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.

Not waving but floundering.

The man at the fish stall announced proudly that the fish were jumping.  The other customer and I stared to what he was pointing at, a single gasping flounder on top of a pile of its past soulmates.  Mouth gaping, pectoral fin briskly waving and both eyes turned to us, it uttered no words.  Despite appearances there was no offer to make a wish if we returned it to the sea – as in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘The Fisherman and the Flounder’ – instead we stared back at it.  In a quiet, perhaps Steinbeckian, moment the man and the women in front of me recalled simple memories of a deceased father and ex-husband.   The flounder, like other flat fish, feeds on the sea bottom.  Following the tide it can move up the fresh water of rivers.  Lingering under bridge supports and banks, it is a welcome catch for anglers who bring them home to deposit them in their son’s beach buckets and wife’s kitchen sinks.   ‘I’ll have a dead one, thank you’ – the spell was broken, I cheerfully echoed my fellow customer’s request.

Flounders are glibly given a bad name in many cook books.  This maybe be put down to the existence of such flat fish luminaries as turbot, brill and Dover sole that are so good.  But if we only had the flounder and the plaice available to us we would be very content with our lot.   (The reality is that we cannot often afford the prices of the up-market flat fish.)   More informed books admit that flounder can be very good; a variation that may be partly down to the age and diet of the fish.

The fillets we ate that evening were breadcrumbed and fried to keep them dry and taut.   One of the showiest local cats is light and fluffy with ‘Midwich Cuckoo’ eyes.  Led by its cat sense it sauntered through the open kitchen door down the length of the house to where the fish was being savoured.  Now that’s fresh.

The Market Plaice, Swansea Market.

"The Fisherman and His Wife" illustration by Alexander Zick

“The Fisherman and  the Flounder” illustration by Alexander Zick (1845-1907)

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. 3 – Landscape with Scrambled Egg.

Arbroath Smokie + Foraged Mushroom Pack = (Un)Savoury Scrambled Eggs

It looks like remarkable bravery, or foolhardiness, on the part of a major supermarket to identify one of the species in their ‘Foraged Mushroom’ pack (Tesco £1.99) as ‘Trompette Des Mortes’.  A more attractive common name for the same species (Cantharellus cornucopioides) is Horn of Plenty but its lifeless black hue naturally lends itself to the more dramatic nom de plume.  Names are not always a good indicator of edibility.  In my foraging days in the lush wooded valleys of South Wales I stumbled upon a reliable stand of so called Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina); despite its colour it is a species that is not poisonous to humans, if not especially flavoursome.  My supermarket pack states that its contents were brought into captivity in Bulgaria by ‘experienced pickers’; packs can also include chanterelles (the ‘egg mushroom’), pied de moutons and makeweights such as grey chanterelle.

Supermarket Foraged Mushroom mix. Photo: Mr Edible.

Supermarket Foraged Mushroom mix. Photo: Mr Edible.

Serendipity is also involved in the next ingredient. I have a fondness for Arbroath smokie not least as it shares the same initial impression of inedibility with many wild mushrooms.  The smoked skin of the haddock resembles an ancient accession to the ‘Early Printed Books’ department of a venerable library; moreover, its lingering aroma of wood smoke seems to tell of a country house fire somewhere in its long life.  But cut off the ubiquitous brown string found around the fish’s tail, peel away the reptilian skin and lift off its blanched bones and you are left with rather delicately coloured flakes of smoked flesh.  These are more interestingly flavoured than conventional smoked haddock but more subtle than a kipper; which is, admittedly, not difficult.

Arbroath smokie flesh.  Photo: Mr. Edible.

Arbroath smokie flesh. Photo: Mr. Edible.

You stumble upon Arboath smokies almost as randomly as wild mushrooms, but when I do I’m tempted to pounce.  (Locally, try Tucker’s fish stall in Swansea Market that sometimes offer smokies that have apparently been once frozen.)  Joining other erstwhile favourites of mine such as Lübecker Marzipan, Newcastle Brown Ale and Pecorino Sardo, the Arbroath smokie has gained Protected Geographical Indication status under the EU’s Protected Food Name Scheme. Naturally there are conflicting local ‘creation myths’ concerning the origins of this salty-smoky treat including one that describes the preservation of surplus fish (not just haddock) by families of Norse origin in the nearby Angus fishing village of Auchmithie.  The Arbroath process starts with the salt curing of the prepared haddock before it is hot smoked; a technique I have met with in Sweden that produced delicious smoked lake fish.

