A N Wilson might sneer at the genre of nature writing, saying, “Thanks to Wordsworth, we all have the idea that ‘poets’ ought to be country dwellers, ought to live up lanes and use a bucket for a lavatory.” Nature writing of this sort, he says in an interview with the Telegraph, “appeals to all that is gentlest and best in us, the lovers of unwrecked England” but recently there have been signs of vigour, of writings taking a new form and addressing the changing relationship we have with the world around us. These changes may be as a result of us increasingly living away from our rural beginnings, either literally because we migrate to cities or metaphorically as we focus inwardly upon the domestic- a result of economic hardship. Or it might be because nature itself is shrinking, further influencing how we interact with it: our garden birds are disappearing and we are less likely to productively coexist with a wide variety of creatures or meet them in an everyday sense. Nature has become commodified too, partly in order to protect it; we ‘buy’ experiences and visit nature reserves; we go to ‘see’ nature instead of perceiving our lives as part of it. We seem to lack affinity with and self-assurance of our sense of place. Indeed we may lack that sense of place in itself.
The best nature writing is not rooted in conservatism or nostalgia. It possesses political agenda because the personal is the political, wrought from our everyday lives. Driving change yet retaining the ability to cast an experienced eye back to the past, it respects history but does not fetishise it, locating humans firmly at the heart of the natural order whilst identifying our disruptive influence upon it. We cannot separate ourselves from this, no matter how much we mistakenly try to and a wise person recognises nature as a greater life force which nonetheless can be vanquished by human misadventure and downright maleficience. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with the Pagan folklore which reminds us of our temporary status, as guests and housekeepers for future generations.
Step into the shoes of other living creatures: the peregrine and the wood louse; a skein of flies above a slow moving river; the badger, fat in his binary colours. As Winter settles into our bones, what better way to spend an evening in front of the fire than by travelling with some of our most evocative writers as they challenge us to think afresh about our surroundings. Here then is our guide to the best of the new nature writing, some recommendations for older, classic texts that have stood the test of time and authors writing about other countries too.
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
American nature writers have a lot of material and it is hard to be parochial and small minded when you have so much wilderness to choose from and Lopez, is one of the true greats when it comes to capturing it on the page. Lopez doesn’t do cosy, tame and comforting nature. His world is a big one that can dazzle, lose, harm and kill. He wants to shatter your complacency and intrude into your contemplations. Listen to him on the Arctic; “It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.” He writes of the confusion being alone in the alone can produce. His hunters muddle the scale of their prey and misunderstand threat, mistaking a marmot for a bear in the light, bright light that should make things clearer and cleaner, but actually does not. His prose is perfectly matched to the natural world he describes, ramming it with information, zooming out over the ice blue yonder then homing in on a tiny detail that interrupts with its difference. He is a human lens. ‘
H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald-
Winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and deservedly so, this moving and raw testimony to grief and mourning recounts the authors attempts to tame and train Mabel, a wild goshawk after the death of her father and took over seven years to write. A growing fascination with the writer T H White, author of the fantasy ‘The One and Future King’ acts as a tandem narrative. The chair of the panel judge, Claire Tomalin described the book as “an extraordinary book that displayed an originality and a poetic power. None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.”
‘The Peregrine’ by J A Baker- Finally getting its dues, The Peregrine is becoming recognised as the masterpiece it is- one of our finest examples of nature prose. Intricate, detailed and finely wrought, the intensity of the detail of this book contrasts greatly with the little we know about its author. All we know is that he was born in 1926, worked as a librarian and lived in Essex then wrote two books about the local wildlife. Baker appeared to perceive contact with wildlife as an antidote to humans, it “let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence” and the book goes on to recount his experiences following peregrines along a defined part of the Essex coast from Autumn to Spring. He is often compared to Ted Hughes with a similar muscular sensuality and ability to capture the sheer essence of a creature and landscape with just a few words and when the existing lexicon is inadequate, he is more than comfortable with using neologisms: “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”.” In doing so it reminds us of our own frequent awe struck lack of words and cocks a snook at those language pedants who cling unimaginately to some ‘official tenet’ that all too often denies us the joy and pleasure of addiing to the lexicon. Baker takes us straight to the place where he goes to observe his beloved peregrines and we stand alongside him, looking at what he looks at, through his eyes.
‘The Fly Trap’ by Fredrik Sjöberg- In which the author, a hoverfly obsessive spends seven years researching them on a picture perfect Swedish island called Runmarö and then pens a memoir about it after finding 202 species of hoverfly in seven years, 180 in his garden..This is a slim book about an obscure branch of entomology that is utterly captivating and brims over with the personalities of these little creatures. The prose tips a nod at Darwin, Shelley and Bruce Chatwin whilst musing on the problems with environmentalism and the meaning of life. As Sjoberg told the Guardian, ” I realised if I’m going to write this book I have to write it for readers who are not interested in flies. Then you have to tell stories about people. Quite a lot of people say they are interested in nature but all people are interested in people.” I love how his own pleasure and bright eyed interest translates to the page– he believes that If you want to change the world, you have to build it on some kind of joy. The book has sold more than 30,000 copies in the Scandinavian market and thousands more in translation across mainland Europe and now, ten years after its publication, The Fly Trap has just come out in Britain.
Landscapes and Englishness by David Matless-
A lot of writing about nature has a gentlemanliness about it, a sense that one needs time, formal education and learning to engage in it and be taken seriously- ie find an audience through publication and be aknowledged as an authority. Indeed this isn’t too wide of the mark as these things also require an income sufficient to fund wanderings and the space to filter ones thoughts and observations before committing them to paper. What is great about Matless is the way he highlights the value of rural knowledge acquired through an everyday working engagement with the land and lived experience, as opposed to a studied and detached eye, acquiline and situationally separate. We see how our national identity, the impressions and assumptions we form about our landscapes developed between the forties and late fifties- entities such as the Country Code, the YHA and Scouts all participated in the way nature was classified for our understanding and consumption. In the post war years we were encouraged to ‘go out to see’ the countryside and the new love of and access to, a family motor car eased us into doing so. And in one fell swoop, we started to detach ourselves from the idea that nature existed all around us in our towns and villages and cities; we ceased to see the Buddleja pushing itself through the tumbled rubble of war ruins, the industry of woodlice under an upturned slate long blown off a roof. The countryside became a theme park and nature its exhibits, and in writing this book, Matless underpins the importance of class, politics and economics in shaping the way in which we are influenced to engage with it.
The Little Toller series of nature writings-
The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell,Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever and I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods’ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Kentish Bluebell woods explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside. In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Finally, Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
‘Wildwood’ ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin-
If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers, a lifelong resident of Suffolk and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. His perfectly observed descriptions of swimming in the moat that surrounded his Mellis farmhouse and a view of life from a frogs perspective is utterly beguiling. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linds Cracknell-
Described by Sara Maitland as “probably the most physically present to the reader. These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking”, Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. Our favourite chapter? A walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill-fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.
‘The Wormingford Trilogy’ / Borderlands / A Year at Bottengoms Farm by Ronald Blythe-
The well-known author of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe lives near where he was born and brought up, on the Suffolk-Essex border and remains the lay reader to the parishes of Wormingford, Mount Bures and Little Horkesley. More than a diary, not just nature writing and containing meditations and opinions on history, faith and the nature of man, these books are a set of beautifully observed evocations. They mark the changes wrought by time and man in the changing English countryside and collate his ‘Church Times’ columns in one place too. Blythe can be deliciously waspish one moment, warm and accepting the next and he is as rooted in place and Suffolk time as the river Stour that is so beloved to him. If you love the poetry of John Clare, then Blythe will suit- he is the president of the John Clare society and references the poet often.
