Category Archives: Aberdyfi

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 6

Six weeks in to the lockdown.  What still remains so staggering, so completely difficult to grasp, is that a pandemic should have swept so rapidly across the globe and closed down nearly every nation in its path, taking with it so many human lives.  It is the colossal rampancy of it that is so astounding.

I don’t suppose that I am alone in being somewhat concerned about the dubious wisdom of the partial relaxing of the lockdown, announced yesterday for England by the PM.  It will be interesting to see how these concessions are interpreted by the public, particularly given that people have naturally become very fed up with lockdown restrictions.

Although I have so much sympathy for all businesses, particularly small ones, the re-opening of garden centres seems a bad idea.  I am utterly unconvinced that it would be possible to create a low-risk solution to virus transmission in a garden centre.  As an incredibly enthusiastic garden centre shopper, the idea that social distancing can be imposed on people milling around, randomly searching for plants and other products seems incredibly far-fetched. More worrying is that wherever there is an object and a person in intimate contact, there’s a risk of the virus passing from the human to the object.  Everyone touches everything at a garden centre, picking things up to inspect them or read instructions on boxes, touching and occasionally sneezing and coughing over pots, plants, sacks of compost, seed packets, bottles of anti-fungus and bug-killer, boxes of grass seed, bits of hose fitting, bags of bird feed etc etc.   We run those risks when we go food shopping, but that’s for necessities, not for pleasure.  Disposable latex gloves and masks would seem to be a minimum requirement.  Please stay safe.

I continue to work in my garden, do odds and ends of DIY, go for occasional walks, push forward with re-learning French (which I am enjoying enormously) and forging ahead with various projects on my computer.  Never a dull moment.  And I continue to be busy in the kitchen.  In all my life I have never been so active in a kitchen, although this week I again managed to make meals that would serve more than one portion, only needing to be heated up later in the week.   My herbs continue to do well outside in their pots, and as the summer continues to drift nearer and the herbs look increasingly perky, salads are looking like a very strong regular option – and a lot less effort than cooking!

Saturday

On the way in to the dehydrator

Sausage, white pudding and dehydrated vegetable casserole.  Well I know that that doesn’t sound desperately appetizing.  As I was assembling it, looking at the wrinkled up vegetables, doubts were foremost in my mind, and when I first came to tasting it, I was rather like someone approaching a spoon full of reputedly unpleasant medicine.  But wow.  I have now learned that the dehydrated vegetable seriously rocks.

I bought a dehydrator two weeks ago on the recommendation of my friend Sarah, who had bought one for dehydrating fruit and was very much enjoying it.  Like Sarah, I wanted it primarily for fruit, mainly for the autumn when the best British fruit is harvested and is brilliantly fresh and full of flavour.  My plan was to get used to it before I need it, and reading through the book I bought to accompany it, it turned out that it can also be used for dehydrating vegetables, meat and even fish.  So as well as apple and lemon slices, my first batch in my shiny new dehydrator included sliced courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, leeks, onions, and some cabbage leaves.  The dehydrated lemon slices worked superbly when thrown into last week’s gumbo and this week’s chilli con carne, really fantastic, but I seriously lacked confidence about the vegetables.  One forges ahead anyway.

The core components of my casserole were a pork and black pudding sausage, a slice of white pudding (halved to form two discs), some pieces of bacon, all from the freezer, a bay leaf off the tree in my garden and a good amount of diced onion gently fried in oil.  All of the other solid components were dehydrated:  a lot of dried leek, mushroom, courgette, and some cabbage leaves.  Also some sage that I had actually sun-dried earlier in the year during that long hot spell.  The liquid components, which I added as I went along after tasting and re-tasting to try to get just the right balance of acidity and depth, were chicken stock, white wine, mustard, a hit of soy to give it a bit of body, and a small squeeze of tomato paste for just a hint of sweetness.

To my genuine astonishment, it was a great success.  The dehydrated vegetables all rehydrated splendidly and imparted a dense and vibrant flavour to the casserole.  The textures, about which I had been so worried, were great, not even slightly chewy.  It did not look particularly elegant in the bowl, even with the optimistic sprinkling of parsley over the top.  Once again, no Michelin stars or Masterchef awards, but as a completely new experiment in rich flavour and excellent texture it was a real winner.

I didn’t need anything else to accompany it, although mash would work really well.

Sunday

Pitta pockets with herb salad, capers, sour cream and anchovies.  One of those timeless, simple meals that you just throw together with whatever salad stuff you have to hand.

The pitta is simply toasted and then either cut along the side or halved.  I halved mine.  In a bowl I mix whatever salad stuff I happen to have to hand.  Today I chucked in some diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, a bit of lettuce (little gems are my favourite), and fresh herbs (in my case coriander, lovage, marjoram, parsley and mint), capers and some chopped salted anchovies.  Then I squeezed in some lime juice and added two big spoonfuls of sour cream, some ground sea salt and black pepper, and gave the whole lot a good stir.  And that’s it.

You can tackle this in a dignified way, spooning the mixture into the pitta  before eating it, or you can simply spoon in the contents as you go.  Either way, it’s a bit of a messy process to eat it, but who cares?  The flavours are so fresh and the hands-on approach feels very summery.

Monday

Slow-cooked chilli con carne with black beans, rice and sour cream.  Chilli con carne literally means, in Spanish, chilli with meat, suggesting that the chilli is the star of the show.  The carne is beef, and in the UK often minced beef it used, but I like it done with chunks of tougher cuts cooked until tender in the slow cooker.  The slow cooker is one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that I would hate to be without, and I’ve had one since university days.  I had an enormous piece of chuck steak in the freezer, about half an inch thick, and cubed it into 1 inch pieces.  Chuck steak doesn’t shrink much during cooking, so you can be fairly confident that chunks will retain their size.  If you are using one, the slow cooker must be pre-heated.

