Author Archives: Andie

Rushlight (Aberdovey Community Council newsletter) June 2020

For those who are still self-isolating, here’s the latest edition of Rushlight, courtesy of the Aberdyfi butcher who supplied tonight’s delicious lamb chop.  This edition, June 2020, should be posted on the Community Council’s new website before too long at https://aberdyfi-council.wales/council-rushlight-newsletter, where all the previous editions can be found.  You can click to enlarge each of the pages below.

A short walk along Afon Fathew and a stretch of the Afon Dysynni

Left: Map showing the footpath leading west from Bryncrug. The path turns left where it meets the Dysynni and wends its way past the Ynysmaengwyn estate. Source – Streetmap.co.uk. Right: Map showing the Afon Fathew from Bryncrug to the Dysynni. Source – Google Maps

A footpath runs along Afon Fathew (translating as River Matthew) from Bryncrug and then bears left where the Fathew meets the Dysynni.  This footpath used to form part of the Wales Coast Path, bringing walkers away from the coast, where they were blocked by the River Dysynni.  The path took them inland, crossing the river where the road crosses at Bryncrug before looping back to reach the coast again.  In 2013 the Tonfanau bridge was built across the Dysynni at the point where the railway also crosses the river at the mouth of the river, so this footpath has much fewer visitors than it used to.  The Fathew, a tributary of the Dysynni, is itself fed by streams from the hills on either side of the stretch of valley in which Dolgoch sits, including Nant Dolgoch, that flows over the Dolgoch Falls.

It was a warm day with a gentle breeze, but the sky was an incredibly light, almost invisible blue, and it was very hazy.  The scenery and surrounding environment are completely different from anything that I have walked recently.  The hills behind us looked pale, with pastel shades instead of the usually high-contrast bright colours.  It was an extraordinarily peaceful walk along a raised levee.  To our left, on the outward leg , were either empty fields filled with mauve grass and buttercups, or green fields full of sheep.  On our right was a margin of grasses and wildflowers between us and the the tiny, shallow river.  The Afon Fathew itself was idyllic, flowing lightly over a pattern of golden-brown stones, with shoals of tiny fish, the sound delightful.  Two herons were in a distant field, and both took off, looking wonderful, but aerodynamically improbable.

In the above photograph, one of the first pleasures was a field of Rough hawkbit in the foreground  (Leontodon hispidus) and feathery mauve Yorkshire Fog grass in the background Holcus lanatus).  Rough hawkbit spreads just like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), with its seeds carried on the air in even the lightest breeze on a hairy pappus (Latin, meaning “old man”), some of which can be seen in the above photograph.  The “hispidus” in the name, meaning bristly, refers  to the protective bract that covers the buds before the flowers open.

Turning back to see the view behind, Craig yr Aderyn (Bird rock) looms into sight, the site of a two-phase Iron Age hillfort.

Water starwort (Callitriche stagnalis) often form clumps,with their roots embedded into the mud.  It is good for rivers, streams and ponds because it is a good oxygenator and provides shelter from the heat for fish, fish eggs, frog spawn, tadpoles, frogs and other aquatic species. Its Latin name is derived from the Greek  carlos and trichos, which translate as “beautiful hair,” referring to its hairy stems.

The fabulous Water crowfoot, Ranunculus aquatilis – a short-lived perennial, a good pollinator and an excellent oxygenator. Produces two types of leaves – submerged foliage with very fine feathery leaves and then, in late spring during flowering, floating three-lobed leaves.  Like the Water starwort it provides shelter for aquatic species.

Levee with central track flanked by Yorkshire Fog grass

Hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). One of several bedstraws, it favours open grassland, meadows, hedge-banks and is mainly pollinated by flies.  Flowers June to September.

The path takes an abrupt left where the Fathew flows into the Dysynni, a much wider river flanked by marshy areas, some full of short spiky Spiny rush reeds and sheep tracks, others filled with the tall, gently rustling Common reed.  Little snatches of bird song from the marshes hinted at a healthy population of nesting pairs amongst the reeds, including reed bunting.  The floodplain of the Dysynni gives a sense of great openness and space, with excellent views over the sheep towards Bird Rock.  The Dysynni is home to salmon and trout, and there have been sitings of otters, but no otters were out to play that day.

 

Spiny rush (Juncus acutus) is found in freshwater flats and marshes but is also saline tolerant and will grow in brackish and salt marsh environments.  It is pollinated on the wind, and spreads quickly.

Common reed – Phragmites communis

Male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus).  Reed buntings prefer tall reeds and high grasses where their nests, near to the ground, are hidden, but they are increasingly found in farmland too.  Their song is described by one of my books as “cheep-cheep-cheep-chizzup” but and it can be heard rather more usefully here on the excellent British-Birdsongs website.  Reed buntings eat insects when breeding, but switch to seeds for the rest of the year.

Almost certainly female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus).  This was a long way from me, and I took a photo on the off-chance that I would be able to identify the bird once I had enlarged it in Photoshop, which sometimes works well enough to enable  broad markings to be made out.

I had intended to walk as far as the woods of Ynysymaengwyn, but three enormous splodges of warm water landed on my head as I was approaching, so although I had waterproofs in my rucksack I decided to turn back, and had the benefit of different views on the return journey.  Sheep were scattered along the levee.  Sometimes they moved off, and sometimes I did.  They were far more curious and confident than hillside sheep, perhaps more used to people, perhaps less nervous because they had no lambs.  Some were standing in the river.  When I came to one gate, there was a young male bull, jet black, looking at me over the top of it, a lovely animal.  I opened the gate slowly and carefully and he stood back, but I still had to push gently past him.

(Acer circinatum) leaves and samaras (the latter, its fruits, often known colloquially as helicopters or whirligigs).  Vine maple (Acer circinatum) looks very like the standard sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), but it doesn’t grow as big, its leaves are attached to branches by reddish stems and its fruits are red and green.  In Wales, sycamore trees were traditionally used in the making of ‘love spoons.’

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), just about to bloom.  It has attractive feathery foliage (millefolium means “a thousand leaves”), spreads by underground stems, and is patch-forming. It is disease resistant, which can benefit neighbouring plants, and its small leaves prevent excessive moisture loss.  It was named for Achilles, who used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers, and it retains its reputation as a good cure for cuts and bruises.  It has a long history as a remedy for colds and fevers (as a tea) and for toothache (when the leaves are chewed).  Its leaves and flowers are used in salads in small quantities, it can be boiled as a vegetable and served with butter, and it can be thrown into soups and stews.  It has a slightly bitter taste.  Flowers July to October.

Elder (Sambucus nigra).  They are versatile plants, their flowers providing pollen for insects, the leaves popular with moth caterpillars, and the fruits eaten by a wide variety of mammals.  For human consumption they must be cooked, as all parts of the plant are poisonous when raw, but is popular for making tea, wine, cordial and preserves.  It has a distinctive scent and was thought to keep the Devil away.  It was also hung around dairies to keep flies away.  It is sometimes known as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from an elder.

