Cargoes: Citrus Appeal.

Swansea's 1930s Guildhall tower with trireme motives.

Swansea’s 1930s Guildhall tower with trireme motives.

Fat ship prows jut out from the top of the otherwise gaunt sides of the Guildhall tower in Swansea.   Facing the four winds they take the distinctive form of an ancient ship from the Mediterranean world, a jutting ram overtopped by a contemptuous scroll.   I read that these were warships: biremes, triremes, quadriremes, quinquiremes and beyond, depending on the rows of slave oarsmen on each side.  But I, as perhaps the architects of the 1930s Guildhall may have done, took my cue from John Masefield’s once popular poem and associated them with ancient trade.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

‘Cargoes’,  John Masefield (1902).

Bass relief from Pozzuoli, Italy.

Bas relief from a Roman port near Naples.

In my 60s youth the most visible remains of Swansea’s great maritime trade were the misnamed banana boats that concealed stowaway tarantulas in their holds, in face they probably plied the important Mediterranean trade routes.  The ships were probably more akin to the last of the three contrasting verses of Cargoes – imaginary spiders apart, I was more gnawingly anxious about Monday morning when there would be the possibility that I would be the one to recite the poem by heart in front of the school class:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rails, pig-lead,

Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

When you look out to the bay today, long bulk carriers lie low in the water, prows pointing towards the deep-water harbour at the immense integrated steelworks at Port Talbot.  These ocean travellers were frustratingly anonymous until the internet lifted their anonymity.  Coal from Australia waits at anchor in the Bristol Channel.  Iron ore from Brazilian open-cast mines comes via ports such as Ponta Ubu.  That the vast majority of the ore is shipped from that port to China is no surprise in light of recent developments.

 

Margam Xanadu

Further again around Swansea Bay, where the Glamorgan uplands turn inland and fields begin to cover a rich plain, the estate of the dynasty that put their name to Port Talbot sits rather incongruously.  If the docks and steelworks were, and hopefully remain, the site of wealth creation, it is the nearby Margam estate that was a focus for conspicuous consumption.   The Mansels bought the Margam Abbey at the Dissolution of the Monasteries – land, ecclesiastical and lay buildings.  After four centuries of money making their descendants by marriage, the Talbots, brought the site to its final peak of development by raising a dominating 19th century Gothic mansion in what may be described as an ‘industrial baronial’ style, often most appealing when seen from a distance.

Over the centuries the estate acquired prestige collections.  A deer park was an early example.  As a 17th century agriculturalist dryly observed ‘[deer parks] make or preserve a grandeur, and cause them to be respected by their poorer neighbours’.   At the end of the estate’s pomp in 1941, a four-day auction of the house’s contents including collections of furniture, silver, porcelain, books, tapestries and paintings that included works attributed at the time to Rembrandt, Canaletto, Gentileschi.

One of the estate’s early features was the ‘great’ collection of citrus trees whose scale and size were thought unequalled in Britain.   The physical legacy of this collection today is the imposing Orangery at Margam.   At 100 metres (327 ft) has been claimed to be the longest building of its type in Britain, perhaps Europe.  Comparisons are difficult as people do not seem to measure these things in an ordered way.  Nonetheless, the Margam Orangery has the air of one that believes it is the longest; in scale and character it is the Hallelujah Chorus of orangeries.

 

The Hallelujah Chouros of orangeries, Margam.

The ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ of orangeries, Margam.

 

A Plan of the Orangery. West Glamorgan Archive Service.

A ‘citrus palace’, plan of the Orangery. (West Glamorgan Archive Service.)

 

East Pavilion, Margam Orangery.

East Pavilion, Margam Orangery.  Where the TMT’s antique marbles acquired in Rome were displayed.

It was built in the late 18th century as a seasonal housing for an existing collection of citrus trees.  It was a time when the function of Margam was as a pleasure park, which to this day gives the place the feel of a superior architectural backlot.  The citrus trees have been a feature at Margam from the late 17th or early 18th centuries.  The earliest documentation is from a 1711 garden book that records the task of putting the orange trees out of doors.  We do not know where the trees originated, or at which exact period, but the trees inevitably came by sea originally.  Legends inundate the breech where there is no written evidence.  Some stories tell of them being taken as booty from Spanish ships, others of local shipwrecks.  It is true that the coast here regularly acquired shipwrecks blown off-course when entering the south-westerly approaches to Britain.  (Such a one is the 16th century merchant ship the Ann Francis, that is believed to be the sources of Spanish and Portuguese coins found on Margam beach where she ran aground when blown off her route to London.)

Ramona 001

An early-19th century cargo of orange trees on deck of a steam ship at anchor the Thames. Shipped from Rouen to be shared by an ’eminent botanist’ and Chelsea Botanical Garden, Sloane Street.

The roll call of the benefactors and recipients of the allegedly beached citrus trees include: the King of Spain and the King of Denmark, Sir Henry Wotton and King James I, the King of Portugal and Catherine of Braganza, a Dutch merchant and Queen Mary II.  Without a doubt a collection of citrus trees – a living embodiment of the warm south – was a worthy gift of, or to, sovereigns.   Not as rare as a collection of Ming vases, possibly not quite as costly to keep as a stable of Arabian stallions but nevertheless an ostentatious show of wealth.

Phillip Miller’s revered The Gardener’s Dictionary (1754) details the care of new oranges trees ‘that are brought over every year in Year in Chests from Italy; which is, indeed, by much the quicker Way of furnishing a Greenhouse’.

Moving the orange trees at Versailles.

Orange trees on the move at Versailles. (Detail from Jean-Baptiste Martin, ‘A Stag Hunt at Versailles, c.1700)

 

The trees were gently heated in a bed of composting tanner’s bark and coaxed to take up water.  The earth they arrived in was combed out of the roots and new compost added as they were planted in boxes to ease their annual migration in and out of the greenhouses.  These planters had a removable side so the tree could be planted up as it gradually grew in size; the citrus collections were not a throw-away commodity but a continually developing colony.   We should not be tempted to think of this collection as made up of lollipop-shaped bushes in pretty containers.  Margam was particularly known for the maturity of its citrus trees whose scale can be judged by the practical barn-sized doors at the rear of the Orangery.

 

‘Size & Excellance’

Walter Davies’ (Gwallter Mechain) report for the Board of Agriculture (1815) refers to Margam’s orangery as the collection of plants and the building as the greenhouse:

The present collection of fruit trees consists of Seville, China, cedrat [a variety of citron], mandarin, pomegranate, curled leaved and nutmeg oranges [kumquat], lemons, citrons, shaddocks [pomelo] and bergamots [used to flavour Earl Grey tea] we measured some of the latter that were 17 inches in circumference.  The trees in the green house are all standards planted in square boxes to be removed during summer into the open air in an extensive area surrounded by numerous forest trees and shrubs, tulip trees, acacias, bay trees, arbutus, Portugal laurels, hollies, stone pines &c of the most luxuriant vegetation and a circular pond in the centre for occasional watering.   The moveable fruit trees are in number about 110 and many of them are 18 feet high.   There are about 40 in the conservatory planted in the natural earth and traced against a trellis framing where the fruits abound and attain their native size and excellence.

Walter Davies describes the extraordinary system of air-rooting (‘circumposition’) used by the gardeners in Margam to propagate valuable trees.  Possibly parallels to a stable of pure-bred horses is not that far-fetched.   As with horses, dogs, deer and perhaps even your family, it was all about breeding and pedigree.

 

The Citrus Gene Pool.