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.  I only had a couple of tomatoes, so added the the dehydrated tomato slices that I had donef on Saturday, together with (if you’ve been reading this blog since it started, you’ll have guessed it) a big glug of Big Tom and some sun-dried tomato pesto.  Two whole dried limes were also thrown in, an excellent online purchase.  Half an hour before serving, I put in black beans (from a can).  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).

The chuck steak was superbly tender, the flavours had merged perfectly and the black beans had retained their structural integrity.  I served it with plain boiled rice and chives, and a heavenly dollop of sour cream.  If you want to bulk it out a bit more, guacamole would also be a traditional accompaniment.  Alternatively, a side salad with lots of cooling cucumber and tomato, and some aromatic coriander and a spritz of either lemon or lime juice would be excellent as a contrast to the rich flavours.

There was another portion left over for another day, which I’ve placed in the freezer and will be anticipated with enthusiasm.

Tuesday

Pork and black pudding sausage, smoked back bacon, baked beans and a fried egg.  If you knew me, you would know that I never, ever eat fried eggs.  It’s a bête noire.  The amount of oil needed to cook them makes my hair stand on end, and I never liked the flavour of the fried egg whites, or the crispy edges.  I griddle or grill sausages and bacon and poach the egg.  However, I screwed up the timing on the meal, so everything else was ready and the egg was still sitting patiently in the bottom of a cup.  The quickest solution was to fry it, and I was quite curious about how it would taste as the last time I had a fried egg must have been about 30 years ago.  The pork and black pudding sausage was divine, with great chunks of black pudding.  The smoked bacon was heavenly.  The Heinz baked beans were just as they have been for decades, although I had accidentality bought a rather bigger tin than usual, so there were far too many of them.  The dollop of Branston small-chunks pickle hit the spot.  The egg, however, simply confirmed my prejudices.  The yolk was gorgeous, but the oily white was just as I remembered it, and the fried egg experiment will not be repeated.  Each to their own, and good to know!

Wednesday

Herb-stuffed and bacon-wrapped baked trout with a tomato and onion salad.  In my massive freezer sort-out, I found an enormous whole trout.  I was slightly taken aback by its size, but since I craved trout, I decided to roast it whole, and remove one side to eat, retaining the other side for a salad.  Baked trout, like poached salmon, is delicious cold, unlike most fish.

I beheaded and gutted the trout and  stuffed the cavity with onion slices, parsley, lovage and bay, and then wrapped the whole thing in smoked bacon slices. If not wrapping in bacon, I would have added lemon slices to the stuffing.  The bacon has the double effect of keeping in the moisture of the fish whilst the fat crisps up the skin of the trout.  Win-win.  I put it on a metal grid in a baking tray and put it on a fairly high heat in the oven to crisp the bacon and cook the trout through.  I served it with a simple tomato and onion salad topped with mustard vinaigrette and given several turns of the pepper mill and a good sprinkling of sea salt.  It doesn’t look very exciting on the plate, but just letting the flavours get on with it without excessive elaboration or accessorizing works so well.  Simple.  Quick.  Full of flavour.  Happy.  I ate half of it, and put the rest in an airtight box in the fridge for another day.

Thursday

Chilli con carne #2.  One pot cooking is a fabulous way of generating enough food for two or more meals, cutting down on the time spent in the kitchen.  I love chilli con carne done with chunks rather than mince, and this was probably even better after a couple of days allowing the flavours to mellow than it was on the day that I actually cooked it.  Spring onions chopped into the plain boiled long grained rice gave both freshness and a good contrast to the richness of the chilli.  A sprinkle of lemon or lime over the top is always a good idea.

Friday

Cold trout with herb salad and tarragon, lovage and parsley mayonnaise.  Cold cooked trout is a heavenly thing.  I had the other half of the trout wrapped in bacon during the week, and removed this half from the bone at the time and put it in the fridge.  I seriously love salad, but I do understand that not everyone is as keen.  For me, it has to have herbs and a great dressing.  I divided my salad into two, the first part slices of cucumber and tomato with fresh marjoram leaves in between.  The rest of the salad, herbs and leaves, consisted of shredded little gem, lovage, parsley, spring onions, buckler-leaved sorrel (which, unlike other sorrel, has a great citrus hit), sliced chilli, marjoram and mint.   I sprinkled capers everywhere, and added some Fragata lemon-stuffed olives in the middle.  I made mayonnaise with tarragon mustard, fresh lovage and parsley, sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Mustard vinaigrette was tossed into the leaves.  A simple meal, and always such a pleasure to use herbs that are growing outside the kitchen door.