Red campion (Silene dioica).  A favourite of so many people, its bright pink face is instantly cheering, and there was a lot of it along the Afon Fathew section of the footpath.  Plants are either male or female, so two plants are needed for reproduction.  Flowers May-July/August.

Tutsan / Shrubby St Johns Wort (Hypericum androsaemum).  The name Tutsan is derived from the French toute-sain, “all health,” reflecting its use in herbal medicines, primarily the application of bruised leaves to cuts to help healing.  Androsaemum means “sap the colour of blood.” After flowering the plant produces oval red to black berries when flowering has finished.  It likes shady areas, particularly deciduous woodland where this was found just on the way back to the start of the walk. Flowers June to August.

I arrived back at Aberdovey just as the rain started in earnest, and just in time to take my clothes off the outside dryer!

The Tomlins flour mill, Aberdovey: Melin Ardudwy (revised and updated)

From the moment I saw a photograph of Melin Ardudwy in Hugh M. Lewis’s book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village, I wanted to know all about it.  This is my second attempt to supply information about it.

Melin Ardudwy.  Source:  Hugh M. Lewis’s book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village.  It is also shown in C.C. Green’s The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways volume 2, p.80

When I first started to look around for information about the mill, to my immense frustration, there was remarkably little to be found in any of the resources I had to hand.  Melin Ardudwy is only mentioned in passing in local history accounts, almost forgotten by most histories of the village.  It is not even mentioned on the Coflein website, which is usually a reliable starting place, often providing a few helpful references to chase. A bit of pottering around in my books and files turned up only a little information.  The photograph in Hugh M. Lewis’s book is shown above right.  In the process of my searches online, I was excited to find, on the People’s Collection website, a superb sepia picture of the mill (below left) showing it behind a train pulled by the locomotive Seaham, ready to depart.  Next, I found that the mill was listed in Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s document Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi under their “Buried Sites With Poor Archaeological Potential” category, which contributed a short paragraph on the subject.  However, the best source of information was one I didn’t have and to which my attention was drawn by Sierd Jan Tuinstra, who is an amazing source of information about anything railway-related in Aberdovey.  He pointed me to a book that I hadn’t come across:  The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, Volume Two, by C.C. Green (Wild Swan Publications 1996), and found some news articles about the mill that also help to fill out the story of the mill.  I also found a number of useful short articles on The National Library of Wales website that added to the story.  With thanks to Sierd Jan, Green’s book and the newspaper articles, I have now revised the original post with the new information.  For the first time I now knew the name of the mill’s owner: Mr James Tomlins.

In the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 27th August 1880, tenders were requested for the proposed new flour mill at Aberdovey.  The advert was placed by Robert and Evans of Aberystwyth, solicitors to the trustees.  The tender was evidently granted to James Tomlins, and Green (p.64) gives more details:

Mr Tomlin of Warwick wished to erect a four mill, and Mr Humphreys-Owen [of the Cambrian and West Coast Railway] and the solicitor were instructed to look in to the company’s right to use the land.  That report was favourable, and Mr Tomlin proceeded with his building work.

Green’s book has the photograph at the top of this post, showing the very first delivery into the flour mill, by a 2-4-0 Sharp Stewart engine with timber-sided cab. Bankruptcy proceedings in 1897 give details of the set-up costs invested by Mr Tomlins and his investors:  “He built a mill at a cost of about £10,000 and £2,000 had been expended in alterations.  He was allowed an overdraft of £2,000 and to that was added £4,0000 he borrowed and £3,000 he was allowed by a flour firm.

Later, Green makes the following information about the expansion of railway facilities at the mill mill (p.65)

In 1883, there was much debate about providing a ‘Cover for Mr Tomlin’s trucks.’  at the end, it was suggested that the company would pay half the cost of £125 so long as Mr Tomlin provided the labour for the erection of the structure, and undertook to send all his traffic along those routes most favourable to the company.

In 1884, Mr Tomlin asked for a siding to be laid down out of the company’s empty wagon storage siding to a new warehouse he proposed to erect at the end of his mill.  He laid it in with his own labour to the engineer’s satisfaction, and paid 20 shillings per annum for the use of the company’s land, and a proportion of the cost of the interlocking apparatus in the signal box.

Splendid view of Melin Ardudwy, c.1896.  Source: People’s Collection.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust publication, Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi says that Melin Ardydwy (GAT25065) was a steam roller mill, and the mill was known both as the Ardudwy Flour Mill and, more formally, as the Cambrian Roller Flour Mill.   By the 1870s roller milling was becoming widespread, and conventional wind-powered flour mills were being abandoned.  Roller mills enabled the mass-production of much greater volumes of flour, which could be consistently graded and were used to make newly fashionable white bread. Apparently this area beyond the village was known as Ardudwy, hence the mill’s name.

The mill used to stand where a little housing development stands just outside the village to the left on the way to Tywyn, near the golf course.  The mill was four storeys high, stone-built, with five bays on the main frontage, three on the side, and had a protruding extension one bay in width.  The brick-built chimney sits in the corner where the two parts of the building meet.  It is a substantial edifice.  A large shed-like structure stands at its side.

It is not clear quite where the water came from.  Steam mills required a reliable supply of water such as a river or canal. Failing this a reservoir was usually necessary with sufficient capacity to supply the mill with at least one day’s supply of the required water.  James Tomlins’s name occurs time and time again in debates in Tywyn concerning the supply of water to Aberdovey for sewerage, drainage and the supply of businesses dependent upon it, but it is completely opaque how the mill was supplied with water until he managed to secure agreement for an improved water supply.  That agreement was finally made on 13th February 1894, with the Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser reporting that

Mr. Tomlins has for years been agitating respecting the insufficient water supply and constructed drainage of the place, but he failed to make any tangible impression on the Board representatives until last summer’s drought proved his hypothesis. Penyroror Hill is the site fixed upon for the new reservoir. The result of the enquiry will soon be made public.

As an amusing aside, the author of the report finishes with a rather embittered rhetorical question:  “By the way, can anybody enlighten us why an enquiry closely pertaining to Aberdovey should be held Towyn?”

