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.

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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.

Welcome to Ransoms Country

Parkmill, Gower.

Parkmill, Gower. Photo: Mr. Edible.

‘Poo-ey, wind the window up!’,  the holidaying kids shout from their overheated cars as they speed down the wooded gulley past the Gower Inn and on into the stretched-out village of Parkmill and its narrow, easily congested street.

This year I intended to stop in that wooded gulley ahead of the time when the wild garlic, or ransoms (Allium ursinum), put out their rank-smelling, star-shaped flowers.  But even as I approached in my hermetically sealed car my nose tells me I am a little late, I was aiming to capture the woods, which I have sped past myself so many times, as an immaculate sea of green, rather than white odoriferous ‘soup’.

The daffodils are over, the primroses, for whom it been a good year, and the wood anemones are to the fore with the bluebells just waking.  I find in this cold spring the ransoms in lower part of the wood are still in leaf and the descending path is the only access if you didn’t want to intrude in the deep curls of long shiny leaves.  Flora Gower 047The recent discussion on the importance of childhood reading gives me the opportunity to indulge in some personal reflections. The path itself, bordered with bare trees, brings to mind The Cat that Walked by Himself from Kipling’s innocent Just So Stories.  The vanishing point invokes that children’s book of continual journeying and adventure, Tolkien’s The Hobbit – in fact I feel sure the earthy and abundant ransoms would be a

Photo: Mr. Edible.

A path less travelled by? Photo: Mr. Edible.

staple of the Hobbit kitchen.  But the woods don’t need to be pushed into a fictional frame to be brought to life as they are splendid in themselves.   In a celebratory way they are naughtily topsy-turvy.  The green canopy which should be in the trees grows at your feet and the beeches’ bare branches sway like roots that are for once are seeking out the sun.  As if almost to mock the rightful way of things, the uniform leaves have a paintbox pigment colour as if this spring festival is a moment of licensed anarchy.  By summer – after the ‘stink-bomb’ flowers have faded and the plant retreats back into earth – it will be like the end of every festival when we wonder if that crazy moment happened here at all.  But for now the narrow woods are light, playful and just a little stinky.

Some ramsons food.

Wild Garlic Quiche.  The leaves replace the spinach and onions in the usual spinach quiche recipe.  Photo: Prof. Edible. (With thanks)

Wild Garlic Quiche. The leaves replace both the spinach and onion in the usual recipe. Photo: Prof. Edible. (With thanks.)

Gower Mutton and Pumpkin Pie: a realisation.

   

Illustration from: Andrew Lang, ed., The Blue Poetry Book (London: Gmans, Green & Co., 1918) Illustrations by H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed

‘The War-Song of Dinas Fawr”, The Blue Poetry Book, London, (1918)
Illustrations by H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed

    The mountain sheep are sweeter,

    But the valley sheep are fatter;   

    We therefore deem’d it meeter  

    To carry off the latter…

The War-Song of Dinas Vawr’, Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)

 

Use bay−leaves, spices, herbs of allsorts, vinegar, cloves; and never forget pepper and salt. This advice is hidden deep within the long introduction of an early 20th century cookbook I have.  This plain bound book holds recipes that appear outstanding for their profound dullness, as I find in many other historic cookbooks whose contents can appear at first sight uninspiring for a curious cook, but it just maybe that I have missed the point.  The guidance is given for meat dishes and encourages elaboration of a basic recipe according to your taste.  A bald recipe can look staggeringly bland but there was it was taken for granted that ‘filling the gaps’ or embellishment was in the hands of the cook.

I was encouraged by a parallel that struck me with the performance of early music (music in Western culture from earliest time to the beginning of Classical period).   The ornamentation of the mostly unadorned scores with trills, passing notes, runs etc. was up to the performers’ ability and experience but also to their particular taste, and that of their audience; so it was with seasonings, herbs and spices were added to the basic recipe to suit the cook, consumers and circumstances.  Baroque sonatas can exist as apurcell-golden-sonata single melody over a bass line on which the experienced musician would improvise harmonies.  The performance of gorgeously colourful piece, with well-integrated ornamentation and scrunchy chords, can hang on a meagre-looking score – as a historic dish can on a couple of lines of text.    Here is the bare manuscript of the Henry Purcell’s stirring ‘Golden Sonata’.  (This makes Ivan Day, the accomplished historian/chef, the food world’s equivalent of, say, the historian/musician Christopher Hogwood.)