Conclusions

  1. I have mentioned cooking wine on a number of posts, mainly talking about white wine.  I keep separate wines to drink and wines to cook with.  I am a fussy wine drinker, red and white, but my rules on cooking wines are simple.  Where white wines are concerned I don’t pay the earth for them, but neither do I buy at the bottom end.  So I tend to avoid French wines for cooking, because even really poor wines tend to be over-priced, although Muscadet can sometimes be found at a good price for cooking, and is often great for the purpose.  I tend to use Italian dry whites for cooking, unless there is a really good reason for something sweeter, and known grape types like Pinot Grigio or Soave tend to work well.  German or Alsace whites can work if you want a sweeter white wine.   Red wines are different, because you are generally trying to add body and richness to a dish.  When cooking over a long period I like really big, fruity, rich reds, lacking subtly.  A lower-priced Chianti or Shiraz usually works well.  On the other hand, if it is a sauce for steak, cooking relatively quickly, something of superior quality will be a much better choice.
  2. A hit of even the most ordinary supermarket brandy can give a rich red wine casserole a really helpful lift.
  3. Chilli tends to be intensified in the freezer.  Whole chillis pack a real punch when frozen, but even if you freeze down something that has chilli cooked with it, it will usually be hotter when it emerges.
  4. A tip with salads is that if you soak a piece of kitchen paper in cold water (Blitz is excellent for this) and put it over the salad, it will keep it beautifully fresh, even out of the fridge.  If too much salad has been made, placing it in a zip-lock bag with a piece of kitchen paper in the bag, and put it in the fridge, it will be almost as fresh the following day.
  5. Again thinking about salads, I have learned the hard way to leave adding vinaigrette to the last moment before serving.  For one thing it prevents it sinking to the bottom and leaking out, and for another it prevents the salad going soggy.
  6. The new dehydrator rocks (the photo above shows a batch ready for putting into the dehydrator), but one does need an awful lot of airtight boxes! Not to mention the room to store them.

Another beach walk, nothing special, but so nice to get out

Walking along the beach seemed to be the safest of all the outdoor exercise options yesterday, because the beach is so huge that it is easy to avoid other people doing their similar constitutionals.  The Panorama walk is probably the next safest option.  I would love to do the walk along the estuary and back, but for a lot of that walk there would be incredible difficulty in keeping a safe distance if one met someone coming the other way.

I wanted to take a photograph on the sea front to match up with a vintage postcard, so I opted for the beach.  I was breaking in a new pair of shoes, and was fully armed with blister-treating gear, but happily they were spectacularly comfortable.  The light was particularly beautiful.  Looking over the estuary, the clouds were gathering over Ceredigion, as they so often are.  Looking north up the coast, the sky was completely clear, an endless unblemished ceiling of pure blue.  There was nothing much to see in the dunes.  The evening primroses are in flower, and are dotted all over, but there is nothing else in bloom at the moment.  The very high strandline trailed along just in front of the sand dunes, and contained an unusual number of small crab remains but nothing else of note.  There were a few jellyfish washed up, as usual for this time of year.  The tide, on its way out, had clearly been remarkably high, nearly reaching the long row of steps that run along the top of the beach along the front of the car park, with a pool of water left behind by the retreating tide also showing how high the tide was.

Common evening primrose

Sea holly

Beautiful colours on a crab claw

After the yellows and blues of the dunes and the beach, it was fun to walk back up Balkan Hill, where lush green dominated, and the gardens were full of yellow falls of laburnum and wonderful lilac-coloured rhododendrons.  Even the verges were on full alert, with a lovely display of colour.

Red Valerian

Fuchsia magellanica

Speedwell

Common Stork’s-bill

Sea Mayweed

 

 

Vintage postcard of fishing-net racks on the beach, postmarked 1917

This postcard was purchased with the job lot that started the vintage postcard series, but for some reason it did not get published with the rest, and I found it whilst putting the entire collection away for safe keeping.  It is interesting, capturing echoes of the small-scale fishing industry.  The postmark has a date of 1917, which means that the photograph was taken before that time.  It shows the lovely four-terrace white building Cliffside that still stands, beautifully maintained.  This side of it, nearest to where the photographer stood, is a low building with a tall chimney at the back.  Does anyone know what the building with the chimney was for?  I’ve been through Hugh M. Lewis books, but I cannot find a mention of anything that would explain the chimney in that location.

All of the buildings adjoining Cliffside are still in situ, but the chimney has gone.   The dominating feature of the photograph is the rickety looking arrangement of poles that run along the beach, for the drying of fishing nets.   There is also a really rather nice little open-top carriage on the road, minus horse.

Above is the same sort of angle today.  The fishing net frames were built where the concrete platform now stands.  The concrete monster puzzled the life out of me for years, but I was told recently that Aberdovey used to have extensive mussel beds, and this platform was used for processing them.  Indeed, it lies next to the foundations of an earlier platform.  It fell out of use when the mussel beds shifted elsewhere.  I do wish that someone would knock it down, as it’s a real eyesore!

In the image below I have superimposed the photograph over the postcard and reduced the opacity of the photograph so that if you look very hard (and it does make your eyes go a bit funny), you can see both the fishing net frames and the mussel sorting platform.   The bus stop has changed the line of the wall, but the slipway is still in situ and the houses have changed only very little.

Not many postcards include a sender address, but this one does, and there’s a neat little cross written on the left of the postcard to show where it is located:  C/O Mrs Richards, Aberdovey Cottage, Bath Place, Aberdovey, Wales.  I think that this is probably now 3-4 Bath Place, known as Dovey Cottage (just east of the Literary Institute).

The postcard was sent without a stamp, and there is a pencil-written note saying “Unpaid.”  Presumably the Ashton Under Lyne recipient, Miss Bishop, had to pay an excess fee.

The card, number 42883, was in the Sepiatone series, produced by Photocrom Co.Ltd.  of London and Tunbridge Wells.

Dai’s Shed – Open and selling seafood on the wharf!

Dai’s shed is open on the wharf, selling freshly caught seafood on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am – 2pm.  So miffed that I didn’t know, because they have had flounder in, and had just sold out when I turned up!  But I came away with a frozen dressed crab, so it was still a splendid result.   Fresh live lobster, and fresh dressed lobster are also available.  Lockdown just got a lot fishier.

This card from “Dai’s Shed,” selling superb locally caught seafood from Easter until Autumn, shows Dai’s fishing boat at low tide against a backdrop of the hills over the estuary.

