Mark Hix: Best of the West

In the second extract from his new book on British regional food, Mark Hix heads to the West Country.

Saturday 21 October 2006 00:00

Fish and fishing are a big part of West Country life. All along the beautiful coastline, you can still see a way of life that has been handed down for generations. Sadly, with depleting stocks and restricted fishing, local fishermen struggle to survive these days. There are even divers now scouring the seabeds to hand-pick scallops, primarily to keep chefs happy with their enormous saucer-sized specimens, but secondly - and perhaps unintentionally - saving the sea bed from being devastated by trawlers.

Fish has always been close to my heart. Growing up in Dorset, just yards away from the sea, it's difficult not to have a passion for it. As a kid, I would fish for anything in the summer, from small mackerel to heavier stuff such as skate and pollack from the wrecks offshore. After school and at the weekends in the summer, we would sit on the end of the pier with light trout rods and have a great time, which usually ended up with us having a good feast. The holidaymakers alongside us would be casting half a dozen feathers with heavy lead weights and they would catch three or four fish at a time, but we would be quite content pulling them in with a bit of a struggle, one by one, on a tiny float and a single hook. The onlookers probably thought we were just mad young kids having a bit of a laugh, and they were right. In contrast, winter would consist of cold nights on the beach with a tilly lamp in the hope of catching a cod, and prawning with baited nets from the end of the pier in West Bay.

I suppose half the problem these days is getting people's taste buds in tune with those delicate flavours of the sea. It would be unthinkable to me not to like that stuff, but people are still quite squeamish at the thought of getting stuck into a lobster or crab. I had no choice in the matter - I just ate it all with relish.

Actually, pilchards never went away - it's just that people stopped wanting to buy them. Strangely enough, consumers are perfectly content to buy the posher version, which is the sardine. What many people don't know is that a pilchard is actually a grown-up sardine. In fact, a sardine reaches "pilchardism" when it's over 11cm long. Supermarkets are also trying to rehabilitate pilchards by calling them "Cornish sardines".

Like its cousin the herring, the European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus) is a migratory fish, and there was a prolific pilchard fishery off the Cornish coast in the Middle Ages. By the 19th century, the fish had become the centre of a vital and profitable trade in the West Country. Most of the pilchards caught were salted, packed into barrels and exported to Europe. Nothing from the curing process would be wasted and even the oil that drained from the barrels would be sold to the leather tanners for their lamps. The skimmings from the water in which the fish were washed was bought by soap boilers, and any damaged fish went for manure.

Because the West Country was so poor, excess fish were used to pay part of the fishermen's wages. They would eat the fresh fish as a dish called "dippy", where the fish was simmered with potatoes and local cream, but most would be preserved by smoking, salting or sousing in vinegar. Fresh, pilchards can be cooked in exactly the same way as sardines or mackerel - grilled or fried.

A similar fish, the sprat, also used to be very common off the West Country coast. I remember my father and some other locals would wait close to the beach in small rowing boats with seine nets for the massive shoals to arrive just offshore. They would make several trips back to the beach with full nets and then I think they just sold them to the local fish wholesaler in exchange for beer money.

Although the trade in pilchards has now largely died away and been replaced mostly by mackerel fishing, the Pilchard Works in Newlyn, Penzance, has been producing traditional Cornish salt pilchards since 1905. Now a unique, award-winning working museum, it still uses the traditional old screw presses and packs the fish in old wooden barrels. Much of their product has long been exported to Italy, where they are known as salacche inglesi and said to be more prized than their own local anchovies.

Although the South West is synonymous with fish, dairy products are also a strong feature of the region, and the famous clotted cream and farmhouse cheeses are testimony to serious dairy farming. When I was young, we only ever had Stilton in the house, so I didn't really get to appreciate the famous cheeses of my own region. There was always a mystery surrounding Blue Vinney cheese, the production of which was suddenly stopped commercially, though it was still made in a few clandestine farmhouses locally.

Although the meat products of the South West - such as Dorset Horn sheep or Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs - are also top-notch and highly regarded throughout the country, there aren't that many traditional West Country recipes for meat. One reason for this could be that roasting ovens were only introduced to this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century, and before that, spits were generally used for cooking meat, poultry and fish over wood or peat fires.

Pilchards on toast

Serves 4

Although this dish bears a resemblance to those grim canned pilchards in tomato sauce, the combination is actually a very good one, as the acidity of the tomato cuts through the oiliness of the fish to produce a snack or supper dish that is both satisfying and extremely good for you.