The origins of the citrus genus lay in areas stretching between India and China. The first fruits that came to Europe via the Arab world would not be commonly recognised today.  The type of orange that made up the majority of the early citrus collections is what we know as the sour or bitter Seville, still required by marmalade makers.  The basic techniques of horticultural management were based on the needs of this handsome species.   The sweeter oranges, referred to as ‘China’, were naturally more highly regarded but were even more tender than the bitter Seville, requiring more cosseting.   The citron was the one of earliest citrus species to be widely grown in Europe when it arrived from its far Eastern home via the Middle East.  With its comparatively dry flesh and very thick peel, it can be thought of as a wilder sort of lemon, certainly more so than its hybridised descendants.  Citrons had an admired fragrance and, more practically, made good grafting stock for other citrus species.  For those reason they held their place in collections over the centuries, despite their very variable appearance.  The shaddock we know better as the pomelo, (Citrus grandis).   This very large, thick-skinned species was raised in Barbados from seed brought from the Far East by an enterprising Captain Shaddock .  No records of the have been found of this captain, but the story reflects the importance of the West Indies in the citrus trade, not least as the pomelo accidentally hybridised to give us the grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) with which it was at first confused.

The pleasure that could be gained from a citrus collection was not solely the harvest of fruit.  In fact oranges had at one time a bad reputation for fruiting in their British palaces, although the Margam trees that were planted in the ground against the heated back wall of the Orangery were famously successful.  In the summer, the trees were placed outdoors in a fragrant circle as an instant Mediterranean grove.  A central, circular pool in front of an orangery is a feature of the Orangerie at Versailles (finished in its current state in 1686), the progenitor of so many grand designs.  In their winter lodging the fragrance drifted into the pavilions at either ends of the orangery where sculptures and models were on display.  The latter were acquired on the Grand Tour undertaken by Thomas Mansel Talbot between 1768 and 1772.  In an otherwise rather hectoring letter from Nice to his gardener George Bartlett he shares his memorable experience of witnessing the natural growth of oranges, trees that he only had seen protected fretfully every winter back home.

The orange trees grow here with very little care in the corn fields and gardens.  Not far from hence is a mountain cover’d with arbutus & Myrtyll & inumberable [sic] quantity of other shrubs that I never saw in England. 

[Nice, 20 Nov 1770]

In answer to at least one rendering of the poet Goethe’s knowing question, ‘Do you know the land where the citron bloom?’, TMT did and had succumbed to its enchantment.

 

IMG_5931

Orange blossom. (Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park, Swansea). Given the right conditions citrus can flower and fruit continuously.

 

The recently late-19th century renovated 'orange wall' or greenhouse at Margam.

The Orangery is now used for functions and events, but there is a recently renovated, late-19th century lean-to greenhouse, or orange wall, (pictured) at Margam Park that contains a modern citrus collection.

After his return to Margam in 1771 to bury his sister, he returned to Italy, there to write to his gardener and brother about a consignment of trees he had bought to enhance the Margam collection, ‘I think there was 6 cedras [citron] & one particular species of orange that bares very small fruit & has a little leaf’, (Milan, 26 Oct 1771).  The latter appears to be the small-fruited myrtle-leaved orange that appears in a later inventory.  These were being shipped from Bristol to Neath at the same time that Thomas Mansel Talbot was organising the shipping of his sculptures from Italy to either Cork or Dublin to reduce import levies.  In a perhaps not untypical mixture of business and pleasure he hoped to transfer them from Ireland to Margam via the ships that carried his coal to and from Taibach, the local port before Port Talbot was developed.  Whether the new citrus trees were acquired in this country (home-grown trees were available at this time) or originally sent from Italy is impossible to say, but it is clear that he had seen his purchases with his own eyes.

From 1786 to 1790 the work took place at Margam to replace the existing greenhouses that housed his citrus collection (possibly a lower and an upper) with the current ‘citrus palace’ designed in an imposing Classical style.   This was structure that protected the oranges from the northern winter whilst providing a handsome gallery for acquisitions from his tour: modern copies of antique sculptures, excavated fragments, models of notable buildings and a bust of himself.  It may be termed today an ‘immersive installation’.   In creating a walk-through souvenir of his Grand Tour he was not unique.  However, there was at Margam an additional element of sensory gratification and recall.  Despite the size of the Orangery it not a place to show these precious objets d’art in winter.  The gardeners had to continue watering the evergreen plants and work on keeping them in prime condition.  For instance, those trees that were taken in too early could burst into unhealthy growth that had to be dealt with.  The two end pavilions allowed for a cordon sanitaire for the marbles and models, away from overfilled watering cans and wobbly ladders.  Open internal doors allowed the fragrance of the still-flowering trees to diffuse throughout the whole building.   The diarist John Evelyn had described the perfumes of orange, citron and jasmine as ‘the peculiar joys of Italy’.

A citrus collection was maintained at Margam until the Second World War when the orangery was requisitioned for military use and was occupied by American forces.  The orange trees were left out of doors and failed to survive the winter.

 

The Citron.

I am particularly interested in the citron.  Thick with pith (albedo) it is today one of the sources of the confection that goes by the plain name ‘mixed peel’.   The citron was possibly the only citrus that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew.  They considered it an exotic medicine as its binominal name, Citrus medica, still records.   Presumed by Theophratus to be an anecdote to poison, it could be associated in medieval and early modern times with the archaic anti-poison mixtures theriac and mithridatium.  Rich in aromatic oils, citron flesh could be distilled to make a fragrant water, indeed the floor plan for the now gutted Victorian mansion at Margam still maintained the fantasy of an old-fashioned ‘still room’ that was most likely a drinks pantry handily positioned near the billiards room.

Citron (Citrus medica). http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm

Citron (Citrus medica). (Rik Schuiling, Tropical Crops)

Candied citron peel (succade) came into Europe via the Arab world along with the first citrus trees.  Sweet, fruity and resinous it too was considered to preserve the medicinal qualities of the fruit.  Francis Bacon listed citron rind as a basis for a cordial, i.e. a medicine that invigorates and stimulates. Here is a medicinal recipe including candied citron peel from Thomas Sydenham.

Sydenham

 

The Whole Works of that Excellant Practical Physician, Dr. Thomas Sydenham, 8th ed. Corrected from the Original Latin, by John Pechey, M.D. 1722.

 

I have always had a liking for mixed peel, and consider traditional Welsh tea cakes like teisan lap best when they taste of its vaguely exotic flavour.   Shop-bought candied peel is perfectly fine, but homemade peel is softer in texture has a headier flavour.  As several have noticed (see Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book) the surrounding cake appears to be infused with it.

I cannot promise you an orangery of fragrance with this recipe but it is an experience of perfumed sweetness and pleasure and, as even Marie Antoinette was claimed to have observed, absolutely anyone can eat cake.

 

Recipe

Making something delicious from what is often a waste product is kitchen alchemy to me.  This recipe is from the BBC Good Food website.  The link is here, just in case unforeseen policy changes mean that the recipe disappears or is moved I have pasted it below.

Orange, Citrus

Not an ‘easy peeler’.

Thick-skinned oranges of the navel type seem ideal for this.  Oranges that are sometimes found in street markets that might not have the best flavour to the central flesh but have a thick white pith works well for candying.  You may wish to assess the discarded peel from a batch of juicing oranges.   Citrons are hard to come by, at least in south-west Wales, but if you look around until you find a plump lemon that strikes you as a subject of a 18th century still life (especially one from Spain, such as by Zurbaràn) you are probably on the right track.

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633

Francisco de Zurbarán Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633

Note: The first boil takes out some of the bitterness of the peel, the second boil can be extended to give a softer end result.  I found the period the cooked peel dries – until it is no longer tacky to the touch – can be much longer that the hour the recipe describes; particularly if you have boiled it well.   The remaining sugar syrup is too good to waste and can make a delicious ‘citrus peel’ ice cream; almost worth the effort in itself.

 

Candied Citrus Peel

 

‘Ingredients

2 unwaxed oranges and 2 unwaxed lemons

granulated sugar

 

Method

“Cut the fruit into 8 wedges, then cut out the flesh, leaving about 5mm thickness of peel and pith. Cut each wedge into 3-4 strips.

Put the peel in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 mins. Drain, return to the pan and re-cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 30 mins.