 

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 5

This week is a real contrast to last week.  Last week was fresh herb week, thanks to my father, and it was delightful to have all those bright flavours to play with.  It’s a good arrangement.  I take him groceries every fortnight and get to raid his garden for vegetables and herbs.  On Saturday and Sunday I used up the last of my booty of wild garlic, sweet cicely and mega-lovage.  I have to ration my own lovage and my two parsley pots are beginning to look a bit sad due to over-exploitation, although I have just given them both some serious encouragement with soluble plant food.  On the upside a pot of buckler-leafed sorrel and marjoram are beginning to get a more substantial grip on life, having been planted out into much bigger pots, my oregano is recovering, and my mint is attempting a world take-over bid.

By contrast, from Monday onwards this has been a one-pot week full of rich flavours, mainly from hotter climes of the world, and largely supplemented with high-carb ingredients.  That’s mainly because I had nearly run out of all vegetables except tomatoes, and by Tuesday had no salad left, but it’s also partly because my dishwasher has broken down, and it is easiest to do the washing up with one-pot meals!

Saturday

Leftovers salad with mustard vinaigrette and herb mayonnaise.  I found myself with some the tail end of a lemon-marinated chicken breast, a slice of ham, the middle bit of a little gem lettuce, some feta, and the end of a cucumber that was rapidly losing the will to maintain structural integrity.  Separately they were a bit of a puzzle but they worked well together as a salad tied together with a fresh herb mayonnaise, some capers, shallot, tomato and herbs dotted around and a bit of vinaigrette, it all worked splendidly.

I do the mayo in a baby food processor that has a small hole in the top for precisely this purpose.  An egg yolk was put into the processor bowl together with a teaspoon of mustard, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and some rock or sea salt.  The lid goes on, and then olive oil is fed, immensely slowly, through the hole in the lid.  Just the thinnest possible trickle.  Slowly the mixture starts to emulsify, changing colour, thickening.  When the preferred consistency is reached (and it’s fine to keep stopping and checking) add the roughly chopped lovage, wild garlic, chives and a finely sliced spring onion and whirl until completely broken up.  When the preferred consistency is reached (again, keep stopping and checking) turn it off, put in a small bowl, lay cling-film gently on the surface to prevent the surface reacting with the air, and leave in the fridge until needed.  There was plenty for the salad and, as intended, enough left over for another salad.

The vinaigrette is even simpler.  In a jar with a tight-fitting lid (you are going to shake it madly, so it needs to be a good fit), put three parts olive oil to one part white wine vinegar, add French Dijon mustard or German mustard to taste (add, shake, taste, repeat until the desired result is achieved), season with salt an pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and, if you fancy it, fresh or dried herbs.  Shake until the mustard has distributed itself throughout the vinaigrette.  Job done.  Lots of variations are possible, like a hit of Balsamic vinegar, or adding French brown mustard to the Dijon, and using different types of oil and adding herbs to achieve different flavours.

In the photo, the little ham tubes were two pieces of leftover sliced ham spread lightly with the herb mayonnaise and rolled into spirals.  The little gem leaves had a mint leaf, a finger of tomato, a finger of feta, some sliced shallot, and a few capers, topped with a mustard vinaigrette dressing.  The cucumber was similarly dressed, whilst the disc of tomato was topped with some of the mayo and a few capers.  Lovage leaves between the little gem boat finished off the salad.

It was too big, of course, but I covered what I didn’t eat with a very damp piece of kitchen towel and put it in the fridge for lunch on Sunday, instead of my usual morning slice of toast.

Sunday

Spinach, rocket, watercress, wild garlic, chive, mint and frozen pea soup.  Another tale of leftovers, another tale of unexpected, wild bursts of flavours.  I am in love with leftover living.  Or at least, I am at the moment, while it retains the charm of novelty.  I had one of those salad packs, with baby spinach, rocket and watercress (a bit of a fib on the latter – there was very little watercress in the pack).  But it’s difficult to eat enough of a big pack as a single person without becoming single-mindedly rabbit-like in one’s eating habits, which would be so tedious.

So I fried a chopped small onion, two small cloves of garlic, a large chopped chive and some chopped wild garlic in a pan, very slowly, til translucent and smelling wonderful.  I then added water that had been boiled and left for a few minutes, chicken stock, frozen peas, the spinach, rocket, watercress and a handful of mint.  I let it almost-simmer for ten minutes and then whizzed it up in the food processor.  A blender would be much better, but a food processor is what I have, so I just let it run for a long time until the right consistency was achieved.  It was still stunningly green, and anxious to preserve this, I poured it into a fridge-chilled glass bowl, tied it into a plastic bag and put it into the fridge as soon as it had reached room temperature.  With a slice of toasted rustic bread, this was wonderful, not because I’m a good cook (I’m a highly inconsistent hit-and-miss one) but because the ingredients were so excellent.

You could add a swirl of cream, sour cream or crème fraîche, and it looks so pretty when you do, but I loved it just as it was and cream can really interfere with pure, super-fresh flavours, softening and dulling them.  A grating of parmesan cheese over the top might work well.

This soup is also delicious chilled.

Obviously you could replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, and the only reason I didn’t here is that I haven’t any home-made at the moment, and I find that the shop-bought cubes are dominated by the flavour of celery, which I dislike.

Monday

Starting off a high-carb week, using up leftover veg and bits and pieces in the freezer, was this improbable but happy mix of ingredients based on paella rice.  Paella rice is a bit like risotto rice but, in my experience, produces a meal that is not as gloopy. 