‘My Year with Hares’ by Martin Hayward Smith-
Film maker and photographer, Hayward Smith has worked with the BBC and the Discovery Channel among many others and this lovely tome records, through words and stunning photography, his encounters with the hares that populate his part of the world in the middle of Norfolk. He was given access to thousands of acres of private land across the region -prime UK hare habitat, from Holkham, The Barshams to Burnham Market and the resulting animal behaviours, many of which were new to him, are told over chapters in the form of diary entries, categorised by season. As well as hares, Martin documents through text and photographs other wildlife encountered while out in the field. Complete with a foreword by Ray Mears, the amazing images were acquired through the employment of a camera carrying drone and remote camera placed inside a stuffed hare. Also documenting his experience of raising a young leveret he rescued from the jaws of his dog, this is an exquisite work and can be purchased via his website- martinhaywardsmith.com.
‘Four Fields’ by Tim Dee-
A meditation on land and the way humans live on it and live with it ranging from the Enclosures Act to the genocide visited upon Native Americans across the grasslands of their ancestral home, this book examines, in fine, meditative detail, plots of land from the grasslands of the Masai to the barren, poisoned fields surrounding Chernobyl, finally swinging back to the authors own stomping grounds- a small Cambridgeshire fenland field. The theme of birds runs through his musings- the healthy flocks pf larks that range over his own home contrast sadly with the genetic mutations caused to swallows by radiation as they flew over Chernobyl on that fateful day and afterwards. More than 20 per cent have been affected and of course if they had any sentient understanding, their return to the eerily quiet forests that surround the radiation blanketed city would not have happened. When Dee writes of the ‘jewelled toolkit of the Kingfisher’ this dazzling language contrasts all the more with his sombre grief at the damage wrought upon the creatures of the world.
‘The Barley Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale’ by Richard Mabey-
Full Circle editions publishes beautifully designed and printed hardback books by writers and artists of the region, alongside new editions of classics, all with stunning artwork by some of the region’s best artists. This text by well-known writer Richard Mabey explores the nightingale’s links with Suffolk’s culture and landscape, tracing the bird’s course through lore, tradition and myth and packing the 80 pages with historical and literary tit bits. This is a book that is as much a pleasure to own and touch as it is to read with illustrations by Derrick Greaves- a bright green cover with elegant drawings of birds and oak leaves representing the woodland over which our local nightingales swoop. “Below me, Arger Fen arches like a whale-back across the southern horizon. Everywhere, dead elm stumps rear in silhouette amongst the scrub. The light is extraordinary – luminous, dusty, giving every pale surface the lustre of mother-of-pearl. Mounds of cow parsley and scythed grass glow in the moonbeams like suspended balls of mist.” Mabey writes. Having heard Nightingales sing at Arger Fen adds to the thrill of encountering such dreamy and magical descriptions of a woodland I first encountered as a child and now know so well. This book makes a perfect little gift to read on a plane or train journey or to take on a long walk.
‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’ by George Ewart Evans-
I was recently re-acquainted with this pioneering and classic work at Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life which devotes a whole room to this and other local classics of countryside and nature writing. As a result I went straight out and bought myself a new copy. Another book that is as much a pleasure to own, its detailed illustrations are by David Gentleman whose work can also be seen in the rescued Roundhouse, once a part of the Bury St Edmunds cattle market where it served as tea house, which now stands in the meadows at the museum. “If you want to find out about something you ask the people who know; the collier, the countryman, you ask the fellows who cut the hay.” said Ewart Evans and he was correct, this record of life in Blaxhall, a small Suffolk community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stands alongside Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ as an absolute classic of local oral testimony to a life that disappeared under the might of agricultural mechanisation.
A Blackbirds Year by Miles Richardson
“My new year begins when the blackbird returns to song” says the author and bounded by its song, we find wilderness in places close to home, exploring how mind and nature inhabit one another. Guided by the philosophy of the Victorian naturalist and philosopher Richard Jefferies, Richardson looks at how our minds and emotions interact with, and are affected by, our surroundings through his writings which are in turn informed by his profession as an applied research psychologist. Packed with vivid imagery and a thoughtful, experimental freedom, this is a book to dip in and out of as you ponder the questions it asks of you.
Birds and People by Mark Cocker
Mark Cocker makes it clear that the low priority we afford to nature and the environment and the manner by which we separate our human culture from the natural world is absolute folly and, in this book, seeks to reunite both. A compendium of ornitholology and anthropology, Cocker weaves in history, culture, mythology, language and lore alongside soci-politics in a detailed study whilst sumptuous photographs taken over ten years by award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling show us the roles that birds play in our lives across every continent. Birds have haunted, obsessed and inspired humans, feeding and working for us, inspiring great art, offering companionship and an early warning system for danger. There are lyrical examples of how birds habits and traits are interpreted by different cultures- the hummingbird that represents rebirth to Peruvians because of its ability to enter a hibernation like torpid state closely mimicking death, interspersed with other more disturbing stories. Our British love of owls (in part down to Harry Potter) is not shared by other countries who regard them as terrifying omens of death, spitting at owls incarcerated in zoos and killing them, a sharp and necessary counterbalance to any tendency to anthropomorphise. It isn’t only Cockers voice either: the prose soars in and out of anecdotes and stories from more than 650 individuals all over the globe. From academics to hunters, their stories cannot be separated from the birds they live alongside.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
Better known for writing ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, Sacks has another passion alongside his well documented one for the human mind- ferns and the fern allies, horsetail and selaginella among them. He is fascinated by their ability to grow and survive the most hostile climates and terrains and their constitution, as the three main lineages of vascular plants, all presumably evolved from a Silurian common ancestor. Oaxaca Journal is the account of his trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts to a part of the world that is well populated with these tenacious little plants. Ferns filled Sack’s childhood too, from the awareness that the coal that warmed his house contained the remains of greatly compressed fossilised ferns, to the seemingly filmy, delicate plants that filled the conservatory. Their apparent delicacy gives no clue to the reality- that ferns prevailed where the dinosaur has not and have outlived all manner of extinctions. We are reminded of the place of ferns in art and literature and of their mystery: their reproductive systems lined along the undersides of foliage, of underground furry rhizomatous runners and the hidden secret heart shaped sex contained deep within the plant. Their invisibility was believed to be conferable, inspiring Falstaff to say “we have receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.” A mere 152 pages long, this is a book for jacket pockets, for short journeys, for dipping into and out of.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Shifting our attention to make us re examine the landscape of our lives, Jamie telescopes us into the more intimate of perspectives: there’s the encounter between Jamie and a cluster of malignant cells under a miscroscope lens in a hospital path lab; the storm grey wink of a petrels corpse, found on a beach and now in a plastic bodybag on her desk; and then out it pans, taking us up to the heavens and the aurora borealis and back down into the depths of the sea, carved up by the binary sleekness of the killer whales as they range along the cliffs, hunting and travelling. As we travel with her, we find that the more isolated the place, the more effort it is to quieten a mind, “clamorous as a goose” but her writing slowly drills down and cancels out the superfluous row. She is highly attuned to noise, telling us of the mineral silence of an Arctic landscape and the days immediately following the death of her mother which have “a high glassy feel, as though a note was being sung just too high to hear.” Jamie felt compelled then, to reconnect the weird intimate and inner world of human nature and when it goes wrong (cancer), with the nature talked about at environmental conferences. “I’ve never thought of that as nature” says the pathologist and alongside him, we too accompany Jamie on a beautiful and challenging redefining of what we class as nature in fourteen, near perfect little essays.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s nature writing sometimes gets overlooked because of her vast talent for fiction and this appreciation of America’s virgin lands, the remnants of the once vast wilderness that has survived man is one of them. Barbara Kingsolver and award-winning photographer Annie Griffiths Belt roam far and wide over the great untamed tracts of land that have somehow slipped through the net. From wetlands, woodlands, coasts, grasslands, and drylands—and the pioneering, often ornery environmentalists who worked to save them- Kingsolver adds her voice to the chorus calling for better protection and veneration of them. She writes. “Here, in these lost corners, are the reserves of species abundance and strength for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur; they are its swan song. This book is about them.”
Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of New York City by Robert Sullivan
From Jimmy Hoffa to the myriad animals and plants that survive and thrive in close proximity to one of the worlds great concrete jungles, the Meadowlands, these man made and undervalued lowlands across the Hudson River from Manhattan are a revelation. This post glacial meltwater landscape extends nearly forty miles from Staten Island’s southern end to the southern end of New York’s Rockland County and is now a brackish, low lying saltwater breckland. Hoffa’s corpse may or may not be buried here alongside the granite corpse of Penn Station in the city after it was razed to the ground and transported here for interrment in this mingling of the disposable and the natural. Sounds not available on a CD emanate from the commingling of traffic on the New Jersey turnpike and the rustling reeds of Snake Hill, a marshy terrain through which he canoes. We accompany him to Waldens Swamp, a boggy festering morass of cigarette butts, rubbish and collapsed plastic bottles which, nonetheless, provides a home for carp, muskrat and wildfowl. The place is a paradox, reflected by the juxtaposition of an egret on a giant pylon and Victor, the mosquito inspector. Victor’s landing counts and detailed zoological knowledge are both used for the purposes of exterminating a creature which sticks two fingers up at all our attempts to control it. In the epigraph, Hopkins says, ”And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing” and Sullivan ensures that we do not forget this, that nature exists in spite of man and not because of it. What we do about this is our call.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
When Steve Sillett was nineteen years old, he tree climbed (with no safety ropes) one of the worlds tallest trees, becoming one of only a handful of people who have climbed them and know of where they can be found. Thirty storeys above the ground, surrounded by the crowns of the giant redwoods all around him, Preston was privy to a hidden eco system that would change the way he viewed the world. Preston seeks to connect these trees and their suroundings with the people that yearn to climb them, weaving personal testimony into a narrative that guides us through the intricate ecology of the canopy and the forest. He explains how the climbers developed technique and how they cope when one of their own ‘takes a dive into a dirt nap’ aka falls off. We meet the bride who very nearly did after she made an error attaching a descender device. Had she not checked it before the ceremony, her lichen decorated gown, redwood wedding ring and geologist minister willing to conduct the ceremony harnessed, in mid air, would have all been in vain. They sound barking mad? Well before the end of this book, the author himself ‘goes native,’ joining the cast of characters in their oddness and ‘redwoodphilia’- a state that truly presents as an addiction to these huge titans of the forest.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
Aged twenty five, Fiennes was convalescing from a serious illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies and, during that half life state as recovery approaches, passed his time by rekindling an interest in ornithology.This was inspired by his fathers own interest and Fiennes favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Duly compelled to follow a related species, the lesser snow goose, as it migrates between its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, Fiennes set off in pursuit with an ambition to write a book that would be part travelogue, part nature writing and part meditation upon the nature of home. Journey as metaphor is a long established theme and it suits Fiennes book perfectly, acting as bedrock for his musings on what homesickness is, why do we yearn for home and how does this relate to the long and tortuous migration of these beautiful creatures. Full of intricate and finely observed descriptions of the geese, the land over which they pass and their manner as they settle each night at a fresh overnight site, set centuries ago as their compass point, and a transitory place that is, and yet is not, home.
A Study of Blackbirds by David Snow
This beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s, remains one of the loveliest pieces of nature writing I possess. Snow may have spent a great part of his life in the study of tropical, fruit eating and nectar feeding birds, taking him all over central and south America, accompanied by his wife, but the humble blackbird is as enthralling a specimen as the most brilliantly hued hermit humming bird in his writerly hands. He tells of blackbirds returning to old nests, of older male birds singing lustily in the evenings as night approaches and how successful first time parenthood increases their chances of retaining their mate for a second brood in the same year. Here is Snow on their courtship behaviour: “The displaying bird has a curiously wild, staring appearance.[…] The whole time, with his beak held open, he usually utters a low ‘strangled’ song, made up of chattering alarm notes, rough warbles and subdued snatches of what sounds like true song.” Snow then goes on to tell us that during mating, other males will jump at the unfortunate male, barreling at him, aiming to knock him ignomiously off his perch and take his place themselves. The cover of this monograph is a linocut by artist Robert Gilmour whose first commercial use of the technique it was and his line drawings in the text offer a clear interpretation of Snows prose.
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
As a nation, we British are prone to parochialism and an associated sentimentality about the countryside and in some ways, Apple Acre illustrates this. Despite rationing, black outs and austerity during the Second World War, Adrian and his family lived their lives in the Suffolk farming community where they remained for decades, happily absorbed in the daily tasks of rearing their three children and struggling against those farming eternals, the weather and the land. The rhythms are ones that cannot be modified- the seasons that have dominion over planting, cropping, preserving and storing and the church festivals that mark the arrival of each. There is nostalgia for a life that would soon change and a little pomp and circumstance surrounding the reasons why the war was fought. Yet Bell is a realist and warns us that we risk becoming separated from the land and the origins of our food. He advocates recycling and reusing and of retaining a realistic grasp of what you are capable of managing farm wise. He is no idealist and he espouses many of the values that we are now sadly having to relearn.
Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye
For over three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been cpativated by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre overlooking a loch and encircled by the untamed glens of Scotland. Gods of the Morning takes us through a year, following the turn of the seasons and their unpredictability which he fears may be due to global climate change. Birds are his Gods of the Morning and a particular passion: the book opens with a mournful tribute to the blackcap which crashes into his patio windows and subsequently dies. Reading this, we are immediately reminded that the rhythms of nature include death and subsequent regeneration- the corpse of the little bird is placed under a pyracantha bush to return to the earth. His descriptions are vital: the blackcap with its “cap as dark and glossy as liquorice”; the winter sun “power vanquished, enfeebled by the years reeling”; the wood mice with underbellies ” as white as the Rose of York” and tails flowing “with all the elegance and style of Elizabethan calligraphy.” Lister-Kaye reminds us to seek out that lost connection with the natural world and embrace its rhythms.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy
“I could smell it myself, honey sweet but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants” writes McCarthy as he describes his first encounters with the winged jewels as they fed on the buddleja which populated every crack of post war Britain. Arguing that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature and the intense joy it can bring, McCarthy proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen
I’ve always been interested in the edges of things, whether that be a person, a landscape or a subject and in Common Ground, Cowen takes us to a scrap of land near Harrogate when he moves to the area from London, itself a rich source of scrubby edges and half crossed- out margins. The gift of a second-hand Ordnance Survey map helped him find his imperfect Valhalla: “strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure”, or, as the Celts say, a ‘thin place’ whose history fans up and out. Thus follows a kind of lyrical portrait, similar to what AA Gill once said, of what might result if a place interviewed itself. It is beguiling and compelling and doesn’t depict the natural world as other and for that reason, I recommend it highly.
Along with rhubarb, blood oranges provide us with a neon bright shot of fruit in the crepuscular months of winter, their orange flesh mottled and marbled with the darkest of ruby reds. Their exterior gives no clue to the tie dyed extravaganza going on within, being merely a slightly more intense shade of the orange peel we expect. The taste of the flesh inside though, is complex, overlaid with bright raspberry tones as if a bowl of raspberries had been drenched with an affogato of best quality orange juice. Neither is that glorious colour subdued by cooking.