Set a sieve over a bowl and drain the peel, reserving the cooking water. Add 100g sugar to each 100ml water you have. Pour into a pan and gently heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the peel and simmer for 30 mins until the peel is translucent and soft. Leave to cool in the syrup, then remove with a slotted spoon and arrange in 1 layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Put in the oven at the lowest setting for 30 mins to dry.

Sprinkle a layer of sugar over a sheet of baking parchment. Toss the strips of peel in the sugar, a few at a time, then spread out and leave for 1 hr or so to air-dry.

Pack the peel into an airtight storage jar or rigid container lined with baking parchment. Will keep for 6-8 weeks in a cool, dry place.’

 

 


 

An early photograph of the Margam Orangery (c1845) by Calvert Richard Jones (Victoria & Albert Museum)

An early photograph (c. 1845) with Margam Orangery as its subject, by Calvert Richard Jones (Victoria & Albert Museum)Paxton‘The Cultivation of the Genus Citrus.’  Paxton’s Magazine of Botany, and Register of Flowering Plants, Vol 1, 1841.  [Quoting a manuscript found among Peter Collinson’s papers the author is still unresolved, see Lewis Weston Dillwyn, Hortis Collinsonianus, iv, note, 1843.]


 

Johann Christoph Volkamer, 'Nürbergisches Hesperides' 1708.

Did the book collection housed in the Library Pavilion of the Margam Orangery include a copy of the great compilation of citrus species & varieties, Johann Christoph Volkamer’s ‘Nürbergisches Hesperides’ (1708)? A record of the competitive cultivation of citrus among the wealthy merchants of Nuremberg in the early-18th century.

A Lemon-shaped cloud from the Margam coke ovens imitated Volkamer's illustrations of the prize lemons of rich Nuremburg merchants of the early 18th century.

A lemon-shaped cloud from the Port Talbot works’s coke ovens appears to be attempting to imitate Volkamer’s illustrations.


 

 

 

Some Sources

The Penrice letters 1768-1795, Joanna Martin, West Glamorgan County Archives Service, 1993.

Margam Orangery, A masterpiece of eighteenth-century architecture. Patrica Moore, Glamorgan Archives Service, 1976.

Painting Paradise, Vanessa Remington, Royal Collections Trust. 2015.

 

Rock Samphire: one person’s kerosene is another’s ketchup. 

The shores of Glamorganshire are not as a rule so richly draped in seaweed as other parts of our coast.  Ulva porphyra, however, is plentiful off Gower, and is turned by the natives into laver bread, and together with samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is sold as an edible commodity in Swansea market.

‘The Cambridge County Guide for Glamorganshire’, JH Wade, CUP 1914

 

Some things remain the same, and some things change.  There is still samphire for sale in Swansea Market but it is not the same Gower-collected samphire that the author carefully identifies.  Aromatic rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), gathered for centuries from the coast, was a well-known commodity being transported in brine to cities  – as from the South Coast to London – until it became scare.  At that point another wild plant of coastal marshes was used to bulk-up or substitute for it at market, and in the process appropriated its name.  The substitute could not maintain the level of supply and the overall trade declined, or reverted, to a local level as reflected in the 1914 quote above.

 

samphire

The tender spring growth. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

If it wasn’t for the recent tide of fashion we would only know marsh samphire (glasswort, Salicornia europaea) as a food that was consumed locally near to estuaries and marshes, or as a historic source of soda for the soap and glass industries.  Now it is cultivated commercially in Dutch polytunnels, and further afield, while the original rock samphire is more or less forgotten.  As a piece of culinary plate-dressing marsh samphire can appear like some personally foraged garnish straight out of its supermarket packaging –  a far cry from Richard Mabey’s appreciation of marsh samphire as an ecological phenomenon in his new book The Cabaret of Plants.  The story of the peripatetic ‘samphire’ name appears to be first clarified by Colin Spencer in 1995 (see below, or follow the link to my contribution to Herbs magazine that will appear after it is published, probably in 2016).[i]

Why make a fuss about ‘yesterday’s samphire’, especially unseasonably in January?  (See also my earlier post ‘Rock Samphire, the Ghost of Plenty’.)  In the mild dampness of this winter the most evocative memory of last summer is the heady aroma that arose like an invisible smoke from the bristling plant (even for a chronic sinusitis sufferer like myself).  So, if walking on along the promenade, settle down on the sun-warmed wall next to one of the specimens that grow there.  Admire the view over the unwinding line of the bay.  Wait until the pure-white cumulus rises benignly over the Port Talbot works in the far distance.  We know it is formed from the quenching of white-hot coke as it leaves the ovens, but let’s half believe for now that the towering cloud is a sign of the labour of duty-bound priests.   Gravely they perform ritual libations on a fiery altar – every half hour or so – to propitiate the Gods on our behalf that our hours may be more productive and easy.   Now turn to the rock samphire and inhale deeply of what is an extraordinarily heady natural aroma.  Sitting comfortably?  Let me address some samphire fallacies.

 

Samphire Fallacy No. 1 – Rock samphire tastes of kerosene.

Despite rock samphire’s long history as a popular comestible, a few modern food writers dismiss it out-of-hand; at least in doing so they are not committing the common error of confusing it with marsh samphire.  Some people who know the aromatic wildflower as part of the seashore vegetation have gently mocked my culinary interest in it.   Of course, this is all a matter of taste, which varies from person to person, place to place, and one period to another; one person’s kerosene is another’s ketchup.  Nevertheless several dismissive writers appear to be confused whether they are judging rock samphire as a spice or as a vegetable.  In the Mallorca it has been called the poor man’s capers and olives and is served pickled with the traditional pa amb oli, bread with oil.   A cousin to celery, parsley, lovage, carrot, parsnip, perhaps the ‘umbelliferae caper’ would be truer.   (This has reminded me that as a child I vehemently disliked celery, to my mind it tasted of – well – kerosene.)

 

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Samphire leaves in a pickle. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

In a pattern of consumption first recorded in the first century (by that Greek doctor in the Roman army Pendanius Dioscorides), some communities appear to have consumed rock samphire fresh after it was simply prepared by briefly boiling or ‘seething’ in butter.  Within living memory Ligurian fisherman have used its fleshy leaves to supply fresh rations onboard, while pickled samphire, still rich in vitamin C, had long been the companion on scurvy-prone ocean-going voyages.  At home, as a relish or seasoning, pickled rock samphire has been seen as an aid to make a meal more appetising.   There are many pickling recipes recorded from the simple to more elaborate but inevitably an initial stage of brining helps maintain its texture and colour.  Here is sensible advice of Mrs. Radcliffe:

Ratcliffe

‘A Modern System of Domestic Cookery’, 1823.

Alternatively, Italian food blogger Wildcraft Vita has a beautifully simple pickling technique using white wine and vinegar.

It is perhaps best to come to rock samphire for the first time as a seasoning or condiment; in fact some have suggested rock samphire as an alternative to salt for those who would, or must, avoid it.  It has been use to flavour the Cornish herring, or stargazey, pie and I have found picked samphire is a natural accompaniment to oily fish, fresh or tinned.

In Catalonia [rock] samphire is very much appreciated.  Conserved in white wine vinegar, it is used in salads in winter; with thyme, mountain savory, and oregano it is used in preserving olives; and when salted anchovies are prepared in oil, it is added as an aromatic.

‘Honey from a Weed’, Patience Grey, Prospect Books 2002.

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Pickled samphire on Cornish pilchards. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

In fact, I have even wondered if pickled samphire has a more interesting flavour than the comparatively two-dimensionally flavoured pickled caper.  It seems full of potential and I look forward to experimenting again with it this summer.  Allowing for the historical fondness for strong flavours (which seems to be returning on the forager’s plate) the following advice on the use of samphire in salads is a practical guide, and shows a sensible caution.

 

When a sallet is composed of four kinds of Herbs, there must be of [rock] Sampier one fourth part, when of five kinds, one fifth etc.

Batty Langley, ‘New principles of gardening …’, 1728.

