Cargoes: Citrus Appeal.

Swansea's 1930s Guildhall tower with trireme motives.

Swansea’s 1930s Guildhall tower with trireme motives.

Fat ship prows jut out from the top of the otherwise gaunt sides of the Guildhall tower in Swansea.   Facing the four winds they take the distinctive form of an ancient ship from the Mediterranean world, a jutting ram overtopped by a contemptuous scroll.   I read that these were warships: biremes, triremes, quadriremes, quinquiremes and beyond, depending on the rows of slave oarsmen on each side.  But I, as perhaps the architects of the 1930s Guildhall may have done, took my cue from John Masefield’s once popular poem and associated them with ancient trade.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

‘Cargoes’,  John Masefield (1902).

Bass relief from Pozzuoli, Italy.

Bas relief from a Roman port near Naples.

In my 60s youth the most visible remains of Swansea’s great maritime trade were the misnamed banana boats that concealed stowaway tarantulas in their holds, in fact they probably plied the important Mediterranean trade routes.  The ships were probably more akin to the last of the three contrasting verses of Cargoes – imaginary spiders apart, I was more gnawingly anxious about Monday morning when there would be the possibility that I would be the one to recite the poem by heart in front of the school class:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, 
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.


When you look out to the bay today, long bulk carriers lie low in the water, prows pointing towards the deep-water harbour at the immense integrated steelworks at Port Talbot.  These ocean travellers were frustratingly anonymous until the internet lifted their anonymity.  Coal from Australia waits at anchor in the Bristol Channel.  Iron ore from Brazilian open-cast mines comes via ports such as Ponta Ubu.  That the vast majority of the ore is shipped from that port to China is no surprise in light of recent developments.


Margam Xanadu

Further again around Swansea Bay, where the Glamorgan uplands turn inland and fields begin to cover a rich plain, the estate of the dynasty that put their name to Port Talbot sits rather incongruously.  If the docks and steelworks were, and hopefully remain, the site of wealth creation for all, it is the nearby Margam estate that was a focus for conspicuous consumption.   The Mansels bought the Margam Abbey at the Dissolution of the Monasteries – land, ecclesiastical and lay buildings.  After four centuries of money making their descendants by marriage, the Talbots, brought the site to its final peak of development by raising a dominating 19th century Gothic mansion in what may be described as an ‘industrial baronial’ style, often most appealing when seen from a distance.

Over the centuries the estate acquired prestige collections.  A deer park was an early example.  As a 17th century agriculturalist dryly observed ‘[deer parks] make or preserve a grandeur, and cause them to be respected by their poorer neighbours’.   At the end of the estate’s pomp in 1941, a four-day auction of the house’s contents including collections of furniture, silver, porcelain, books, tapestries and paintings that included works attributed at the time to Rembrandt, Canaletto, Gentileschi.

One of the estate’s early features was the ‘great’ collection of citrus trees whose scale and size were thought unequalled in Britain.   The physical legacy of this collection today is the imposing Orangery at Margam.   At 100 metres (327 ft) has been claimed to be the longest building of its type in Britain, perhaps Europe.  Comparisons are difficult as people do not seem to measure these things in an ordered way.  Nonetheless, the Margam Orangery has the air of one that believes it is the longest; in scale and character it is the Hallelujah Chorus of orangeries.


The Hallelujah Chouros of orangeries, Margam.

The ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ of orangeries, Margam.


A Plan of the Orangery. West Glamorgan Archive Service.

A ‘citrus palace’, plan of the Orangery. (West Glamorgan Archive Service.)


East Pavilion, Margam Orangery.

East Pavilion, Margam Orangery.  Where the TMT’s antique marbles acquired in Rome were displayed.

It was built in the late 18th century as a seasonal housing for an existing collection of citrus trees.  It was a time when the function of Margam was as a pleasure park, which to this day gives the place the feel of a superior architectural backlot.  The citrus trees have been a feature at Margam from the late 17th or early 18th centuries.  The earliest documentation is from a 1711 garden book that records the task of putting the orange trees out of doors.  We do not know where the trees originated, or at which exact period, but the trees inevitably came by sea originally.  Legends inundate the breech where there is no written evidence.  Some stories tell of them being taken as booty from Spanish ships, others of local shipwrecks.  It is true that the coast here regularly acquired shipwrecks blown off-course when entering the south-westerly approaches to Britain.   (See the ‘The Cultivation of the Genus Citrus.’  Paxton’s Magazine of Botany, and Register of Flowering Plants, Vol 1, 1841.  [Quoting a manuscript found among Peter Collinson’s papers the author is still unresolved, cf. Lewis Weston Dillwyn, Hortis Collinsonianus, iv, note, 1843.])

