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.

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.

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.

Collective Farm Produce – happy people; singing vegetables.

Why struggle to find the words to tell you how sweet and flavoursome these tomatoes were when this image is eloquent in itself?  Their colour has not been given the Photoshop steroid treatment; looking at it, like the originals, may produce the sensation of synaesthesia in other words you may almost taste them.

Gower garden produce.  Photo: Mr. Edible.

Gower garden produce. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Buying vegetables from the various farm shops and roadside stalls on the Gower suits our current routine and is the next best thing to growing one self, possibly better as it is clearly expertly done.   Individually, Eastern Farm, Oldwalls; Tyle Farm, Burry Green and Burry Farm, Burry (a slight shortage of names to share between that last two) are all very different in character but collectively provide a potluck of flavoursome ingredients – recent carrots were as orange as a ‘hi-vis’ vest and tasted very sweet as did the ruby red beetroot.

Tyle Farm, roadside stall, Burry Green, Gower.  Photo: Mr. Edible.

Tyle Farm, roadside stall, Burry Green, Gower. Photo: Mr. Edible.

With a glut of tomatoes singing with flavour I had to improvise fast.  There’s always an attraction in dishes with a strong contrast in colour, flavour and texture.  There are several dishes I cook that combine a rich tomato base with a pure, clean, white fish.   Hake on top of a rich tomato source came I think from a Spanish source, perhaps Galician (as we are learning the concept of national ‘Mediterranean’ cuisines are a product of modern post-war marketing).  Galicians, like the Welsh – their fellow North Atlantic seaboarders – are keen on the fish.

In the upshot, line caught North Atlantic cod loin was available and was so fresh it was still stiff.  The sauce is basically a fairly hearty one starting with a base of onions and garlic softened in olive oil.  The tomatoes were too small to be peeled but these thin-skinned greenhouse specimens could be stewed until the skins could not offend the fussiest eater.   To enrich the flavour?   The Spanish-sourced suggestion I used here was to add a good slug of sherry.  Sometimes I add a little sugar to help get over too much acidity in the tomatoes, or if white wine is substituted for the fortified type.  This time I, impetuous, pushed the boat out and added the zest of an orange at the beginning of cooking.  Both orange and wine get deliciously incorporated in the whole by the end of cooking.  But we’re not quite finished; shortly before serving I put the fish on top the seething sauce and firmly place the lid on the pan.  Simple – but little patience is needed to wait and assess when the fish is cooked through ; steamed in the hot vapours.  (Not too difficult for cod as is flesh begins to separate into the constituent large flakes.) The result is virginal white fish on a devilishly rich source.  No pic I’m afraid; I try next time – I’m still new to this blog game and it takes a while to remember to photograph everything I eat.

Too much to eat in one night, I knew that it would not heat up well for next day; the solution was to liquidise it, diluting the rich sauce down a little, and serve it up as soup for lunch.  I suppose it was similar to the soup base of a bouillabaisse and it made everyone happy; and when everyone is happy, I’m happy.

Fish soup that was stew from farm shop toms

Fish soup that was stew from farm shop toms. Photo: Mr. Edible.

One interesting phenomenon is occurring while we benefit from this very good veg.  There is less waste as the tasty leftovers from one night aren’t composted as is routinely is the case but are made into salads for lunch next day with the help of some piquant herbs, a little dressing of oil and, perhaps, a little Yotam Ottolenghi’s lemon myrtle salt – plunder from a recent trip to the Great Wen.  Good quality food promotes less waste?  – discuss.  (It certainly is dependent on the system, the super fresh cod I used was crazily displayed in the supermarket ‘trash’ chiller for less than £1).

Reduction of waste and voluntary collective action was on show at a City supermarket recently.  Times are tough for many people and going to get tougher, while we enjoy our peripatetic version of the Marie Antoinette/Petit Trianon rural fantasy there are those that are in reoccurring trouble.  Helping a charity like Foodbank can be directly useful; while at their stall it was good to see that the volunteers had been snowed under with donations.

OK class dismissed.

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…