 

I’ve found that you can get hooked on the taste.  As observant Dorothy Hartley wrote (to be picked up by Colin Spencer):

 

There is something ‘magic’ about samphire … the liking for it is so uncontrolled that you find some families – miles away from the sea – getting it sent to them, as a delicacy, while the rest of the community look on in bewilderment.

‘Food in England’, 1954.

 

In moderation it can excite a sluggish appetite, as the well-read William Morris of Anglesey summed it up in a letter of 1750, I feel like putting my niece Margaret to work pickling samphire. The best pickles for strengthening the stomach, procuring ‘appetite and removing all obstructions’ according to the sages.   The sages were no doubt the Renaissance herbalists including John Gerard whose Herbal (1597) states that it is the pleasantest sauce [seasoning], and best agreeing with man’s body, for the digestion of meats.

Here is Colin Spencer on fresh samphire that has had the benefit of the Mediterranean sun:

 

Spencer

The Magical Samphire’ Colin Spencer. Disappearing Foods: Studies in Foods and Dishes at Risk: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1994.

 

Sautéing with tomatoes and garlic as a sauce for pasta sounds a promisingly simple technique (from another Italian food blogger Clorofilla).  The BBC Food website lists two recipes with rock samphire (among 39 for marsh samphire, glasswort) that are of restaurant complexity.  The first seems like a medieval-style hash such as described by Dorothy Hartley in ‘English Food’ (cucumber, capers, lemon, pepper etc.) for salt-marsh lamb or mutton.   The other BBC recipe combines both samphires, this maybe a case of trying too hard (although this recipe may still suit those at Llanmadoc, see below).

During the autumn I put some of  the then tough leaves of rock samphire to infuse in vinegar and with some chopped onion.  When drained, the flavour (as reported in my earlier post Rock Samphire, the Ghost of Plenty) had a stronger, more interesting, flavour than the tarragon vinegar that it resembles.   You occasionally come across reports that the seeds have been used as seasoning.  I gather up some flabby ones at the end of the season and sprinkled some on a poached egg, like sumac seeds.   My expectations were not high, but I had what Colin Spencer refers to as a ‘revelation in taste’.   They had a flavour that was noticeably more tangy than the leaves yet it still had their distinctive green, herby flavour too; in other words a real-taste bud pleaser.  Was it a once-off?  I will have to wait until the end of summer 2016 to find out when I will attempt to dry and crush some which will hopefully make a lasting aromatic powder.

 

Rock Samphire Crithmum

Rock samphire in seed. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

Fallacy no. 2  Rock Samphire is virtually extinct.

In the UK and the rest of Europe, rock samphire is on the Red List of endangered species under the lowest category ‘Least Concern’.   This status may indicate that there is specific threat to the species.  In addition to its nutritious qualities there appears to have been a history of rock samphire gathering for the sake of its essential oil, obtained by distillation.  This oil can give a fresh aroma to cosmetic products (not to be confused with the soda ash once obtained from glasswort, marsh samphire, that was used the soap-making and glass-making processes.

The use of rock samphire extract in the cosmetic industry looks to be growing but exactly where this endemic European wild plant is being sourced is not easy to determine.  Locally samphire may be protected in nature reserves, SSSIs etc., I find established casual plants to pick leaves from in all sorts of places as it is happy with its roots in lime mortar.   If you have a boat this would include the quayside of Swansea Marina, where it will no doubt be weeded-out in time.

In the Balearic Islands, where it is traditionally still eaten, rock samphire is protected.  There it can be picked legally only for personal use, or otherwise under licensed for commercial pickle making.  This is an illegal stash of rock samphire leaves seized by Majorcan police in May 2015:

Mallorca

‘La Policía Local de Calvià interviene 10 kg. de fonoll marí recolectado ilegalmente.’ Noticias Calvia mayo 19, 2015.

 

In Britain rock samphire’s long-term popularity meant that it could only be acquired with difficulty.   William Morris at Holyhead commented that the well-known pickle hardly grows where Men can come at it, without being let down in Ropes.

There was a time, when the works of Shakespeare were universally taught in schools, that it was assumed that everyone knew the quote from King Lear; Halfway down, Hangs one that gathers samphire – dreadful trade; whose use was to become hackneyed over the centuries.   Unfortunately there were not many actual reports of dread associated with the everyday trade of samphire gathering. [ii]  An anonymous temperance ballad ‘Martin Riley, The Samphire Gatherer’ (1833) was published in some popular magazines.  It takes twenty-seven stanzas to reach a finale perhaps predictable from the first: Scatter’d and smash’d are his limbs strewn! And soak’d and red the sand.  What real-life stories there were needed the application of an imaginative writer, as was the case of the tale recorded by Rev. Richard Warner in his ‘Second Walk Through Wales’ (1789).  On his journey between Boverton and St. Donats he was guided to ‘Rennel’s Cave’ (my local informant suggests Tresilian for this otherwise unrecorded name).  The distinctive cliffs of lias limestone in the Vale of Glamorgan supported great colonies of rock samphire that was harvested and traded by the local people.

One of these told Warner a story that was ‘so full of horror, that to use a vulgar, but very expressive phrase, it made our blood run cold’.   What is remarkable about this story – where a gatherer loses his grip of his lifeline only to be forced to rescue himself by bounding towards it from the cliff ledge – is not its narrative, but how an elaborated version was to be repeated republished as a sort of stock copy.  By 1799 the original story was published verbatim from Warner’s book in several magazines.  From the 1830s an elaborated version added a starving family who watched from the cliff-top as the family’s breadwinner escaped from his trap.  Leaving nothing to the imagination, it added raging waves and ragged rocks among other verisimilitudes. This ‘sexed up’ version was bounced around magazines and newspapers (including The Cambrian, 9th February 1833).  Fittingly, the phrase ‘dreadful trade’ became a half-humorous allusion to journalism and hack-writing, and would nowadays even more correctly apply to blog-writing.[iii]    This is an illustration from 1844 American version of the Glamorganshire samphire gatherer:

 

The museum of remarkable ...

Not waving but bounding. ‘The museum of remarkable and interesting events…’,  J. Watts, Ohio 1844.

 

Nearer to our own home and time, and without the aid of ropes, I have picked leaves from many individual plants on Swansea Bay promenade and on Gower rock-side paths.   I have yet to see anything like the ‘meads’ of samphire described in the past on the chalk and limestone at Dover and Freshwater Bay (Isle of Wight) that supplied the London markets.

On the Gower peninsula the clever Rev. JD Davies (1831-1911), Rector of Llanmadoc and Cheriton, observed that ‘A good deal of samphire grows on the cliffs hereabouts, and on those of the Burry Holms’.   Davies was fortunate to have had two edible samphires in his parish, for on the edge of the salt marshes grew –

 

glass wort (Salicornia herbacea [sic]) ; a succulent sea green plant, … often sold under the name Samphire, and made into pickle ; but far inferior to the genuine samphire which is never found except on the rocks.  The glass wort, commonly called the Marsh Samphire by the country people, has a leafless and jointed stem, with small green flowers.

Rev. JD Davies, ‘A History of West Gower’, Part III, 1877-1894.

 

Interestingly, he commented that the local inhabitants ignored the rock samphire not seeming to ‘know its value’ – either for subsistence or trade.    This is in midst of earlier reports of the harvesting of, and trade in, rock samphire on the Gower peninsula; it may have been the case that not all samphire colonies were the focus of gathering, at least to exhaustion.[iv]

 

Other fish, of the most valuable kinds, abound on the coast of Gower, the lobsters are uncommonly large and fine.  Among the produce of the coast must also  be enumerated samphire, called in Welsh corn carw’r môr, which grows on rocks and cliffs not overflowed by the tide, is gathered when out of blossom, boiled and preserved, and much esteemed as a pickle

Part of the above-mentioned produce of the coast, viz., samphire, laver, oysters, turbot etc., and some of the river fish, are sent to Bristol and the interior of England.