2 shallots, finely chopped
6tbsp extra-virgin rapeseed or olive oil, plus more for brushing
3 ripe tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and cut into rough 1cm dice
2tsp white wine vinegar
1tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 pilchards, scaled, filleted and any residual small bones removed
4 slices of bread, about 1cm thick

Gently cook the shallots in the oil for 2-3 minutes without allowing them to colour. Add the tomatoes, vinegar and parsley, season and simmer for another couple of minutes. Take off the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, preheat the grill to its hottest temperature. Make a couple of diagonal slashes across the skin side of each fillet, then brush them with olive oil, season with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and grill for about 3-4 minutes with the skin side up.

Carefully put the fillets in a tray or on a plate and spoon some of the tomato mixture over them.

Toast the bread, then arrange the pilchards on top of the toast and spoon the remainder of the tomato mixture over.

Cornish Pasties

Makes 6-8

I do believe the good old Cornish pasty is making a comeback. This is due, thank goodness, partly to the emergence of a couple of serious pasty companies setting themselves up as rivals to those high-street joints. At last, now we are getting quality fast food on our streets and in our railway stations - and from the West Country, too.

Cornwall's most famous food item was, in fact, originally a sort of "fast food" for miners, fishermen, farmers and children to take to work or school. The pastry formed a perfect insulation and would keep the filling hot or warm until lunchtime. The fillings would vary, depending on the wealth of the household. Some would contain only vegetables - swede, onion and potato, or maybe leek - or they would perhaps also contain some off-cuts of a home-boiled ham. You still occasionally come across examples of the Cornish habit of initialling the corner of pasties to help identify their owner. You can even find variations on the pasty in all corners of the world where Cornish miners have travelled to find work. I've seen versions in the Caribbean and in South Africa, with brightly coloured yellow pastry and spicy fillings.

My dad used to buy great Cornish pasties for my school lunchbox and they were so good that I would take an extra one or two to school to sell to mates for money to play cards or pitch-and-toss. Nowadays, I recommend the award-winning pasties from the Chough Bakery in Padstow and Proper Cornish in Bodmin, as well as those from the West Cornwall Pasty Company (I always go for the steak pasty) and the Oggy Oggy pasty shop in St Ives. Ann Muller's famous Lizard Pasty Shop in Helston is also well worth a visit; she makes her pastry with lard and uses best beef skirt.

For the filling

200g swede, peeled and cut into rough 1cm squares
1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into rough 1cm pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, finely chopped
500g rump or rib steak, trimmed of fat and chopped into chunks of about half a centimetre
250ml beef stock (or a good-quality beef stock cube dissolved in that amount of hot water)
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce

For the pastry

500g plain flour
2tsp salt
125g butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
125g lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
A little milk, to mix
1 egg, beaten, to seal and glaze

To make the filling, heat half the oil in a large heavy frying pan and gently cook the onions for 2-3 minutes until soft. Remove from the pan and put to one side. Heat the pan again over a high heat, add the rest of the oil, season and add the meat. Cook over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, turning until evenly browned. Remove the meat from the pan and add to the onions.

Add the stock to the pan together with the Worcestershire sauce, and boil rapidly until you have only 2-3 tablespoons of liquid left. Then add the meat and onions back to the pan and simmer until the sauce has reduced until it is just coating the meat.

While the sauce is reducing, cook the potatoes and swede in separate pans of boiling salted water until just tender, then drain and mix into the meat.

To make the pastry: mix the flour and salt together, then rub the butter and lard into the flour with your fingers, or mix it in a food processor, until it has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Mix in some milk, a tablespoon or two at a time, until a smooth rollable dough forms that leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board to a thickness of about 3mm and, using a plate or bowl as a template, cut out 6 circles about 18cm in diameter. Spoon the filling evenly in the centre of the 6 discs of pastry. Brush around the edges with the beaten egg and bring the edges of the pastry up around the filling, then crimp the edges together with your fingers. Brush the tops with the remaining egg mixture and cut a small slit in the top so that the steam can escape. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake the pasties for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180C/gas mark 4 and cook them for another 20 minutes or so until golden. If the pasties are browning too fast, cover them with foil or greaseproof paper (if they're going to be reheated, finish cooking them while they are still quite a pale brown).

