A rake, a riddle and lots of stamina

Ann Taruschio collects cockles on the Welsh coast, and revels in the ab undance of other local specialities, from lamb to laverbread
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The Independent Online
So often one hears people say they think of Wales as a gastronomic nowhereland, but I wonder how well they know it. Wales has an abundance of wonderful produce: lamb and game from the mountains and hills, fish from the sea and rivers, cockles and laver seaweed from the seashores.

Lamb is used for cawl, which is a cross between a soup and a stew and almost the national dish. A comforting, one-pot meal made from chunks of meat, mixed root vegetables, potatoes and leeks flavoured with parsley, it tastes especially good on cold winter nights with wholewheat bread and a piece of caerphilly.

It is a dish with a long tradition and conjures up memories of miners tucking in after a hard day's or night's work underground, or farmworkers home for their supper after toiling in the fields. Originally it was served in sycamore bowls and eaten with wooden spoons.

It is to Pen-clawdd on the Burry estuary that we go for cockles. The sands there stretch for about seven miles and at low tide are about two miles wide. Before you reach the sands there is a belt of marshland where horses graze and chase one another, and from June on through the summer months samphire bravely pushes up through the mudflats.

There never seems to be a soul on the sands, only oyster-catchers which screech as they gobble up the tiny cockles left behind by the cocklers.

It seems that every time we go there, there is either a dense sea mist or it is pouring with rain. The mist can come down so quickly and thickly that it is easy to get disorientated and caught by a tide which comes in faster than walking pace. Our chefs were astounded when they went there and learnt that cockles are collected under such conditions.

To be a cockler, all you need is a rake, a riddle (a large sieve), and lots of stamina. Until not so long ago, cockling was a woman's job, but now men do it as well, according to Violet Swistun, a cockler here all her life.

Further along, at Llangennith, laver seaweed grows on the rocks. Ms Swistun collects this and then boils it in a huge gas-fired cauldron for hours until a thick ``witches' potion'' is obtained. The traditional Welsh way to eat laverbread is to make it into cakes with oatmeal and fry them in home-cured bacon fat.

The laverbread is good served with this rough recipe for Cockles Pen-clawdd. Some butter is melted in a heavy pan, some fresh (white or brown) breadcrumbs are thrown in and cooked until they are crispy. Then add well-washed, prepared cockles, some finely chopped spring onions and freshly ground black pepper. Check if salt is needed. Then, says Bobby Freeman in her little book on Welsh fish, ``clap the lid on tight for they cockles they do jump''. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Franco, my husband, being Italian, likes to use cockles for spaghetti with cockle sauce (see recipe below). For a recipe nearer home, we look towards Llanover which is south-east of Abergavenny above the beautiful River Usk. Here, Augusta Hall (later Lady Llanover) lived. It was her husband, Benjamin Hall, who arranged for the installation of Big Ben, which was named after him. In 1867, at the age of 65, she published The First Principles of Good Cookery, probably prompted by friends who came to her many dinner parties. One of the recipes from her book is for salt duck. We have adapted it slightly so that it can be served cold.

Spaghetti with cockle sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients: 12oz (350g)

spaghetti

1 3/4 pint (1 litre) cockles in shells

3tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 lb (750g) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

1 glass white wine

1 generous pinch dried chilli flakes

4tbs finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation: Wash and purge the cockles well: leave in a bucket of cold water, with a handful of fine oatmeal stirred in, for an hour or so. Cook the shellfish in a saucepan without any water, sniffing from time to time. When all the shells are open, strain and reserve the liquor. Remove the flesh from the shells.

Fry the onion and garlic in the extra-virgin olive oil until soft but not coloured, add the parsley and quickly fry. Add the tomatoes and fry for a few minutes, add the white wine, then add the liquor from the shellfish. Season with salt and pepper and a generous pinch of chilli flakes, and reduce well. Add the cockles, bring the sauce to the boil and remove the pan from the heat.

Serve as a sauce for spaghetti. Do not be tempted to serve parmesan cheese.

If the tomatoes are not very ripe, stir-fry a half-cupful of tomato puree in olive oil for a few minutes, and add this to the sauce

Lady Llanover's salt duck

For this dish use only the breast of duck left on the bone. Weigh the duck breasts and for every 61b/2.8kg of duck meat and carcass rub in 8oz/225g of coarse sea salt.

The duck should be placed in a deep container, breast-side down. Keep in a cool place. After 1 1/2 days, turn the breasts over. After three days, rinse off the salt, place the duck breasts in a deep oven dish and stand it in a baking tray.

Cover the duck with cold water and also put water in the baking tray. Place the tray in the centre of an oven set at 160C/300F/gas 2 and cook uncovered for 1 1/2 hours.

Remove duck breasts from liquid and leave to cool. Serve the duck breast thinly sliced with a fruit pickle, and crab apple and rowanberry jelly.

Ann Taruschio is co-proprietor of the Walnut Tree Inn, Llandewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny, Gwent (0873 852797) and co-author with Franco of Leaves from the Walnut Tree (Pavilion, pounds 15.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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