Tag Archives: seasonal

Pickleweed

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”  Rachel Carson

Sunrising over the Thames estuary

Sunrise over the Thames Estuary

Sunrise is the best time. The dog can wander on the muddy foreshore and I can listen to the Oyster Catchers calling overhead and perhaps catch a glimpse of a Marsh Harrier. Once we reach the marshes Bear the Blind Husky has to be on a lead otherwise he’d fall in a drainage ditch and have to be hauled out by the scruff of his neck, a great indignity. He exhibits his usual sangfroid at the embarrassment of the lead.  I can see him thinking, “I’m a Bear…”

Bear the Husky walking along the muddy shoreline

Bear-Boys

Fifty or so miles from Deptford are the North Kent marshes. A world apart: flat, quiet, muddy, and teeming with life.  In order to avoid some of the human life I’ve arrived early, very early. To get to the marshes I have to walk across a nudist beach with the dog; me in my fire brigade issue steel toe-capped rubber boots and white 501s, carrying plastic bags and scissors; the blind Husky wandering here and there. The Husky’s name is Bear, because he’s big, snow-white, cool and bear-like. We call him ‘Bear-Boys’, because he’s a boy. Though he’s blind he manages very well, and wanders along at his own pace behind, or in front, so long as there aren’t any distractions. Every so often his front half disappears down a rabbit hole, emerging covered in sand.  In few hours the sun will be high in the sky and the beach will be crowded with naked people, most of them men, striding up and down in perfectly bronzed and shaved nakedness, the scent of sun oil hanging heavily in the air.  The Husky finds this very distracting, which causes me to have to call him back: “Bear-Boys! Come here!” And a dozen naked men look at me indignantly.

The North Kent Marshes

The North Kent Marshes, Isle of Harty

I’ve come here for the Samphire, I don’t know what it is, but Samphire gathering is an uplifting experience. There’s something about kneeling in the mud and enjoying the smell of the just-flowering sea lavender, the wetland grasses, and the water, while tiny crabs skitter this way and that in the ditches, and the birds wheel and hover above you. And everything is green, every shade of green from the pale bluey-grey green of the Sea Purslane, to the vivid green of the Samphire and on to the deep green of the grasses, here and there the green emphasised by the brilliant purple of the Sea Lavender.

Crab in a drainage ditch on Harty Marshes, Kent, England.

You’re Never Alone in a Ditch, Somebody is Always Watching.

Perhaps it’s some sort of memory, something primeval to do with our collective unconscious memory.  Jung said we all have this inherited collective unconscious, call it instinct if you like. He said the sea represented our unconscious mind, and the shore our conscious mind. The constantly changing tideline he said, was the fine line we have to balance. But a salt marsh is a blurs these distinctions and stirs deep hidden feelings.

Sea Lavender growing on North Kent marshes at Harty

Sea Lavender

Samphire looks like something from ‘Jurassic Park’ and is one of our oldest indigenous plants. About 15cm – 30cm fully grown, with little branches and even tinier leaves. The leaves are more like scales, so it appears smooth and succulent. It is quite difficult to spot unless you come across a large group.

Marsh Samphire, or, Glasswort

Marsh Samphire

For nearly three weeks I’ve eaten samphire every day either raw or steamed, and now I want to try pickling it.  ‘Samphire’ is a corruption of sampier which in turn came from herbe de Saint Pierre, St Peter being the patron saint of fishermen, but it is also known as glasswort, pickleweed, sea bean, in North Wales sampkin, and in Norfolk ‘samfer’.  Samuel Pepys loved Samphire, buying it by the barrel, but his was Rock Samphire, a different plant altogether. Rock Samphire grows on rocks and cliff faces, and was sold pickled on the streets of London to the cries of “cres’ marine!” and, “I ha’ rock samphier!”  The gathering of Rock Samphire was done on an industrial scale, so much so that the plant almost disappeared in the 19th Century. It was famously dangerous work, small children were dangled upside-down by ropes tied to their ankles, women made up the majority of the workforce clambering up and down steep cliffs using a crooked stick to collect the samphire.

Shakespeare wasn’t impressed, describing a scene near Dover involving a dangling child, he wrote in ‘King Lear’:

How fearful and dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low.
The crows and coughs that wing the midway air show scarce so gross as beetles.

Half-way down hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!