The three varieties originate from Italy and Spain, Sanguinelli from the latter and Moro and Tarocco from Italy and come from trees with a tendency to be alternate bearing, meaning that one year the crop will be heavy with smaller fruit and the next year sees lighter fruit yields but bigger and heavier in flesh and juice. The Moro is the most berry like in flavour whilst the Tarocco has a slight Seville orange like spiced bitterness to it, a more adult flavour that marries beautifully with chocolate. They are still relatively unused in the UK although in the Mediterranean region almost a third of the oranges consumed are blood oranges. Fruit carts in local markets are piled high, some of the fruit cut in half to show their brilliant hue and provide assurances to the shoppers. Small glasses of juice are ordered and drunk appreciatively, chased down by an expresso. The Sicilians serve a breakfast brioche stuffed with blood orange gelato and granita, there are cakes made with polenta, suffused with a syrup made from their juices and a spectacular duck a la orange can be produced using them instead of navel oranges.
In England we are seeing our traditional lemon curd and marmalades remade with blood oranges and preserves company Scarlet & Mustard sell them in season. Alongside being stocked in stores nationally, they often take a stall at our local farmers markets and these brim over with pyramids of stout little jars full of fruit curds and tall bottles of salad dressings, both made with orange all year round and blood oranges when in season. Take the lid off the curd and within seconds, enjoy its sharp, blowsy scent which compliments rather than competes with other festive foods- thankfully the aromas of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and rich dried fruit plus the low and slow game stews which tend to dominate a kitchen in December and January are the natural bedfellow to the orange.
For this salad I have used the Moro and you will need to use a mandolin or very sharp knife to cut the fennel as thinly as possible. The citrus will collapse if you try to slice it with the mandolin so use a knife instead. I would serve this salad with its natural bed fellow, thin bloodied and rare slices of beef although it stands happily alone, served with decent bread. A handful of fleshy and ferrous olives or a smear of tapenade on your bread wouldn’t taste amiss either and I think duck would work too. Visually it is a feast of Klimt like jewel coloured circles, almost too pretty to eat.
Blood orange & fennel salad
1 thinly sliced bulb of fennel- it must be super fresh as this salad is all about the crunch
1/2 of a red onion, sliced thinly (and I have made this with a banana shallot too)
Toss the slices of onion, the fennel, the lemon in the lemon juice and add salt and pepper to season. Then add the olive oil. Add the blood orange slices last of all and carefully (and lightly) mix them in so they don’t bleed all over the rest of the salad. Eat, preferably with some rare beef or duck.
Many of us still struggle to talk about menstruation and when it is discussed in the media, there is often a hostile response from men and women who clearly find the topic uncomfortable. However when this results in discrimination and additional pressures on girls and women in developing countries and war zones where their access to sanitary protection and toilet facilities is limited, women and men in the west have a duty to speak out.
When Heather Watson crashed out of the Australian Open she coyly alluded to the reason why her game was sub-par, ““I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things” breaking what many commentators describe as a taboo in sport- the discussion of how the menstrual cycle may or may not affect performance and resulting in a few press articles.
Is there a taboo about discussing it in real life or is it a case that the real life situation isn’t reflected in the media coverage and if this is the case, then whose ‘fault’ might that be? The British hockey player Hannah McLeod, in an interview with the Guardian where she talks about her own team-mates attitudes, claims that “we talk about it all the time…it comes up very frequently” then elaborates further, stating that on day one of their period, each member of the squad has to email their strength and conditioning coach, Ben Rosenblatt.
It is refreshing to learn that Rosenblatt creates training programmes that reflect the menstrual status of each hockey player in McLeods team but research into the effects of menstruation and the cycle itself on performance offers inconclusive and variable results. The Melbourne-based sports physician and Chief Medical Officer for Netball Australia, Dr Susan White stated: “
“World’s best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases.” She added, “There is one study in Italy that indicates female soccer players may have a greater injury risk before and during their menstrual periods. It is unclear whether it was because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of them. There are no other studies at this stage that support this research.”
New research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2011), investigated the effects of the menstrual cycle phase using eleven rowers, concluding that not only was their endurance performance not influenced by a normal menstrual cycle, their energy expenditure, oxygenation and heart rate were also not significantly different during the menstrual cycle phases.
These studies are focusing upon ‘normal’ menstrual cycles though and are not concerned with the psychological and social impact of menstruation either. It is fair to assume that elite sportswomen pay as much attention to the fine tuning of their reproductive health as they do to all physiological functioning and it is also reasonable to assume that the assessment and evaluation of their cycles would be a normal and unremarkable aspect of their lives. The pitfalls of menstruation and any inhibition about discussing it must surely lie with the school playing fields, the changing rooms and everyday sporting lives of women at non-elite level. There is also the wider implications for women performing in any work place and public sphere where scrutiny is high and easy management of it is limited or complicated, What do women in the forces, women who live and work in poorer nations or isolated parts of the world (Antarctica) and beyond (the space station) do?
Remember those days of coyly approaching the (often male) PE teacher before swimming or cross country to tell him that it was ‘that time’ and therefore you might need to be excused ot have close access to a toilet? Remember the anxieties of using sanitary protection under skimpy and stretchy gym-knickers, leotards and skirts if you were yet to graduate to tampons? Remember the fear of accidents when wearing tennis whites? British tennis No5 Tara Moore does, and has spoken out about the nightmares she has about getting her period during Wimbledon, not just because it might affect performance, but add in the horror of white skirts, blood and the banks of press photographers there to capture the moment. Moore is not the only woman engaged in an open dialogue about menstruation and leakage. Check out the instagram feed of Mayan Toledano ( @thisismayan) for the image, below, which caused many complaints- that of a woman wearing underwear stained with blood. Mayan owns a company that makes underwear and clothing with a strong feminist ethos.
It is hard to unselfconsciously tumble across a gym-mat or upside down on a trampoline when you fear all eyes are on your crotch. Girls and women who suffer from excessive bleeding, severe pain or unpredicable cycles face even more problems and when you remember that the menstrual cycle can take a few years to regulate itself in a young girl, we can see that the problem is not a rare one, and something that teachers or care givers would encounter frequently. So what is the impact on ‘ordinary females?’
Researching this article and soliciting requests for comments led to multiple requests to use ‘first name only,’ especially from younger women. Many said they had no problems asking fathers, brothers and boyfriends to buy sanitary protection for them, they also had no problems letting the males in their life know they were having a period. But they all baulked at being identified in this piece. As Emily (19) who is a keen runner, said,
“I don’t think I am ashamed of having periods but it is embarrassing and I don’t want to become the local poster girl for it.”
I spoke to girls competing at county and regional level in gymnastics, ballet, boxing and contact sports, horseriding and long distance running and while all of them applauded Heather Watson,
“she has opened the door to a more realistic conversation about how women manage when they work or compete at a high level or in difficult conditions” (Sarah, dancer in her late twenties),
they were reluctant to identify themselves. As Louise explained,
“I am happy for my boxing trainer to know that my abdomen is tender and bloated and ‘yes I do need a toilet break every twenty minutes because my stomach is upset’ but I don’t necessarily want the whole world to know that, let alone my opponent.“
Sarah spoke of the proximity of ballet and dance, of being lifted by her male dance partner who has “his hands in my armpits, my crotch, between my legs (during lifts). Your partner odten touches your stomach and because we are so attuned to each others bodies and how they move and perform, they can feel when I have pre menstrual bloating.” She laughs and agrees at the suggestion that they are more in tune with her physiology than her husband:
“I am not embarrassed about that but…the audience, the stage hands seeing any leaks..then I have seconds to change a tampon in some of the more demanding ballets when I am rarely off stage. I’ll let you imagine what dancers end up having to do and those costumes, the classical ones and all in one body leotards do NOT come off easily or swiftly.”
