Even as a self-confessed hunter gatherer, there are a couple of wild food challenges.
Even as a self-confessed hunter gatherer, there are a couple of wild food challenges.
I had, until recently, never attempted: salmon fishing and elvering. The chance to try both came when Richard Cook and his father, Horace, from the Severn & Wye smokery in Chaxhill, Gloucestershire, invited the food photographer Jason Lowe, my estimable dairy supplier David (Dai) Francis and myself down to take part in the local activities.
The Severn and Wye rivers are famous for salmon fishing and some of the old methods still exist. Large cone-shaped traps, hand-made from willow, are still one of the most successful ways of trapping them, along with large triangular hand-held "lave" nets used when the fish are stalked at low tide on the sandbanks where they become stranded. Across the border in Wales, similarly old-fashioned techniques of salmon fishing are practised to this day. The coracle is fascinating. It's a lightweight tub whose "hull" is covered in pitch, and which is just big enough for one person. Two of these are used on the river, with a light net strung between them. When the fishermen carry coracles on their backs they resemble large, Jurassic beetles.
First to arrive and check out the salmon situation on the Wye was Dai. The season had just started, yet he witnessed a local land four fish within half an hour. Dai disappeared down river out of sight under a bridge and returned an hour later, modestly informing me of his catch, a 2-3kg kelp, a fish that has spawned and is heading back out of the river.
At this time of year all fish must be returned to the river. Only after June can you keep them. Five minutes after Dai's triumph, I hooked and landed a similar size fish. First ambition sorted. Which just left the slippery matter of elvering. On the banks of the river, elvermen mark their spots with fires and a few tins of cider, awaiting the tiny, matchstick-like glass eels to make their way into the river after a year-long journey from the Sargasso Sea. The life of the eel is quite mysterious. Remarkably there is no record of an eel ever being caught in the ocean on its way back to the Sargasso to spawn again.
We spent a couple of nights on the bank of the Severn, keeping Dave, one of the local elver fishermen, company next to his fire. The catch is weighed in and the majority are sold for breeding to countries like China and Japan, where eels are a delicacy. A large number go to Loch Neagh in Northern Ireland to restock and breed. When they have grown a bit the Cooks buy them back for smoking.
Eels are delicious in all forms, but especially as juvenile elvers. In Gloucestershire, they are traditionally eaten with pieces of fried bacon and an egg. When we cooked ours up in Horace's kitchen, I couldn't resist adding some wild garlic leaves we had picked that morning. They are so scarce and expensive few of us will get the chance to try elvers, but salmon is now neither a luxury nor seasonal.
The Cooks make the most of wild salmon from the Severn and Wye, but also buy in high-quality farmed from Ireland and Scotland. They've recently opened a deli to complement the smokery. The products range from various grades of smoked salmon, gravadlax and hot smoked salmon, along with lots of other fishy items and a fine display of wet fish. If you want elvers you have to ask, and mostly they're bought for farming or restocking - sadly, they're out of most people's reach for eating. At the Cook's fish café you can sample simple dishes like fish pie (almost as good as at J Sheekey) and their smoked products with a glass of white wine or a cup of tea.
Severn & Wye Smokery, Chaxhill, Westbury-on-Severn, Gloucestershire, 01452 760190
I had this dish in Lancashire at Nigel Howarth's Northcote Manor food festival earlier in the year. I thought the name sounded good and when the fish arrived the slices had an amazing black edge where the treacle had been pasted on. Slice it at the table for a great party piece.
1 salmon fillet, 750g-1kg, skin on, boned and trimmed, from a fishmonger or good supermarket counter
1tsp fennel seeds
Grated zest of 1 lemon
50g sea salt
1tbsp English mustard
80g black treacle, melted over simmering water
2tsp coarsely ground black pepper
Put the salmon fillet, skin side down on a sheet of clingfilm. Mix the fennel seeds, lemon zest, salt, mustard, pepper and treacle together and spread evenly over the flesh of the salmon fillet, not the skin. Wrap well in more clingfilm, place on a tray (skin side down) and leave at room temperature for 1 hour. Refrigerate for 48 hours.