‘A Topographical Dictionary of Wales’, Glamorganshire, vol. 1, Samuel Lewis 1840.

 

Samuel Lewis’s list of coastal produce may indicate that rock samphire was sold by fishmongers, as opposed to greengrocers, as its successor is today.  So the familiar sight of a pile of emerald-green, pencil-thin leaves next to the fish and shellfish may go back further than we think.

 

Cockles with pickled samphire.

Cockles, pickled samphire.

 

Could there have been all this past trouble over something that tastes like kerosene smells?   Our ancestors knew how to prepare and relish it, a knowledge that we have lost until now when it makes itself known again in coastal nooks and crannies.  Its return to market would risk yet again the presence of what is an attractive summer wildflower on our seashore.   But, if you stumble across it at the end of a cliff-top walk, rather than at the end of a cliff-hung rope, try it with knowledge and judgement; for, if you like it, you will have enjoyed an astonishingly aromatic, remarkably nutritious and celebrated part of our natural common wealth.

 

[i] Yellow-flowered Inula crithmoides was sometimes used, giving it its common name golden samphire. I can be often found growing with rock samphire.

[ii] The literary possibilities of samphire feature in Patrick O’Brian’s short story of the same name.

[iii] ‘The dreadful trade of journalism’ (G.K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, Dec. 28, 1935.).

[iv] The much-repeated description of rock samphire’s use as a cattle feed originates in an error in Pennants ‘Tour of Wales’ (1778, 1781)where the subject is sea plantain, Plantago maritima.  See Hugh Davies ‘Welsh Botanlogy’ 1813.

 

 

 

Dixon quote

‘The Kitchen & Flower Garden’, Eugene Sebastian Delamer, 1856.

Rock Samphire Crithmum (5)

Rock samphire between flower and seed. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Square Peg Coffee House

The unripe fruit of the coffee tree. Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park. Photo: Edible Swansea.

The unripe fruit of the coffee tree. Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park. Photo: Edible Swansea.

Beyond the coffee cup – behind the bean – there is the evergreen tree that came out of Africa.  As a commercial crop, coffee now embraces the world across the tropical zone, but as a living tree it is removed from us both by distance and the processing that is required to create its beguiling complex flavour.  Claudia Roden gives a striking description of the coffee tree (most often trimmed to a practical shrub size);

A coffee tree is a rare, magnificent sight when it breaks out into a fragile and delicate white blossom, its fragrance as intoxicating as that of the orange and jasmine which it resembles.  It may bloom alone like a young bride or with the whole farm, a swaying sea of white petals, as beautiful as they ephemeral.  For in two or three days they will have fluttered off the bough, leaving their perfume to linger only a while longer. ‘Coffee’, Penguin 1981

In our climate we can only connect with the coffee tree in the greenhouses and tropical houses of botanical gardens, such as the ones at Singleton Park.

 The Tropical House, Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park. Photo: Edible Swansea.

The Tropical House, Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park. Photo: Edible Swansea.

The painted jungles of the untravelled Henri Rousseau are rich in species, immaculate and rather window-dressed.  It is perhaps not surprising that were inspired by trips no further than the Jardin des Plantes in Paris;

Henri Rousseau, The Snakecharmer.

Henri Rousseau, The Snakecharmer.

Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park.  Waiting for a Henri Rousseau.

Botanical Gardens, Singleton. Waiting for a Henri Rousseau. Photo: Edible Swansea. 

In Singleton Park’s greenhouses we can consider the coffee tree’s life away from its worldwide trade that is second only in value to petroleum.   The flesh of the ripe fruit is edible; the seeds at the centre are the coffee beans we would only recognise as such when processed and roasted.  Leaves and rinds can provide subsistence medicine where the plant is grown. The presence throughout the plant of caffeine appears to be an evolutionary adaption that attacks the nervous systems of aggressive insects; a fact not worth dwelling upon too much when one’s own verves are jangling a little after overconsumption.

I discovered the wider shores that a simple cup of coffee can offer not far from the Singleton Park coffee trees.  The new Square Peg Coffee House should have been a cafe that I fled from after my first visit, never to return.  My current pleasure, on the way to somewhere, or while killing time, is to withdraw into a cafe and to retreat in a shell that incorporates a newspaper.   I achieve a Zen-like detachment from the world as I focus on a very few things.  An experience I find nourishing in many ways.

I felt obliged to crawl out of my carapace by SQCH’s extraordinary coffee, which the staff engagingly chat to you about.  I could list here the origins of the two mellow-roasted blends that they offer; the seasonal blend being particularly fruity and delicate.  If I do so it will give the idea that I know more than my curiosity and pocket have reached.   Experience is the best teacher.   The people there can produce the usual repertoire of the espresso machine; the ‘usual suspects’ whose names conjure up sinister, minor Mafia families: Cordata, Macchiato etc.  However, while this summer’s sun still has some warmth I will keep asking for the same extraordinary cold combination, and dream…

The 'dark star' of cold brew and the 'cold sun' of cascara.  Photo: Edible Swansea.

The ‘dark star’ of cold brew and the ‘cold sun’ of cascara. Photo: Edible Swansea.

A long glass of cold brew feels like a pleasant sort of deep dive into dark water. The long, cold water infusion of roasted coffee gives a spectrum of flavours that is wider than traditional coffee but undeniably dark.  The caffeine sensation appears to be like a gentle, lasting ocean wave, in contrast to the crashing wave of, say, an espresso that can eventually leave you feeling rather beached.   The chaser of cascara provides interludes of air and sunshine.  Made from the discarded pulp surrounding the coffee seeds, it has a lower caffeine content than the coffee seed/bean.  Its flavour can suggest the fruit and flower of the tree.  It can be offered as a tea-like infusion, but SPCH make a very light syrup with a clever enhancement of Earl Grey tea.   (This cascara, or rind, should not to be confused with others of the same name such as cascara sagrada, a widely available herbal remedy from Rhamnus purshiana of North-West America.)  If this is all so alarming to you, they have a decaffeinated blend whose flavour is not an also-ran.

I’ve been wary of writing about individual businesses, but occasionally a place is so extraordinary that you have to nail your colours to the metaphorical mast.  Thanks to the descendants of Italian migrants at the beginning of the 20th century there are many places to have good coffee in this part of the world.  But there is nowhere that attempts to do what this social enterprise does; if you wish it can be more of a coffee workshop than a coffee shop.

What sandwiches I’ve tasted have been made with the same care as each cup of coffee, I can say that there have been no duds among them.  Their local producers and suppliers include Stuart’s Hot Bread Shop, and Olive and Oils so they clearly know what they are doing.  Whatever their future brings I hope they do not lose their clear enjoyment in their enterprise, which, in this big, bad world, is uplifting in itself.

Henri Rousseau,  Still Life with Coffee Pot.

Henri Rousseau, Still Life with Coffee Pot.

Square Peg Coffee House, 29b Gower Road. Sketty, Swansea SA2 9BX.

Singleton Botanical Gardens, Swansea SA2 8PW, 

After Supermarkets – a blogger’s daydream.

Conceived of while recovering from a routine operation, dipping in and out of a post-anaesthetic haze.

Along with the greatest minds, executives of the major supermarkets had come to the conclusion that space and time, like most other things, were indeed mutable.  The British public’s devotion to shopping no longer required stores the size of aircraft hangars.   The more mature supermarket managers looked back with nostalgia at what they thought of as the bucolic crowds that filled the store around holiday times: full car parks and service-till queues that backed up the store’s aisles.   The buzz of trade was now more of a hum as silent short-hour staff silently picked the online orders.  Even in the smaller local stores daily customers slipped away from the self-service tills as if maintaining a vow of silence whose strictness Trappists might emulate.  A raised eyebrow was all that was needed to indicate that assistance was needed with the robot-voiced till.

