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

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

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

 

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

 

samphire

The tender spring growth. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Ratcliffe

‘A Modern System of Domestic Cookery’, 1823.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

‘Food in England’, 1954.

 

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

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

 

Spencer

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

 

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

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

 

Rock Samphire Crithmum

Rock samphire in seed. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

Fallacy no. 2  Rock Samphire is virtually extinct.

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

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

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

Mallorca

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

 

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

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

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

 

The museum of remarkable ...

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Cockles with pickled samphire.

Cockles, pickled samphire.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Dixon quote

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

Rock Samphire Crithmum (5)

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

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Old Glory; Chestnut & Chocolate Flan.

Sweet Chestnut

 

Old Glory; Chestnut & Chocolate Flan.

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

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

Blame it on the Bourbons

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

(earthy-sweet) sweet chestnut

(sweetearthy) chocolate

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

(floral-fruity) vanilla

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

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

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

 

Claudia Roden’s Chestnut and Chocolate Flan.

     100g sugar, 3 tablespoons of water

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

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

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

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

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

      150g bitter dark chocolate.

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

     6 tablespoons of cognac or other brandy.

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

     7 large eggs

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

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

 

Claudia Roden, Spanish Cookery, Michael Joseph 2012.

Roadside Americana

Dilly's Kitchen, Sketty.

Dilly’s Kitchen, Dillwyn Street, Sketty. Photo: Mr. Edible

What can I think to say in the time it takes for the traffic lights to change?   Inhabitants of this city will recognise Sketty Cross, momentarily quiet as this impatient junction gives way to wary pedestrians.  No doubt William Dillwyn would be kind but disapproving that the street, and presumably the cafe I’m sitting in, is named after him.  Born in Philadelphia in 1743 Dillwyn became a major figure in the anti-slavery campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, although his sincere Quaker humility meant his name faded with him, as he intended.   His was a slow campaign but it helped establish the attitudes that are the norm today.

Pearly Everlasting. Joe Mabel [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pearly Everlasting. Joe Mabel [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other side of the city is quite another piece of Americana.  I first admired the distinctive flowers of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) on the West coast of Canada.  On my return I found I recognised it around Swansea, my first sighting was at a speed of at least 70 mph on the M4 motorway.  The bright silvery patches show up on the dullest of days. No one really knows how they got here; maybe historic trade and industry may be sufficient.  Typically everlasting flowers have papery bracts that keep form, colour or a certain iridescence when dried.  Flowers could have very likely been pressed and sent back home as keepsakes by travellers and emigrants to north America. Eventually thrown to the winds their seeds established where they could in their new habitat.  If this scenario is true these irregular patches resemble the pale shadows of the people who once walked on, but left, this landscape.

It must be said that some emigrants returned to refill the spaces they left, and a few did so in a changed way.  Two roadside houses in Llandybie built at the end of the 19th century are listed for a unique reason.  Their design and construction techniques were brought back from the US by a local carpenter who had worked in Pennsylvania in the 1870s.  These clapperboard villas are so perfect in their setting you feel compelled to blurt ‘backyard’ not ‘garden’.

American Villas, Llandybie.

American Villas, Llandybie.

The brownie I had just enjoyed in Dilly’s Kitchen wae flavoured with Halen Môn salt.  The trend for salted chocolate seems to have start with certain Seattle caramels that are topped with smoked salt from the same Anglesey company in north Wales. These are famously a favourite of President Obama, or at least were at one time.  Two days ago the television news showed helicopters touching down at the NATO summit at Newport that might or might not contain Obama.  Hopefully his hosts may find a box left for them in the Presidential suite on his departure.

At this distance the event generated cheerful grumbling.  Swansea is about 50 miles west of Newport but yesterday someone seriously blamed his cancelled hernia operation on the summit.  Flippancy aside, I can still remember the extraordinary mood of expectation in the air when I was in Washington DC a year after Obama was first elected President.  The times have changed.  Back in my house sound of military helicopters overhead beating their low path eastwards towards the summit venue was a reminder of lives distorted by war, threat and personal violence.  ‘We are not wholly bad or good’ as the poet says, but let the proximity of this summit allow me a passing sense of hope that now it is over its results will make a difference.  At the risk of being obtuse and glib, these times remind me of what was said to be a Arabic aphorism, ‘one good man should not kill another good man’.  At a time and place when life was cheap, it apparently saved the life of designer Hermann Zapf who as a young soldier at the end of World War Two was confronted with trigger-happy enemy soldiers while finding his way home across Germany.   I haven’t looked up the official NATO motto, but in its widest sense this simple phrase might have something going for it.