Robert Turner, doctor and translator

Robert Turner, from the Wellcome Library

Rock Samphire has an unpleasant smell which disappears when it is pickled and becomes a very tasty sauce: ‘of all the sawces (which are very many) there is none so pleasant, none so familiar and agreeable to Man’s body as samphire,’ wrote a contemporary of Pepys.  Robert Turner in 1664 wrote of samphire gathering on the cliffs of the Isle of Wight that it was ‘incredibly dangerous … yet many adventure it, though they buy their sauce with the price of their lives’.  Two hundred years later Victorian painters and illustrators found the poverty and desperation of rock samphire gathers a bucolic and romantic subject, far removed from the reality.

Cover of The Graphic depicting a samphire gatherer

The Famous Victorian Image of a Samphire Gatherer by W. Murray for the cover of ‘The Graphic’ magazine.

Nowadays you can buy Samphire all year round in fishmongers,  imported from Israel or Holland. I’m a bit strict about some things, and so only eat Samphire in season, and Samphire I’ve gathered myself.  The season runs roughly from June to the end of August, depending on the weather. This year is unusual, the samphire on my marsh only appearing mid July. There is more of it this year, but most of it has ‘bolted’, grown too fast into a single skinny stem, instead of slowly growing and branching into plump juicy wonderfulness. And some is already beginning to turn red, the colour of Autumn. Americans call it ‘Swampfire’, for the way the marshes become a blaze of red in the Fall. Samphire tastes crisply salty, and grows alongside another edible salt marsh plant, Sea Purslane. You can buy ordinary organic Purslane from Perry Court Farm Organics at Brockley Market, and while you’re there you can buy Samphire from Dorset at the Hand-Picked Shellfish Co. stall.

Sea Purslane growing on the marshes

Sea Purslane

I snack on Sea Purslane walking along to the Samphire.  Purslane is a greyish green whereas Samphire is a vivid bright green, unless it is covered in dried mud!  We sometimes add Sea Purslane to salads, pushing the boat out this week and mixing Perry Court Farm’s organic Purslane (£1.20 a bag) with foraged Sea Purslane, adding slices of toasted cheese, mint, and slivers of beetroot and carrot.

Salad of Sea Purslane and Organic Purslane

Salad of Sea Purslane and Organic Purslane

But the Samphire is the main attraction for me, I hope that if I pickle enough I’ll be eating it at Christmas. If you venture out onto the marshes looking for Samphire you’ll need scissors and a bag, and wellies of course. Don’t confuse it with Golden Samphire which confusingly grows alongside. That has bright yellow flowers and short feathery leaves.

Marsh Samphire growing on Harty Marshes

Marsh Samphire, or Glasswort

Once you are sure, don’t bother with plants that are beginning to turn red, pick the tallest and plumpest you can find and snip off the top 100mm (4″). If you cut further down you’ll encounter the woody inner stem which holds the plant erect. Never pull it up by its roots. For a salad or for steaming you’ll need a couple of handfuls. To pickle you’ll need considerably more, hopefully you’ll find a bed of Samphire like this:

Marsh Samphire

Marsh Samphire

I collected what I thought would be enough for the two storage jars I’d bought back in Deptford, roused the sleepy Husky, who was covered in mud (but so was I) and headed back to my shack. I sorted the cuttings, removing any woody bits and stray grass, then snipped it slightly shorter, to about 50mm – 75mm. This was the most time-consuming part of the process, because each stem had to be inspected separately. Next I soaked the Samphire in a few changes of clean water to remove the mud and dust, and then weighed it. I had 600g to pickle, less than I’d hoped, just enough to fill one 3 litre storage jar.

Cleaning Samphire Before Pickling

Cleaned Samphire Ready For Pickling

My recipe is inspired by Patience Gray in her book “Honey From A Weed”. Patience believed that Rock and Marsh Samphire were so similar that they could be treated the same way. She suggested eating Samphire raw with a little wine vinegar, as an appetiser, or pickled in white wine vinegar with thyme and oregano, and maybe salted anchovies. There are many ways to pickle Samphire, but I’m following Patience Gray and Henry V: ‘Thus may we gather honey from the weed And make a moral of the devil himself’.

Pickled Samphire

Pickled Samphire

Pickled Samphire

Preparation time: impossible to say, but apart from gathering the Samphire, sorting and cleaning is the most time-consuming part.

Cooking time: 5 minutes.

I started with a 3 litre storage jar, sterilised with boiling water and allowed to dry naturally.