The rice part of the meal was a simple mixture of courgette slices, halved, fine-chopped onion, sliced chillis and garlic, with just a little saffron, all of which are fried in olive oil.  Thyme is scattered over the whole lot.  The rice is added and stirred to coat, and cooked for a couple of minutes.  Blitzed fresh tomatoes are then added and heated through and hot stock is poured over the top.  It takes approximately 15 minutes for the rice to be cooked and the water to be boiled off, leaving a pleasingly sleek and cohesive result.  I had a chicken thigh floating in my freezer, so marinated that for an hour in what I fancied, which was zatar and sumac, sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.  I then put it under the grill.  A simple side order of chopped tomato and cucumber with vinaigrette, and a dollop of the last of the Greek Yogurt rounded things off, with a chunk of lemon to crush over the chicken and rice just before serving.  Happy!  Such a simple meal, and although phenomenally inelegant on the dish it had bags of flavour. 

Chicken is just what I happened to have, but it goes brilliantly with lamb chops, most fish (but especially hake, swordfish steak and sharks fin) or works fine on its own.

Tuesday

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42

Sicilian spaghetti.  This was a favourite dish of mine many years ago, and I don’t know why I stopped cooking it, although I suspect that it was a case of failing to scale down recipes that I used to do for a group.   Whatever the reason, it was a mistake because I find that it is still great and easily scaled up or down.

I chose to do double and have it twice this week (because I am by no means confident that the aubergine/eggplant and spaghetti would freeze well).  But what’s not to love about that?  It is so great that the same dish twice in one week is a good thing.  As a change from my normal format, both the photograph and the recipe are scanned from the book from which they came, to give credit where credit is due.

The ingredients are only a few components away from those that make up an anglicized spaghetti Bolognese, but this is all baked together in the oven with an aubergine lining, with peas to provide little explosions of sweetness and cheese to bind it together.  It forms a completely unique culinary experience, a dense, delicious gooey mass, encased within overlapping aubergine that keeps all the flavours sealed in.

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42 (click on it to expand it to a readable size)

The recipe comes from the excellent book Italian Cooking Class Cookbook (in the Australian Women’s Weekly series), and from which the photograph here is taken to show it at its brilliant best.  My version was a fraction of the size and lot untidier than this!   I rarely vary from the original recipe, if I can help it, but I did on this occasion have a small portion of leftover pork mince, which I found when sorting out when defrosting the freezer, so chucked that in just to save it from being thrown out.  That’s not as inauthentic as it sounds, because the two are often mixed in Italian cooking – for example, Carluccio uses a mix of beef and pork mince in his Spaghetti Bolognese recipe.  As usual, as I don’t like tinned tomatoes, I peeled fresh tomatoes and whizzed them up in the food processor with a big slug of Big Tom (tomato, celery and chilli) and some sun dried tomato pesto, the latter sourced from the local Spar.

Perfect for al fresco dining with a glass of good, rich red wine.

There was enough of the basic mince mix (pork and beef mince, onion, garlic and tomatoes, before other ingredients were added) to freeze down as a base for another, different meal.  I use Lurpak Spreadable tubs, 250g or 500g, which stack brilliantly in the freezer.

Wednesday

Haddock, shellfish and saffron with chilli, lemon and coriander or parsley.  This is very much a freezer-dependent meal and I had to empty half of the freezer to get to it, because all of the seafood was at the back.  I hate emptying the freezer to find stuff, as no matter how much I remove to cook, somehow I always struggle to get everything else back in!  But after last week’s plaice I had a seafood craving.  Haddock is usually available in local supermarkets in vacuum packs, and I prefer the flavour to cod, which is more widely available round here, but I find very bland. The shellfish was a mixed frozen seafood selection that I bought from one of the big supermarkets when visiting my father a couple of months ago, so I’m not sure if this can be reproduced using local shops.  It was all bits and pieces, so it was great to be able to use it up in a single meal.

The base is made of gently fried onions and garlic, with skinned tomatoes added when the onions and garlic are heated through, herbs, saffron if wanted and whatever else is available on the day.  This meal was more on the fiery side than usual, and a lot more lemony, because as well as some peeled fresh tomatoes, I actually used two leftover sauces from the freezer:  a very small amount of leftover sauce from last week’s chicken Doro Wat (a chilli-infused, highly spiced tomato sauce with dried lime, garlic and onion) and an equally small amount of leftover sauce from a fish tagine that I made before the lockdown, mainly characterized by saffron, garlic, toms, preserved lemons, mint and coriander.  I loved the transformation, which compensated perfectly for the virtually tasteless Dutch supermarket tomatoes, and will invent a recipe that does something of the sort in the future for similarly spicy and fiery seafood stews that can be replicated without being dependent upon random leftover sauces.  I also chucked in salted anchovies and sun-dried tomato pesto for richness, and two chopped chillis for heat.

I used fresh tagliatelle, boiled for a couple of minutes in water, draining off most of the water, but leaving a bit behind.  The seafood mix is stirred into the pasta and served.  Ever since a visit to the Algarve, which was a culinary delight, I have been in the habit of topping seafood stews with coriander.  I had found some rather elderly coriander in the back of my fridge, and although it was too sad to sprinkle over the top, I stirred it in at the last minute.  If coriander is not available parsley is more conventional, more readily available and adds a pleasing fresh look to the dish.  I used it here.  Whatever else you decide, lemon wedges are essential for squeezing over the top. It was a meal in itself, but a smaller portion could be served with a side salad.

That left me enough of the seafood mix for another two meals, so into the freezer it went.  The haddock won’t survive the freezing process and will disintegrate, but of course will add flavour.  Either more fish can be added (I have another haddock fillet) or it can be had as a more liquid sauce over pasta, or consumed as a thick soup.