The traditional approach to flour production was to crush wheat grain between two circular millstones, an upper runner stone that rotated and a lower bed stone that was fixed into a stationary position.  The runner stone was powered either by wind or water.  In the 1850s the repeal of the Corn Laws meant that imported grain was affordable and Britain’s dependence on imported grain grew from 2% in the 1830s to  45% (and 65% for wheat alone) during the 1880s.  The arrival of the railway in Aberdovey seventeen years previously had resulted in an expansion of the deep water sea trade with imported cargoes from Ireland, South Wales, Newfoundland, the Baltic, South America and elsewhere, which in turn led to the expansion of the coastal and rail transport from the port.  Cargoes were trans-shipped, via rail or coastal vessels, to other parts of Wales and England.  Hugh M. Lewis says that wheat and barley were imported from the Mediterranean, Australia and Canada.  At a time when white bread was increasingly in demand, mill technology was changing and rollers began to replace millstones all over Britain  Rollers were cheaper to make than the skilled but arduous and time-consuming dressing of millstones.  The website From Quern to Computer has a useful overview of the reasons that steam-powered mills became so popular, and why they were often located, like Melin Ardudwy, at ports:

Henry Simon was one of the main manufacturers of roller machines for flour milling. Source: From Quern to Computer (full reference at end of post)

In 1878 The National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) was formed for ‘mutual advancement and protection’ in the light of the ‘great changes which are now in progress in the manufacture of flour, and in the machinery used for that purpose’.  These ‘great changes’ . . . were driven by two related factors:  the growing demand for white bread and the increased importation of hard wheats from North America, Russia and also Australia and India, to meet demand.  These hard wheats gave good quality flours, naturally higher in gluten than native soft wheats, which enabled the production of well-risen white bread.  The gradual reduction method employed by the new roller mills was not only better suited to milling hard wheats than traditional millstones, but also to extracting a greater proportion of fine white flour.  In addition, changes were taking place in the location of the milling industry, as large new mills were built at ports and on navigable rivers and canals, well-placed to receive deliveries of imported wheat.  Such changes were also facilitated by the use of steam power.

Melin Ardudwy was an outcome of this industrialization of flour production.  I can find no mention anywhere of exactly what internal machinery was installed or how many rollers it drove.  However, the basic operation can be cobbled together from general accounts of steam-driven roller mills.

Roller milling, as the name implies, replaced circular stones with rollers, c12 inches in diameter, not unlike a big mangle, through which the grain was gradually broken down through successive pairs of rollers.  These were set at a specific distance from each other, fixed by a technician, spinning towards each other at different speeds in incremental stages until the grain was sufficiently reduced.  Grain was fed in to the rollers and extracted via pneumatic pipes.  Flour was extracted at all stages of the process.

Green provides a fascinating plan of the railway showing the mill in the context of other structures serving or served by the railway c.1923.  It is marked on the plan as Tomlins Steam Mill, and has an accompanying warehouse.  I have scanned it, a pretty poor job that makes a complete pig’s breakfast of the part where the plan spans the page join.  You can click on it to get a better view of it.  It shows how Tomlins Steam Mill was integrated with the rest of Aberdovey’s railway infrastructure. I have highlighted the mill in red and the station in green.

Plan of the railway at Aberdovey, c.1923, showing the Tomlins Mill at Ardudwy. Source: C.C. Green 1996, The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, Volume 2. Wild Swan Publications, p.74-5

The plan seems to show that the tracks in the photograph at the top of this post ran into Tomlins Mill, shown in red.  There is another siding shown running to the south of that track, terminating next to the mill, and others to the north. The two sidings to the north appear to relate to other activities, with one serving cattle pens and another relating to a proposed goods yard.  a total of four tracks seem to have served the mill itself, a fairly impressive operation.  All of the sidings eventually connect to the main line near the golf club’s club house.  This linkage to the main line meant that flour could be taken further afield by rail, or taken down to the port for loading on to vessels for transhipment along the coast to south Wales.

1884 was a good, profitable year for Mr Tomlins, although he was still in debt.  He had the best possible machinery and established a trade monopoly, but by 1893 he was in difficulties due to increasing competition and ongoing debt.  On 3rd November 1894, the Montgomery County Times and Shrophshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser reported that a wheat conditioning plant was installed at the mill, “giving every possible satisfaction,” but this was obviously not sufficient to rescue the business, which was obviously in trouble.  In 1897 a long report appeared in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, dated 10th December 1897, announcing that the mill had declared bankruptcy, with liabilities of £2,124, 8s 5d.  The public examination heard that “the cause of failure was stated to be the heavy outlay in building a flour mill at Aberdovey, the erection of expensive machinery, insufficient capital to work that business at a profit, heavy insurance and interest, bad debts, competition, and working at no profit for four years prior to 1895.”  A fairly comprehensive list of woes. The mill was sold at auction on 29th April 1897 to a Mr Powell of the Midlands for £1600, but it is unclear what happened to it between then and when the main building was pulled down.

A postcard that shows it in the distance (below) shows women in fashions that date to the 1910s, with the mill and its chimney still in tact.  The picture of the mill on the right, is a detail of the postcard on the left, visible in the distance.

The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 4th December 1908 describes the dismantling of the mill itself, leaving the chimney behind:  “The old flour mill adjoining the railway is being rapidly dismantled, at the instance of the Cambrian Railway Company, its condition having of late become unsafe.  Mr J.P. Lewis undertook the contract, which up to the present has proceeded without incident.”  The chimney remained in place until 1920.

The demolition of the chimney was reported in The Cambrian News on 4th June 1920, as follows:

On Wednesday week, an exodus of men, women and children, 100s in no.s, was made for Ardudwy and the sea.  For on that night the giant chimney of the old mill, erected at about 1884, was to be rased to the ground.  Since that date, the old chimney had served as an excellent landmark for the Aberdovey fishermen, and they took this opportunity – the heat of its destruction – to organize a collection from the spectators for the Sailors Orphanage Fund, which was some solatium for the loss of their silent friend . . . . At exactly 10 minutes to eight, Mrs Richards, Ardudwy, applied the torch to the well-petrolled timber and in less time than it takes to write, the base was a mass of flames. . . . A neater job was never done.”

I don’t know when the rest of the mill was taken down, and it may have survived until the land was cleared for the modern housing estate that now sits on the land.

It would be rather nice to know more about James Tomlin other than his name.  He was a member of various boards in Tywyn and Aberdovey and, as mentioned above, was involved in a number of heated debates about improvements to Aberdovey’s water supply for drainage, sewerage and business operations, how it should be implemented.  A report of the marriage of his son Herbert in Chaddesley-Corbett in 1903 indicates that he was married with at least one child.  The bankruptcy proceedings recorded that he was very poor at keeping his books in order and he was, according to a report dating to 21st October 1887, a teetotaler!  I could probably find some more odds and ends by trawling through the newspapers online, but whatever I find, it’s not going to make up much of a biography.  If anyone knows of any more about him please get in touch.

Main sources for this post:

The National Library of Wales website (a fabulous resource):
https://newspapers.library.wales

The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, volume 2, 1996 by C.C. Green.  Wild Swan Publications

Structural Engineering in the Lancashire Cotton Spinning Mills 1850-1914: the example of Stott & Sons by Roger N. Holden, 1993. Industrial Archaeology Review, Volume 15, 1993 – Issue 2

Technology and Transformation: The Diffusion of the Roller Mill in the British Flour Milling Industry, 1870-1907.  Jennifer Tann and R. Glyn Jones. Technology and Culture
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), p. 36-69 (Available to read on JSTOR)

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007.  Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment.  GAT Project  No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011. Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd.  GAT Project No. 2155. Report No. 956, June, 2011

Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village by Hugh M. Lewis.

