How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitableSeem to me all the uses of this world!
Here’s an idea stolen shamelessly from the Harvest Meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. My only spin is to add a slice of goats cheese. Oatmeal biscuit with a slice of goat’s cheese and on that some ordinary beetroot mashed with black pepper and salt and a teaspoon of horseradish sauce. Then some diced super sweet beetroot on top. It looks even better if you use yellow beets, but we used what we’ve grown.
Squash the juniper berries roughly , maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don’t want them so much a powder, simply well bruised.
I was reading Nigel Slater’s vegetable cookbook “Tender” when that phrase suddenly struck me. One of the reasons his books are such a pleasure to read is that they so often capture the sense of what it feels like to cook. Cooking is a truly multi-sensory experience involving taste and smell, colour, sound and texture but also memory of meals eaten, lessons learned, friends who were deeply appreciative and meals cooked and swallowed rather than savoured by those who could not recognise a love letter unless it was written down. Some food writers are a bit cerebral; some assume you’ve got skills you never learned, some assume that the pleasure is all in the eating, and that the cooking is no more than the warm-up for the main event.
My mother taught me how to make Yorkshire puddings one Sunday morning when the condensation was running down the kitchen windows. “How do you know when it’s thick enough?” I asked. The answer came in an action; she moved the spoon rapidly back and forth in the bowl causing the mixture to flop back making an utterly distinctive sound that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a formidably accurate measure that works every time but I couldn’t describe it in words. The old cookbook standby “like cream” is too vague. The sound, on the other hand, never lets you down.
And in that contemplative moment I remembered her little sharp knife. She wouldn’t have known what ‘mise en place’ was all about but she knew that it was always kept in the right hand drawer of the cupboard in the kitchen, and she also knew that she was the only person in the house who understood why that was important. Other people would take it out to cut string, or whatever, and then it would be left lying around somewhere else, not close at hand. It was everything to her, although it was probably second hand when she acquired it from her mother. Sharpened to the point where there was little of the original shape or length left, in truth it wasn’t that sharp at all but just sharper than the others. Carbon steel, slightly flexible and stained by what might have been generations of use: it came to represent her. It was her peeler, her tester her filleting knife
That was the knife I used when I first learned to trim shin of beef. I thought you had to remove all the connective tissue so I landed up with some very small shreds of meat and threw all the flavour and texture away. I used it clumsily to core kidneys with much the same results, but in doing so I learned something about the tactile pleasures of cooking. It’s hands-on and hands-in alchemy that takes the most unpromising or even faintly disgusting, and transforms it into something beautiful. Every day the ugly duckling in the larder becomes a swan. She had a tiny repertoire of meals that marked the seasons year by year. The day she made a curry for the first time, the day she added a single chilli to a stew were memorable days because her menus revolved like the stars in the sky. Innovations were like comets hinting at disasters to come.
The sensual pleasures of cooking are not talked or written about nearly as much as those of eating and yet they’re the foundation of good cooking. It’s in the hands, between the fingers, even with the whole body when kneading dough. The difference between right and not quite right are better inscribed in tactile memory than they can ever be described in words. But Nigel Slater sometimes gets close.
I think it was Samuel (Dr) Johnson who once said that every project bears within itself the possibility of failure. If you wait until all possible objections have been met then you’ll never do whatever it is that’s in your mind. So piling a load of seaweed on to the asparagus bed could be construed as a bit risky were it not for the fact that we’ve seen it done at the Lost Gardens of Heligan without any obvious ill effects. Their bed, mind you, are about fifty times bigger than ours.
Today, having cut back this season’s growth and carefully hand weeded, I opened the very large sack of seaweed we brought back from North Wales and cautiously spread the first forkful on the bed. The smell was pretty awesome (to steal a phrase from WordPress) and there was a lively crew of sandhoppers and flies wondering how they’d managed to travel 220 miles from the beach they regarded as home; but it’s on now and I’m experiencing a strange feeling of satisfaction. Whether the promised benefits of trace elements and soil conditioning along with a little salt and sand actually make a difference we shall see in six months time. On the allotment the balance has now tilted in favour of next season. Over half has been cleared, manured and covered, and the depressing signs of wilting and decayed leaves have been consigned to the compost where a quite wonderful number of brandling have been busy breeding all summer.
Madame meanwhile was planting up the spring window boxes for the flat, and clearing out the greenhouse of pots and growbags. The spent remains of the bags and pots have all gone back on to the beds, more as soil conditioner than food. Two mysteries were also resolved during the morning. The reason that one of the water butts was never refilling from the greenhouse roof turned out to be no more complicated than the fact that I’d turned off the wrong tap; and the second mystery – why was there a section of the tomatoes that always needed watering in spite of the soaker hose , turned out to be no more complicated than a kink in the pipe. I solved both problems with one poorly aimed jab of the fork, when the water sprayed into my face.