 

Coco Bean Brownies at Dilly’s Kitchen, Dillwyn Street, Sketty.

Fran’s Chocolates, Seattle, USA.

Hermann Zapf, About Alphabets, MIT Press 1970.

 

Stavros S Niarchos

A Tall Ship becomes a harbour. Stavros S Niarchos at Swansea. Photo: Mr. Edible.

 

Pearly Everlasting Photo; Joe Mabel Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

‘Form follows Function’: Dr. Muesli’s Potatoes.

 

Like one of Jeff Koon’s giant puppies this ‘demands a response’, as the pundits say.   It won’t be ignored as it has strong new colours and such a predominant position.  I, and I assume many of my fellow local residents, will not hear a word against this refurbished local feature.  After an arson attack almost four years ago that as good as destroyed it, the impression is now of seeing a friend recovered from illness and appearing in strikingly rude health.   I talked to a painter, the brush in his hand holding paint the colour of gaudy cake icing, that I am sure is authentic for at least one period in its long history.   He was raised locally and, like many, had childhood memories of it.  He remembered when ice cream was sold here.  He also recalled something that might be called a neighbourhood baptism, getting wet at a municipal park; in this case in the nearby water-lily pool.

Mazot;  a primative Swiss hut

‘More Swiss Army knife than dirndl.’ The Mazot; a primative Swiss hut

It is difficult to overcome what must be the most hackneyed of visual clichés, that of a Swiss cottage.  In fact I have realised that among our treasured family bric-a-brac there is a Swiss cottage musical box and one pictured in a handmade embroidery of a mountain scene.    As I passed the building almost daily my unruly and indiscriminate curiosity was roused.  I came to realise that there within a ghost of a more primitive folk structure that had become a clothes-horse for ornament.   This archetype was a model of functionality, having more in common with the Swiss army knife than a dirndl.   So, admire the exterior stairs and galleries that leave the interior plan uncomplicated and easy to build.  The picturesque wide eaves protected this external access.  A telling feature, and a testament to the wildness of the cottage’s natural habitat, was the use of boulders to weigh the roof down.

Here is a glimpse into how contemporaries comprehended, or were told to how comprehend, the wilderness of the Alps, its peasant life and culture.    John Ruskin was one of the most famous travellers to Switzerland in the European peace-time of the early 19th century, and people generally listened to Ruskin.

A perspective view (1823) of PF Robinson's design for a Swiss Cottage, which was realised at Singleton.

A perspective view (1823) of PF Robinson’s design for a cottage in the Swiss style, realised at Singleton.

Well do I remember the thrilling and exquisite moment when first, first in my life … I encountered, in a calm and shadowy dingle, darkened with the thick and spreading of tall pines, and voiceful with singing a rock-encumbered stream … when I say, I first encountered in this calm defile of the Jura, the unobtrusive, yet beautiful, front of the Swiss cottage.  I thought it the loveliest piece of architecture I had ever had the felicity of contemplating, yet it was nothing in itself, nothing but a few mossy fir trunks, loosely nailed together, with one or two grey stones on the roof but its power was the power of association; its beauty, that of fitness and humility.

The Poetry of Architecture (1838).

Ruskin went on to declare that the Swiss cottage was ‘not a thing to be imitated; it is always, when out of its own country, incongruous’.   By the time he had made his warning a mock Swiss cottage, with its Romantic associations, was becoming an aspirational garden ornament for the wealthy.  On the practical side you could use it to accommodate some estate staff or a philanthropically run ‘dame school’ for the children of the local poor, both of which happened to the Swansea cottage.  There are more famous examples of Swiss cottages in the country: the eponymous Swiss Cottage in north London designed by PF Robinson, the same architect as Swansea, also the royal specimen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.   These both date from the 1840s, so the Swansea cottage –  maybe much to people’s surprise – with an authenticated date of 1826 appears to be the earliest.

That delicate arbiter of garden taste, John Loudon, warned not to include the roof-top boulders on your garden Swiss cottage, ‘for an Architect to introduce them as component parts of a Design in the Swiss style would display a great want of discrimination’.  However the Vivians, the owners of the original estate and predominant local industrialists, had differed and had included this dramatic detailing, (unfortunately the rocks, and an American log cabin, appeared to be long gone by the time the grounds of their estate became an extensive public park in 1920.)   In 1848 the Vivians were to be baldly accused of bad taste by a rather patrician observer1.   He condemned their planting up of antique Italian baptismal fonts as ‘flower pots’.  You can hear the hissed implication; ‘new money’, they just don’t know how to behave.

