The last of the herring men

Herring means Christmas to me

Fishing in a traditional and sustainable way, is decaying and it is becoming increasingly harder to make a living from a small fishing boat.
In November I visited my friend Stephen Perham, the last of the Clovelly Herring men. 
Also the Clovelly Harbourmaster, he is the only fisherman still living in the village and the only one who sells his catch. One of the very few others is Tommy who is Stephen’s brother, but he doesn't live in the village anymore.
Stephen lives with his betrothed Joy in his grandmother's house, she's a singer in the Fishwives Choir, lifeboat volunteer, and trainee doctor. His sister Rachel lives next door, in the house their father and mother lived and died in, like many before them. These houses are full of stories and ghosts of the past. His family is with us when we sit around the table in his kitchen, drinking port by the warming old Rayburn that's drying tea towels and three beloved soggy dogs. 

Pictures of his ancestors and other long lost locals are found everywhere in his fisherman's cottage and I’m told there are many more, as the old folk of the village have often left their old family photos to him when they died. Joy, very much amused, pointed towards a Clovelly souvenir plaque in their kitchen, showing a small lad on the cobbled street. "Guess who the little boy is?"  
He is the last of the herring men of Clovelly, the last link between the old and the new; he is the one who keeps all those long lost souls alive, the keeper of hundreds of years of memories.

Even when visiting the local pub in Clovelly, we find a lingering echo of Stephen and Tommy's ancestors. The pictures on the wall of the snug bar tell the story of a Clovelly long gone, of fishermen gathering around the table smoking pipes and pictures of the most beloved wooden boats, of which only a few still remain in the harbour. These boats are unique to Clovelly and built to get out to sea faster than the larger boats when the herring arrives.

Stephen in his Picarooner, a wooden boat unique to Clovelly

The harbour at dawn
Traditional sustainable fishing methods that haven't changed for centuries
Clovelly as a community, like many other similar coastal villages, once depended on the herring trade. Records show that two hundred years ago there were a hundred herring boats in the harbour with amounts around nine thousand herrings or ‘Silver Darlings’ brought in from sea. The days of the large herring fleet are long gone and today there are just a few fishermen who still go out for the herring, using sustainable fishing methods with drift nets. 

Meeting Stephen, you immediately understand why the town's herring festival each november isn’t just another food festival - it is a celebration of tradition and heritage, his heritage. Stephen is a 6th generation Clovelly herring fisherman, and with him and his brother, sadly, the line is very likely to end. 

This proud and gentle-natured fisherman is the essence of this little village; he and his family represent the past and the future. He knows all the stories - where which boat got shipwrecked and who survived or was lost to the sea. He can read the waves, the sky and the sound that the rain makes when it hits the water. Fishing is in his blood, and fishing for herring is his passion as it has been associated with his family and this little village for centuries. As harbourmaster and the last full-time fisherman in the village, he knows where every boat is at any given moment and, although it is hard to sell herring these days -it is now a fish which is unjustifiably out of fashion- he continues to go out for herring because it is what he genuinely loves to do.
The fish he doesn’t sell, or eat himself, he salts down in barrels to use as bait. In the summer months he goes out to sea for lobster and crabs. To do this he needs bait, and the herring provides that. He needs a dozen barrels to get through the summer and with the number of herring being so plentiful, he usually only goes out for herring once or twice a week to fulfil orders after the herring festival ends.

Medieval Chicken Compost

Many people ask me if I come across weird and unappetising dishes in those old British cookery books I collect and devour. 

Of course there are always recipes in historical cookery books which might seem odd to us today, but I am quite sure if someone from the 18th century would come and visit us today, he would go home with as much stories about strange foods to tell his contemporaries.
It's all a difference in how we look at food, and how we approach it. For example, most of us only ever see meat, packed in plastic, neatly arranged in the supermarket shelves. Small independent butchers are disappearing on our streets and so is our connection to the animal that provides us with our much savoured sausage. Only last year a butcher shop in Suffolk was asked to remove his elaborate game displays from the window so children wouldn't be upset by the sight of dead animals. Man has become disconnected and doesn't think past the plastic surrounding the factory farmed meat.