Remove the clingfilm and scrape away any excess liquid and marinade and pat the salmon dry with kitchen paper. Slice at a 45º angle into 1/3 cm slices and serve with pickled cucumber, pickled samphire (when in season) or another pickle, such as piccalilli.
Watercress soup with flaked salmon
I like matching ingredients that have an affinity in their natural habitat. For example, crayfish and pike or maybe samphire and cockles. Watercress and salmon have a freshwater habitat in common, and work well together as they both have earthy, but fresh flavours. The colours - the vibrant green and pink - make a great and effortless natural contrast.
250g watercress, stalks removed
1 leek, well rinsed, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 tbsp vegetable or corn oil
1 litre vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 piece of salmon fillet, weighing about 300g, skinned and boned
1tbsp olive oil
2-3tbs crème fraîche
Cut the stalks from the watercress and put the leaves to one side. Gently cook the leek in the vegetable oil in a covered pan until soft, without allowing it to colour. Add the vegetable stock, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the watercress stalks and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add two-thirds of the watercress leaves and blend the soup in a liquidiser, or with a stick blender, until smooth. Strain through a fine-meshed medium sieve, not too fine as it becomes watery. Bring back to the boil briefly and season again with salt and pepper, if necessary.
Meanwhile season the salmon fillet, heat the olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan and cook the salmon for 2-3 minutes on each side, until pink, and remove from the pan.
Serve the soup hot or cold, with pieces of salmon flaked into it and an optional dessert spoonful of crème fraîche on top.
Smoked eel salad with poached egg
This is a fishy version of the classic salade frisée aux lardons. Smoked eel performs the part of the bacon. I recommend buying smoked eel on the bone as the pre-filleted and vacuum- packed stuff can lose some of its delicate smokey quality in the process. OK, you may need to do a bit of skinning and boning but it will be well worth it. As well as the Severn & Wye Smokery, Brown and Forrest (01458 250875/ www.smokedeel.co.uk) and Forman and Field (020-8221 3939/ www.formanandfield.com) sell smoked eel by mail order.
350g smoked eel on the bone
100g prepared curly endive
1tbsp finely chopped chives
2 slices of bread cut 1cm thick and crusts removed
3-4tbsp vegetable oil
A good knob of butter
for the dressing
1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2tbsp olive oil
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
First, make the vinaigrette. Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and leave to infuse overnight at room temperature, or for at least an hour.
Cut the slices of bread into rough 1-2cm squares, heat the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan and cook the croutons for 3-4 minutes, stirring them every so often until they are evenly coloured. Add the butter and continue cooking and stirring for a minute then remove from the pan and place on some kitchen paper.
Remove the skin from the eel and fillet from the bone with a knife. Cut into 1-2cm pieces.
Poach the eggs in an egg poacher or in boiling water with a splash of vinegar, dress the curly endive with the vinaigrette, season and mix in the chives and arrange on plates with the pieces of eel then place a poached egg in the middle of each and scatter with the croutons.
Smoked salmon with fennel salad
Smoked salmon has many uses apart from the classic thinly sliced version with its accompaniments. I quite like the way they serve it in Russia, where the prime centre cut is thickly sliced vertically. It's called fillet Tolstoy or Balik salmon and it really gives smoked salmon a new meaning.
You can find it ready trimmed in specialist shops or you can just trim the tail and belly part away from a normal side of smoked salmon and use the other flesh for smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, a mousse, pâté or sandwiches.
You can serve this style of smoked salmon on its own, or with an accompaniment like this refreshing fennel salad.
300g centre-cut smoked salmon
1 fennel bulb
1tbsp chardonnay vinegar or a good-quality white wine vinegar
1/2-1tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground
Remove any green fern from the fennel and then chop it. Using a mandolin - or, if you don't have one of those, a very sharp knife - quarter the fennel bulb, cut away the root and shred it as finely as possible.
Mix the shredded fennel with the fern, vinegar and oil and season it. Leave for 1 hour, giving it an occasional stir.
Finally, slice the salmon vertically into slices, about 3/4cm thick, and arrange on a plate with the fennel.Reuse content