Thursday

Louisiana Gumbo.  Gumbo, the official state dish of the state of Louisiana in the U.S., is full of flavour, and the level of heat is entirely optional.

This version used slender Welsh Pen Y Lan pork and chilli sausages (because that’s what I had), uncooked jumbo king prawns and a chicken thigh.  The sausage, which is usually very fine in its own right, was all wrong for a gumbo, but in this age of compromise and leftovers seemed worth giving a whirl.  On the whole, I really wish I’d left it out, although it did impart a useful pork flavour to the sauce.   A solid smoked sausage is the best, and if you have access to a Polish supermarket or a Polish aisle one of the big mainstream supermarkets (I used to be able to buy Polish goods in the Tesco where I lived in London), kielbasa works superbly.  Cooking chorizo is a common substitute, but can overwhelm all the other flavours.  A very simple dish. To me, okra/bhindis are essential, but green beans are often used as an alternative by those who are not so keen on okra.  If you are using full-sized fresh okra, top and tail them so that they heat through nicely.  Frozen baby okra can be thrown in as they are.  I also threw in some diced courgette/zucchini, because I happened to have some (courgette soaks up the flavours beautifully) and some slices of dehydrated lemon as an experiment.

Fish works just as well in gumbo, using only fish of the sort that doesn’t break up during cooking (huss, which is also known as rock salmon, monkfish, conger eel or swordfish steak are good choices) and shellfish.

If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel and then blitz them in the food processor/blender before you start.  Otherwise, tinned tomatoes are fine.  You will need a Creole spice mix.  You can either make up your own, which allows you to prioritize the flavours that you prefer (paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, dried oregano and dried thyme), or a pre-made mix (good brands are Bart and Seasoned Pioneer).  I could have sworn I had a Creole mix, but it turned out to be a Cajun one, so I used that and added the oregano, thyme and cayenne.  Due to the lack of smoked sausage, I used a heavily smoked Spanish paprika, which worked well.

Just fry the chunks of sausage and chicken breast and remove from the pan.  Fry onion, fresh or dry chillis and garlic until soft and then stir in the creole spices and heat everything through and return the chicken and sausage to the pan.  Add some flour lightly over the top and give a good stir to mix it all in, to help thicken the sauce.  Add the tomatoes with lemon zest, some lemon juice to taste, a good pinch of saffron and a good glug of dry white cooking wine (no point using the good stuff, but the wine does make a difference so use something reasonable). Depending on how much liquid the tomatoes added to the pan, you can add some chicken stock if you want it to be rather more liquid.

Let it simmer for 10 minutes to allow the chicken to cook through and the flavours to blend.   Taste to see if you need more lemon juice, saffron or chilli.  Add the prawns and okra and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the prawns have gone pink and the okra are warmed through.

At the last minute stir in coriander and sprinkle some over the top.  This retains all the flavour of the coriander, which heats instantly in the sauce without overcooking it.  Serve with plain boiled risotto or long grain rice, dependingly on preference, with spring onions or chives chopped into it and chunks of lime or lemon for squeezing over the top, together with a jar of flaked chillis or some Tabasco to add additional heat if required.  I also added a dollop of fromage frais, which I bought by accident instead of sour cream, but happily lasts for weeks in the fridge and was a reasonable substitute for the sour cream.

Friday

Sicilian spaghetti #2.  I had the second part of my Sicilian spaghetti, and was very happy.  I simply took it out of the fridge, let it come to room temperature under its clingfilm lid, and then put it in the oven to heat through gently for 30 minutes.  When I removed it from the oven, where I had cut through the aubergine lid and removed a portion of spaghetti, the vertical section of spaghetti had now been exposed directly to the oven heat, and had emerged crispy, which was utterly delicious.  The interior was just as mellow and gooey as it was on Tuesday.

Conclusions

  1. Gathering the ingredients together for the Sicilian spaghetti and the seafood stew, both of which I started off on the same day, leaving the final touches for when I wanted to eat them.

    Right now the use of pasta (and/or rice) seems like a good way of converting ever-decreasing numbers of ingredients into substantial meals, which is defining feature of cucina povera, a style of cooking that emerged from rural peasant kitchens in Italy.  Pasta and rice, being carbohydrates are filling.  It is usually possible to buy fresh pasta locally and although it’s not something I eat much of, I usually have some in the freezer for emergencies and as I found out this week, dry spaghetti is a great substitute for fresh, a good change if you usually have the fresh stuff, different in a good way, with rather more body and a good, eggy flavour.

  2. Rice still seems to be easy to source and is another excellent way of making other ingredients go further.  I did a gumbo and a courgette and tomato risotto-type affair, but rice is a super base for biryani, paella and vegetable pilaf, and rice as an accompaniment (egg-fried, boiled, pilau, basmati etc) are all winners.
  3. Still on the subject of making meals more filling, using breadcrumbs as a thickening agent works a treat.  It was a standard way of using up stale bread in Spain, and it not only works as a thickener, helps to give more body to a meal, but absorbs the flavour of any sauce without imparting any of its own.
  4. Capers give a purposeful hit of sharp intensity to so many fish dishes, herb sauces, cream-based sauces, tomato-based sauces, mint sauce (they are fantastic in mint sauce), tartare sauce and salads.  I have never run out of capers in my life.  Right now, down to the last dregs, I am feeling almost weak-kneed with fear at the prospect of a caper-free existence.  Top of my list for the next time I go shopping, with my fingers and toes crossed that they haven’t sold out. If you haven’t tried capers you should be able to find them in even the smallest supermarkets and you might want to give them a whirl.
  5. As well as the eponymous component of mint sauce, mint adds a real sparkle to green salads, is glorious fine-chopped with diced cucumber in yogurt dips, gives Mediterranean vegetable soups a lift, and adds freshness to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fish or lamb stews.  A truly versatile herb.  I grew mine from a pot sold in the herb section of a supermarket (Tesco, I think) and it grew into its huge pot, and comes back every year.

