The megalithic past of Yorkshire finds an echo in some modern words of wisdom, while the delights of Rolled Pig's Spleen prove irresistible
Saturday 08 May 1999
The Rudston monolith is rightly accorded star status in The Modern Antiquarian (Thorsons, pounds 29.99), Julian Cope's encyclopaedic, if deeply quirky, guide to megalithic Britain. Yes, it's the pop chappie from The Teardrop Explodes, who now devotes his energies to researching such arcane matters. He writes: "Rudston is an eerie place, built precariously on an ancient past of true psychedelic intensity." Crumbs. It turns out that the monolith is the most substantial of umpteen ancient constructions to be found near an intermittent stream charmingly called the Gypsey Race. Mr Cope points out: "The complex of great stone and earth monuments built along the magical Gypsey Race on the Yorkshire Wolds was once a great neolithic centre which stretched for miles."
"Race" used in this context is defined by the Shorter OED as "the channel or bed of a stream". This is spot-on because anything other than a trickle is a rarity, depending on the overflow of a chalk aquifer under the wolds. It happened earlier this year when a prolonged deluge afflicted this neck of the woods. When in spate, however, it seems that the stream is more deeply magical than even Julian Cope makes out. In support of this view, I refer you to an item which appeared last month in that mystical publication known as the Yorkshire Post.
"Folklore says that when the stream flows in the village of Burton Fleming, a disaster is sure to follow," warns this journal of the esoteric. "And now, the `Woe Waters' have begun to flow once again. Their arrival has, over the years, marked the start of both world wars. It also foretold the arrival of the Great Plague in 1665." Pushing its luck a bit, the Yorkshire Post notes the catastrophe that occurred when the Gypsey Race was last in spate, five years ago: "A farmyard barn burnt down in the centre of the village."
Last weekend, when we were once again up north, Mrs Weasel and I took a close look at this weirdly prophetic channel. Drizabone, as the Aussies say. Has the terrible threat passed or is it yet to come? Of course, there can't be anything in such superstitious nonsense. You only have to look at the world to see that everything is right as rain.
THE FASHIONABLY louche crowd which was flooring champagne in the St John restaurant might have come from a Fellini film, but the cause of the celebration could scarcely have been more British. We were there for the launch of a book called Nose to Tail Eating (Macmillan, pounds 20) by Fergus Henderson, the chef-patron of this Clerkenwell eatery. It contains such hearty yeomen's fare as rolled pig's spleen, blood cake and fried eggs, and pea and pig's ear soup (temptingly described as "a very dour recipe, but no less delicious for that"). This uncompromisingly carnivorous cuisine goes down a storm with the hearty yeomen of EC1.
For all his love of the visceral and sanguinary, Mr Henderson is far from being one of the new breed of sweaty, foul-mouthed chefs. When at his customary post in St John, perhaps checking an arrangement of warm pig's head or garnishing a plate of stuffed trotter, he resembles a Thirties dance-band leader. It could be the round tortoiseshell specs (he was an architect before taking up the skillet) which promotes this likeness. Though the essence of polite restraint, Mr Henderson permitted his brow the hint of a furrow when I suggested to him that some readers may have trouble getting hold of the sheep's stomach and pluck ("the heart, lungs, windpipe, liver and some intestines") required for his haggis recipe. "Any butcher should be able to supply sheep's lights. Speak severely to him."
Our dapper host responded to my inquiry about crispy pig's tail in almost transcendental terms. "The tail is easily the best bit of the pig's extremities, such as trotter, snout and ears," he eulogised. "It provides a oneness of the flesh and the fat. Quite extraordinary. A jewel." Despite venturing into territory left unexplored by other cookbooks, Nose to Tail Eating does not give details of several dishes that crop up on the menu at St John. For example, there's nothing about squirrels. Mr Henderson explained to me that their recent appearance on his plates resulted from "a cull on the Badminton estate", presumably in advance of the horse trials taking place there this week.
But I was most interested in whelks, which I've consumed more or less happily in St John on several occasions. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, my attempt to cook them at home resulted in rubbery inedibility. "We're very keen on whelks, but people are reluctant to eat them," declared Mr H. "It's very hard to speak for whelks. They have to speak for themselves. People who try them usually like them. You just put some in salty water and get simmering. Can't remember how long. Quite a while. By the end, they should be soft and tender and sweet." Note that he didn't say "vulcanised and impenetrable and bereft of flavour". But if that's your aim, the Weasel can supply full details.
WHAT A joy to hear Stan Tracy choosing SJ Perelman's Crazy Like a Fox as his desert island book. It would be mine too, except that I've a slight preference for The Rising Gorge. What? You've never read these incomparable collections of feuilletons (Perelman's own word) by this presiding genius among humorists? You don't have to take my word for his dazzling brilliance. This is a "How to Avoid Prozac List" offered by the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago: "SJ Perelman, Laurel & Hardy, Damon Runyon, Tex Avery and the Marx Brothers." (What a pantheon!) Inexplicably, it is virtually impossible to track down editions of Perelman. My copy of Crazy Like a Fox dates from 1951. Worse still, a chunky collection of his work - The Most of SJ Perelman - has fallen out print. Some sapient publishing house should remedy this and pronto. Our national well-being depends on it.
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