My mother’s spices were kept in a circular white painted tin divided into segments into which each ingredient would go. At the very centre was a small circular compartment in which dried ginger root was kept. I can remember clearly that you could never get your fingers into the compartment to lift out the mysterious looking root, so it had to involve jiggling with a knife or some other tool. The tin came out primarily at Christmas when the puddings were made. My sister and I were allowed to stand on a chair and stir the mixture. In reality the mixture was so stiff we could only move it at all with a little help from our mother. The tin, though, was a metaphor. Just like fish and chips on the back doorstep. It was about something bigger – it might be a wonderful sunny day with no quarrels – something simple like that.

There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever though that a family could live an entire life in and end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It wasn’t joined on to a row of houses on one side.

It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper (new idea) at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet (lavatory); a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in the Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.

So, forty years later we went to Newlyn last week to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.

An amateur chef, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. Many years later when we started to keep chickens the local butcher showed me how to do it. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention because the first time I actually did it myself I steeled myself to kill the bird – so far so good I thought – as it expired without too much fuss. However when I shoved my hand up its rear end to extract the guts I must have pressed on the lungs and so the cock, which had previously seemed irrevocably dead suddenly crowed. My blood slowed down, went backwards for a bit and then froze. In the end I learned but it was a slow process. One thing I did learn was that the bigger the animal the greater the challenge. A friend once asked if he could borrow our kitchen to butcher a deer he’d caught. Don’t ask!

The recipe says ‘take a dozen small onions and peel them’. That’s an Elizabeth David. In Stoke on Trent market I wandered around for an hour buying two small onions here and comparing them with two there. I’m anally retentive when it comes to recipes. So a couple of dozen scallops seem straightforward enough. Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?? Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts. Maybe I should get counselling some time.

And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn School whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning seductively against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.

Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner is in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There’s nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience has closed down and there are one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it ain’t. But the sea is as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We try the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seems to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Says there’s meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which is dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It’s responding to the potential of everyday life practices. We can see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there’s a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we go away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that the exhibition was on, so maybe we missed something.

Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there’s a load of freight attached to buying these shellfish. This is not fish fingers we’re after here, it’s a piece of conspicuous consumption. I don’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this is, or how I’ve got to cook them. I’ve got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick, and in any case there’s only the two of us so there’s no need to be even secretly embarrassed.

So we got to the fish shop. It’s like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later? The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the workers that jiggered and jollied in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’s never seen it in swordfish.

I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, meaningfully pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties?? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.

“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”

He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Stella, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. We had a bag of whitebait.

I was loosing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box. We returned to our rented cottage.

I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.

These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.

Then there was the learning experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the wholly fresh and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops – the kind I think they sometimes call noisettes in France.

I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and cooked the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.

How to make a crab sandwich

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Yesterday we made a spur of the moment decision to stay in North Wales for a couple more days rather than rush home to rescue the runner beans.  We were up here in the spring when the ‘beast from the East’ felled our early sowings, but we were ready for the challenge because we’d already got a spare set propagated.  This time the forecast is for temperatures just above freezing in Bath – so we may or may not get away with it, but in any case this is the time of year when we strip back almost all of the summer season’s tender plants and get down to winter jobs.  In fact we’re up here still eating our own fresh runner beans, French beans and tomatoes.

With an extra three days to play with, my thoughts turned immediately towards getting some crabs. It’s incredibly difficut to buy fresh fish at the seaside these days.  I was talking to a fellow allotmenteer in Cornwall a few weeks ago and he told me he’d quizzed the local supermarket about whether they sourced their fish from Newlyn.  Oh yes, they assured him, but it has to go to their central depot before being shipped back again to the place where it was caught!

We have a couple of sources of fresh crabs up here but we decided to try one we’ve not been to before, and after a depressing drive past a massive dairy farm surrounded by fields of drab, chemical fuelled uniformity and devoid of any wildflowers; with every gateway barred by notices warning us to keep out from this biosecure bovine lock-in, we found the place we were looking for at the end of a narrow lane. They had no crabs, only frozen crabmeat and there was no prospect of getting more in because they’d missed the tide and what with the strong winds ……

On then another five miles to Rhiw where there is a house at the side of the road with a roughly painted sign outside the door. Put all thoughts of cosy cottages away, this house is a 1950’s style new build, fully equipped with Crittall windows.  We’ve bought delicious crabs there before and so we pulled up and I tapped on the door. Yes there were crabs, and they were in a fridge in the garage, freshly caught and cooked. Ten minutes later after after an impromptu seminar on how to sex crabs and the best way to judge them (weigh them in your hand) and whether the meat tastes better in some seasons than others I felt like a crab expert and when the economy collapses after Brexit I’m going to set myself up as a consultant crab sexer. Anyway I bought two lovely hen crabs at £6 the pair and we drove back after stopping at the local Spar shop to get some cider and some wholemeal bread.