Ramona 001

An early-19th century cargo of orange trees on deck of a steam ship at anchor the Thames. Shipped from Rouen to be shared by an ’eminent botanist’ and Chelsea Botanical Garden, Sloane Street.


The roll call of the benefactors and recipients of the allegedly beached citrus trees include: the King of Spain and the King of Denmark, Sir Henry Wotton and King James I, the King of Portugal and Catherine of Braganza, a Dutch merchant and Queen Mary II.  Without a doubt a collection of citrus trees – a living embodiment of the warm south – was a worthy gift of sovereigns.   Not as rare as a collection of Ming vases, possibly not quite as costly to keep as a stable of Arabian stallions but nevertheless an ostentatious show of wealth.

Phillip Miller’s revered The Gardener’s Dictionary (1754) details the care of new oranges trees ‘that are brought over every year in Year in Chests from Italy; which is, indeed, by much the quicker Way of furnishing a Greenhouse’.

Moving the orange trees at Versailles.

Orange trees on the move at Versailles. (Detail from Jean-Baptiste Martin, ‘A Stag Hunt at Versailles, c.1700)


The trees were gently heated in a bed of composting tanner’s bark and coaxed to take up water.  The earth they arrived in was combed out of the roots and new compost added as they were planted in boxes to ease their annual migration in and out of the greenhouses.  These planters had a removable side so the tree could be planted up as it gradually grew in size; the citrus collections were not a throw-away commodity but a continually developing colony.   We should not be tempted to think of this collection as made up of lollipop-shaped bushes in pretty containers.  Margam was particularly known for the maturity of its citrus trees whose scale can be judged by the practical barn-sized doors at the rear of the Orangery.


‘Size & Excellance’

Walter Davies’ (Gwallter Mechain) report for the Board of Agriculture (1815) refers to Margam’s orangery as the collection of plants and the building as the greenhouse:

The present collection of fruit trees consists of Seville, China, cedrat [a variety of citron], mandarin, pomegranate, curled leaved and nutmeg oranges [kumquat], lemons, citrons, shaddocks [pomelo] and bergamots [used to flavour Earl Grey tea] we measured some of the latter that were 17 inches in circumference.  The trees in the green house are all standards planted in square boxes to be removed during summer into the open air in an extensive area surrounded by numerous forest trees and shrubs, tulip trees, acacias, bay trees, arbutus, Portugal laurels, hollies, stone pines &c of the most luxuriant vegetation and a circular pond in the centre for occasional watering.   The moveable fruit trees are in number about 110 and many of them are 18 feet high.   There are about 40 in the conservatory planted in the natural earth and traced against a trellis framing where the fruits abound and attain their native size and excellence.


Walter Davies describes the extraordinary system of air-rooting (‘circumposition’) used by the gardeners in Margam to propagate valuable trees.  Possibly parallels to a stable of pure-bred horses is not that far-fetched.   As with horses, dogs, deer and perhaps even your family, it was all about breeding and pedigree.


The Citrus Gene Pool.

The origins of the citrus genus lay in areas stretching between India and China. The first fruits that came to Europe via the Arab world would not be commonly recognised today.  The type of orange that made up the majority of the early citrus collections is what we know as the sour or bitter Seville, still required by marmalade makers.  The basic techniques of horticultural management were based on the needs of this handsome species.   The sweeter oranges, referred to as ‘China’, were naturally more highly regarded but were even more tender than the bitter Seville, requiring more cosseting.   The citron was the one of earliest citrus species to be widely grown in Europe when it arrived from its far Eastern home via the Middle East.  With its comparatively dry flesh and very thick peel, it can be thought of as a wilder sort of lemon, certainly more so than its hybridised descendants.  Citrons had an admired fragrance and, more practically, made good grafting stock for other citrus species.  For those reason they held their place in collections over the centuries, despite their very variable appearance.  The shaddock we know better as the pomelo, (Citrus grandis).   This very large, thick-skinned species was raised in Barbados from seed brought from the Far East by an enterprising Captain Shaddock .  No records of the have been found of this captain, but the story reflects the importance of the West Indies in the citrus trade, not least as the pomelo accidentally hybridised to give us the grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi) with which it was at first confused.

The pleasure that could be gained from a citrus collection was not solely the harvest of fruit.  In fact oranges had at one time a bad reputation for fruiting in their British palaces, although the Margam trees that were planted in the ground against the heated back wall of the Orangery were famously successful.  In the summer, the trees were placed outdoors in a fragrant circle as an instant Mediterranean grove.  A central, circular pool in front of an orangery is a feature of the Orangerie at Versailles (finished in its current state in 1686), the progenitor of so many grand designs.  In their winter lodging the fragrance drifted into the pavilions at either ends of the orangery where sculptures and models were on display.  The latter were acquired on the Grand Tour undertaken by Thomas Mansel Talbot between 1768 and 1772.  In an otherwise rather hectoring letter from Nice to his gardener George Bartlett he shares his memorable experience of witnessing the natural growth of oranges, trees that he only had seen protected fretfully every winter back home.