I don't find eating the head of a pig weird at all, people in the past would have been happy to have it. But today it is seen as 'medieval' and not very appetising. I must confess I do not have a desire to eat a pigs head any time soon, but many have told me it is exquisite.

I am talking about a Medieval dish with a name that might sound strange to us today, but only because we have given a different explanation to the word, or the word as evolved. Medieval dishes have always delighted me in their inventiveness, and elegance. A pure kind of cooking, with herbs and spices that give your tastebuds a whole other experience.

In the 14th and 15th century the dish with the name 'compost' has been the term for any stewed mixture. A 'composition' of ingredients. This could have been meat, vegetables or fruit. The French term 'compote' very likely derives from the English 'compost' which later only meant stewed fruits. The name 'Compost' for a recipe can also be found in Flemish Medieval cookery books.

To anyone, this dish must sound intriguing, especially as one would immediately think this was a recipe for creating the best compost to fertilise your veggie patch with.

But no, the etymology of the word might be obscure, we are not making any kind of compost for the garden today.
This recipe for 'compost' I am bringing to you today is made with chicken and green herbs, and spices. Another contemporary recipe is made with chickens and some of its offal. Herbs vary in recipes and another 'compost' is made exclusively from root vegetables, dried fruits and spices. They are all very clean and pure dishes.

Chicken was always a noble type of meat on a banquet. It was considered more economical if a chicken was kept for her eggs. Killing off a chicken meant killing of your egg factory so chicken would be on the tables of those who could miss a bird, the elite. 

This dish is fantastic, it is so pure and simple, it is the kind of dish that just makes my heart skip a beat when I first have a little taste. The dish eats like a soup, and I like to add a nice slice of stale sourdough bread as a 'sup' - which was in the past frequently added to thicken the soup and give more substance. This 'sup' is also what gave us the term 'supper' later on in history. A 'sup' could also have been a piece of cake soaked in booze or sauce, the Italian word for trifle 'Zuppa Inglese' still gives shows us the link with the 'sup'.
To make it into an evening meal I added some new potatoes. This of course not ver Medieval as the potato was not known in the Middle Ages, but it is a lovely addition to this dish.

New potatoes are a lovely addition to make it into a main dish, but not very Medieval.

Original recipe from A Noble Boke off Cookry (England, 1468)
To mak composte tak chekins and halve them then tak saige parsly lekes and other good erbes and chop them small then tak a pint of hony and som of the erbes and lay in the botom of the pot and som of the chekyn then tak lard of pork smale mynced and lay it on and cast ther to pouder of guingere and canelle and boille it and serue it.

I brown my chicken before stewing, this isn't done in the original Medieval recipe, but I find it improves the flavour and the look of the dish, I leave my chicken whole, but you can cut it in half if you prefer.
It might be so that the Medieval cook also browned the chicken, but recipes of that period weren't complete as they were more often just aide-memoirs rather than clear instructions.

What do you need - serves 4 or 2 very hungry people with leftovers, it is very good the next day.

The Best Books on Food

Books, the treasure that is bound pieces of paper.
I've been planning this post for over a year now, but never really had the time because I was busy, reading books ;) Seriously, it's just one of those things you can never seem to finalise because there will always be other and more exciting books to buy.
Of course this list is quite personal, but if you like this blog, I think you will find it useful. Especially with the time to buy presents near, here is what I had on my list and what you will find in my book case. A book is always such a treasure, and as a book buying addict myself, mostly antiquarian, I know how handy a list can be.

First up: Books for food geeks

Prospect Books hardly ever publish a title I wouldn't buy. These are the books for geeks, for those who wonder how the food was prepared centuries ago on an open fire, on the first range in the 18th century and the Victorian stoves. For those who wonder how to build a wood fired oven, how to cook in it and how to treasure it. For those interested in Medieval British or Arab food, Catalan, Ancient Greek or Roman food. 
Prospect has books on cookery, food history and the ethnology of food. They are one of the very few to specialise in this field of food geek books Any book by Prospect would make me happy, though the books in this picture are but a few of the titles I have. Prospect Books was founded in 1979 by the late Alan Davidson - who wrote the Oxford Companion to food - and his wife Jane Davidson. 

