FOOD & DRINK / Parts that taste forgot: Baby gannet, tripe, boiled pigs' snouts. One region's delicacy is another's culinary nightmare, as Michael Bateman finds out
Sunday 09 January 1994
The guga is a fishy-tasting seabird, highly prized in its own area for its unique taste. Yet to others living a mere 20 miles away, it is incredible that something so foul can even be taken into the mouth, let alone enjoyed.
Britain has a number of such dishes, and especially in the Scottish islands, where the palate relishes such unlikely dishes as boiled sheep's head, crappit's heid (cod's head stuffed with oatmeal) and krampus (cod's liver and oats). It's a relief to turn to the national dish of Scotland (the liver, lights and lungs of a sheep, boiled in the stomach - haggis).
The guga, however, is unique to the Isle of Lewis. When exiles meet in far-flung places, the talk soon turns to guga and memories of sharing this . . . delicacy. As the ache of nostalgia creeps in, soon they long to plunge knife and fork into this plump seabird, a 3lb baby gannet. And so it is that barrels of guga, salted down in the summer, wend their way across the world to destinations as far away as New Zealand to bring a taste of home (the sweaty, fishy, oily taste of the scuppers of a fishing smack).
It is wondrous that certain tastes, however odd, become lodged in a group consciousness. In Ballycastle in Ulster, for example, at the Lammastide fair at the end of August it's a tradition to chew dulse, a seaweed gathered on the coast, which is boiled and dried. While the Welsh fry it with bacon, which they call laverbread, the folk in Ballycastle are happy to nibble at a bag all day. They love it as it is.
I am chewing on a piece as I write this; it is a reddish, delicate, dry skin which rehydrates in the mouth, filling it with the flavour of a smelly rock pool drying out in the wind and sun. It's so strong and salty, it has a savoury taste almost like anchovies. But, no, not like anchovies. What it evokes is the penguin house at London Zoo and the odour of performing seals.
Those who don't chew on a bag of dulse at Ballycastle's Lammastide fair are sure to be munching, or crunching, Yellowman. This is another local delicacy which has not caught on elsewhere. Yellowman is a sweet, shocking canary yellow in colour and resembles Blackpool rock in its chunky texture. Shut your eyes and it tastes like milky toffee. If you suck a piece after eating dulse, you experience two extremes of taste you may never want to repeat.
Lancashire has more than its fair share of foods that don't travel, such as chip butties in Liverpool. Lancastrians think people are fainthearted if they don't share their joy in black pudding, tripe and onions or cow-heel pie. 'These are mostly enjoyed by the older generation,' admits Jack Morris, maker of the famous Gold Medal Black Pudding (120 Market Street, Farnworth, Bolton, tel: 0204 71763).
The stubble-chinned hero of the Beano comic, Desperate Dan, gained his phenomenal strength from eating cow-heel pie, like Popeye with his spinach. The cow-heel is the cleaned fetlock, bleached and cooked to soften the cartilage. 'You should make the pie with a suet crust in a bag dish with rabbit or mutton or beef,' says Mr Morris. 'The cow-heel makes it gelatinous and rich, lovely. There's no meat on it, but you can chew on the bone.'
The tradition for black pudding, he believes, dates back to travelling monks who brought the recipe from Europe. It used to be a unique Lancastrian taste, he says, but just this last year it's been taken up by a number of fashionable London restaurants. It may be some time before they show an interest in boiled pigs' snouts, another of their local delicacies, eaten warm or sliced, cold.
You can guess why some people don't want to eat seabirds, seaweed, tripe or pigs' noses, but there are some foods unknown outside their own local areas which deserve closer attention. One of the best is the Staffordshire oatcake. Wherever Staffordshire people gather together they know what they remember most about the Potteries, says Nick Cohen, whose wife is from The Five Towns (Stoke). 'It's not the smoke, it's not the grime, it's the oatcakes.'
It is not an oatcake in the Scottish sense of a dry biscuit, but a thin elastic pancake. In fact, it's a yeast-risen mixture of half fine oatmeal and half flour, made into a sloppy batter with half milk and half water. It resembles a pliable washleather as much as anything but tastes marvellous, eaten with a fried breakfast.
They are consumed by everyone, never made at home but bought at the baker's or butcher's in large quantities; even before the days of the fridge they would keep for a week in damp cloth. No fast food in the world is as fast as a Staffordshire oatcake, says Nick Cohen. They keep theirs in the freezer and slam them into the microwave for a few seconds, as instant breakfast. Like pitta bread or crepes they lend themselves to every kind of savoury filling.
Another good dish in its own right, unknown elsewhere, is Lincolnshire Chine, neck of pork stuffed with green herbs. To the people of Lincolnshire it may be parallel to the soul food of the West Indies and southern states of America. Pig farmers, left with the least saleable part of the pig, the bony neck, kept it for themselves and salted it down. To cook it, they cut it along the bone (chine it) and stuff it with green herbs (they are not particular which, for nettles go in along with parsley, sage and chives, not to mention blackcurrant and raspberry leaves and other herbs).
Originally it was eaten in festive mood in the spring break when farm labourers ended the year's contract and (hopefully) celebrated a new contract. (You can order it, stuffed with parsley only, from FC Phipps, Osborne House, Mareham-le-Fen, Boston, Lincolnshire, tel: 0507 568235). Many cakes, breads and puddings enjoy equally isolated favour, such as sticky ginger-flavoured parkin in Yorkshire; Banbury cake (a pastry turnover filled with spicy dried fruit); Selkirk Bannocks; saffron cakes in Cornwall (yellow colouring will not do, only real saffron, the world's most expensive spice); bara brith (the fruity Welsh tea loaf); rich, luscious Wiltshire lardy cakes; and Grasmere ginger cakes.
Sometimes a dish is kept alive almost against its own will, such as Norfolk Knobs and Dorset Knobs, left-over bread dough which old-time bakers mixed with a little butter and sugar, and put in the dying embers of the oven to dry out. They were surely never as refined as those now sold by Moores, in Morecombelake near Bridport, tel: 0297 89253.
Then there are vestigial products such as Norfolk biffins, dried whole apples, which serve no useful function today, or Black Butter, which you can buy in Jersey. It's a treacly paste made from slowly boiled-down, caramelised apples. 'Before the Channel Islands grew potatoes, they were covered with apple orchards,' says food historian Michael Raffael. 'This was one way of dealing with the surplus.'
These are foods that don't have a place in modern eating, so wouldn't it be kinder to let them die? Taunton hotelier Kit Chapman, after extensive research for his television programme The Best of British, believes many of the folksy old dishes should be quietly buried. 'It's a non-starter trying to revive them.' Foods of yesterday are foods of yesterday for a good reason. They don't taste very nice.-
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