Aberdovey Beach with elegant fashions and tall masts, c.1900

A vintage postcard in the Valentine series.  I go and have a look at eBay and Etsy every couple of months to see if there are any new and interesting vintage postcards available.  This was the only one that has appealed to me since I finished the vintage postcard series in mid March.  The reverse of the postcard was entirely unmarked, so I have no official dating information but the smart women’s outfits of long skirts and well-fitted blouses, suggest the the turn of the 20th Century.  The postcard speaks for itself.  You can click on it to see a bigger version.

 

The Aberdovey schooner Mervinia, launched 1878

The schooner Mervinia. Source: Lloyd 1996, volume 2, with her copper sheathing showing clearly just above the waterline.

After launching Maglona in 1876 (about which I have posted here), the next ship built by Thomas Richards, one of Aberdovey’s most elite shipbuilders, was Mervinia.

My original intention was to take just one vessel from each shipbuilder in turn before looking at other ships in each shipbuilder’s portfolio, but there are both similarities and differences in the information available for Maglona and Mervinia that made it seem worth describing these vessels consecutively.

Mervinia was launched on February 18th 1878.  She was registered at Aberystwyth, no.3.  She was a two-masted top-sail schooner (with three square sails at the top of her fore mast, but gaff-rigged below, and on her second, main mast).  She had a figurehead in the form of a woman, but it not possible to make it out in the above photograph of the painting.  The name Mervinia was chosen to echo the ancient name of Merioneth.At 96 tons and 84ft long, she was smaller than the 114 ton Maglona.  She had very fine lines, as the painting above demonstrates, and was copper-sheathed below the waterline.  The purpose of copper sheathing was to prevent both fouling of the hull beneath the waterline, damaging the wood and slowing the ship, and the incursion of teredo worm, which burrowed lethally into wooden hulls beneath the waterline like giant marine woodworm.  Copper sheathing was adopted in the Royal Navy during the 18th Century, and became standard on deep sea merchant shipping in the early 19th Century.  By 1816, 18% of British merchant ships had copper sheathing.

As with Maglona, Mervinia had only two owners at launch, Richard Owen (who had been the main share-holder in Maglona), a timber merchant from Machynlleth, with 60 shares.  He was also her managing owner (the person who made the business decisions regarding a vessel’s career).  The other four shares were held by her builder Thomas Richards.  More information about both men can be found on the post about the previous ship built by Richards, Maglona.

Source: The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 25th January 1878

The launch of Mervinia on 15th January 1878 was covered in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard:  “The event had excited much interest in the village and neighbourhood and, fortunately the weather was most favourable for the interesting proceedings which, owing to the state of the tide, had to take place at an early hour, viz., soon after nine a.m.”  Fortunately the bottle of wine used by Miss M. Marsh of Carno to launch the ship by breaking it against the hull duly smashed – an unbroken bottle was a very bad omen.  The bottle was “gaily decorated with ribbons” of red, white and blue, and must have looked very celebratory.  The crowd cheered as the ship glided into the water.  The newspaper report goes on to say that “the Misses Marsh” contributed books in Welsh and English for the bookcase that had been fitted on the ship, for the use of the captain and crew.

Following his precedent with Maglona, as soon as the ship was launched Owen began to sell his shares for a profit, selling 30 of his 60 shares over a three day period between 18th and 20th February 1878, which provided a more familiar ownership mix, and a highly localized one:

  • John Jones master mariner, Aberdovey – 8 shares
  • Evan Jones, labourer, Aberdovey – 8 shares
  • David Davies, quarryman, Aberdovey – 4 shares
  • Richard Williams, master mariner, Aberdovey –  4 shares
  • John Evans, master mariner, Aberdovey – 4 shares
  • John Roberts, quarryman, Aberdovey –  2 shares

Mervinia’s first destination was reported as the Shetland Islands, but in April she was in South Shields.  Lewis Lloyd follows her various voyages and crew following her launch.  Her first officers were her Master  John “Black Jack” Jones (1850-1899), master mariner of Aberdovey, aged 27, who remained with the ship in various roles until his death in November 1899 and the Mate  David Jones of Aberdovey, aged 23, John Jones’s younger brother.

The way in which Mervinia‘s senior crew members were organized is interesting.  Both master and mate were paid off in April 1878 but rejoined the ship as Boatswain and Able Seaman respectively two weeks later under Captain John Evans  from Bangor, aged 58.  The switch-around in crew is the first of many, and can probably be explained by the ship’s destination to Portuguese ports, Vianna  do Castelo (and other foreign ports en route) in July 1878, and then to Oporto and other ports in September 1878.  In both cases she returned to South Shields.  As soon as the ship returned to coastal waters, John Jones was restored to Master with John Evans as Mate and David Jones retained as Able Seaman.  John Evans was paid off in October 1878, and David Jones resumed his role as Mate.