Must buys as gifts?  Quinces: Growing & Cooking, Apicius, Honey from a Weed, Medieval Arab Cookery, Alan Davidson's Mediterranean Seafood, Roman Food Poems, Sugar-plums and Sherbert The Prehistory of Sweets, The Book of Marmalade, The Centaur’s Kitchen and many, many more...

Cooking & Dining in Tudor & Early Stuart England by Peter Brears (Prospect)
Peter Brears' new book was highly anticipated by me for a while, it was due publication last year but came out in februari this year. If you just gaze upon this magnificent and especially huge tome of Brears you understand why the book was late. Brears spent ten years writing this book, so a few months later wasn't going to make a difference, except for those people like me constantly checking the Prospect books site to see if it has come out. Imagine my delight when Tom Jaine from Prospect emailed me to say it was finally available to buy. This is the follow-up to Brears' volume about food in the Middle Ages, a book I mentioned in my 'Best food books' list (find it here >). The period covered in this book is a time when new foods from the New World were starting to influence English food. The book starts with the reign of Henry VII and covers dining and practical arrangements and techniques in the kitchen and dining hall up until Charles I. If you are a geek like I am, this book is for you. The words in the book are illustrated with illustrations made by Brears himself and explain us the system of The Counting House to the Buttery and the Pantry.  

Other publishers of very interesting and geeky books on food history are The British Museum who published 'The Curious Cookbook' recently, and the Oxford University Press. I was just given 'Movable Feasts' published by them. Also Grub Street publishes books about interesting subjects, like ice creams (historic) and British food in general.

Vintage Books

Vintage books are always a nice gift for the hard core food lover, and especially the hard core food lover who also loves hoarding books. I always have a look in charity shops, but for many decent antiquarian books you really need to see a specialised dealer. A book can cost as little as 50 £ but prices can also go up to 20 000 or more!
Building a relationship with a seller is always a good idea.

Books about British food

If you want to learn about British food then these books are a good way to start.
There are a few missing from this picture, like Dorothy Hartley's 'Food in England' and Elizabeth David's 'Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen'. The only reason being that I forgot to put them on the pile. 
'Food Britania' by Andrew Webb is the most recent of the bunch but nonetheless a delightful book on regional British food and produce. Eliza Acton, is often referred to as the 'real Mrs Beaton' and her book is an extraordinary account on British food of that period. Even then she touches on some food issues which are still very relevant today.
Florence White's books were written with the help of the members of the 'English Folk Cookery Association' she founded. A lot of the recipes in her books may have been lost if she hadn't recorded them. Her 'Good things in England' (1932) is easy to get online or with the publisher, the 'Good English Food' (1952) you also see here is very rare but it never hurts to google it. 'Cooking in Europe, 1650-1850' was written by food historian extraordinaire Ivan Day, and of course very interesting indeed. It is fairly hard to get in the UK, but easier to acquire in the US and Canada. Jane Grigson's English food is as important as Dorothy Hartley's 'Food in England' and used as a reference work by many. For those who wish to learn how British food evolved over the centuries, then let C. Anne Wilson take you on a trip through history in her 'Food & Drink in Britain'.
Of course there are more books like this, but some of them printed in such a small number that finding them can be very hard and very frustrating.

Books by Agnes B Marshall, the very first female celebrity chef of Victorian England, touring the country giving cookery demonstrations, and teaching in her cookery school. She also invented one of the first ice cream machines and ice caves, and sold cookery utensils from her store. She died and was forgotten and fell into the shadow of Mrs Beeton, who is no match for Mrs Marshall. She was nicknamed the Queen of ices and her book on ice cream was republished last year. Here you see my original books, with the post-its in it, showing that they are loved and used in my home.

Books for people who like to investigate