Either ingredient would make ideal an addition to scrambled eggs; our fridge briefly held some of both so a rather special dish was possible – I feel a recipe coming on:

–  One Arboath smokie.

–  Six large eggs

–  100g ‘captive’ wild mushrooms, or other flavoursome fungi.

–  also: a clove of garlic, some curd/cream cheese and chopped parsley.

This makes enough for 4 hungry people.

––

A well-behaved smokie.  Photo: Mr. Edible.

A well-behaved smokie. Photo: Mr. Edible.

¶ The prepared smokie flesh should be free of its leathery skin and bones; both come away freely from a well-behaved smokie.

¶  Wild mushrooms can benefit from some personal valeting, a quick once-over with a pastry brush was all the contents of this pack needed.

¶  The enemy of wild mushrooms is water – wash fully but briefly; then gently squeeze the water out the spongy flesh with kitchen paper.

¶  The friend of wild mushrooms is garlic – fry them with some oil, or butter and oil, with a whole clove for company.

¶  Before cooking the scrambled eggs, prepare everything in advance: warm the plates, toast and butter the bread, put people on stand-by – as you want to scramble eggs, not people.

¶  In addition to seasoning, a small amount of milk in the beating bowl loosens the mixture.  Cook scrambled eggs in whatever kitchen utensil you like providing it’s gentle and, like the sea off Worm’s Head, continually stirred. The key is not the beginning but the end.  To avoid a pan of vulcanised rubber the cooking has to be sharply halted when the eggs turn to a creamy curd.  Cold milk, or cream, can be added to plain eggs, but in this recipe the prepared fish and mushrooms are dropped like control rods into to a nuclear pile going critical.  By the time you have combined them, and yelled at people, everything is perfect.  Two more ingredients were fortuitously at hand; I added some half-teaspoonfuls of cream cheese – that soon half-melted into the texture – and some verdant chopped parsley.

The muted flavours including wood smoke – salt – fish – egg – mushroom lined up on your tongue in a pretty unbroken line.  When taste ‘spectrum’ is more or less continuous like this it is a rare food treat; flavours of the distant salt sea and mossy woodland merge with the produce of the farm.

Landscape with Scrambled  Egg. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Landscape with Scrambled Egg. Photo: Mr. Edible.

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.

Eat Drink Summer Autumn.

Being a long-term ‘no sugar in my tea thank you’/’wholemeal for me’ sort of person I have rather walked on the other side of the road from white loaves, even ‘locally grown’ offerings.  When I cultivated a seasonal summer pudding habit I quickly discovered that advice to use any white bread was council of ignorance.   Few turn their nose up at summer pudding a dish which is something of a test bed for bread quality.  Partly prompted by the subject of this blog I bought a Swansea loaf in the Market.  I don’t know of the identity or provenance of this loaf (does anybody definitively?) but it certainly looks magnificent; like a fossilised thunderbolt just flung to earth from the hand of Jove.  The dough has been gathered up to make a smooth rounded bottom but left irregular on top.  A low-quality loaf (industrially steam-baked) would produce a pappy slime when it absorbed the berry juice; the de-crusted Swansea loaf, I rejoice to say, turns out to be a fine ingredient producing an excellent pudding. The lesson from today’s parable is; you can hardly have good enough bread to make a summer pudding.

What are the councils of the wise?  (For a method Delia Smith is, as always, clear)   A large proportion of raspberries and no more than a quarter red currents give enough juice to mostly saturate the bread overnight.  Set some of the juice from the lightly cooked berries aside to patch up anaemic patches the next morning; resist the temptation to drink this delicious juice but its flavour will give an indication if you have added enough sugar or not.   (The last made summer pudding included a good dash of my latest kitchen elixir, meadowsweet cordial, which gave it a decidedly non-puritanical edge.)

A crusty Swansea loaf

A crusty Swansea loaf – a fossilised thunderbolt thrown from the hand of Jove. Photo: Mr. Edible.