By this time it was a bit late for lunch so we went for a walk down the coast path. Last year, on September 4th, I counted 37 plants actually in flower on the same stretch of coast path. Now, in late October and with a fierce north easterly wind there were only very few survivors.  IMG_4654We did however find a nice clump of Rock Samphire down near a little cove where we watched a female seal playing with her cub for about half an hour – close inshore – it was enchanting. We also put up a snipe who waited until we were almost upon it before it shot into the air like a clay from a trap.  All the usual cast of gulls, shags, crows, jackdaws and chough were either sitting on rocks looking out across the slate grey Irish Sea, sporting ecstatically in the updraught from the cliff or congregating noisily in the fields behind. A tough looking ram sporting a fetching harness of blue raddle had been about his tupping with enthusiasm if the sheeps’ behinds were anything to go by, but he was taking a break and grazing contentedly with the others.  We found a solitary field mushroom whose neighbours had been trodden into the grass, and when we were thoroughly cold we walked back.

So after all those hours of careful preparation here’s how to make a crab sandwich. You need, apart from the crabs, a small hammer (or a wooden rolling pin works well).  You need a skewer or a sharp pointed kitchen knife, a large piece of newspaper to collect the bits and a bowl to put the meat in – that’s it. I always break all the claws off first and get the meat out of them first because that’s the most boring bit and I like to get it out of the way. The technique is to twist and pull. If you need to, give the claws a gentle whack to crack them, you don’t want to be eating bits of shell. If you’re lucky you can gently pull some of the meat out with your fingers but if not you prise it out with the little knife.  When all the claws/legs are done you’ll have a surprising amount of white meat if you’ve chosen your crabs well. Next comes the bit where you prise the main shell apart. It can be a bit of a struggle, but it will almost always come apart if you apply enough firm pressure.  Inside you’ll see some greyish green feathery looking things – these are the ‘dead mens’ fingers’ and you wouldn’t even eat them for a dare so chuck them out and get on with extracting as much meat as you can. The red meat is the gloopy bit, and that’s where a lot of the flavour is, so don’t be squeamish – get it out into the bowl.  Then mix it all gently together with a fork and add some black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Butter some brown bread and heap on as much crab as you dare and then slap another slice of bread on top. Pour youself a glass of cider and and eat the sandwich with the filling running down your chin in the most disgusting way. If you want to spoil it completely you could make a salad with exhausted lettuce, lumps of red onion and slices of red pepper, but you can get that in a pub any day for about £15 a shot.

Preparation time 6 hours, cooking time zero, eating time –  five exultant minutes!

 

 

Potwell Inn staff outing to Snowdonia

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The great thing about the Potwell Inn is because it’s imaginary it’s always very close to wherever you are; and so organising a staff outing was a relatively straightforward business – mostly working out what to do, and shelling out a substantial amount of cash for the fare.  It seemed to Madame and me that life is more than RS Thomas, Elsi Eldridge, the Keating sisters, gardening and searching out almost extinct apple varieties, so we decided on a steam train ride from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.

Gwynedd’s county town, home to Wales’s most famous castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mighty Caernarfon Castle commands the lion’s share of attention, but the town’s narrow streets and stylishly redeveloped waterfront also merit a visit. The castle, built in the 13th century by Edward I as a royal palace and military fortress, was at the core of a medieval walled town.

Thus reads the publicity blurb on the Visit Snowdonia website, and it goes on to stake a claim for the town’s historic importance.

More of that in a moment, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”  goes the saying, and this posting is really about play because I don’t think we do enough playing and it’s having a terrible impact on our health and on our inner lives – and, further, it’s not long before what’s crippling our inner lives is also damaging the whole culture too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since I’m reading an excellent book by Peter Marren, called “Chasing the Ghost” I’m including a single line from the book, describing a naturalist friend hunting for a flower:-

“[Chris} has the thoughtful, slightly quizzical expression of a dedicated naturalist. If a Bedfordshire flower had eyes, it is that look of intense curiosity that it would see, as the hand lens descends.”

We tend to think of play as being a bit mindless, but the opposite is true. Real play is intensely mindful and focused, whilst all the time being wholly open to the wonder of the unexpected. Real play demands that we put to one side “the way we do things round here” – an excellent shorthand description of culture I once read – and open ourselves wide to the possibility of being someone else in a different world. Field botany, achaeology, drawing, gardening and cooking are among hundreds of ways of playing that are gradually being eroded by our Gradgrind society – and the results are everywhere to be seen

And when it comes to playing there’s not much to beat a 25 mile ride through Snowdonia on a proper steam train. Everyone’s playing! obviously me, playing at being about seven years old again lurking around the engine waiting for a burst of steam and hanging out of the window (strictly forbidden) to feel the smuts and grit in my face. But everyone else seemed to be at it as well; the driver and fireman were properly dressed up and were having the best game of all, especially when the vacuum failed in a narrow cutting and applied the bIMG_4604rakes – then we were all playing. The driver was playing the resourceful hero walking back down the line, and we were all playing being abandoned in the mountains.  The conductor was playing at raising our spirits with her announcements while the fault was fixed. Of course it was fixed, but when we pulled into the next station there were a small group of people having the time of their lives playing at being engineers and having manly conversations in their hi-vis jackets while a shed was unlocked and a mysterious component was found and seemed to make everyone happy again. And all that didn’t even begin to describe the bliss of rattling and clanking up the climb towards Snowdon with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails in all the twists and turns. And then there was the silence.