Sarah is keen to get the point across that dancers tend to be very earthy about their bodies,“they are tools” but despite this, she still feels anxiety about her ‘tool’ letting her down and bleeding visibly in public.
Interestingly, discussion around the management of menstruation pointed out issues with the rules on the use of medication and herbal aids which means that many painkillers and drugs that affect prostglandins (a useful way of reducing cramps) may not be part of the box of tricks available to them. As Emma said,
“The drugs that work best on pain and stomach cramps make me woozy and disinclined to get off the sofa. And the nature of my sport (roller derby) means that I compete all the time so taking the pill to postpone or stop my periods would mean I’d probably never be able to have one. Which makes me worry because I think it is healthy to have periods ” Her conclusion? “I am left having to manage it and hoping that the world won’t stop turning if I accidentally leak because things are at the heavy stage- I think I’d take a few weeks to feel I could show my face in public again if that happened and that there’s always the risk that I’ll be all over the internet, being laughed at.”
Emma echoes a lot of women in her belief that it is not ideal to prevent menstrual periods over long stretches of times. A period offers a woman a mini health-status report every month. Regular menstruation that is not overly painful or troublesome tells us that our system is balanced, that we are neither too underweight or overweight. It is a good indicator that we are not becoming overly stressed, that we are not pregnant, that our uterus can prepare for implantation and that we are not yet approaching menopause (important to know if you are planning a family in the future). Take them away and despite their nuisance value, we might feel something is amiss.
The euphemisms about menstruation don’t help an open and frank discussion though. Girl thing, time of the month, Aunt Flo, getting the painters in, wading through the Red Sea; they are many and varied. Same for assumptions, sterotypes and misapprehensions about the physiology of the menstrual cycle and its effects, some of which were mentioned by other elite sportswomen in their reactions to Heather Watson’s statement. Here’s former tennis player Annabel Croft: “It was quite sweet, the way Heather said it…you are quite emotional at that time.” Not all women experience heightened emotions during menstruation and her words had that weird undercurrent of unintended infantilism and internalised stereotypes common to the way the behaviour of menstruating women is depicted. Hence the scene in 30 Rock which saw Amelia Earharts disappearance whilst attempting to fly across the Pacific being blamed upon the unexpected arrival of her period. Go down that road and you arrive at the ‘menstruating women are unpredictable and unreliable’ belief that keeps us out of the boardroom and the sporting field.
Many religions and cultures codify elaborate rituals and rules about how a woman must behave during her menstrual period. For Orthodox Jews, the Old Testament stipulates a woman is unclean during menstruation but the Talmud goes further, stating that her period of uncleanness lasts for an additional week after menstruation has ended.
“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19 (KJV)
Niddah is the word used to denote the menstruating woman and her period of uncleanness which defiles everyone and everything she touches. She may not have sexual intercourse with her husband either. His existence is the perfect state, the default setting for cleanliness and a woman risks contaminating that. Only the ritual bath (“mitweh”) at the end of the period can render her fit to return to family participation.
Islam emphasises the normality of menstruation whilst regarding its blood as unclean (najis) although this inpurity should not prevent the woman from leading a ‘normal’ family life. However entry to the mosque and touching the writings of the Qur’an, the names and attributes of Allah, the names of the Prophet, the Imams and Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) are forbidden. The Qu’uran has this to say about sex during menstruation:
“They ask you about menstruation. (O Muhammad) tell (them that) menstruation is a discomfort (for the women, it is a period when they pass through physical and emotional tension. Therefore,) do not establish sexual relations with them during the menses, and (again you are reminded that) do not approach them (sexually) until the blood stops.”
In Uganda and Nepal, teams of people are tackling the challenges menstruation has for local girls, both as a taboo and the resulting issues of hygiene and social exclusion which sees school attendance plummit. The cultural tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal, believes menstruation to be polluting and harmful to others, meaning females must remain isolated, abstaining from contact with other people, often in what are called ‘menstrual huts’ with their attendant poor hygiene, risk of disease and horrendous stigma. In Uganda, many menstruating girls are prevented from cooking food and banned from carrying newborn children. Girls in Uganda face less social restriction during their periods, but for them the fear of the consequences of inadequate sanitary protection means they avoid school and social activities. Teasing from peers and even teachers is a common occurrence.
The same problem has been reported in other African countries and across India too where school attendance past the menarche drops off drastically in poorer, more rural communities. UNICEF reports that “in countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20% of the school year,” with many girls dropping out at around 11 to 12-years-old. They may also miss school because they are not educated about their periods, and neither is the school which thus fails to provide secure, discreet and clean toilet facilities for them.
The word ‘blessing’ is derived from the Old English for ‘bleeding’ and indeed the menses were once regarded as a sacred mysterious event being as they were then, unexplained, linked to the even more mysterious moon and part of a cycle of fertility that begat life. In the Americas, some Native American tribes celebrate and revere them- Apache tradition calls girls at menarche “Changing Women”, and later on, “White Painted Women” whlst Navajo girls run towards the rising sun. However the Sundance ceremony sees menstruating women segregated to their own dancing area so as to act as counter balance to the energy flow of the main dance.
Some women are reclaiming this worshipful attitude yet I am extremely wary of what I call the ‘woo’ side of menstruation activism: all that Mother Earth and menstrual goddess rhetoric; the worshipping of the menarche as a sacred rite of passage, elevating its status as culmination of the fertility cycle and the sole ability of the female to bring forth a new life tend to leave me cold. Yes, when you consider the odds, the fact that women get pregnant at all can be awe inspiring (so many ‘if’s and variables) but the whole of our fertility has an easy biological explanation; our uteri are not ‘mysterious.’
Elevating the status of menstruation is one end of a spectrum that sees the less celebratory rituals that isolate and shame women at its opposite end. They take what is actually a biologically practical solution to a product we no longer need-the spongy endometrial build up- and imbue it with a spiritual ‘woo’ side that cloaks it in layers of ritual and cultural rules, albeit women friendly ones. Seeking to make the explainable more mysterious in order to reclaim it from misogyny and misunderstanding is not the way to break away from taboo as it risks alienating women who wish to shrug off their embarrassment but who do not want to publicly discourse about the nature of their menstrual blood or celebrate something which can be significantly physically debilitating. No matter how positively you embrace or re-frame menstruation, it is often inconvenient, physically uncomfortable for many and downright painful for some. There are women (and men) who want to tackle the taboo of menstrual talk without attaching any special spiritual significance to it.
Reclaiming the celebratory ‘woo’ side will, I fear, allow men to cop out of trying to understand (‘womens stuff’) and also encourages the idea that hormones and periods cause us to become unpredictable, mysterious and capricious. I do not wish to give the impression that I rise with my red hair and eat men like air at certain times of the month. Nor do I wish to be defined as a woman who is prone to eating loads of chocolate, throwing tantrums or requiring special treatment because I am some kind of menstruating goddess creature. More seriously, imbuing menstruation with a spiritual and celebratory aspect is not very different to those menstrual huts and ritual baths which after all, are the sum total of men and women trying to explain and then contain what is/was to them, the mysterious and the indefinable.