Swiss Cottage nowadays belongs to the cavalcade of polychromatic Welsh historic buildings such as Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch and the reconstructed mediaeval interior of St Teilo’s at St Fagans (The National History Museum).  If you can, I urge you to go to Singleton Park and see it before the paint begins to fade.  One should be able to get married in it; a venue and cake in one.

 

Bircher Potatoes.

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‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.  Harry Lime’s provocative speech from The Third Man, could have just have easily listed the Swiss cottage and, more recently, muesli.  The architect of Swansea’s Swiss Cottage had climbed up their mountains to gain inspiration from architecture of the Swiss peasants, but physician Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner found it in their breakfast.   He was given a mixture of soaked oats, raisins and grated apple for breakfast by shepherds while in the mountains.  This he thought would be ideal for his well-patronised sanatorium that offered a healthy but Spartan regime; Thomas Mann once fled this ‘sanitary prison’ after only a short stay.

Anatomy of a Bircher potato.

Anatomy of a Bircher potato.

It would seem that the function of Bircher’s potato dish was to wean his patients off their customary Kartoffel fare, rich in butter, cream and cheese, and onto something simpler.  Bircher halved his potatoes and oven roasted the cut side on an oiled tray.  The unpeeled body of the potatoes – scrubbed, of course – simply baked in the heat.   Healthy in the context of its time, personally I was more interested in this recipe for its simplicity.

I was first introduced to this technique by Kitchen Pharmacy (Rose Elliot and Carlo de Paoli, 1991) where they spread the tray with a mixture of seeds.   I now use either caraway or cumin seeds, both of which are good.  I have no idea what type of potatoes the sanatorium kitchen used, but I find both small floury and waxy salad potatoes work well.  It may not be authentic but the latter, with their thin skins, are my tuber of choice.  This type of potatoes cooks in about 45 minutes in a moderate oven.  If you want to cook them quickly it is best to miss out the seeds which become hard and tooth-moving at a higher heat.

This recipe sometimes perturbs my residual puritan nature by attempting to have the best of both worlds.  However it is very easy and flavoursome; I hear my silly scruples scuttling out of the kitchen door.

 

Photo: Mr Edible.

The sobering cottage front motto reads: ‘Lebe so dass du wieder leben magst.’  Live that thou mayst live again. Photo: Mr Edible. Translation: Prof. Edible.

1The Book of South Wales, the Bristol channel, Monmouthshire and the Wye, by Charles Frederick Cliffe. London 1848.

 

 

 

 

Coming to my Senses.

Recently I found myself woken by the raucous sounds of a hospital ward; the gentle squeak of trolleys and the mummer of subdued conversations deafened me.   My short-lived, bat-like sense of hearing was not a dream for analysis, but the successful outcome of a grommet insertion in my ear.  A simultaneous nasal procedure also led to the strengthening of my sense of taste and of smell, which has at times had seemed all but gone.

Now almost all aromas are welcome, often giving me a feeling best described as quiet enjoyment.  I now understand that the previously irritating, ever-present smell of coffee in offices and shops is a triumphant attempt to render the Hallelujah Chorus though the medium of fragrance.  It was a moment of delight and relief when my nose suddenly worked.   In no other circumstances could the aroma of a simmering chicken stock compel me to dance a private jig.  Off-key aromas quicken my senses too: the incomplete smells of food preparation from a cafe kitchen, or even the faint reek of a greengrocer’s.  I find I am a creature of my senses, or maybe I just had to be reminded.

A good egg.

Legendary omelette chef Mme Poulard was asked what her secret was, her reply boiled down to this; first I break good eggs in a pan then proceed to make an omelette.

Rediscovering subtle flavours made me purr like a spoilt cat.  Breakfast of a simple soft-boiled egg (this perfectly cooked by Prof. Edible) became a completely absorbing experience.  Surely it is impossible to fabricate something so perfect?   I had a nascent eco-system poised on the end of my spoon; the primordial briny yolk together with the untainted white mantle promising a new world.

The vividness of these newly sharpened senses is already fading.  If it had continued I would have always been constantly lost in revelry and awe, getting nothing done.  Even so I do not think I can ever take my everyday senses completely for granted again; you can still catch me bending over, sniffing at a pot of basil a little longer than is strictly necessary.

 

Egg via Neil Evans’ smallholding stall (Thurs-Sat)  Swansea Market.