When the number of home-delivery vans threatened to outnumber the private cars in the supermarket car parks something had to be done.   The property-holding divisions of national supermarkets saw an opportunity of exploiting the relaxed planning laws to convert a portion of the car park to residential development.   The hobby or pastime aspect of shopping was to be exploited in the same way as golfing villages.  A line of maisonettes curving around the outer perimeter of the store car park would be equally attractive, they successfully argued, to both the retired and the many chronically shopping-dependent members of society.

So it proved.  Despite some commentators’ reservations about the soullessness of the proposal the initial property sales were good.  The prospective residents were enticed by privileged access to the sort of short-term offers that had had disappointing take-ups via conventional direct online marketing; many people having long acquired a selective email reading in order to ‘have a life’.  Decorous rushes by the new residents on Sunday mornings to take advantage of a 25% off wine offer were followed by social media posts informing their ‘followers’ of their success. The irresistible processes of envy led to what remained of the store car park soon filling up.  Although not obligatory, a good number of residents took on the role of surrogate promoters for the supermarket chain of the store.  They became minor celebrities gaining many ‘friends’ on their chosen social media; a model, it transpired, taken from the launch of Apple products to a room full of well-connected, furiously typing bloggers.

Some supermarket chains bought up properties in adjacent new housing developments to meet demand.  However the nearest properties to the store were highly prized by some as it was possible to smell the synthetic aroma of freshly baked products and hear the public announcements through their open windows.  Far from being an annoyance they were as enthralled as a railway enthusiast living under the busiest platform of Waterloo East.

Although widely ridiculed, there was an aspect of the new supermarket lifestyle that many could not but envy, the personalised shopping trolley.  Many of the new developments incorporated a kitchen that allowed a trolley to be wheeled through a wide door with no lintel.  More up-market developments incorporated a cat-flap type device into the kitchen.  The customer-owned trolley became incorporated into a home that was orientated for shopping.  Inevitably the treasured appliance became prone to personalisation, the chic look was in the style of the brightly coloured and festooned south-east Asian rickshaws and tuk tuks.  Docked in position, it became a portable domestic altar, not to any divinity but to a form of personal divine pleasure.

The phenomenon of supermarket-based residence became a popular ‘lifestyle choice’, stores finding a ready audience for food demonstrations and celebrity endorsements.  Busy families and young professionals just found it convenient and withstood the ridicule of their smarter friends.  In order to provide utility space for residents, the first developments were built in a curve across the once optimistically large car parks.  The three-stored crescents gained some class from referencing Georgian motifs: a metal railing (if not a real balcony) and tallish windows on the piano nobile, broccoli and cavolo nero cornice ornamentation – which some referred to as ludic, while others used a related word.  Curving as if to embrace the store, the housing soon acquired the self-mocking name croissants after the defining product of supermarket bakeries.  Life in the retail-residential bubble was croissant-life and the participants the croissant eaters

Small discount chains did not see the need for change, their portion of the market remained unaltered, bowing to the times some lined up structures like beach huts around the edges of the car parks so customers could have their own trolleys if they wished but it was a pointless gesture.

The wave broke on this trend not through boredom but with the changing times.  A multiple-dip recession progressed like the path of bouncing bomb.  The authorities were forced into drastic measures.  At the same time that the major banks were forced to run divisions offering credit union facilities, the supermarket chains were required to use their distribution chains to run food banks at stores above a certain size.   Their erstwhile glamour tarnished, the super-sized stores now visibly languished.   Avoiding closure at any cost of these once-proud flagships, individual store managers were now given a greater autonomy.  Some brought in car-boot sales into the car parks, with betting shops, tanning salons and dog-grooming parlours into the store.  Others chose alternative routes, hosting farmers’ markets and inviting small producers into the store with surprising success.  People found it convenient to get their multi-buy toilet paper and baked beans at the same time as local goat’s cheeses and wild boar cuts.  The tamed retail lion lay down with the producers of salt marsh lamb.

The vast spaces inside the stores, which had been stacked wall-to-wall – Warhol-like – with one product to avoid an abandoned appearance, were now divided and portioned out.  Mezzanines were constructed to utilize the height of the largest stores and young men in beards baked sourdough bread which whistled as they were drawn from the hot ovens.  Others roasted coffee beans in smoking rotating drums, reintroducing an aroma once found the long-forgotten high streets.

At best these thriving, noisy, aromatic locations became a draw in themselves.  The nature of the residents of the croissants altered to a more thoughtful group of people still young enough to still think that they could shape society.  The handing over of the complete sites – store and housing – to co-operatives made up of the residents, and other committed parties, was a natural step; the supermarkets saved face by the use of key phrases in their press releases of ‘building communities’ and ‘promoting sustainability’.   The supermarkets always maintained a small branch within each site; an aspect, along with the easy car access and parking, that still drew the wider public.   It was said (although things are rarely as bad, or absolute, as they say) that, as the old out-of-town supermarkets had taken over from the high street, so the new communities were the new village.   Some even lived in converted parts of the store, their lofts utilizing the large glazed walls.

The new communities were eventually to come in many flavours.  The first identified with food cultures: organic, vegan and vegetarian.  It was even rumoured that a ‘paleo’ croissant was planned to be embellish with copies of the Lascaux cave murals on the store walls.

Local authorities general viewed this unplanned process with suspicion, harassing them at the slightest opportunity.   Such was the authorities’ paranoia that one was forced to shut down its garden waste recycling facility for investigation when officials believed that it was being used for ‘green funerals’.  It transpired that officials had feverishly imagined wreaths on the steps of the skips that were in reality merely laurel branches left behind by time-strapped users.  Not all croissants were entire successes.  Some fell into the trap of becoming sinks of unemployment, hopelessness,  centres of drug-dealing with intimidatingly loud music played at night; outdoor speakers amplified off the curved wall of the housing, the desolate sounds being heard for miles around.

The concept was ideal for creative workers.  The old store could mix studios, workshop and exhibitions spaces and as long as a portion still offered ‘baked beans and toilet rolls’ it resisted becoming complete ghetto.  Artist, musician and crafts communities became permanent manifestations of summer festival culture and were initiated by the same people.   Indeed, the popular music festival events had found a new annual home in the nearly abandoned city centres.  The best of these had been cleared and turned into public parks, lakes were created from low-lying areas from which some heard the ghostly sound of ringing submerged cash registers at dusk.

In an increasingly fractured society residences/businesses – it was difficult to tell them apart – now followed the paths of cross-country hyper-fast broadband links.   The view of night-time Earth from space resembled even more the pattern of neural networks of the human brain – one complex organism made up of the smallest of component parts.

As if afraid to touch the earth, drones were to fly along these modern ley-lines gingerly delivering their under-slung loads to individual houses.  This parallel and contrasting development to the new communities was first mooted by that venerable enterprise called Amazon some time ago; however it was the increasingly disembodied supermarkets that pioneered drone delivery.  It was they who found a technical solution to the problem of unattended delivery.  Largely redundant chimneys still reached for the sky in older houses, their conversion into delivery chutes was an irresistible idea to many.  Even if one worked from home there was no need to get up from computer, the automatic docking of deliveries allowed one’s relentless train of mental focus to be unbroken.  The pre-recorded announcement ‘delivery imminent, please attend’ was cheerfully ignored as an unnecessary caution.  The identification of a house chimney, by GPS and pairing codes allowed the suspended package to be winched down to an opening trapdoor from where it descended on a dumb waiter to the nearest converted fireplace in the house.   Stronger casing for food deliveries was eventually developed as seagulls’ natural aggression led to them pulled down by their beaks into the enlarged chimneys taking very angry birds into the heart of the home.  (Surely the news of the dating, marriage and conception of a young family via the internet and stork-like drones was only a gimmick and not a trend.)

New house designs acquired a mediaeval appearance as tall, substantial chimneys were incorporated into them.  For a single chimney could take food deliveries as far down as a refrigerated fireplace in the kitchen, and another could make recycling and waste available for drone collection.   The most up-market  houses could be detected by the buzz of waiting drones above their roofs, their avoidance algorithms making them swarm like flying ants on a summer’s day.