The steam hissed, someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop – only the name

P1080703At the very first stop, Edward Thomas’s poem came flooding back to me, it was almost overwhelming, and it occured to me that no-one whose life had not begun in the steam age would quite understand the poem because these days, the station name-board would be accompanied by the loud thrumming of the diesel engines under your seat. Real unexpected silence was the best teacher of that poem anyone could hope for – a truly magic moment!

And it’s impossible to describe the mountains adequately even though I know the area fairly well. The reason is that – unlike a map – the mountains change shape with every yard the train heaves upwards towards the summit. You realize how partial your understanding of any landscape must be until you’ve got it under your feet. I know very well what Tryfan looks like on a map, and even as I climb up it, but I don’t even know  what it looks like from the Glyders or indeed from almost any other distant aspect. That majestic and slightly menacing outline may well look quite benign from some viewpoints but I don’t know that because I haven’t got the ground under my feet properly. I’m just not local enough.

But agricultural policy in the UK has been decided for years by people who haven’t got the landscape under their feet at all.  All this landscape and all its beauty has been compromised by farming policies decided largely by politicians and unelected boards 280 miles away and more; compromised by ignorance and greed and little understanding of a whole way of life that doesn’t fit into a homogenised culture. Am I sounding a bit William Cobbett here? The name on the cinema lets the cat out of the bag because deep down I think the politicians in London still see Wales as a colony. First you attack the language and then you take everything you can.

It turns out that Caernarfon is probably best seen from Angelsey because it gets seedier the closer you are. We only had an hour and I was on the lookout for the bookshops I’d googled up but the only two I saw were W H Smith and another that seemed to specialise in Welsh language books. Yelp boasted nine bookshops but we walked around the castle and the pretty bits in about ten minutes and the other seven must have disappeared. There was a pub called the Black Boy Inn with a sign that would make you blush for shame at the lack of irony or self-awareness, and just up the road a cafe that offered sausage and mash with onion gravy in a giant yorkshire pudding, with several rather depressed individuals eating something else. Somewhere near the waterfront was a large statue of David Lloyd George who’s ubiquitous in these parts (there’s a museum in Llanystumdwy). I kicked myself when we got back for not paying more attention to the modelling of the trousers to see whether the sculptor had managed to make any covert reference to the member for Caernarfon which was, by all accounts, wielded to great effect.  The bingo hall just about sums it all up.

What can you say about Caernarfon? It seems to have lost its raison d’etre. Stone, slate and coal are no longer shipped out to the world, hill farming is on its knees and the only industry (if you discount doing up second homes and holiday lets) would be tourism. It’s a sad and lost place that reminded me a bit of Milford Haven; and as we were walking around I was thinking of H G Wells’ Mr Polly walking on the beach at Fishbourne and saying “Beastly silly hole of a place”. You could imagine the vast majority of young people with any vision at all having to leave the area and move to one of the larger cities.

But enough mournful introspection.  The authorities are working hard to make things better and they’re spending £2.5 million on a new terminus for the Welsh Highlands Railway – right in the centre of town, and the Potwell Inn works outing still had the journey back to Porthmadoc to look forward to. And for once the summit of Snowdon was not wreathed in cloud and we even saw the little steam train making its way up to the top. I’ve got mixed feelings about that one.  Whose bright idea was it to build a railway line up there of all places?

And back to Porthmadog we went with our company of day trippers, picking up walkers and adventurers as we went  – imagine the fun of flagging down a whole steam train on a request stop.  Finally we passed the Moelwyn Hills as we approached Porthmadog.  Many years ago we went on a weekend working party on the Ffestiniog Railway which was then more of a dream than a reality. There was some serious playing going on there, not least with seemingly vast amouts of explosive used to blast a new link that had been broken by the construction Tanygrisiau Hydro Electric Power Station. It was winter and we got a bit bored and so we climbed Moelwyn Bach, the smaller of the two mountains, in deep snow and in our wellies. P1060355Deeply irresponsible I know, and we got properly told off by the ‘grown ups’ when we got back but they were a strange lot – they believed in the railway as fervently as they might have believed in the Second Coming. It was all too serious for us and we finally disgraced ourselves by crashing a truck. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of us. Now, decades later it’s easier to give them credit for their single-mindedness in building the railway. They were absolute pioneers and achieved their railway line in the teeth of a thousand difficulties. I wonder what the original volunteers think, now that the railway is a successful commercial enterprise. Knowing when to let go and allow the second and third generations take over is a real challenge, but only today it was announced that the slate region of Gwynnedd which includes the Ffestiniog Railway is to be nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site which, if it comes off, may bring even more visitors to the area. Something needs to replace the lost industries but it will create yet more stress on the culture and landscape if it’s not managed carefully and locally.

So back into Porthmadog with the sun going down and the last train from Ffestiniog steaming on the far side of the station. As staff outings go it was pretty good – no-one got drunk, started a fight or got locked in the toilet.  I think we might do it again next year.