What we do need however, is greater equality in sports commentary, reporting and representation. We will not get a practical and objective evaluation of the ways in which a womans fitness and sporting ability can be affected by her menstrual cycle when the world of sports media is, in itself, so male dominated. We will not see intelligent and sensitive sports reporting that understands the impact of female biology- something that is simply not on the radar of most men. Do young girls risk losing an interest in sports at puberty because of fears about their appearance and the difficulties of managing their periods? We need to research this and make a space for their experiences to be heard and by doing this, we will help prevent this from happening. Oh and we might end up with more than one toilet break per set for female tennis players at Wimbledon and better designed sanitary protection too.
Donating money to charities, blogging and tweeting about the issue all helps frank discussion too. Please check out the links below. In addition, women in Syria and similar war zones face added privation. Please read this article which tells you more about their plight and what you can do to help.
This traditional dried fruit and almond filled pastry was eaten all over Suffolk and Essex and takes just a few minutes to make. Mentioned by Chaucer and part of a town ritual for the last four hundred years, it deserves to be eaten more widely.
Wandering around Saffron Walden some fifteen years ago I came across a trove of old cookery books in one of the second hand bookshops the town used to be known for, and now sadly closed down alongside many others. One of the books I bought contained a wealth of old East Anglian recipes including an intriguing one which mentioned the ‘Bury St Edmunds Kitchel.’ Unfortunately a lot of the pages were missing and I only read half of the story, then I lent the book out and never got it back. Then more time passed and apart from the occasional impulse to do some further research into this mysterious pastry that bore the name of the town I had moved to, life got in the way and the Kitchel remained unbaked and unknown.
Last week, whilst ambling through the lanes and highways of t’internet I came across it again and although my hope that it had a closer link to my part of Suffolk was dashed (It is linked more closely to the Essex town of Harwich, if anything), there is still enough evidence that it was baked and eaten pretty widely throughout the Suffolk with specific links to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Alas, I can find no trace of that mysterious Bury St Edmunds link and it remains a mystery as to why the book was so adamant about this.
The God’s Kitchel is based on that tried and tested combination of pastry and dried fruit that served as efficient fuel delivery system for hard working bodies and a way of getting through the lean period between November and late March when little fresh fruit was on the market. Back then, the stores were not full of imported green beans from Kenya and satsumas from southern Spain.
Households would preserve the fruits that they could grow, those apples, cherries and plums from their own trees, but the dried fruit we associate with mince pies and Christmas puddings- sultanas, dried peel and raisins, was comparatively expensive and beyond the reach of many households. During the medieval period, foreign exploration led to the trading of exotic spices and dried fruits which could survive the many months a sea journey could take but their rarity and expense caused them to used in foods made for feasts on high days and holidays; at least for ordinary families anyway. Back then, like the mince pie, they were made with meat and served as a useful way of using up this preserved meat over the winter months. Over time, the meat was gradually omitted from the kitchel in the same way it ceased to be included in mince pies, although traditional mincemeat still contains suet, the fat that protects the kidneys of an animal.
Back then, many towns and regions had their own very specific feast day foods of which the kitchel was one- it is a close relative to the godcake made and handed out in Coventry; the only other place with a ceremony similar to that of Harwich and Aldeburgh. It has been suggested that the kitchels original triangular shape was a reference to the Holy Trinity, as are the three cuts in the top, and this very same religious symbolism (like the original crib shape of the mince pie) might have resulted in their ban from sale during the period of the Commonwealth in seventeenth century England.
Edward Moor, in a dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) describes the kitchel as “a flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.” By triangular, he means more of a cornet shape, like a triangular apple turnover.
The kitchel was even mentioned as far back as 1386 when Chaucer cites it in his Summoners Tale:
“Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice, A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese,”
and the 15th century ecclesiastical court servants of Chaucer clearly considered the kitchel a worthy enough and acceptable recompense for the saving of a soul or its delivery from penance. Evidence then that a cake that appears, to our modern palates as fairly modest, was actually a great and infrequent treat for the 15th century person.
The origins of ‘the word kitchel’ are obscure and therefore suggestive of an ancient lineage (way back to the 11th century at the very least) although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘kichel’ (and offers an alternative spelling of cicel) as a ‘small cake’. A connection with the German for cake- ‘Kuche’- is suggested as is the Yiddish ‘kikhl’ which commonly refers to a small sugary cookie. In Anglo Saxon, ‘cicel’ is both a ‘morsel’ or ‘little mouthful’ but is also linked to ‘circle’ too. The Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) supposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon although there is no specific reference to cake so unless anyone can further advise, one has to assume that the Germanic origins are the most likely ones. Or are they?
Locals in Harwich, Aldeburgh and other East Anglian towns say that kitchels also known as ‘Catch Alls’ because of the tradition where the cakes were thrown to the crowds by the mayor each year (and more on this later) to symbolise the showering of his blessings upon the town. Believed to date back to the Norman conquest, a 1905 guidebook describes this practice as ‘a curious custom, many many hundreds of years old.‘ In Aldeburgh, ‘kitchels’ are baked and sold on New Year’s Eve and monumental amounts of bad luck is foretold for those who do not order at least one ‘kichel’ for each member of the family. As F A Qutt says in his book, ‘The County Coast,’ the kitchel “must be eaten before midnight or the worst of ill luck was predicted for folks who failed to partake of these cakes and even now, it is said, there is no one in the town so daring as to nibble a crumb of them after the new year had dawned.”
Back in 1935, the local newspaper of Harwich and Dovercourt describes the town ceremony as a ‘good custom for godfathers and godmothers every time their godchildren asked them for a blessing to give them a cake which was a ‘gods kitchel’ and cites the saying ‘ask me a blessing and I will give you a kitchel’ as a common one.
Going back to the Harwich ceremony, the ringing of the bell from the town crier, followed by a speech, “Catch a kitchel, if you can!” signifies the start of their being thrown from the Guildhall window in a ceremony that is now held on the third Thursday in May around noon at St. Nicholas’ Church. In the next town, staff at the Cabin Bakery, Dovercourt, begin baking the 400 kitchels in the early hours, ready for delivery to the Guildhall and local schools – unlike centuries before, every child who wants one will get a kitchel. The town clerk and staff sit in the grade one listed Guildhall and wrap each one individually.
Symbolising the spreading of goodwill amongst the poor of the town by the newly elected mayor who walks through the streets back to the Guildhall from Church Street, resplendent in bicorne hat, mayoral chain and scarlet frock coat with black pantaloons worn underneath, it is thought to be a development from the tradition, at the beginning of the year, whereby godparents would present theur godchildren with a cake along with their blessing for the new year ahead. The children of Harwich however, accompany the mayor back to the guildhall and await his appearance at the window, hands outstretched, waiting to catch the kitchels.
Some recipes for Gods Kitchels specify shortcrust pastry and others use puff. I have tried both and much prefer the latter which gives it a lightness that balances out the dried fruit and ground almond contents. I have seen versions with added rum or brandy which you, of course, are most welcome to do too but I have kept my version as close to the original as possible although I use bought pastry, fresh from the chiller cabinet. The brand I buy is all butter which puffs up admirably. Despite the dried fruit, the sweetness quotient isn’t that high (sugar wasn’t that cheap back in the day) so you might want to add a little extra sugar. Or do what we do and serve it custard or with a dollop of double cream, sweetened with a little icing sugar.
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Grease a large baking sheet.
Melt the butter over low heat in a decent sized heavy bottom pan and add the currants, spice and peel along with the ground almonds and stir them well, ensuring they are all incorporated. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool.
Divide the puff pastry into half, roll each half into two evenly sized oblongs and place one of them carefully onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the dried fruit mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring you leave a margin around all four edges. Moisten the edges with some milk then lift the second sheet of pastry carefully over the top. Seal the edges by crimping (you might have an excess which is fine to cut off with a sharp knife before you crimp and seal.