The site of the yard where Thomas Richards built his schooners, now the memorial park on the edge of Penhelig. Source: D.W. Morgan, Brief Glory (1948), pl.40

The ship now began to operate on new routes, this time out of Newport in Wales, and again the crew was rearranged, presumably to take advantage of experience in foreign waters.  For a trip from Liverpool to Avila in Spain, returning to Newport between 17th May 1879 and 23rd June 1879, the Master was now Charles Dean Cook of Bristol, aged 57 and John Jones was  boatswain and Purser.  David Jones left the ship.  On her next voyage from Newport to Bilbao and back to Newport (9th July 1879 to 16th August 1879)  John Evans returned as Master, with John Jones remaining as boatswain and purser.  The same arrangement was retained for her next trip from Newport to Alicante and then Runcorn (28th August 1879 to 20th November 1879).  For the rest of 1879, Mervinia returned to the coastal trade, John Jones was reinstated as Master and John Evans was Mate.

These changes in role and status were not merely nominal.  The pay that went with each position was allocated on a hierarchical basis, so every time John Jones, David Jones and John Evans were promoted or demoted, their salaries also changed.  It must have been difficult to plan ahead under such circumstances, even when in full-time employ.

The ship’s various voyages are summarized in Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport, volume 1, pages 171-176.  Mervinia operated for at least 12 years after Maglona was wrecked, so the records of the ports she visited are much more extensive.  She called into a remarkable number of foreign ports, apparently becoming a specialist in overseas cargo transport, visiting Portugal, various  Mediterranean destinations, Newfoundland ports (mainly St John’s, Fogo and Twillingate), the Baltic and southern Ireland.  British ports that she visited include Glasgow, Greenock, Grangemouth, Gloucester, Port Talbot, Bristol, Hull, Teignmouth, Newport, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Parr (Cornwall), Dartmouth, Runcorn, Porthmadog and of course Aberdovey.

This photograph, showing a group of schooners, as well as a steamer, apparently includes Mervinia. D.W. Morgan says that she is the one with the copper bottom, but the photograph is so small that even after expanding it, I’m not sure which one he means. I suspect it is the ship in the middle of the photograph, where a colour differentiation can be seen just above the waterline. Source: D.W. Morgan, Brief Glory 1948, pl.41

Unfortunately, the various books do not note what cargo she was carrying.  Some clues can be picked up from Welsh newspaper reports.  On 26th November 1897 the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard records that Mervinia arrived in Aberdovey with cement for Rhayader.  The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 24th February 1899 reports that she arrived carrying potatoes, presumably from Ireland and the Shipping News of 19th September 1899 edition of the Cardigan Bay Visitor records that she loaded slates from Bryneglwys quarries by the wharf.  In 1900 the Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser reported that Mervinia, now registered in Gloucester, was back at Aberdovey at the end of January loading a cargo of slate. In 1901 she arrived in port at Aberdovey from Antwerp with a cargo of cement, reported briefly in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, July 12th 1901.  In spite of this dearth of information, it is likely that she carried various cargoes.  Helpfully, and already noted in the post about Maglona, in Brief Glory, D.W. Morgan says that traditional cargoes when her destination was Newfoundland, were slate from Aberdovey or Porthmadog to Cadiz, sea salt from Cadiz for St John’s, in ballast (with no cargo) to Labrador where she awaited the arrival of cod that was then salted and dried and brought alongside in small boats.  The salted cod was then taken to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  “The cargo having been sold, iron ore for Mostyn, barrels of olive oil for for Goole, marble for Exmouth as the case might be would be shipped, and the vessel pointed for home.  Usually Aberdovey or Porthmadoc were reached in ballast.”

Captain John Jones died in 1899.  According to D.M. Morgan (in Brief Glory 1948, p.170-172) he had been something of a dark character.  Known as Black Jack along the Newfoundland coast, John Jones “was a s swarthy as a Turk, with white gleaming white teeth, a coal black beard and black gleaming eyes and it was ‘Yo-ho and a Bottle of Rum’ with him, unrestrained in his savagery.  A thimble-full of spirits went to his head, and I have known him on one occasion, when Mervinia was in port, raise the town with his outcry.”  He was Morgan’s cousin, the son of his father’s sister.  Some of the stories, which Morgan describes as “well authenticated” are truly unpleasant.  His one redeeming feature, in the eyes of Morgan, is that he refused to sail on a Sunday.  He died at the Adlard and Co. slate wharf at Dock Head in Bermondsey (London) on November 6th 1899.  As he was walking over the gang-plank from the wharf to the ship he slipped, fell in to the Thames and drowned.  Morgan expresses this with typical panache: “As might have been expected of one of so passionate a nature, Drink and the Devil did for him as it had done for several Aberdovey seamen; they plunged him over a dockside to a muddy doom.”  His body was retrieved and returned to Aberdovey for burial.

In 1900 Mervinia was registered in Gloucester, after which the only reference I have found is the above-mentioned arrival from Antwerp with a cargo of cement.  The Aberdovey-built schooner Sarah Davies was in port at the same time.  This was the era when the steamers Dora and Telephone were regular visitors from Liverpool (about which there is more information here), and on one occasion in 1899 Telephone  tried to give Mervinia a tow into port during a heavy easterly wind, but the rope failed and Mervinia sat at sea until conditions improved.   D.W. Morgan says that she was lost near Oporto, but gives no date or other details.

Sources:

Welsh Newspapers Online: https://newspapers.library.wales 

Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard
Cardigan Bay Visitor
Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser

Lloyd, L. 1996.  A Real Little Seaport.  The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920. Volume 1. ISBN-10 1874786488
Lloyd, L. 1996.  A Real Little Seaport.  The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920. Volume 2. ISBN-10 1874786496
McCarthy, M. 2005. Ships’ Fastenings: From Sewn Boat to Steamship. Texas A&M University Press
Morgan, D.W. 1948. Brief Glory. The Story of a Quest.  The Brython Press