Aberdyfi, A Chronicle Through the Centuries by Hugh M. Lewis

From Quern to Computer: the history of flour milling. Roller Milling: A Gradual Takeover. September 06th 2016 by Martin and Sue Watts
https://millsarchive.org/explore/features-and-articles/entry/171161/from-quern-to-computer-the-history-of-flour-milling/11669

England 1870–1914. The Oxford history of England by R.C.K. Ensor.  (1936). Clarendon Press

 

A late afternoon stroll in the hills behind Aberdovey, with wildflowers

Monday at 4pm was looking dicey.  I started out in a light rain coat, because it was spitting fairly firmly and the sky looked ominous, but thankfully it stopped.  I rolled up my coat and put it in my rucksack, the sun came out, and we had no rain for the rest of the two and a half hour walk.  The combination of sun and cloud in the late afternoon made for some very nice contrasts in the scenery, and the wild flowers were splendid.  The foxgloves, which have been rampant for weeks, have truly come into their own in the hills behind Aberdovey, and were really rather spectacular.  Another terrific walk without another person in sight.  There were a lot of sheep and lambs around, the lambs now fairly stocky.  On the other side of the valley, cattle were grazing on the hillside.  We saw several tiny frogs in a narrow stretch of water where there had been tadpoles earlier in the year, and a couple of rabbits on the return leg of the journey at the top of the hill, and could here the larks singing.  Apart from the glorious views, the main source of interest was the wildflower population.

The foxgloves dotted around in the new green bracken provide lovely splashes of colour at the moment.

This is not in flower yet, but looks from its leaves and its spikes like wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia).  It should flower between July and September, producing creamy-yellow lipped flowers.  It is a member of the mint family.  It is drought tolerant, and is often found in coastal areas including sand dunes.

English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum)
A succulent acid-loving 5-petalled perennial, flowering from May to August.  Retaining water in its waxy leaves allows it to tolerate dry environments and poor soil and to survive drought conditions.  The leaves may turn red if it is exposed to a great deal of sun, a protective chemical response to sunlight, which can damage green chlorophyll.  To protect itself from wind-scorch, it grows very low to the ground.

Sheep’s-bit (Jasione montana)
Sometimes called Sheep’s-bit scabious, this is actually a perennial member of the campanula family, even though it has no obvious resemblance to the usual bell-flowered character of campanulaceae and at first glace looks much more like a true scabious.  Unlike scabious, it has small, alternate hairy leaves. and tiny narrow petals.  According to the Wildlife Trusts website, pollinating insects, which see a different light spectrum to humans, find it highly visible under ultraviolet (UV) light, and use the patterns and colours on the petals to guide them to the nectar and pollen.  It usually starts flowering in July, but thanks to the remarkably warm spring, a lot of species are flowering early.  It likes a wide variety of environments, including dry grassland, and is often found in coastal areas.  It is an excellent pollinator.

Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion/Epilobium angustifolium).
Also known as “fireweed” because it colonized burned and scorched sites, and “bombweed” due to its expansion on World war I and II bomb sites.  Heat from this type of site assists with the germination process.  It has rhizomes, so a single large patch can be one plant. Its seeds also establish themselves freely, each fitted with cotton-like ‘parachutes’ that carry them over long distances. The Latin “angustifolium” simply means narrow-leaved.  It is a biennial that flowers from June to September.  Its leaves are edible and have a wide range of uses.  For more on the multiple uses, see the Wikipedia page dedicated to Rosebay willowherb.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
One of my books says that the dark violet flowers have a hooked upper lip that in the 16th century was supposed to look like a sickle, so according to the doctrine of signatures, it was believed to men wounds from sickles and billhooks.  Although there were one or two isolated examples in verges, this perennial has creeping roots and in open grassland and on heaths usually grows in patches from June to November.  The Latin “vulgaris” means common.  They are pollinated by long-tongued bees.

A tiny frog, about 3cm long, in a very small stream where we had seen tadpoles earlier in the year.  There were several of these little amphibians, and they would have been completely invisible if they hadn’t hopped around, their damp skin catching the light.  It’s a lousy photograph, because I was trying to hold back some grass with one hand and steady the camera and focus it with the other, but you can just about make it out.

Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre)
Like most thistles, this has spiny protection both around its clusters of flowers and along its stem, and even has spiny leaves.  It looks fairly lethal to unprotected hands and judging by its proliferation, it is a good defense against being eaten by sheep, cattle and rabbits.  It was spread all over the hillsides, and it is easy to identify from a distance due to its distinctive form.  As its name indicates (“palustris” means of marshes), it prefers damp conditions and meadows, but seems to be doing well at the moment, even after the recent drought conditions.  It is biennial, pollinated by bees and butterflies, and usually flowers between July and September.

Occasional white examples of the purple marsh thistle were dotted around.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Foxgloves are going mad at the moment, in verges, in amongst the bracken or as here, on disturbed ground.  They began flowering in early May, although they don’t usually appear until June, and flower until September.  The foliage is poisonous, which is probably why in Wales it is known as elves’ fingers or gloves, and in Ireland it is called fairy thimbles.

Bittersweet or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
All parts of the plant are poisonous but in humans usually cause only upset stomachs.  The latin species name “dulcamara” means sweet-bitter, which describes the bitter taste, followed by a sweet after-taste.  In Germany physicians used it as a cure for rheumatism and it was hung around the necks of cattle to ward off evil.   It flowers from June to September and is happy in hedgerows and woods.  After flowering it produces egg-shaped berries that start off green, as above, and slowly become a bright, shiny red.

This is tiny, just a few millimeters across.  I still haven’t tracked it down but will update this page when I do.

White foxglove (Digitalis)
The hills are covered in the distinctive purple spikes of Digitalis purpurea (“purpurea” means purple) at the moment, so the appearance of a single, pure white foxglove, near the stream in Happy Valley, was something of a novelty.

Afon Dyffryn Gwyn in Happy Valley.  Afon means river, but it’s more like a big stream. Dyffryn means valley, and Gwyn can mean white, fair or blessed.  The water is always beautifully clear.  In the shallow stretches by the ford, where the plunging track meets the valley floor, well-camouflaged fish can be spotted maintaining position in line with the flow, as below.  Most of them were about an inch long, but this one was about four inches.

The stream was being visited by cows and their calves, all calling to each other in loud, low, resonating voices.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
Beautifully-scented, honeysuckle has evolved to attract pollinating moths.  When the flowers go over, clusters of red berries replace them.  They flower from June to October.  This was was growing in a hedge by the side of the road leading up to the Panorama.  Lonicera is named for the German botanist Adam Lontzer (1528 -1586), and periclymenum is the term for honesuckle, derived from Greek.