The understanding of the value of money in a near-cashless society had been an early school teaching target, however ‘playing shop’ was quickly becoming the performance of historical re-enactment for some.   Moreover toddlers had now to learn that it was not Christmas every day, despite what was happening in the old fireplace, and, despite everything, yes there still was a Santa Claus ,

wait, do I mean a Sanity Clause? (cf. Marx Brothers’ ‘A Night at the Opera’ 1935)

– sorry nurse, did you say that is a delivery –  ah, a cup of tea – I was faraway – thank you – I mean, yes, tea would be absolutely lovely.

https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/technology/video/2013/dec/02/amazon-prime-air-drone-delivery-service-video

‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?’

Rock Samphire; the ghost of plenty.

Rock Samphire Photo: Mr. Edible.

Not getting into a pickle.

In the heat of last August the resinous aroma of rock samphire hit me for the first time.  Sitting on the edge of the promenade, I gave a few experimental tugs at the wreaths of rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum – Apiaceae) around me.  I had been prompted to do this by an interesting piece by Nicky Westwood in the Herb Society newsletter which told of a returning Jersey captain who on his brief visits home collected and pickled samphire to take back aboard his clipper.

The unexpected fragrance can either repel or intrigue.  My own position was clear as I carefully picked the succulent leaves.  Too late to attempt to eat the mature gone-to-seed specimens, that will have to wait to later posts, I intended to extract the ghost of the flavour in a vinegar.

Rock Samphire Photo: Mr. Edible.

Landscape with Ancient Roman.

In the small cloud of heady odour I looked up to take in the prospect in front of me.  Further along in a corner of the bay was All Saints Church at Oystermouth (Ystumllwynarth) perched on a low natural platform above the shore.  On the evidence of some ancient Roman finds it has been variously suggested that it was the location of a temple, a villa or, most recently mooted, a Roman farmstead.  The invading Romans are known to have appreciated what they considered the good things in life.  Turning 180 degrees I could see that the platform was ideally placed for a view of the bay.   Our post-Picturesque sensibilities frame the opposite view to the west centred on the early 19th century lighthouse.   If standing at the doorway of my now materialising Roman villa the bay would have curved gracefully to the east.  It may be that Adelina Patti was not the first to compare the vista to the Bay of Naples.

Rock Samphire going to seed. (Crithmum Maritimum) Photo: Mr. Edible.

Looking west  towards Oystermouth. Rock Samphire (Crithmum Maritimum) . Photo: Mr. Edible.

Turning back, perhaps a little too quickly, I found a figure striding towards me from between the weaving lines of promenaders, joggers, cyclists and skateboarders.

I may.  He seemed to ask with a patriarchal lack of question mark.  One of the tenderest leaves was popped in his mouth and judged.

This is good … you know you guys have something here, you should make more of it.  My ancient Roman grabbed me with an unnecessarily tight grip on my elbow.

Your friends, they are picking shellfish?  He motioned in the direction of a group of what appeared to me to be off-duty anglers digging for worms on the sand flats left by the departed tide.

I have a good friend in the pickling business, you all should meet him, he can’t find enough of anything out here – but you’ve not experienced a caldarium yet. I wasn’t sure if this was another question or an observation on how he thought I might be a stranger to contemporary hygiene.

I haven’t yet had time to get my hypocaust dug. He glanced wistfully towards his villa/farmstead.  But I know my friend would love to meet you all.  I’ll have a word with him and we’ll all have some wine together – you really should try a little olive oil on this stuff, you missing out on something here.  I was formulating a contribution to the conversation but he made to leave. Well, I know where I can find you.  ‘Vale’, my friend.  With that he was gone, heading in the direction of one of the very good gelaterie nearby.

My phantom ancient Roman was homing-in on desirable local resources and making his stake in the area; so today the presence of a branch of Waitrose will make the local house prices inflate like a well-kneaded sourdough.  Away from their military sites, Roman ancient villas can seem open and vulnerable to us unless they were built on a certain amount of stable interaction with the local native population.  You need only look across from the supposed Roman site for a contrast.  There lies Oystermouth castle, built by the later Norman conquerors and ringed by a high curtain wall that no doubt once bristled with spears and eyes.

Rock samphire was to be found around the entire coast of the Roman Empire.  Our phantom Roman would have already been familiar with what seems to have been a humble dish.  Scholars suggest it was more associated with everyday life than notoriously indulgent ‘tender lark’s tongue and roast flamingo’ feasts described in Roman literature.  That rock samphire is a freely available source of vitamin C, and so its regular consumption could have prevented deficiency diseases such as scurvy, no doubt added to samphire’s savour for many.  This useful nutrient content, even when preserved, explains its popularity with sailors, and potentially with communities with occasionally limited diets such as the military.

Growing in crevices of seashore rocks and in sandy beaches, rock samphire thrives on no more contact with the sea than its spray.   There is plenty of evidence for the long history of extensive samphire foraging where a scramble over the rocks could, when the easy pickings were exhausted, turn into a perilous rock face pursuit.  The South Coast’s ‘dreadful trade’ as famously described by Shakespeare (King Lear, act IV, scene VI) was still titillating the public in print centuries later; containing more than one element of the Victorian cliffhanger.  A colourful 1828 report  from Wales (Bennel’s Cave, Glamorganshire [?]) follows a cottager spurred by poverty to collect samphire only accessible by rope from an exceptionally high cliff top.  Stranded in a concavity in the cliff, his only way of escape was the rope now dangling well out of his reach.   He only plucked up the courage to leap into space in the direction of his rope when he heard the voices of his wife and 6 children (or was it 8?) wailing from the cliff top

Nothing Succeeds like Excess.

An 1844 guidebook describes rock samphire as one of the products of the south Gower seashore along with limestone, oysters and the seaweed to make laverbread.  After centuries of plenty by the last quarter of the 19th century, samphire was described countrywide as being scare at market.  This mirrors the contemporary depletion of the once-plentiful oysters that was particularly marked in Swansea Bay and south Gower.  Abundant oyster beds were given contemporary Empire-related names such as Fenian Hall, Abyssinia and Zulu (off Barry) – the association of excess and Empire is proverbial.  Ships came from the Thames and northern France to take seed oysters to stock their own grounds.  Nowadays, where nowadays devotion to cappuccino and teacake are the cause of snarling holiday hold-ups on the road to Mumbles and Oystermouth; in the 19th century it was oysters.  Collectively the local day trippers represented a giant insatiable maw and, like their Roman predecessors, they consumed both fresh and pickled oysters.  The consequences were clear to some contemporaries,

The poor bivalve [oyster] was allowed no time for breed and mothers with countless millions of young were destroyed in the summer months to fill the hands of the greedy and tickle the depraved palates of bibulous pleasure-seekers.

The Cambrian, 21st August 1874.

Nowadays the vast empty shore that is revealed when the sea retreats into the Bristol Channel is dispossessed of its skips, perches, plantations and other paraphernalia of the now long exhausted local industry.  I muse at the pound-a-kick oysters at a fishmonger stall – at least we have our cockles, mussels and, potentially, rock samphire.

'Bibulous pleasure-seekers'? Mumbles Head 1900S. Courtesy of the Taylor Collection.

‘Bibulous pleasure-seekers’? Mumbles Head early-1900s. Courtesy of the Prof. Edible postcard collection.

Rock Samphire Vinegar, bottled liquid green.

Food historians often wring their hands at the frequent ambiguity of their sources, but modern food writers (with a noticeable exception below) carefully distinguish rock samphire from marsh samphire (Salicornia europea – Amaranthaceae).  Recently popular with chefs, the salty marsh samphire is now the object of an international trade.  If, as happened to us, a stallholder claims to have picked their marsh samphire from the local rocks that morning, just smile sweetly and move on.