So when, in the course of researching other things, I came across a reference to a savoury Gower pie in Augusta Hall’s (Lady Llanover) Good Cookery (1867) its cryptic description did not deter me from realising it in modern terms; but not to the extent of Wendy Carlos’ Moog synthesizer transcriptions of Bach, at least I hope not.

There is also a dish made by the [Gower] natives which seems to evince an Eastern origin which is made of pumpkin, mutton and currants.

The ‘Eastern origin’ was perhaps mediated by the Mediterranean, for instance the Sicilian cuisine that is rich with meat, fruit and spices – as was our own mediaeval cookery.   As you can see from the recipe at the end of this post, I have added some spices; some tagine spices or a coriander-rich ras el hanout mixture – a complex mixture that can include dried peppers, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and even rose buds and lavender whose flowery sweetness can work especially well with mutton.  (We have such a good supply from ‘The Jolly Butchers’, little did I think I’d ever become a mutton bore.  The meat currently comes from Rhossili at the end of the Gower Peninsula; sheep, as we know, have a good head for heights.)

A photo shopped Worms Head at the very end of Gower. Image: Mr. Edible.

A ‘photo-shopped’ Worms Head, at the very end of Gower. Image: Mr. Edible.

In other parts of her cook book Lady Ll describes a technique for gently cooking, or reheating, meat without making it tough, as cooked mutton can be prone to get.  By using a double boiler as a bain marie she describes a prototype sous-vide technique (without the vacuum), a method is now all the rage in certain restaurants.  The diced

Pre sous-vide slow-cooking technique.

Pre sous-vide slow-cooking technique.

meat, with some finely chopped aromatics such as carrots and celery, is placed in the pan and is just covered with water or stock.  Lean meat comes out very tender after about an hour or so, more fatty meat such as neck or shoulder may take twice as long (and be the tastier).  The meat is then mixed with other pie ingredients and finished off under the pastry lid in the oven.   I tried some lean mutton this way with some light chicken stock and the result was meltingly tender.

This book of Lady Ll’s clearly may reward further investigation.  As Augusta Waddington she inherited the Llanover estate in Gwent.  She married Benjamin Hall (later Lord Llanover) who was to become a MP and Commissioner of Works at the Palace of Westminster when clock tower was raised; the striking bell, Big Ben, is named after him.   Lady Ll had an omnivorous passion for Welsh culture – music, folk-dancing, costume, cookery, manuscripts, poetry, etc.   And, as others did in Europe in those heady nationalistic times, where there was not sufficient quantity of culture they ‘extended’ what they had.  It is claimed Lady Ll more or less determined the form of

Lady Ll own illustration fro 'Cambrian costumes dedicated to the nobility and gentry of Wales'.

An illustration from Lady Llanover’s ‘Cambrian costumes dedicated to the nobility and gentry of Wales’.  She dressed her servants, of whom this may be one, in her Welsh costumes. National Library of Wales.

today’s national Welsh dress, in a similar way to how Sir Walter Scot ‘extended’ the Scottish tartan in the early 19th century.  The important thing, it seems, was the enthusiasm for the subject.  Thankfully, where there is an excess of earnestness there is balancing medium of satire, such is Thomas Love Peacock’s mixture of Errol Flynn and Men of Harlech that heads this post.   ‘The War-Song of Dinas Vawr’ bloodthirstily, but gently, lampoons the romanticism of ancient manuscripts and ‘princes of old’ generally.  (Removed from the context of its times, the gentle parody lived on anthologies to be merry sung by hill-walking families, as one friend recalls.  It has gone on to be taken quite seriously in some quarters it seems.)

A close friend of Lady Ll’s was Caroline Lucas, later Lady Wilkinson, who may have possibly been her informant for the apparent exclusivity of Gower pumpkins, from either her Swansea family home or subsequently her rural home at the centre of the peninsula;

This fact – if fact it is – appears unknown to the current Sages of Gower, of which there are many.  I will stop myself mooting possibilities and leave such conjectures to the experts.   Whether Gower was the only place to grow pumpkins in the UK at that time, or how they cooked them, is unverified.  My pie may be as ‘cod’ as Peacock’s parody but  the one thing I can affirm is that it is delicious, and the hungry hoards of friends that have ‘glutted’ on it are of one accord on this.

Gower Mutton and Pumpkin Pie.  Why post a recipe for such a wintry dish at nearly the end of April?  Spring in the UK has been cancelled this year.

1kg (2.2lb) mutton, cut into rough 2cm pieces.

2 onions, finely chopped.

A sprig of fresh rosemary (or alternatively some good dried herb mixture).