The summer pudding pictured here is a big-shouldered number as I moulded it in a soufflé dish instead of a traditional pudding basin to avoid the dangers of grounding of the top plate while pressing.  In fact this is the biggest pudding I’ve made, or perhaps will ever make, as it was a repository of mixed berries from the freezer before this autumn’s are at their best.  The berries on top are however fresh and were an early harvest from the tiny Edible estate; a container-planted blackberry that was bought as ‘Loch Maree’ but tasting them I have my doubts – as it is said, by their fruits shall ye know them.

A big shouldered summer pudding, with a 70's tinge to its colour probably due to some blackcurrants in the filling.  Suspect blackberries 'Loch Maree' atop.

A big shouldered summer pudding, with a 70’s tinge to its colour probably due to some blackcurrants in the filling. Suspect blackberries ‘Loch Maree’ atop. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Substituting bread for pastry in pies seems to be having a current vogue.  The ‘Heavy Pikers’ of tv fame make a meat pie lined with pizza dough in their ‘against image’ diet book, such a cunning ruse that it has apparently sold out online as I write.   But this is not such an innovation as it may at first seem.

My ill-informed idyll of the origins of the summer pudding was set in a humble cottage kitchen.  When the apples ‘hung down low’ at the end of summer a pudding bowl would be lined with a thinly sliced end of a stale white loaf and a trug taken out to forage for its filling.   Weighted down, the moulded pudding was left on the pantry’s cold shelf until next morning, filled with sweetened, lightly-stewed brambles gathered from the hedgerow.  Unfortunately, we must wrench ourselves away from this rural scenario as  summer pudding’s nativity has apparently more to do with early 20th century health fads; traced back to the wonderfully-named An Olio of Proved Recipes and Domestic Wrinkles (1st ed. 1904) by Miss L. Sykes.   Nonetheless, preparing a summer pudding can indeed be a sort of personal harvest festival; produced from modest ingredients, the technique has the form of a ritual that climaxes in something extraordinary and celebratory.  Once I shared an evening meal with a farming family in Kent, the dessert was served in large soup bowls and enjoyed in respectful silence; a whole summer pudding each, surrounded by a halo-like moat of spotless cream.

The heart of summer pudding is good bread, and summer pudding is good for your heart?

The heart of summer pudding is good bread, and summer pudding is good for your heart? Photo: Mr. Edible.

Meet the Inulas

Elecampane near Oldwalls (Inula helenium)

Elecampane (Inula helenium) near Oldwalls. Photo: Mr. Edible.

This is a gratuitous opportunity to show off a nice picture of a persistently interesting plant. Prof. Edible spotted them when speeding past the now green walls of the roadside Gower hedges.  I’m developing a talent for loosely identifying wildflowers while I hurtling passed in the car.   ‘There!’  I will be instructed on a return visit, often when I’m negotiating the narrow, quick lanes in the middle of a grockle convoy of roof-racked surfboards and well-girthed caravans.

Fortunately, its shock-eyed flower and stately form made it immediately recognisable.  Elecampane  (Inula helenium) is like some cherished acquaintance that one is always glad to come across: fascinating to know, with a colourful history and a striking appearance; but brings up more questions than is answered.  Who?  Where?  Why?

Originally native of central Asia when it came to Britain gardens is open to guesswork except it was earlier than I get up in the morning, in other words at or before the mediaeval period (and believe me I’m pretty mediaeval in the mornings – ouch, I must be channelling a cheap gag writer.).    Why?  This can be guessed from its long reputation as a medicinal plant.  The well-established plants we’ve spotted at two locations on the Gower are probably remnants of now eradicated old cottagers’ gardens where it would have been grown for themselves or their animals – the seeds may have been blown along the roads by the petrol-fuelled vortexes of modern times.   Arguably these eye-catching flowers are one of the most authentic aspects of nearby villages with their now converted cottages and part-time holiday homes.

“Edible Swansea”?

Some fifty years ago the candy was sold commonly in London, as

flat, round cakes, being composed largely of sugar, and coloured

with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for

asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling

by a river to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exhalations

and bad air. The candy may be still had from our confectioners,

but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is

of barley in barley sugar.

(‘Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure’, William Thomas Fernie 1879.)

Elecampane rock (candy) has not survived in the ‘confectioners’ but a medicinal cousin has;  ‘Coltsfoot rock‘ (Tussilago farfara)  can be had on one of the gaudy sweet stalls in Swansea Market.  Also traditionally associate with chest complaints I recently came across the distinctive leaves of this native spring-flowering wildflower, running wild an old local garden – but this is another story…