Jugged Hare

Serves 4-6

When I was young, hare were plentiful and would often just turn up on my grandparents' porch, given to them in exchange for a few pounds of Granddad's tomatoes, or some heads of his fine, prize-winning chrysanthemums. I wasn't much of a hare fan then - and the attendant sink full of blood didn't do much for my appetite, either. These days, though, I love the hare's unique flavour, whether it is simply braised or in a rich sauce with pasta.

A freshly caught and skinned hare will yield a good half-litre of blood, which is traditionally used to thicken the sauce. You will certainly need a good butcher or a friendly game keeper to supply you with a hare and with the blood. Don't worry if you can't get hold of the blood; hare has a good gamey flavour anyway. The combination of the marinating and slow cooking will create a memorable feast.

I've suggested using just the legs here, as it's a shame to braise the whole saddle; the fillets, when removed or roasted on the bone, are very tender and would make a substantial meal with quite a different flavour and texture.

8 hare hind legs
500ml red wine
4 juniper berries, chopped
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp flour, plus extra for dusting
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 onion, finely chopped
50g butter
1tbsp tomato purée

3 litres beef stock (or 3 good-quality stock cubes dissolved in that amount of hot water)

Cut the hare legs in half at the joint and then cut them once more through the middle of the thigh, so you end up with 3 pieces from each leg. Put the pieces into a non-reactive bowl or dish, together with the red wine, juniper, bay leaf and thyme. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

Drain the hare in a colander over a bowl and pat the pieces dry with some kitchen paper. Season the pieces of hare and lightly flour them, dusting off any excess. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the pieces, a few at a time, until well-coloured, then put to one side on a plate.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-based saucepan, gently cook the onion in the butter for 3-4 minutes until soft. Add the tablespoon of flour and stir well over a medium heat until it begins to turn a sandy colour. Add the tomato purée, then slowly add the red wine and herbs from the marinade, stirring well to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer over a medium heat until the liquid has reduced to half the volume.

Add the beef stock and hare, bring back to the boil, cover and simmer gently for 1 hour (or you can cook this in an oven that has been preheated to 160C/gas mark 3). Remove a piece of meat to check if it's tender; if not, continue cooking for another 30 minutes or so.

Once the meat is tender, remove all the pieces of meat from the sauce and set aside. Continue to simmer the sauce until it has thickened to a gravy-like consistency, then return the pieces of meat to warm through until it's ready to serve. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve with mashed or roasted root vegetables - beetroot that has been boiled well and blended is good with this dish.

Blueberry Pie

Serves 4

I like to serve these pies with clotted cream, though a ball of vanilla ice-cream wouldn't go amiss. I know blueberries aren't in season at the moment, but you might just have some left in your freezer from the summer.

600g blueberries (fresh or frozen)
120g plus 1tbsp caster sugar
1tsp arrowroot or cornflour
1 egg white
Icing sugar, for dusting

For the pastry
50g butter, cut into small pieces, plus more for greasing
50g lard, cut into small pieces
200g plain flour, plus more for dusting
30g caster sugar
1 egg, separated
1-2tbsp milk

To make the pastry, rub the butter and lard into the flour with your fingers until breadcrumb-like. Add the sugar, egg yolk and enough milk to form a smooth rollable dough. Divide the dough into two balls.

Roll out one of the balls of pastry on a floured surface to about 3mm thick and cut out 4 discs large enough to line four 10cm diameter by 3cm deep individual tart tins, leaving about 5mm overhang. Roll out the other ball in the same way and cut 4 more discs to fit the tops.

Lightly grease the tins with butter and then line with the larger pastry discs to just above the top of the tin. Leave to rest, with the lids, for 30 minutes in a cool place (not the fridge or the pastry gets too hard to work).

Meanwhile, put the berries in a pan with 120g sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix the arrowroot with a little water, add to the berries and simmer for 2-3 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Spoon the berry mixture into the pie shells, with not too much liquid. Brush the edges of the tops with the egg white beaten with the remaining sugar, lay on the tops and seal the edges by pinching with your fingers. Brush the top with more egg and make a small slit in the centre.

Bake the pies on a baking tray in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden. Turn the oven down a little or cover the pies with foil if they begin to colour too rapidly. Take from the oven and leave to rest for about 15 minutes before turning them out of the moulds.

British Regional Food by Mark Hix is published this week by Quadrille, price £25. To order it at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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