   Ras el hanout spice mixture, to taste.

Salt & Freshly ground black pepper.

300ml   litres (1/2 pint) chicken or lamb stock.

2 onions.

425g (1lb) pumpkin, or butternut squash, peeled and cut into rough 2 cm chunks.

Small hand full of dried fruit; raisins, currants

(I have recently used a few golden sultanas to good effect).

Level tablespoonful of flour.

350g (12oz) pastry, rolled to about 1cm (thin 1/2 inch) thick.

1 egg, beaten.

  • Tidy up the mutton and place in the double boiler, filling with stock up to the level of the meat (the meat will shrink during cooking).  Simmer with the lid on until its tender, one to two hours depending on the cut of meat, just keep trying it – and of course checking the water has not boiled away.  Alternatively, stew in a slow oven until tender.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C, Gas 6.
  • Gently fry the onions and garlic in the oil and, at the end of their time, briefly add the spice mix and raisins.
  • Strain the meat from the cooking liquor and mix with the onion/spice mix.  Add the squash and enough of the cooking liquor (and if necessary extra stock) to cover it and simmer for 15 minutes to cook the veg.  Take off the stove to let cool.
  • Place the mixture in pie dish and sprinkle with the flour.  Cover with the pasty, brush with egg wash, and bake for 30-40 minutes ‘til cooked.
HOLDING 012

A cold spring, warming mutton and pumpkin pie.

Finding the Mutton Way

Welsh Mutton. from Hilaire Belloc's More Beasts for Worse Children (1897) poems, B. T. B. illustrator

Welsh Mutton. detail from Hilaire Belloc’s ‘More Beasts for Worse Children’.  B. T. B. illustrator.

The Cambrian Welsh or Mountain Sheep

    Is of the Ovine race,

His conversation is not deep

    But then—observe his face!

                     Hilaire Belloc’s More Beasts for Worse Children (1897)

I had mixed feelings, to say the least, when Professor Edible returned from The Jolly Butchers with a bag of mutton.  ‘The Jolly Butchers’ is not a backstreet pub where nefarious meat transactions take place – we can leave that to the bulk meat trade (see here about the on-going European meat labelling scandal ) – but they are the friendly staff at the dependable Huw Phillips stall in Swansea Market.

Curious about mutton, we thought Huw Phillips could be a good source and in the upshot he was, but first we had to wait.  The mutton promotion campaign had done its job in creating a demand and by the end of last year the butcher had access to sufficiently aged creatures to supply this almost obsolete meat to his clamouring customers (mutton is now supplied on alternate weeks from two Gower farms).  So why my exasperation on its appearance in the kitchen – as well-expressed by tourist’s face in the illustration?  The meat I looked upon so ungraciously was a handful of neck pieces (that is, boney cuts).  I had hoped to get my mutton experience off the ground with something simpler, like diced shoulder.  For, the one thing I had comprehended about mutton, you have to get it right.  Evidence from ‘the literature’ was not encouraging; badly cooked mutton had the reputation to lead inexorably to a challenged digestion, a bad night, a grumpy day, argument and eventual ruin …

There have been many articles in the press designed to entice, and ease the way for, the mutton novice.  However, like much food journalism it had the opposite effect, at least on me.  Some of the cases made for mutton were less than convincing; if you marinate mutton long enough they taste just like lamb!  The techniques gleaned by journalists from ‘top chefs’ seemed dispiritingly elaborate – did the simple cottager real have access to caper paste on a regular basis?

I sat in a gloomy kitchen and thought gloomy thoughts; eventually, I reasoned, an old-fashioned meat needs an old-fashioned recipe.  A reprint of Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England (1954) has been resting for some time in our dusty reference section rather

Photograph of Dorothy Hartley in old age. Photograph by Ron Thomson, via Wikipedia.

Dorothy Hartley. Photograph by Ron Thomson, via Wikipedia.

than the food-stained working library.  Now was the time to put it thought its paces.  Dorothy Hartley (1893-1985) collected social history in a similar way to how the earlier Cecil Sharp collected folk songs. In addition to libraries her sources included the roads and by-ways of this country which gave her book an authentic and eclectic content.  A headmaster’s daughter from Yorkshire she gave up her art teaching career to move to her mother’s birthplace at Froncysyllte, near Llangollen to write Food in England (which, like similarly titled books of that time, happily included Welsh, Irish and Scottish material).

