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 fact 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 for all, 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.   (See the ‘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, cf. Lewis Weston Dillwyn, Hortis Collinsonianus, iv, note, 1843.])

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 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 two, 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)

 


Left. Might the book collection that was housed in the library pavilion of the Margam Orangery included a copy of the great compilation of citrus species & varieties, Johann Christoph Volkamer’s Nürbergisches Hesperides (1708)?  A visual record of the competitive cultivation of citrus fruit among the wealthy merchants of Nuremberg in the early-18th century, the grotesque fruits appear to loom over the landscape.

Right 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.

 

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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.

Medlar, the Jabberwocky fruit.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

From Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll

Everything from cabbages to kings could be fodder for Lewis Carroll’s knowing nonsense.  Nevertheless I believe there is a trio of fruits that have particularly Carrollian possibilities, venerable specimens of each can be found at the bottom of old parsonage gardens and other such hideaways: the down-covered common quince with a knobbly pear shape and enthralling aroma; soft black mulberries whose juice, when picked, streak hands and forearms indelibly crimson.

However the common medlar is a fruit whose character is such that, if it was a person, it would have to be described as challenging.  Of the trio of ‘olde English’ fruits the tree that bears the medlar is in fact the most ornamental, with its long green leaves and white five-petalled flowers.   But it ‘cocks-a-snook’ in autumn when it is hung with fruits in the shape of cul de chien, as the unembarrassable French call them.  This undoubtedly would have been a hallucinatory vision too far even for the generally sanguine Alice.

Individual medlar fruit blet.  Happening in its own time, bletting appears like a stage in child development akin to teething and potty training.  In previous years we collected medlars from a local park, and from a generous friend, to nurture until the tell-tale signs make themselves known.  The skin will stretch until shiny and the now soft fruit will give when squeezed between the fingers.

Blet perfect. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Blet perfect. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Mouldy and dried up fruit are obviously wayward children and should be shunned – nothing good will come of them.

Alice caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions, 'just like a star-fish,' thought Alice.

Medlar jelly is nectar compared to perhaps its nearest equivalent, redcurrant jelly.  Prepared from a good culinary variety (such as ‘Nottingham’), medlar jelly is much softer in texture, fruity in flavour but with an astringent edge.  I not sure why people are not crazy about it because at its best it almost has the complex flavours of a wine.  By its online presence I am clearly not the only medlar jelly maven; seasonal rituals are in short supply these days, especially of the idiosyncratic kind.  Sadly this year not enough fruit could be gathered together to make jelly-making worthwhile, so an alternative had to be found.

Medlar Jelly

For all I knew medlar syllabub was a complete fiction, cooked up for some nonsense verse or dodgy historical novel.  But this year a version of it got me out of the difficulty with my annual medlar imperative.  It was agreed that the result was delicious, a dish to search out medlars for – like the jelly had been in the past.  It is an oddly satisfying process to take some apparently intractable stuff and turn it into something that everybody wants more of.

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy

Medlar and Ginger Wine Syllabub

Syllabub is a euphonious word but represents a dish of doubtful lineage, if not origin.  Some have actually attempted to milk a cow into a dish of sweet wine and collected the resulting foam.  This much repeated cookbook pot-boiler has an element of colourful fantasy to me; leave the poor milkmaid to get on with her work and we will settle for a dish of flavoured whipped cream and sugar, or some other modern stand-in.

Quantities are frankly pointless as you can only get as many good medlars together at one time as you can.  This is not a dish for the pedantic recipe follower as medlar flesh varies.  That is not such a chore after all, especially when it comes to adding the ginger wine.

Slice the bletted medlars in half and scoop out the flesh, discarding the seeds.  Push through a sieve to remove the stringy bits.

Medlar 'meat'. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Sweeten the medlar meat with dark brown sugar then flavour with ginger wine and ground cinnamon, nutmeg etc.; taste and see is the only way to get a rich and fruity, gently spicy flavour.  If you would rather not have the cream topping of the syllabub you can use all this filling for a tart or tartlets for which it is excellent – topped with toasted almonds they become very sort-after.

Medlar and Ginger Wine Tarts. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Otherwise reserve about a third or quarter of the filling to flavour the cream, and place the rest in the bottom of glass or ramekins.    Whip the double (heavy) cream then mix in the reserved medlar filling and a small amount of apple juice to loosen it.  Spoon into the ramekins.

Would you tell me,' said Alice, a little timidly, 'why you are painting those roses?

My original medlar learning curve had been abrupt.  Maybe fifteen years ago, that first medlar jelly was not my best.  My flat was so small that I bletted them on the back seat of a car.  The fruit had been left by a colleague on my desk as a gift one Monday morning, I can’t recall why – I must have had medlar written all over my face.

'Silly Medlarbubs'.   Photo: Mr. Edible.

‘Silly Medlarbubs’. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrations by John Tenniel. London 1865.

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.

The Quince Years.

The fruit of the common quince (Cydonia oblonga) is quite a piece of work; it fascinates by being never quite what you would expect:

It is a part of both our gardens and culture (think of Peter Quince, and also The Owl and the Pussy Cat) but it clearly comes from the land of warmer, longer days.  It appearance is sensual and appealing, its colour is famously that of the sunset in the west of the Classical World, but this is covered by an obstructing patina of grey down and (in at least in this country) the flesh is susceptible to sites of rot and disease.

Quince's grey down.

Quince’s grey down. Swansea harvest 2007. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Its aroma is light, fragrant and penetrating but its raw flesh is unpalatable, the promised flavour appearing only after careful cooking.  In past autumns I have hoarded quinces from many different sources.  Waitrose used to stock a box or two in season.  Clearly a ‘loss leader’ it helped define the image of the store for me, now the staff at the branches I have access to just shrug at the name.  Like hearing a classroom language used in its native home for the first time, I always had a thrill of authenticity of seeing the tree in bloom or the fruit in local markets in southern Europe.

Ohrid Market, Macedonia, 2009. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Ohrid Market, Macedonia, 2009. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Best, and most recently, I was given the nod to collect the fallen fruit from a mature tree in the local park; so started the strange phenomenon of short, localised tornadoes that gently ‘shook’ the quince tree when no one was looking.

Here is a pictorial celebration of quince past as there is no fruit on the park tree this year.  In fact there are no leaves either, this wet summer has left it open to the diseases that its flesh is heir to.

The most immaculate Swansea crop, 2010. The golden apples of the Welsh Hesperides!

The most immaculate Swansea crop, 2010. The golden apples of the Welsh Hesperides! Photo: Mr. Edible.

A large quince tree in flower, Thassos, Greece. Photo: Mr. Edible.

A large quince tree  in flower, Thassos, Greece. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Quince at the Chelsea Physic Garden, London.

Quince at the Chelsea Physic Garden, 2008, London. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Consolation of the quince-less years: quince vodka 2011. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Quince Vodka and quince jelly.

Quince vodka and quince jelly. Another contradiction quince flesh is amber, cooked it is crimson. Photo: Mr. Edible.

The quince suggest a once glamorous dowager full of interesting stories accompanied by an persistent aura of old-fashioned fragrance from Floris.  Maybe, more accurately, a Continental grande dame; The Queen of Spades or Emilia Marty – The Makropoulos Case).

Quinces; Swansea foraged 2008.
Quinces; Swansea foraged 2008.  Photo: Mr. Edible.