Dog rose (Rosa canina)
Although similar in appearance to the bramble flower, the distinctive heart-shaped petals of the dog rose make it easily distinguishable.  It climbs through hedges and bushes, lending colour to otherwise unremarkable shrubs.  The white petals are often tinged with pale pink, as in this example.  After flowering a red rosehip is produced, and as well as being eaten by animals and birdds can be used to make rose-hip syrup, which has high quantities of vitamin C, and can be used to produce wine and liqueur.  It flowers from June to July.

The Afon Leri and the 5000 year old Cors Fochno peatland with the hills of Cerdigion rising behind.  A shame about the disfiguring wind farm on the otherwise undisturbed hillsides, but you can’t have everything!

View from the top of the hill across to the cliffs of Ceredigion, looking very beautiful under the gathering clouds

Wildflower information sources used in this post:

The Wildlife Trusts – Wildflowers
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers

Grey-Wilson, G. Wild 1994. Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe.  Dorling Kindersley

Fletcher, N. 2004. Pocket Nature Wild Flowers.  Dorling Kindersley

Spencer-Jones, R. and Cuttle, S. 2005.  Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland.  Kyle Books

 

Eating well from what’s to hand – week 11

The weather was interesting last week.  Wind, rain, a thunder storm and bright sunshine all took their turns.   There were some days when I couldn’t wait to be outside, and other days when I didn’t bother unlocking the door.

Aberdovey continues to be quiet, in spite of the further relaxation of social distancing rules by the English government.  I watched the news yesterday morning, and saw people lining up outside Primark in Manchester and Cheshire Oaks outlet centre in Ellesmere Port, all desperate to return to non-essential shopping.  The mind boggles.  Here’s hoping that the shops are managing social distancing as well as they have promised.

My cooking last week was a mixture of new and old.  I did a chicken and leftover veg pie in pastry, which I haven’t done in years as I always find pastry too filling, but I was really in the mood for it.  A wonderful piece of lamb shoulder in the freezer was an identical repeat of something I did a couple of weeks ago with a piece of leg of lamb.  The huss was full of familiar Middle Eastern flavours, but I had never done it with aubergine before.  On Thursday I halved an avocado, had half for lunch instead of my usual slice of toast, and had the other half on Friday evening, followed by pate on toast to make up a full meal. A good mix, nice to have the variety.

Saturday

One-person chicken and leftover vegetable pie.  This pie was brought about by the spontaneous purchase of a roll of puff pastry, and the entire process was entirely ad hoc. It was composed of a chicken breast, sliced runner beans, carrot batons, diced courgette, frozen peas, finely sliced spring onion, spinach, mushrooms, parsley and a chicken and parsley stock, the latter made from bolted parsley and wild fennel stems stems.  I fried the chicken and mushrooms, whilst cooking the vegetables lightly in the stock.  Then I added the veg to the chicken, scattered some flour over the top and stirred well to mix it in.  I then added some stock a little at a time until it formed a sauce.  Meanwhile, a small pastry-lined pie dish was blind-baking in the oven, and I had the pastry lid ready to go, brushed with egg.

I almost never eat pastry, so I really enjoyed it, although it wasn’t perfect.  I had bought the chicken breasts when the shop had sold out of thighs, and I really noticed the difference.  Thighs have much better flavour, and the breasts didn’t impart much flavour to the sauce, so it was a bit bland and I wish I had added more chicken stock to the parsley and wild fennel infusion.  I also failed to blind bake the pastry for long enough, so it had a rather soft base.  On the other hand, the taste of parsley and fennel that threaded through the pie mix, coming from from the simmered stalks was great.  There was plenty of unused pastry and leftover pie mix for the freezer.

Sunday

Roasted lamb shoulder with the usual trimmings.  I have cooked a couple of other roast lamb joints since the lockdown, and this was no different, and just as enjoyable.  This was spring lamb, with the bone in.  Spring lamb never has a huge amount of flavour but with the flavour from the bone, and studded with thyme, garlic and rosemary it was given every chance to shine and was delicately delicious.  Being shoulder, it required a longer, slower cook than a similarly sized leg would have done, but was still gorgeously moist, just pink at the bone but crispy on the outside.  The trick is to either brown it in the oven on a high heat first, or brown it in a pan before placing it in the oven and then cover it with foil for the rest of its cooking time.

After scoring the layer of fat on top and studding it with the garlic and herbs, I dotted it with butter to help it along, and browned it in a pre-heated oven on high for 10 minutes and then cooked it on gas mark 3 for an hour, which was perfect.  It was very tender and the delicacy of the flavour went beautifully with a light rosemary gravy, a mint and caper sauce and the steamed sweetheart cabbage and runner beans.  The carrot and swede mash was as good as usual.  I had leftover gravy in the freezer from my last foray, and combined this with the juices that accumulated during roasting, and drained off the fat from the gravy before serving.

There was plenty of lamb left over to serve cold or freeze down, half of the carrot and swede mash to freeze down, and more gravy to go into the freezer.

Monday

Cold meat and salad.  My family always call this “cold plate.” Sometimes it consisted of Spanish, German and Italian sliced meats with salad, and at others it was leftovers.  On this occasion I had some leftover lamb from the roast, and leftover chicken breast from the pack of two that I had used for the chicken pie.  I marinated the chicken in sumac, zatar, olive oil and lemon juice and lobbed it on the griddle for a few minutes each side.  I had been walking in the dunes with my friend Caroline (maintaining a rigid six ft distance at all times) and had picked some wild fennel, so I made a wild fennel mayonnaise.  I have a tiny food processor that I use for making mayonnaise, with a hole in its lid.  I finely-chopped the fennel fronds by hand and added them to the processor with a dollop of mustard, a serious squeeze of lemon juice, a little vinegar, some sea salt and an egg yolk.  Then, whizzing, I fed light olive oil very slowly through the hole in the top and whizzed it until the mix had emulsified into mayonnaise.  The salad was much simpler than usual, without herbs, consisting of some super little gem leaves from my father’s garden, cucumber, tomato, spring onions, capers, chilli slices, feta and vinaigrette.  I don’t know how I forgot the fresh herbs, but it was good even without them.  To finish it off, I sliced some lamb and chicken and added them to the plate.  I drizzled some leftover mint sauce over the lamb, and put a good dollop of mayonnaise next to the chicken and egg.  Super, and seriously filling.

Tuesday

Huss, seafood, baby aubergine, olives and feta in tomato, spinach and herbs, served with salad.  Huss is a lovely fish, with a no-fuss central bone.  It is a beast to fillet the fish when raw, and quite frankly, why bother?  It detaches from the single central bone so easily when it is cooked.  So I usually chop it into chunks with a very sharp knife, with the bone left it.   My piece was about six inches long so I chopped it into four and cooked it in the sauce with the bone in, removing the skin before serving.  I had some baby aubergines, and that seemed like a good excuse for giving the huss a Middle Eastern lilt.