Dorothy Hartley calls this recipe a lobscouse, a variable dish of undecided origin it is nevertheless ubiquitous, being the alleged ancestor of the Lancashire hotpot and Welsh cawl, among other regional dishes.   Alan Davison (The Penguin Companion to Food) has a good entry on it. There he explains its connection to the sea and ships; similar thick stews of meat, vegetables and ship’s biscuit (here replaced with pearl barley) include the German Labskaus and Danish skipperlabskovs.  Particularly associated in the UK with the port of Liverpool it is, if you haven’t guessed it yet, the much mooted origin of the Liverpudlian ‘scouses’ or ‘scousers’.   The right sort of consistency for the stew is apparently a key element, mushy enough to spread on bread but firm enough for a (ship’s?) mouse to run over it.  If that hasn’t put you off I tell you how I cooked it.

from 'Food in England'.

from ‘Food in England’.

Invoking Dorothy Hartley has given me an opportunity to reproduce some of her very attractive artwork.  In fact this little illustration is almost a recipe in picture form.

The neck pieces were browned, after they have been rubbed with a mixture of pepper and thyme.  The meat pieces were placed together in a single layer on the bottom of the pot.  Above this the sliced root vegetables were added; I had carrots, turnips and

Browned mutton neck pieces with a sprinkling of barley.

Browned mutton neck pieces with a sprinkling of barley.

swedes.  Leeks, as DH states, give a more delicate flavour but onions are allowed too.  I included some garlic cloves that, like much else, were destined to disappear into the mixture by the end of the cooking time.  A ‘sprinkling of barley’ in lieu of ship’s biscuits helped the finished dish thicken up.  After seasoning with ‘mountain herbs’ – which I interpreted this time round as thyme and rosemary – a layer of sliced potatoes covered everything.   After adding water up to the potato layer, makers of Lancashire hotpot would put down their tools, but this recipe has a clever idea that unfortunately I couldn’t test this time.  Whole potatoes are placed on the top to cook above the water level but under the lid.  When these ‘canary birds’ are cooked it is said that ‘the meat will be just leaving the bone’.  I could have kicked myself as I’d run out of potatoes by then; I will update on this technique when I can.

Cooking in a slow oven I perhaps left it a little too long (2 to 2 ½ hours would have been fine) but leaving the pot completely undisturbed I wanted to be sure of a sweetly

Mutton Stew, the second night with fried bread accessories.

Mutton Stew, the second night with meat removed from the bone and fried bread accessories.

gentle cook.  The result simple but delicious, it had its own subtle rich flavour which has won us over.   DH quotes George Borrow’s colourful Wild Wales (1882):

Certainly I shall never forget the first Welsh leg of mutton which I tasted, rich but delicate, replete with juices derived from the aromatic herbs of the noble Berwyn, cooked to a turn.

To finish this post in praise of mutton here is a happier depiction of a sheep than Hilaire Belloc’s blank face mountain creature. DH clear was of those aficionados that believed, unlike Belloc, in intelligence and character of the ‘Ovine race’.

A Cheviot, from Food in England.

A Cheviot, from ‘Food in England’.

Kitchen Conjunction No. 2 – Aspirational Chicken Stock.

The reels of the culinary slot machine have this time rested on a homemade kitchen ingredient that’s propelled into being potentially quite a satisfying meal in itself.

Roast chicken carcass + Breton onion skins + Quince marc = Aspirational chicken stock.

The chicken was one of the very good ones we get from Hugh Phillips‘ stall at Swansea Market; they always makes a good stock – then used with the leftover meat to make a pie or risotto.  The alchemy that results in this liquid culinary gold is pretty much as clearly described by Homemade with Mess.  However, I had read an off the cuff comment about onions skins improving the colour of your stock; this is something that, I have to admit, I wasn’t that worried about before now but with the beautiful rosy Breton onions it was worth a go.  And, of course, as Jane Grigson repeatedly wrote: quinces improve the flavour of everything. Without fresh quince flesh this year I literary fished out the ‘spent’ grated quince from last year’s quince vodka jar, that now not only tasted ready but exceptionally good.

The resulting stock has the look and flavour of a rich soup; not as clear as it could be as I left it simmering too long.  A stock to freeze and call on as the basis of something like an extra special  ham and bean soup.

I think I overdid it with the amount of onion skins as the remaining carcass was dyed a deep reddish-brown, much like that well-known local inhabitant, the 33,000 year-old Red Lady of Paviland.  In her case her now fossil bones are believed to have been originally dyed with red ochre – but you never know, they got the sex wrong when she was first dug up and she turns out to be no lady.  She, now he, might have ended up in some Upper Palaeolithic pot with the ruthless aim of making that perfect stock.