Mark the pastry lightly into squares with a very sharp knife. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting through the outlines knife marks into squares. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar (I like golden) and serve.
Its difficult to get hold of fresh Key Limes outside of the Americas. The memory of the fruits hanging in clusters on the rows of trees in Mexican orchards and the fruit, ripe and fallen in the front yards of the houses that edge the sandy streets of Florida’s Estero Beach torment me. I am back home in cold old England, vainly emailing Waitrose to ask if they will stock them and pestering my local market stall to look for them when they are next at New Covent Garden.
What makes the Key Lime even more valuable (and costly) is that it takes between 10-18 of the fruits to produce a small cup of the juice as opposed to the more easily available Persian lime which yields 2-3 tablespoons of juice from just one of them. And what juice the Key Lime has- both tawny and citrus sharp, like a lime with a suntan. Add to this, the aromatic oils contained within the fragile rind which itself turns a shade of arylide yellow when it is fully ripe.
Consider foods made with it- the eponymous pie and pound cake, the latter sturdy and born of the homesteader yet flavoured with a fruit very far removed from a workaday staple; the granddaddy of Floridian sauces, ‘Old Sour,’ a fiery tincture of chile, lime juice and salt; the Mulata cocktail with its deep base of creme de cacao lifted by the zing of citrus and vanilla warmth of rum. All of them wonderful hybrids, the culinary offspring of a much travelled fruit.
The journey from tree to plate is hard won though. Workers harvest the fruit wearing thick leather gauntlets (if they are lucky enough to be given them) to protect against the vicious thorns that the trees arm themselves with. Twiggy stems flex, pierce and spike pickers in the face as they push their way into the crown of the tree where the best, sunripened fruit is located. Then, once on the chopping board the battle is yet to be resolved with flesh that defies being cut into neat segments and a centre thick with seeds.
For these reasons, it is not easy to get a slice of Key Lime Pie made with the real thing these days. As Raymond Sokolov wrote in the ‘Fading Feast’ (1981):
” I drove down from Miami,, impelled by a lifelong desire to taste an authentic Key Lime Pie. As I crossed the last bridge from Stock Island onto Key West, I assumed I was only minutes from enjoying a rich slice of Florida’s most famous regional speciality. But after a week of stuffing down piece after piece of one so- called Key Lime Pie after another, I came to realise that probably none of these pies contained a single drop of freshly squeezed juice. Indeed, after some serious enquiry among local experts, I am now morally certain that virtually all ‘Key Lime Pies’ are actually made with the juice of the Tahiti (or Persian or Bearss) lime, which is not a true lime at all.”
Sokolov was not alone in his concerns and earlier attempts to ratify its ingredients had been made by the state government in 1965 when Bernie Papy Jr introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be ‘levied against anyone advertising Key Lime Pie which was not made with the real fruit.’ Unsurprisingly the bill was not passed. Then in 1994, the State Legislature officially recognized the pie as ‘an important symbol of Florida’ even though North Floridian lawmakers had argued against this, calling instead for the pecan pie, with nuts grown in state, be afforded this recognition. On July 2006, House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the pie the official Florida state pie- and who doesn’t love the idea of a state (or county) having a state pie, especially one made with such an alluring ingredient, far more than the sum of its very great historical parts?
Likely to be a three way hybrid involving three plant species and at least two different genera) of citron (Citrus medica), pummelo (Citrus grandis), and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha, the Key Lime was carried by the Arabs across North Africa into Spain and Portugal, finally ending up in the Americas after being brought along for the ride by the Spanish and Portugese who themselves rocked up there in the early part of the sixteenth century. The lime took to the climate of the Deep South with the result that it went on to flourish throughout the Caribbean and the east coast of Mexico, migrating through Central America down to the more tropical areas of South America and, not least, the Florida Keys where it flourished under the mulches of seaweed, beggarweed and velvet beans laid down by orchard owners each year.
Part of their harvest was placed in wooden barrels, pickled in saltwater and shipped to Boston where they became a popular snack for school children; who remembers the mention of pickled limes in ‘Little Women’ and ‘What Katy Did?’ Youngsters were fortified with much needed vitamin C as were the sailors who took the preserved limes with them on long voyages, the practice a nod to the pickling, salting and drying of limes and other citrus which has been long practised across the Levant and Arab countries, the latter being the original home of the lime.
Sadly, commercial production of Key Limes across the south of Florida and its west coast islands near Fort Myers and Estero Beach, along with the Keys, was halted by the 1926 hurricane which wiped out the citrus groves along with a substantial acreage of pineapple plantations. The growers replanted with Persian Lime trees which are easier to grow and pick and sturdier to transport because of their thicker skin. The peel of the Key Lime, by contrast, lacks the toughness and verdancy of its Persian cousin, becoming yellow, (called ‘yallery’ by locals in Estero), at maturity and producing that tawny, pale yellow juice that is higher in acidity than other lime varieties and flesh that is stubbornly resistant to serving in segments. The thinner the skin, the juicier the pulp is a good rule of thumb and the best limes have rind that can be pierced with a sharp thumb nail and scraped back sans knife if necessary, something appreciated by the conch divers of Florida.
These divers have Anglo Saxon Bahamian descent and now live in the Keys, eking a living from the archipelago waters by turtling, fishing and sponging. On days when the wind is ‘walking right’ the waters become ‘as crystal as gin’ (Conch speak) and the spongers, peering through buckets with a glass base, bring up sponges and conchs from depths as great as 60 feet although many of them also free dive. Some eat their conch raw, bouncing the glutinous, milky flesh around their mouths after using a knife blade to enter the shell and sever the muscle that binds it. Grasping the muscly protruding heel of the flesh, they draw it out and slice it into thin, gelatinous sashimi that quivers as it is prepared. Seasoning can be as simple as a dip in the seawater over the side of the boat or a squirt of Key Lime juice which cooks in the manner of ceviche.
Alongside the conch, another popular fish is the ‘Grunt.’ so called because of the noise this small bottom feeder emits as it is pulled from the deep. Being rather tiny, a considerable number are required to make a meal and after flash frying, they are eaten with a seasoning of ‘sour,’ the name for the bottled Key Lime juice that is squirted onto them (Nellie & Joes is often used). First their heads are whipped off between finger and thumb and after some dextrous plucking, the cerebral cavity of the grunt is exposed so the brains can be sucked out followed by the nibbling away of the crust, strips of dorsal flesh, tails and fins. These are nose to tail eating leaving little behind, not even enough for Hemingways famous polydactyl cats that prowl the island.
Years ago, the sponge and conch fishermen would have to remain at sea for some time and rations aboard could have included sweetened, condensed milk and key limes alongside eggs, the milk having been created in 1856 by Gail Borden to compensate for a lack of refrigeration. It wasn’t until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930 that tank trucks were able to transport ice, milk and refrigerated goods to the Keys. The terrain of the Florida Keys is not conducive to cattle farming; indeed a lot of the state is not, being largely reclaimed swamp and old Native American hunting grounds and historically, dairy was not a food group easily available to people living there. These food stuffs, milk, eggs and limes handily make up the ‘trinity’ of the pie but how we got from a larder of ingredients to the finished pie is unclear.
The origins of the classic Key Lime Pie are not conclusive with stories, in the main, appearing apocryphal at best, downright presumptious at worst. The first written reference to this pie that I can trace is in some of the writings by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) published in the 1930’s. Set up to create employment for unemployed writers during the Great Depression, the WPA created many art related programs for the relief of artists, writers and theatrical professionals, including the Federal Writers Project and in the later years of the programme, writers were sent out on assignments with photographers to document how America was eating.