I set the slow cooker to auto, which on this machine means it starts out hot for a while and then drops to low.  I had some mashed up tomatoes in the freezer, so fried some finely chopped onions, sliced red chilli and garlic, added the tomatoes, and stirred in some smoked paprika and  when it was all heated through, put it into the slow cooker, with some dehydrated limes, and poured over a little stock before adding the fried huss. Chopped salted anchovies (for richness rather than flavour), and some sun-dried tomato pesto also went in.

An hour before serving, with the slow cooker now on low, I put in a couple of handfuls of spinach. 15 minutes before serving I griddled some halved baby aubergines, and put those and some black olives, some whole mint leaves and a small handful of oregano leaves in to the sauce.  Fifteen minutes later it was ready to serve with some chunks of feta and accompanied by a small side salad.

There was plenty left over to form a base for a Middle Eastern flavoured seafood stew, and it is ready and waiting in the freezer.

Wednesday

Garlic mushrooms, pancetta and courgette on toast, topped with a poached egg.  Mushrooms and garlic are a classic combination.  Some diced courgette rounds it off beautifully.  The mushrooms and courgettes are fried in butter until beginning to brown.  The finely chopped garlic is added, and when cooked through, some flour is sprinkled over the top and stirred into the mixture until it is invisible. This will help to thicken the stock.  At this point, a little stock goes in, accompanied by finely sliced spring onions, chopped parsley and oregano and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of sherry at this stage.  Mushrooms and sherry are a frequent combination in Spanish cooking, and work deliciously together.

You need enough stock to deglaze the pan, cook the ingredients through.  It is better to go with a little and keep adding it, so that when it is ready to serve it is well reduced but still liquid enough to serves as a sauce.  Whilst this is gently heating through, the egg is poached and the slice of rustic bread or sourdough griddled or toasted.  At the last minute, a small dollop of whatever cream you have to hand goes in to the mushroom mix, is heated through gently, and then the mushroom mix goes on top of the toast and the poached egg is placed carefully on top of the mushrooms.  Sea salt scattered over the top of it all, and another turn of the pepper mill over the egg finishes it off.

Lots of alternatives are possible.  If you have access to wild mushrooms, that makes it even better, but I used supermarket button mushrooms and that was fine.  Instead of sherry, Marsala wine, which is utterly divine in all sorts of sauces, is excellent with this dish.  It is not always easy to get hold of, and must be used with care or it takes over entirely.  If you don’t fancy toast as a base, you could cook a big mound of spinach separately and serve the mushrooms on top of the spinach – or courgette ribbons.  If you fancy something more substantial, you could add handfuls of spinach, which I usually do, or for bigger appetites it could be served alongside chicken, gammon or pork, or over pasta

However you do it, it’s incredibly filling, so I don’t serve it with anything else.

Thursday

Slow-cooked chilli con carne with black beans, rice and sour cream.  A few weeks ago I cooked a huge batch and put a couple of portions in the freezer.  This is one of those portions.  It was a simply recipe.  Finely chopped onion, sliced chillis and finely chopped garlic are fried until translucent and just beginning to brown.  The following are then added:  cayenne, smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a good sprinkle of dried coriander, some fennel seeds, a fresh or dried bay leaf and either some cinnamon or a piece of cassia bark (the latter my preference) and some dehydrated lemon slices.  Once heated through they are removed to the slow cooker.  The beef chunks are fried on high heat until browned all over, flour is sprinkled over the beef, given a good stir to coat, then added into the slow cooker, and given a good stir to mix with the other ingredients.  Peeled and chopped tomato are added together with some beef stock to cover, and the whole lot is left to its own devices for several hours for the chuck steak to tenderize and the spices to blend.  Kidney beans are more traditional, but I love the flavour of the black bean, and the ebony shine looks wonderful against the reddish mixture and the green of the coriander (or parsley if coriander is unavailable). I served it with plain boiled rice and chives, and a heavenly dollop of sour cream.

Friday

Avocado with vinaigrette followed by smoked mackerel pate on toast.  For the avocado  I simply made a vinaigrette (three parts good olive oil to one part white wine vinegar, German mustard although Dijon works just as well, a crushed garlic clove, black pepper and sea salt), gave it a good shake and poured it into the cavity left by the stone.  A perfectly ripe avocado is a beautiful thing, quite unlike anything else, and softly luscious.

By contrast, the toasted white cob was crispy, and the home made smoked mackerel pate had a spicy edge.  The recipe is my mother’s.  The smoked mackerel is skinned and then mashed with a fork.  Soft butter is mashed into it, again with a fork, and herbs and spices are added:  fresh thyme or sage (I used thyme), cayenne for heat and Tabasco if the cayenne isn’t hot enough, ground cumin, garam masala, a little white wine vinegar, quite a bit of lemon juice and freshly ground pepper and sea/rock salt.  The vinegar and lemon juice not only add flavour of their own but also bring out the other flavours.  Fresh thyme, sage or oregano sprinkled over the top and a good squeeze of lemon juice complete the flavour sensation.

Conclusions

I haven’t much to add, this week, except that it was nice to have a few dishes that I haven’t had in a while, and that being able to eat excellent quality fish once more is a delight.  A real treat was a salted caramel ice cream from the The Sweet Shop on the sea front, and another was being able to pick wild fennel, which I used in all the stock that I made.  A bit of variety is always seriously welcome.

Wild fennel growing in the sand dunes. The stalks are great for making stock, and the fronds go well in salad, sprinkled over fish and incorporated into mayonnaise.

 

A gull’s egg in my garden – how eggshell pigment is formed

I caught sight of this broken egg shell when I was checking my back lawn for stones and large twigs prior to mowing.  Quite what it was doing in the middle of my lawn I have no idea, but it is beautiful, with a remarkable set of muted colours.  I had never seen one before.  It took me a while of following hyperlinks (most of which were about eating gulls’ eggs) before I found an explanation of how the colours are formed, on the All About Birds website in an article by Pat Leonard entitled The Beauty and Biology of Egg Colour:

An egg’s story begins in a female bird’s single ovary. When an ovum is released into the oviduct and fertilized, it is just a protein-packed yolk. The albumen—the gelatinous egg white—is added next. The blobby mass then gets plumped up with water and encased in soft, stretchy membrane layers. The first globs of the calcium carbonate shell are then deposited on the exterior, with the mineral squirting from special cells lining the shell gland (uterus). Pigmentation, if any, comes next, with an overall protein coating added before the egg is laid. It takes about 24 hours to build a single egg.

In his book, The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, University of Sheffield zoologist Tim Birkhead compares the pigmentation process to an array of “paint guns.” Each gun is genetically programmed to fire at a certain time so that the signature background color and spotting of a species’ eggs is produced.

“Examination of birds’ oviducts at the time the color is placed on the egg suggests that the color is produced and released over a very short time frame,” Birkhead says, “usually in the last few hours before the egg is laid, and that makes it very hard to study.”