The orange trees grow here with very little care in the corn fields and gardens.  Not far from hence is a mountain cover’d with arbutus & Myrtyll & inumberable [sic] quantity of other shrubs that I never saw in England. 

[Nice, 20 Nov 1770]

In answer to at least one rendering of the poet Goethe’s knowing question, ‘Do you know the land where the citron bloom?’, TMT did and had succumbed to its enchantment.



Orange blossom. (Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park, Swansea). Given the right conditions citrus can flower and fruit continuously.


The recently late-19th century renovated 'orange wall' or greenhouse at Margam.

The Orangery is now used for functions and events, but there is a recently renovated, late-19th century lean-to greenhouse, or orange wall, (pictured) at Margam Park that contains a modern citrus collection.

After his return to Margam in 1771 to bury his sister, he returned to Italy, there to write to his gardener and brother about a consignment of trees he had bought to enhance the Margam collection, ‘I think there was 6 cedras [citron] & one particular species of orange that bares very small fruit & has a little leaf’, (Milan, 26 Oct 1771).  The latter appears to be the small-fruited myrtle-leaved orange that appears in a later inventory.  These were being shipped from Bristol to Neath at the same time that Thomas Mansel Talbot was organising the shipping of his sculptures from Italy to either Cork or Dublin to reduce import levies.  In a perhaps not untypical mixture of business and pleasure he hoped to transfer them from Ireland to Margam via the ships that carried his coal to and from Taibach, the local port before Port Talbot was developed.  Whether the new citrus trees were acquired in this country (home-grown trees were available at this time) or originally sent from Italy is impossible to say, but it is clear that he had seen his purchases with his own eyes.

From 1786 to 1790 the work took place at Margam to replace the existing greenhouses that housed his citrus collection (possibly two, a lower and an upper) with the current ‘citrus palace’ designed in an imposing Classical style.   This was structure that protected the oranges from the northern winter whilst providing a handsome gallery for acquisitions from his tour: modern copies of antique sculptures, excavated fragments, models of notable buildings and a bust of himself.  It may be termed today an ‘immersive installation’.   In creating a walk-through souvenir of his Grand Tour he was not unique.  However, there was at Margam an additional element of sensory gratification and recall.  Despite the size of the Orangery it not a place to show these precious objets d’art in winter.  The gardeners had to continue watering the evergreen plants and work on keeping them in prime condition.  For instance, those trees that were taken in too early could burst into unhealthy growth that had to be dealt with.  The two end pavilions allowed for a cordon sanitaire for the marbles and models, away from overfilled watering cans and wobbly ladders.  Open internal doors allowed the fragrance of the still-flowering trees to diffuse throughout the whole building.   The diarist John Evelyn had described the perfumes of orange, citron and jasmine as ‘the peculiar joys of Italy’.

A citrus collection was maintained at Margam until the Second World War when the orangery was requisitioned for military use and was occupied by American forces.  The orange trees were left out of doors and failed to survive the winter.

The Citron.

I am particularly interested in the citron.  Thick with pith (albedo) it is today one of the sources of the confection that goes by the plain name ‘mixed peel’.   The citron was possibly the only citrus that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew.  They considered it an exotic medicine as its binominal name, Citrus medica, still records.   Presumed by Theophratus to be an anecdote to poison, it could be associated in medieval and early modern times with the archaic anti-poison mixtures theriac and mithridatium.  Rich in aromatic oils, citron flesh could be distilled to make a fragrant water, indeed the floor plan for the now gutted Victorian mansion at Margam still maintained the fantasy of an old-fashioned ‘still room’ that was most likely a drinks pantry handily positioned near the billiards room.

Citron (Citrus medica).

Citron (Citrus medica). (Rik Schuiling, Tropical Crops)

Candied citron peel (succade) came into Europe via the Arab world along with the first citrus trees.  Sweet, fruity and resinous it too was considered to preserve the medicinal qualities of the fruit.  Francis Bacon listed citron rind as a basis for a cordial, i.e. a medicine that invigorates and stimulates. Here is a medicinal recipe including candied citron peel from Thomas Sydenham.



The Whole Works of that Excellant Practical Physician, Dr. Thomas Sydenham, 8th ed. Corrected from the Original Latin, by John Pechey, M.D. 1722.