The public did not suddenly lose its taste for rock samphire; it seems to have vanished from general trade as its natural sources were depleted.  But who with a single curious taste-bud in their head – and discovering rock samphire growing at hand – could not be intrigued by such descriptions as Patience Gray’s:

In Catalonia [rock] samphire is very much appreciated.  Conserved in white wine vinegar, it is used in salads in winter; with thyme, mountain savory, and oregano it is used in preserving olives; and when salted anchovies are prepared in oil, it is added as an aromatic.

Honey from a Weed, Prospect Books 2002.

There are some intriguing recipes to consider but they will have to wait for the spring; now is the time for the vinegar.  After some months of infusing the tough samphire leaves have been strained and discarded.  The remaining spicy vinegar is proving very useful in the kitchen.  Despite the fact that the clear vinegar is tinted red from the chopped shallots, the best flavour analogy is ‘green’.  To me the vinegar is in the same wide-ranging ‘colour’ group as globe artichoke, spring onion, pea, thyme and, of course, tarragon.  Use as robust tarragon vinegar, might be the best first advice.  It is good in dressings and I tend to think of it as much as a flavouring as a vinegar.  It is the sort of phantom ingredient the makes people say something vaguely encouraging about a soup or carrot salad, without know exactly why.  It has brought home to me how a little acidity, be it a drop or two of lemon or flavoured vinegar, can be useful in freshening up the flavour of so many dishes from soups and casseroles, especially when reheated.

Selecting the images for this blog the glow of last summer is encouraging on a particular cold, grey Swansea day.  This kitchen elixir has become quite precious to me and is hopefully the forerunner of a samphire-flavoured summer ahead.

Maceration. Photo Mr. Edible

Spiced Samphire Vinegar

This sole samphire vinegar recipe appears to be for the resinously flavoured rock samphire, rather than the salty marsh samphire.  Unusually for a modern book it does not make this clear.  However the technique seems to be adaptable.  I included a bird’s eye chilli for a short time to add some piquancy, and a blade of Indian mace – just because I had plenty.

Pack 50 g samphire, 6 allspice berries and 2 finely chopped shallots into a large jar.  Pour over 500ml cold rice vinegar or cider vinegar.  Leave for 2-3 months before straining and bottling.

Preserves by Pam Corbin, River Cottage Handbook No.2, 2008.

Sustainable collection?  Cockle women at Penclawdd, mid 20th century.  Coursety of the Taylor Postcard Collection.

Sustainable, and happy,  harvesting. Cockle women at Penclawdd, mid 20th century. Courtesy of the Prof. Edible postcard collection.

Prof. Edible postcard collection.

Old Glory; Chestnut & Chocolate Flan.

Sweet Chestnut

 

Old Glory; Chestnut & Chocolate Flan.

My excitement at coming across a nearby sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) was unexpected, and not completely down to the possibility of convenient ‘premium range’ urban foraging.  The much-admired specimen was in full leaf carrying clusters of spiky pom-poms.  It was full of character, somewhat shaggy in the way English elms used to be before their disappearance.  This was an image apparently dug up from the long-term visual memory, but also from my memory of childhood books.  Fictional characters lurked just the other side of the trunk; lost and sleepy children with euphonious continental names, princes in pauper’s disguise or even modestly posed pairings of Adam and Eve.

As you can see from the image above the kernels of this tree were forbiddingly slender; perhaps next year I will not feel so defeated and get peeling.  I lose more blog-cred by admitting that I made for the cupboard as soon I returned home to dig out a vacuum pack of peeled and cooked chestnuts left over from last winter.   For this retrieved horde I found a recipe that combines Old World fodder with New World exoticism.  The sweet chestnut tree was to southern Europe what the versatile bamboo is to warmer climate zones.  It provided materials for tools, building and appealingly edible starch when the nuts fell.  Knowing that there exist selected culinary varieties of sweet chestnut with chunkier nuts made the prospect peeling the slim local offerings seem even more of an unnecessary penance.

Blame it on the Bourbons

Claudia Roden pinpoints this recipe at the juncture of New World luxury import and the native chestnuts that the Spanish middle-class drew on to emulate the dishes of their early 17th century Bourbon court.  If the chestnut was originally an expedient that was meant to stretch out the expensive chocolate, then the mixture was an unforeseen success – you only have to sample the raw chestnut and chocolate paste to realise that the combined flavour is greater than the sum of the parts.  The complete dish has a wide, sweet, fruity, floral spectrum that is not dull.  I am born analyser, so bear with me when, for once, I’ll attempt a coarse Venn diagram of the total flavours, as it appears to me:

(earthy-sweet) sweet chestnut

(sweetearthy) chocolate

(sweet-woody-fruity) brandy (fruity orange zest for the non-alcohol alternative)

(floral-fruity) vanilla

A 74% cocoa content chocolate bar from a supermarket whose name rhymes with riddle has an earthy taste that is ideal for this. I find this flavour appealing in chocolate and have found it in hard-to-come-by Russian and Polish dark chocolate bars.

I prefer the plain given name of Roden’s recipe, but the moniker ‘Bourbon’ appears hover around the ingredients.  The widespread and long-lasting Bourbon dynasty lends a remote glamour to the everyday products such as the chocolate sandwich biscuit.  The Bourbons have also lent their name to the vanilla pod I split and scraped.  The vanilla orchid was introduced to Île Bourbon, (now Réunion) from Central America by the French (the latter-day history of their Bourbon dynasty is neatly played-out in the historic name changes of this now Indian Ocean island outpost of the European Union).   I believe that Bourbon whiskey would be as good as brandy or cognac in this recipe from the number of US chocolate recipes that invite it in.   It is claimed by some to be named after Bourbon County, part of the old French colony of Louisiana.

The term ‘flan’ can be confusing.  Here it has the meaning of a type of moulded baked custard, but as I type this piece I am undecided whether to add the ‘money-shot’ or not.  The recipe is delicious and, when I have not sabotaged it, it has a not unappealing appearance.  However in this age of unforgiving digital images it lacks supermodel looks, even if it was strewn with a gratuitous pomegranate seed garnish.  In a wicked world of image-conscious dishes some survive on the strength of their flavour.

 

Claudia Roden’s Chestnut and Chocolate Flan.

     100g sugar, 3 tablespoons of water

Make caramel the usual way – one day I’ll get enough nerve to do this reliably.  Pour into the mould which Roden states should be about 23cm to 2 cm and at least 6.5cm deep.  I use a deeper mould and add an extra egg to the mixture to compensate.

      200g peeled chestnuts.  Fresh, vacuum-packed, or even frozen and thawed.

Boil in 500ml of milk, probably to get rid of flavour of any remaining bitter peel.  Not necessary for vacuum-packed etc.

      1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, or some gutted pods.  200g sugar.

The flavoured milk:  Place both with a fresh 500ml of milk in a saucepan. Stir on a medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the simmering point.  Take off the heat.  (For a fragrant, alcohol-free version add some orange zest obtained with a potato peeler to infuse in the warm milk at this point.)

      150g bitter dark chocolate.

The chestnut and chocolate purée:  Break the chocolate into pieces and process finely.  Add the chestnuts and blend to a soft paste that will be the stuff that dreams are made of.  Now add the flavoured milk (removing the orange zest first, if used).

     6 tablespoons of cognac or other brandy.

This quantity may be an editorial error, best to use your judgement.  A couple tbsps seems perfect to me.

     7 large eggs

Beat the eggs in a large bowls and add the mixture bit by bit until it is all incorporated.  I add an extra egg for my deeper mould.

Bake in an improvised bain-marie made from a roasting pan at 160°C/gas mark 3 for 1 to 1¼ hours.  Cool, then chill for 2 or 3 hours.  If I have seemed to have miscounted the eggs – it does require the use of the fingers of two hands – and the flan does not turn out of the mould in one piece, empty it into a trifle dish and hiding one’s sins with some grated chocolate saves the day, unless in a high-minded fit of noblesse oblige I own up at the table.

 

Claudia Roden, Spanish Cookery, Michael Joseph 2012.