Despite the variety of egg colors and patterns, the palette is surprisingly small. Egg pigments are versatile substances made of complex molecules synthesized in a bird’s shell gland. Only two pigments are at work. Protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors. Biliverdin produces shades of blue and green. More of one pigment, less of the other, and the egg gets a different background color, spots of a different color, or a combination of both.

The speckling is thought to be camouflage, to disguise the egg and hide it from potential predators, and is common to nearly all foreshore birds.

There is loads more truly fascinating information in the article.  Did you know, for example, that an egg loses 18 percent of its mass, on average, between laying and hatching, mostly from water loss through shell pores. Or that up to 10 percent of the calcium used for shell formation can come from the female’s bones.  The article is well written and is well worth reading, so if you have a moment do go and have a look.

 

An interloper on the goldfinch feeder

Warfare often breaks out on the goldfinch feeder in the cherry tree.  This is usually the case when the seed runs low and four or more goldfinches are attempting to beat each other off in order to gain access to the last three inches.  Sometimes battle ensues because one bird is a particular bully and attempts to drive the others off to have the whole feeder to itself.   It never wins – the others gang up and stand up for their rights.  The signal for any dispute is a change of voice.  Goldfinches chatter all the time, a light, attractive and cheerful sound that one of my bird books describes as “tinkling.”  When battle ensues, the sound is a harsh, brittle, discordant squawking sound.  But I had never heard the likes of the noise that emanated from the cherry tree a couple of days ago, when all hell broke loose.

I was working at my desk, and the noise was so loud, so intensely shrill and angry and issued by so many birds that I was startled, and turned round to see what on earth was going on.  A greenfinch had landed.  Looking robust and unwieldy by comparison with the delicate, flitting goldfinches, it attached itself firmly to the bird feeder and remained stolidly unimpressed by all the fuss.  Eventually the riot eased, and a few goldfinches took up wary position on the feeder and began to resume their meals, whilst others remained perched on branches, watching.  In spite of the apparent resumption of peace, there was no sound at all.  The goldfinches were eating, but they weren’t happy.  They were there in an uneasy state of truce for around an hour.  The greenfinch left and hasn’t, as far as I know, returned.

Aberdovey beach with the clouds gathering, wild orchids and good company

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Thank goodness for my friend Caroline who came round to drop something off yesterday afternoon.  I was not at my best with a stinging eye infection, and when she asked if I wanted to accompany her on a walk I felt so grim that I wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea, but I was so fed up of being stuck in the house that I simply grabbed my sunglasses and bag, and went with both gratitude and relief.  As it happens, the salty breeze did my eyes a power of good, and by the time I returned to the house, things were amazingly improved.

As we walked down the hill, maintaining diligent social-distancing, which we did for the entire walk, the weather looked iffy.  Although there were a few white fluffy clouds and some blue patches, the sky was dominated by deep blue-black monsters that were edging closer all the time.  We were lucky – it didn’t rain, and even though the wind got up it was relatively warm.  We started off with an ice cream each from The Sweet Shop, and then headed to the beach.  The lighting was stunning, with the sun blazing intermittently through gaps in the clouds, and the colours were wonderful.  As we threaded our way back towards Aberdovey through the sand dunes, the wild flowers were stunning.  The highlight was probably the wild orchids, which Caroline knew where to find, but there was so much else to see too.

Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), with deep green, loosely funnel-shaped leaves that are fleshy and retain water.  A member of the convolvulus family.

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).  I had never seen one before, but apparently it is one of the most common of the wild orchids, and can be found on just about any calcareous soil, including any sand that contains at least 1% CaC03 (calcium
carbonate) by weight.  Insanely pretty.

Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum)

Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum)

Female stonechat (Saxicola torquata).  There were a pair of them, a male and female, very vocal and jumping from bush to bush, presumably trying to draw attention away from their nest.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare).  The flowers change from pink to violet as they mature. There were lots of them in the more open ground near the car park, which fits in with their preference for dry open spaces, sand and disturbed soil.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) are succulents, their leaves retaining moisture.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum)

Common restharrow (Ononis repens).  The flower looks like a member of the pea (vetch – Fabaceae) family, but the leaves seemed all wrong.   It is in fact a vetch, creeping along the dune floor with small hairy leaves.  According to the Wildlife Trust website, “common restharrow has extremely tough, thick roots that spread in a dense network and, during the days of horse-drawn cultivation, could stop (‘arrest’) a harrow in its tracks.” Apparently, when eaten by cattle it taints dairy products. The roots are reputed to taste like liquorice when chewed.

Unidentified at the moment, but when it flowers matters might become clearer.  It may turn out to be Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)

Sea rocket (Cakile maritima), a member of the mustard family.

Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias).

 

Video: Goldfinches feeding in high winds

The high winds recently have been a challenge for some of the local garden birds.  When I did this video the weather was dry but wow what a gale!  I had to strap my bins down with bungees to prevent them flying down the hill.  I am always entertained by the way that the goldfinches take all sorts of weather in their stride, but this was particularly fun.  The cherry tree looked like a whirlpool of movement, but the bird feeder was remarkably still, and the goldfinches were apparently oblivious to the the surrounding chaos, scoffing away with admirable dedication.  Sadly there are only muted sounds of the wind, because I’m not daft and was safely indoors when I shot this 🙂

 

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – week 10

Last week’s wind and rain was a stark contrast to the sunniest spring since records began.  That amazing run of gorgeous spring sunshine was transformed, as though someone had flicked a switch, into high winds and torrential rain, and the temperature dropped accordingly.  Good for the garden, bad for the soul 🙂

The greatest happiness was that on the previous Friday Dai had managed to land an awful lot of skate, which is a fairly unusual catch in these waters.  Skate is one of my favourite fish, its flavour distinctive but delicate, its texture superb, and easily cooked.  It is perfect when floured and fried in butter, with the tips of the wings slightly caramelized.  Mackerel and sea bass are in short supply this year, but the skate more than made up for it, and Dai had huss and plaice too.  Unfortunately the poor weather for most of last week means that he couldn’t go out, so my skate and huss purchases will have to last me a while.

Saturday

Half a skate wing  with black butter sauce and capers.  Skate is one of my favourite things on the planet.  Someone mentioned to me that it was a so-and-so to fillet for serving, which seriously surprised me.  There is no need to fillet it.  The wing is made of parallel lines of cartilage, not bone, and you merely scrape the fish gently away from it.  No bones, no mess.  Delicious.  As a family, our favourite way of cooking it was always in black butter sauce with capers.   Dai (of Dai’s Shed) had been out in his boat,  and returned with a good catch of skate, which he had prepared ready for cooking.  I bought two large ones, and when I got home halved them, put two of the halves in the freezer and put the other two in the fridge for eating.