So why is this blog called the Potwell Inn? I feel the question hovering, unspoken, in the air. Part of the answer is that (for me) it’s the equivalent of a keyboard shortcut that takes me immediately to where I need to be in order to write. The two words are analogous to a complex in psychological terms and so when I say ‘I’ve got a complex’ I mean it in the wholly positive sense that it’s the ‘madeleine’ that gets me going. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair. Stanley Spencer had an even more unpleasant olefactory shortcut it seems. For me it’s just those two words. Of course there’s nothing more obscure than someone else’s obsession and I realize that some potential readers turn away in bafflement. A pub that doesn’t exist is a blog too far! But a good pub embodies all of the qualities I most treasure. It’s a place of welcome, of meeting, an escape. It’s never judgemental, it sells good beer and good food. Any topic of conversation is permitted and it might even lead to a memorable evening from time to time. In my working life I spent ten years teaching in a prison and two old style mental institutions; ten years as a community worker on an outer fringe estate, and thirty years as a parish priest. All 50 years of experience taught me that the qualities needed to do that kind of work were exactly the same as those needed to run a good pub. Add to that the fact that HG Wells’ novel “The History of Mr Polly” has the Potwell Inn as a place of liberation and self-discovery and that seals the deal for me. I hope it might for you as well.
Not much happening at the Inn today, but the sun shone and drove away the frost and we siezed the opportunity to catch up with some household jobs. If I’m feeling particularly melancholic there’s nothing more therapeutic than making stock, filling the flat with the aroma of meals as yet uncooked. Making stock is like planting seeds, it insists that there will be another day. The other running project is to eat more veg, and so an hour in the bookshop sorting through endless possibles, I eventually invested £30 in the Leith Vegetable Bible. No breathless exuberance, no claims of everlasting life and best of all no photographs – like all the best cookery books. So the overcrowded space on my side of the bed now has four of the best vegetarian cookery books with barely a photograph between them. Apart from the Leith book, there are Nigel Slater’s veg book “Tender”, Jane Grigson’s magnificent “Vegetables” which has the best and most comprehensive research, and finally Rose Elliot of course. There are many others in the bookshelves, but those are my personal favourites.
The asparagus bed is refusing to bow to winter, but tomorrow I’m going to cut all the fronds back so I can spread the seaweed we gatered in North Wales. It was pretty ripe when we loaded it into the car, and we had to tie the sack tight to stop the copious wildlife escaping – so God knows what it’s like now. Tomorrow will tell.
Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed. Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’. Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can. So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses? I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.
But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:
Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.
That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner. So no thanks. Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.
Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine. One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.
So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible. Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly. So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.
It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?” I’ll have to think about that one.
Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg. The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view. And if that all sounds bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!
Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008
“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.
The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.
So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.
Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.
OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.
Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.
The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’
What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!
Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.
Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.
The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).
So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.
But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!
As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes. It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well. But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney. So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends. All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses. That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.
Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared. We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food. We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.
Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it. We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic. It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.
Here we are, back home and that means two posts today with a bit of luck and some time. First off, ‘though, there is the revival of the sourdough starter and the kefir to think about. The Potwell Inn is a plain sort of a place – or it would be if it existed – and here we try to avoid mystification, and when it comes to sourdough starters and their care, there’s enough ordure written about it to keep our allotment fertile for the next ten years. So here’s the key principle: wild yeasts are are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere and they’ll still be there centuries after the last lobbyist declares that chemical X will save the world, thereby ending the world. I’ve only killed a sourdough starter once and that was a deliberate experiment to see how long I could neglect it before it died. The answer was that I couldn’t kill it at all, but under the anaerobic conditions of its container it turned into another life-form so powerfully smelly that I had to throw the container away. Second point is that getting a starter going is so easy you wonder how the hipster artisan bakers have got the nerve to sell the knowledge for £150 a morning. Get some dark rye flour and stir it into some tap water and leave it in a warm place until it starts to bubble (could be days – don’t wory). Then throw half of that away and add more flour and more tap water, give it a stir and keep going like that until it’s ready to use.
So getting back from North Wales means the neglected starter needs a feed because it’s been neglected for a fortnight and it’s sulking. I do use organic flour; my favourite is Bacheldre Mill, but I don’t fuss about water. By all means waste your money on organic single malt virgin water brought over from the Isle of Sky in a coracle but it won’t taste any better. I do not employ holiday starter sitters to stir the infant broth daily, even on minimum wages. I have not scoured the antiques markets for authenic barm pots and neither do I subject the infant starter to any ceremonial prayers or position it on a lay line. Most particularly I would never dream of shelling any money out for someone else’s starter, but if you happened to know where the Potwell Inn is (which for reasons already described would be difficult because it doesn’t exist), but if you should happen to pop by at the back door of the pub I’ll gladly give you a bit. It’s lovely and it smells like apples.
As for the second exercise in controlled rotting, the kefir was in an even more perilous situation because I’d forgotton about it for weeks. You know how it goes with kefir – drinking it every single day for ever would bore you stiff. So it’s been languishing at the back of the fridge waiting patiently for someone to show it some love. Today I showed it some love and I strained it and washed the grains off (with tap water) and and put it in a clean container with more full cream milk. Once again it’s organic milk because that’s what we use. Because I’ve washed it and possibly because the chlorine in the water is a bit of an inhibitor, it will be slow to recover, but it will recover.
The pantry is full of various other vegetable bits and bobs undergoing their own lacto-fermentation and they too will cope with whatever life throws at them. I don’t sell this food so any public health inspectors reading this need not trouble themselves to Google up the Potwell Inn and attempt to pay me a visit, and if I do suddenly expire one day from some unexplained cause it’s vanishingly unlikely that the wild yeast will have done it!
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 was joined on to a row of houses but only 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.