Ingredients:

600g samphire washed and trimmed into 50mm – 75mm pieces

3 bottles (3 x 350ml) white wine vinegar

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

4 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp dried Thyme

1 tsp dried Oregano

Method:

Leaving the Samphire to one side, mix the rest of the ingredients together in a saucepan and heat, bringing to the boil. Let it boil for a minute, then allow to cool for a while. It doesn’t have to cool completely.

Pack the Samphire into the sterilised jar. Pack it tightly, then pour in the pickling liquid, leaving a 1cm gap at the top.

Seal the lid and…that’s it!

My plan is to serve it with mutton or lamb, or anything really. And I’m planning to make some more…

©2012 David Porter.

Ready for the next time

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A Life of Pie

I almost called this “Home Alone”, but I wasn’t entirely alone, there were the four dogs, and the pork pie.

Clarissa jetted off to Dubai and then India for a week as the unpaid assistant of an internationally famous DJ. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Luckily for me she was anxious about how I was to survive her absence and suggested a pork pie to help tide me over. Clarissa’s pork pies crop up from time to time throughout the year, though at increasingly longer intervals more’s the pity.

A few years ago pies of all shapes and sizes seemed to pour out of our kitchen. She even painted a portrait of herself perched on a giant pasty and called it ‘Madonna of The Pies’.

The Oxford Dictionary notes that the word ‘pie’ dates from the first years of the 14th Century, Alan Davidson in his “Oxford Companion to Food” suggested pie maybe shortened from ‘magpie’, a collection of different ingredients. Early pies were called coffyns, the pastry, hard and strong,  a container for the filling and sometimes discarded.  The pastry was so indestructible that the pie could be placed directly onto the embers of the fire so that the pie crust became its own oven. The raised pork pie is a direct descendant of these early coffyns, certainly the first pork pie recorded in the Melton Mowbray area dates from the 14th Century.

The old recipes are seasonal, traditionally September is the beginning of the pork pie season because Autumn was the time when pigs were killed in readiness for the long hard winter. Lard rendered from pork fat is an essential ingredient in the pastry, which is called ‘hot water pastry’ and necessary to construct a raised pie as distinct from a flat or plate pie, or where the pastry crust simply  covers an open pie. The dough is raised by hand, sometimes over a wooden ‘dolly’ and sometimes using a bowl as a mould to shape the pie. Clarissa has made some free-form pies as well, but however you do it the resulting pie is likely to be uneven, sometimes very uneven as the pie will sag and tilt during the cooking. The baked crust will be shiny and fairly water-tight so you can fill the pie with hot liquid meat jelly. One of our earliest pie-making mistakes was to not make the crust thick enough to hold the stock without collapsing. Getting the amounts right for the jelly is a bit hit and miss, but I don’t think it is crucial if you don’t fill the pie completely. The oldest recipes use uncured pork and mashed anchovies, the result is an old-fashioned taste and distinctive grey meat, unlike the artificially pink shop-bought pork pie.

Melton Mowbray has attained  PDO status (protected designation of origin) in recognition of their pies historic importance, but other areas for instance Yorkshire and Cheshire lay claim to producing some excellent traditional pork pies. Wilson’s the Leeds butchers have become famous for their three-tiered pork pie wedding cake,  and the Pork Pie Appreciation Society is in Yorkshire. Every March they hold a pork pie competition; here’s their amazing  tribute to the pork pie!

Malika Mezeli of 'Lardy Da,' pork pie maker extraordinaire

Nearer to home Malika Mezeli  aka ‘Lardy Da’ makes homemade rare breed pork pies and renders her own lard from pork fat at home in Peckham. I think Malika is a local treasure, she tries to use every part of the animal and even makes pig’s head terrine!

©Leo Johnson

You can find Lardy Da at Blackheath Farmers’ Market on the first and second Sunday of the month, and at other London markets.

In the past I’ve bought pork for our pies from Wellbeloved’s in Tanners Hill, or  Christine’s and JC Smith’s in Deptford High Street, and memorably from Northfield Farm in Rutland and Borough Market.  Memorably because if like me you can remember what pork used to taste like before the  supermarkets told us we wanted lean flavourless pork, then Northfield Farm’s pork is indescribably nostalgic; “there are few places I’d travel 400 miles to buy meat,” said Clarissa Dickson Wright of Northfield Farm, which is also a member of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.  I did travel to Northfield Farm a couple of years ago, and met farmer and ex-banker Jan McCourt. Jan took me to see his Iron Age pigs, he suggested we didn’t get too close to them;  they were, he said, a bit aggressive and likely to ignore the electric fence in an attempt to attack us!

Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm, Rutland

So I had to be content with a photograph of Jan with some goats, their only aggression was to try and eat my camera bag, and butt me from behind as I bent over.

But this time we were in Nunhead so we bought the pork from HA Smith & Son. This would be the biggest pie Clarissa has made for some time, and I’m happy to say that even sharing slices with the lurcher, it lasted the week. Of course I was lonely that week and even talked to the dog. Every night on the doorstep after his walk I quoted Withnail to him: “first, we go in there and get wrecked, then we eat a pork pie!” He looked puzzled but agreed.

  A Hand Raised Pork Pie

(serves 12)

The ingredients and method are listed in the order they were prepared and cooked,  the cooking time for the pie is about 2 1/2 hours, preparation 30 minutes, and preparing the stock 3 1/2 hours, but that happens along with the cooking of the pie, or you can prepare the stock earlier.

For the Jelly Stock:

Bones from the pork, shoulder and ribs

2 pigs trotters

1 carrot

1 onion stuck with 4 cloves

Sprigs of Thyme and Parsley and some bay leaves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp juniper berries

3 ltrs water

Pepper and salt, or 2 tbs fruit jelly

Method:

Put all the above into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours. Then strain through a sieve and put back on the heat till the stock is reduced to about 450 ml.  Season with pepper and salt, or 2 tbs of fruit jelly (I used some wild plum jelly I’d made).

Allow to cool, it will set into a jelly.

For the filling:

1.35 kg pork belly, ribs removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

1.35 kg pork shoulder, bone removed by the butcher and reserved for the stock

(when the bones have been removed the weight is considerably less)

1 tbs chopped fresh sage

Few scrapes of nutmeg

1 tin of anchovies finely chopped

1 onion, grated

Fresh ground black pepper

Method:

Hand chop the meat and fat rather than mince so you have small chunks. Put all the meat into a mixing bowl and add the rest of the ingredients for the filling, mix it all together with your hands or a wooden spoon then put to one side.

For the Hot Water Pastry:

400 ml water

340 g lard

900 g plain flour

1 tbs icing sugar ( for a crispy crust)

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

8 bay leaves

Greaseproof paper

String

Method:

In a large saucepan bring the water and lard to the boil. Mix the salt and icing sugar into the flour, remove the hot liquid from the heat and quickly shoot the flour into the hot water, stirring with a wooden spoon. You’ll need a strong spoon because you must stir briskly till the dough forms a smooth ball. Turn out the dough onto a board and when it is cool enough to handle quickly knead the dough for a few moments. Then let it cool some more and divide it by cutting off a quarter of the dough and putting that to one side for the lid.

The cheats way to make a raised pie would be to use a loose-ringed cake tin and press the dough into the tin and up the sides. But Clarissa took the larger ball of dough and plunged her fist into the middle and gradually worked the dough outwards and at the same time upwards, drawing it up and out using both her floured hands. When the dough looks about right, about 15 cm high, and in other words like a pie (!), draw the sides inwards slightly then quickly secure the sides with a piece of grease proof paper folded in half and loosely tied with string.

Pile the meat filling into the pie, pushing it gently down and around the pie case. Remove the paper and gently mould the pastry against the filling with the palms of your hands. Take the reserved ball of dough and just using your hands, flatten it into a lid and lay it onto the pie, crimping the lid into the sides with your fingers. Decorate the top with bits of leftover dough and make a large steam hole in the middle of the lid. Wet the bay leaves and arrange them around the outside, then again wrap the pie sides in greaseproof paper doubled-over and secured with string. Glaze the top with beaten egg. Then using a wide fish slice, mine is 25 cm wide, or two together, carefully slide the pie onto a lipped baking sheet and put in your oven preheated to 180 C (350F) for 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and take off the paper then put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, tie more greaseproof around it, loosely, and allow to cool. Meanwhile, gently warm the jellied stock so it melts and using a funnel or great care, pour the stock into the pie through the steam hole. This takes a little time as the stock dribbles down through the pie and fills the spaces inside, so do it a little at the time. Leftover stock can be frozen for future pies! Finally, if you wish, fill the steam hole with fruit jelly, or jam, which I’d also serve with the pie.

Allow the pie to cool and set overnight still wrapped in the paper, before imagining yourself in a coaching inn on the Great North Road, a deerhound at your feet, sitting beside a blazing fire with a pint of Porter and a slice of pie, the taste of Old England.



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