Black butter sauce is very simple, but it does need watching like a hawk.  Butter is heated in the pan and the skate is cooked through, basted regularly, about five minutes on each side.  You can flour it first if preferred, which I did (just dredge it in a plate with a shallow scattering of flour in it).  Once the skate is heated through, remove from the pan and keep warm.  Add more butter, turn up the heat and wait until it is brown, but not black (which would be burned) and add lemon juice and capers.  Heat all the way through and serve the skate with the sauce poured over the top.  Some people scatter over parsley, but I like it as is.  I served it with asparagus tips and shallow-fried potato discs.

I did far too much, and some of the cooked spuds and asparagus that I couldn’t eat were kept and added later in the week to a home made soup.

Sunday

Ham horns with feta salad. This is an old favourite, which I’ve posted about before.  The thin-sliced ham, which I had in the freezer, is stuffed with a mixture of chopped hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and whatever suitable herb or salad greens you have to hand – parsley, coriander, chives or spring onions all work really well, and a sprinkling of cayenne or paprika goes well.  Black pepper is a must.  It is accompanied here by little gem lettuce leaves filled with tomato, lovage, oregano, green olive, capers, cucumber and feta cheese, with a French vinaigrette.  It is a simple dish, and deserves the best ham and feta available.  The Co-Ops thin-sliced porchetta is good, or the Spar’s home-cooked ham at the deli counter is thicker but has excellent flavour.  Unfortunately, the locally available feta is decidedly third rate, but it is better than nothing.

Monday

Skate Grenobloise.  I used the other half of the skate wing from Dai’s Shed to try to reproduce a skate wing (aile de raie) dish that I had in Lyon several years ago, on a truly superb gastronomic holiday.  If you cannot eat well in Lyon, you’re doing something terribly wrong.  I looked up the recipe on my return, and this was the nearest I could find to my notes.

The skate was quickly pan-fried and then poached in a fish, wild fennel and white wine stock, and served with diced lemon, diced tomato, capers and diced spring onions and, in this recipe (but not in the version I had in Lyon) diced cucumber, all gently heated through but not cooked in the poaching liquid.  It was served in Lyon with samphire, but I cannot get hold of that and my recipe recommended spinach.  Spinach turned out to be a stunning accompaniment.  Both the restaurant and the recipe agreed on peeled new potatoes cooked in chicken stock. I had only tiny baby new potatoes, and peeling them felt almost cruel, but I am glad I did as recommended, because it was excellent.  My original Lyon dish had croutons, as did the recipe, but I forgot to add them!  Next time I would add the croutons but leave out the cucumber.  The diced lemon pieces give this a wonderfully concentrated citrus hit that is quite unlike merely squeezing lemon juice over the top.

Tuesday

Spinach, watercress, rocket, wild garlic, frozen pea, asparagus and potato soup with a grated cheddar topping.  A couple of weeks ago I made myself a spinach, watercress, rocket, wild garlic and pea soup, consumed some of it and put the rest in the freezer in batches.  When I had some leftover cooked asparagus and potatoes, I dug one of the boxes out of the freezer, whizzed up the spuds and asparagus in the food processor with a little water and stirred it into the defrosted soup with a squeeze of lemon juice, a hint of nutmeg, a bit of sea salt and a lot of black pepper.  Once heated through, I stirred in a spoon of sour cream, and grated some Somerset cheddar over the top.  Bags of flavour, a good use of leftovers, and so easy.

Wednesday

Leftover aubergine, olives and tomatoes with a courgette and cheese topping.  I had some leftover aubergine and tomato mix in the freezer, which needed using up to make room for other items.  In the fridge, my experimental purchase of mozzarella slices were also in urgent need of a swift solution, and there was a single piece of Parma ham and a rather wrinkled courgette.  There always seems to be a rather wrinkled courgette in my fridge.  The happy solution was to bung them all together, layered in a harmonious marriage of flavours.

I heated the aubergine mix in a saucepan and put it in a small pre-heated earthenware dish, topped it with a few slices of courgette, added a patchwork of torn slices of mozzarella and Emmenthal, and tore up the slice of Parma ham and scattered that over the top.  It all went into the oven for 15 minutes before being browned under the grill.  A few oregano leaves finished the ensemble, and it worked really well, slightly bigger than a tapas dish but easily scaled up for a bigger meal if required.

Thursday

Chicken Caesar Salad Plus.  This started out as a simple chicken Caesar salad, but I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was starving, so it became a rather more elaborate affair.  I had run out of anchovies (sacrilege) but had plenty of little gem, some excellent cut-and-come-again lettuce, some cherry tomatoes, a small hard boiled egg, some faux crutons (diced toasted sourdough bread, painted with garlic-infused olive oil) and some cold chicken that I had barbecued and frozen down especially for salads. The slightly charred smokiness of the barbecued chicken is always delightful.  To add some of the salty hit of the anchovies I used capers instead, and they worked wonderfully.  I had been unable to buy a wedge of parmesan, but fortunately my illustrious parent was able to help out with a bag of an excellent grated version.  Grated parmesan can be very dry, but this was really excellent.   I didn’t have the energy to make my own sauce, so used the tried and tested Cardini bottled sauce, which is mercifully not over-sweet, and has bags of flavour.

Friday

Roast lamb with mint sauce, runner beans, mashed carrot and swede, roasties and rosemary gravy.  There’s not a lot to say about a roast.  I bought a small leg of lamb, and my father and I shared it between us.  In other words, in these times of lockdown, when I pitched up at his house with the fortnightly  food parcel, I waited outside, stealing herbs and lettuces from his garden, whilst he sawed it in half and I cooked one half here in Aberdovey and he had the other half at his home near Chester.  I simply cannot wait until we can actually eat in the same house once again!  The utterly divine runner beans were also supplied by the parent, but everything else came from Aberdovey.  I grow my own mint for the mint sauce, the spuds were Maris Pipers, the leek is an essential accompaniement to lamb, and the pile of orange stuff is a mash of carrot and swede.  I don’t like swede on its own, am unexcited by carrots, but when the two are mashed together with butter and black pepper, nothing makes me happier.  I made the gravy on the hoof with a home made vegetable stock, a lamb stock cube and the juices from the roast itself.

Conclusions

I haven’t much to add this week to any of my previous comments.  The novelty of the fresh fish was superb, but the old favourites like chicken Caesar salad, home made soup and ham horns are always welcome.

My parsley has bolted (gone to seed), which means that my supply of parsley will soon be dependent on shops until I can purchase a new plant.  Potted parsley only lasts for a couple of years, and both my plants are two years old, so I bear them no ill-will, but in the future I will make sure that I buy a new one each year, so that when one bolts, another one will still be going strong.

If your parsley does bolt, and you are left with just a few leaves and some big, coarse stalks, you can use the whole plant to make parsley sauce.  Take off all the leaves and chop as usual.  Cut the stalks low, chop them into saucepan sized pieces and simmer them gently for half an hour or so with a stock cube, and you will have a wonderful parsley-infused stock as a base for a parsley sauce (made with a velouté base rather than a béchamel) or a base for stews and casseroles.