I have always had a liking for mixed peel, and consider traditional Welsh tea cakes like teisan lap best when they taste of its vaguely exotic flavour.   Shop-bought candied peel is perfectly fine, but homemade peel is softer in texture has a headier flavour.  As several have noticed (see Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book) the surrounding cake appears to be infused with it.

I cannot promise you an orangery of fragrance with this recipe but it is an experience of perfumed sweetness and pleasure and, as even Marie Antoinette was claimed to have observed, absolutely anyone can eat cake.



Making something delicious from what is often a waste product is kitchen alchemy to me.  This recipe is from the BBC Good Food website.  The link is here, just in case unforeseen policy changes mean that the recipe disappears or is moved I have pasted it below.

Orange, Citrus

Not an ‘easy peeler’.

Thick-skinned oranges of the navel type seem ideal for this.  Oranges that are sometimes found in street markets that might not have the best flavour to the central flesh but have a thick white pith works well for candying.  You may wish to assess the discarded peel from a batch of juicing oranges.   Citrons are hard to come by, at least in south-west Wales, but if you look around until you find a plump lemon that strikes you as a subject of a 18th century still life (especially one from Spain, such as by Zurbaràn) you are probably on the right track.

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633

Francisco de Zurbarán Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633

Note: The first boil takes out some of the bitterness of the peel, the second boil can be extended to give a softer end result.  I found the period the cooked peel dries – until it is no longer tacky to the touch – can be much longer that the hour the recipe describes; particularly if you have boiled it well.   The remaining sugar syrup is too good to waste and can make a delicious ‘citrus peel’ ice cream; almost worth the effort in itself.


Candied Citrus Peel



2 unwaxed oranges and 2 unwaxed lemons

granulated sugar



“Cut the fruit into 8 wedges, then cut out the flesh, leaving about 5mm thickness of peel and pith. Cut each wedge into 3-4 strips.

Put the peel in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 mins. Drain, return to the pan and re-cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 30 mins.

Set a sieve over a bowl and drain the peel, reserving the cooking water. Add 100g sugar to each 100ml water you have. Pour into a pan and gently heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the peel and simmer for 30 mins until the peel is translucent and soft. Leave to cool in the syrup, then remove with a slotted spoon and arrange in 1 layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Put in the oven at the lowest setting for 30 mins to dry.

Sprinkle a layer of sugar over a sheet of baking parchment. Toss the strips of peel in the sugar, a few at a time, then spread out and leave for 1 hr or so to air-dry.

Pack the peel into an airtight storage jar or rigid container lined with baking parchment. Will keep for 6-8 weeks in a cool, dry place.’




An early photograph of the Margam Orangery (c1845) by Calvert Richard Jones (Victoria & Albert Museum)

An early photograph (c. 1845) with Margam Orangery as its subject, by Calvert Richard Jones (Victoria & Albert Museum)


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

Right A lemon-shaped cloud from the Port Talbot works’s coke ovens appears to be attempting to imitate Volkamer’s illustrations.


Some Sources

The Penrice letters 1768-1795, Joanna Martin, West Glamorgan County Archives Service, 1993.

Margam Orangery, A masterpiece of eighteenth-century architecture. Patrica Moore, Glamorgan Archives Service, 1976.

Painting Paradise, Vanessa Remington, Royal Collections Trust. 2015.



“An idea doesn’t exist unless you do something about it”. St. David’s Day.

Wales Gas Board

“An idea doesn’t exist unless you do something about it”

John Petts (1914-1991)

On 10.22 am on Sunday 15th April 1963 an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four young girls and injured many others.  The dynamite was laid by white supremacists in what was the worst of a series of terrorist acts against the Civil Rights Movement whose activities were centred in the city.  Convictions connected to the case were not completed until 2002, one suspect dying before he could be tried.

Outrage at the incident was felt around the US and the world.  Artist John Petts offered his services to design and create a memorial stained glass window.  Petts, a London-born artist and designer who settled in Wales and significantly contributed the country’s culture and life, contacted a Welsh national newspaper who successfully raised the money for the project made up of many individual contributions from the people of Wales.

Petts worked for a year on the design, consulting with the church on the design that was innovative for its time in depicting a black Christ.  It remains in place today apparently known as ‘The Wales Window’.

I am so familiar with the cover 1957 cookbook pictured above.  Produced by the Welsh Gas Board it has become a source book for traditional Welsh recipes from beetroot wine to limpet pie.  It was only in the last few days I gave the design any attention to discover that it is credited to John Petts, based on the familiar Welsh flannel design (although the book says quilt).  So I read about the link to the Alabama bombing.

Happy St. David’s Day, the national day of Wales.


John Petts’s window at Birmingham Alabama.

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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pearly Everlasting. Joe Mabel [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, 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.


‘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.