Not a cookbook (in fact cookbook writers were banned from contributing), but rather ‘an account of group eating as an important American social institution and its part in the development of American cookery as an authentic art.’ The WPA writers filed thousands of stories that captured, as never before, the role food played in the formation of the countries society from possum dinners at Elk Lodges to the conch and key lime juice eating fishermen and divers of this old Spanish colony dangling off the right hand side of the contigious United States.
A ‘Promotional’ from the WPA, published in the 1930s, mentions the “world-famous” key lime pie yet a cook book by the Key West Womans Club published nearly ten years earlier in 1920, omits any mention of the recipe. Locals state that this may be due to the ubiquity of the pie being such that the editors felt nobody was in need of a written recipe (the teaching granny to suck eggs defence), but this doesn’t make sense when you consider that most Little League cookbooks feature their regions most popular and iconic recipes. Can you imagine a Charleston Little League cookbook without a recipe for benne wafers, pecan pralines and she-crab soup or its Texan equivalent lacking a recipe for a Bowl ‘O Red (chile)? Additionally, when it comes to a famous recipe that is such a vital part of a regional cuisine, everybody thinks that their recipe is the definitive one. I find it hard to believe that the editors of the Key West Womans Club recipe book were in possession of ego’s immune to such fancies.
Local Keys history tells that sometime towards the end of the 1800s, a prominent resident of Key West named William Curry, a Bahamian born immigrant to the USA who went on to become Florida’s first millionaire via his ship salvaging business, employed a cook called ‘Aunt Sally,’ also from the Bahamas, who is said to have created the first Key Lime Pie from the fruit. The story of how the recipe arose does not appear terribly likely because of the odd thing that happens when you combine lime juice and sweetened, condensed milk. They curdle and appear to ‘cook’ sans heat; without prior knowledge of what is happening and that this is meant to happen, it is quite likely that a cook would throw the whole thing out and start over. Or could Sally have been intending to bake a lemon icebox pie which also uses egg yolk and condensed milk and decided to try out the key lime instead of a lemon- in which case she’d know what to expect when milk hits citrus.
Certainly condensed milk allows cooks to make a custard without actually cooking it, a boon to a busy ships cook in a confined galley space. A boon to anyone really who is short of time or equipment. In fact, the spongers probably bought their cans of condensed milk from Curry after he began importing them to the islands to use on their hook boats, named for the hooking methods used to harvest the sponges. They would mix the milk with pelican eggs snaffled from under the bills of these huge sea birds which populate the coast of Florida so densely.
Key West is home to historian David L Sloan who is a bit of a Key Lime and pie expert. He possesses what he claims to be the ‘original’ recipe and cautions against muddling history with authenticity, a common pitfall of the food historian. Founder of a local ghost tour, it was his research into the islands ghosts that led him to the mansion of William Curry and the recipe belonging to Sally, found in the pantry. Much of the debate around the pie is binary: Graham Cracker crust or traditional pastry crust; a topping of cream or lofts of meringue; peaks toasted under the grill or blow torched big hair style. Aunt Sally opted for the former and a filling made with the condensed sweetened milk which Sloan claims Curry would have brought back to the island, fully aware as a ship salvager of how useful it would be to a ships cook alongside his own house cook. Yet despite finding what could be seen as recipe for THE ur pie, Sloan comes down on the side of the spongers as creators of it and goes as far as claiming that their version probably did not have a cracker crust either. Fighting talk there.
Here are a few of my favourite recipes made using the Key Lime. We’ll start with a drink and work our way through a (semi) complete menu.
A more sophisticated adult sibling to those chocolate and lime sweets (candies), the combination works well in this cocktail which is traditionally served straight up although you can also serve it frozen by pureeing the ingredients in a blender.
1 and 1/2 oz Light Rum / 3/4 oz dark cème de cacao / a tbsp fresh Key Lime juice or to taste / 1 cup ice cubes
Combine all the ingredients in a bar shaker, cover and shake well then strain into a martini glass.
The venerable grandparent of old Floridian sauces, this is a snappy and piquant mixture of very few ingredients that combine to form a multi purpose seasoning for both raw and cooked foods. Make a batch of it and keep in a sealed jar. It will keep unrefrigerated for several months and becomes better with age.
1-2 peppers (use Bird, Datil, Scotch Bonnet or other super hot chiles) / 1 cup fresh Key Lime juice / 2 tsp salt (I use a good Maldon, crushed in a pestle and mortar).
Leave chiles whole for a less potent sauce and slice thinly if you want it hotter. Combine all the ingredients in a sterilised jar and cover tightly. Shake well to dissolve the salt. Let the Sour stand for a week at room temperature before using then smear all over meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables.
Key Lime Pie
Needs no introduction other than by setting out my Key Lime stall, I am going to invite a chorus of “That’s not authentic!”
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs or digestive biscuits, crushed / 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar / 1/3 cup butter, melted / 2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk / 1 cup fresh Key lime juice / 2 egg whites / 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar / 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Combine the cracker crumbs, the brown sugar and melted butter then press into a 9-inch pie plate and bake piecrust at 350° for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool. Stir together the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice until blended. Pour into prepared crust. Set aside. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed with an electric mixer just until foamy. Add granulated sugar gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until soft peaks form and sugar dissolves (2 to 4 minutes).
Spread meringue over filling. Bake at 325° for 25 to 28 minutes. Chill 8 hours.
Key Lime Pound Cake
This recipe was inspired by Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake in her book ‘Bread and Chocolate’ which I bought years ago and read regularly. I swapped the lemons for Key Limes because in my opinion, a Meyer lemon is to an everyday lemon what a Key Lime is to its Persian relatives.
8-10 Key Limes (use ordinary limes if you cannot get the Keys but you’ll only need 3 of them) / 1/2 cup water / 1/2 cup sugar
Zest the limes and put them in a small pot with sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the limes to collect 1/3 cup of their juice, and reserve for cake.
1 1/4 cup flour / tsp baking powder / 10 tbsp (5 oz) butter / 1 cup caster sugar / 2 eggs, beaten / 1/3 cup lime juice / prepared lime zest, drained (syrup reserved)
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time then add the dry ingredients alternately with lime juice. Stir in zest. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake about 1 hour. While cake is still warm, poke with skewer and drizzle with reserved lime syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year and is a time for everyone to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Commemorated each year in Bury St Edmunds where a service in the Abbey Gardens at the existing Holocaust Memorial sees dignitaries and civic leaders join locals for a moment of quiet reflection and memorial, this years ceremony (2015) will be marked by the unveiling of a one and a half metre teardrop sculpture which will form a centrepiece to a new Peace Garden. The Memorial Garden Trust, a registered charity, has raised more than £11,000 for the project in the Abbey Gardens.
Rob Lock from the trust said:
“In addition to providing a more dignified setting for the annual holocaust service the Peace Garden is also designed to commemorate the murder of 57 Jews in our town on Palm Sunday, 19 March 1190. It is an event in our town’s history that the trust felt needed to be publicly acknowledged.
“The teardrop is a natural and universal symbol of pity and persecution, of human suffering and sorrow. It is made from polished stainless steel; its mirrored surface reflects back to us the role we all must play in opposing humanity’s inhumanity.”
The Peace Garden, which is being installed by Urban Forestry, also includes 57 cobble stones – one for each of the victims of the 1190 massacre. There will also be two stone benches as seating for quiet reflection. The trust was formed by local residents and is supported by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and members of Suffolk’s Jewish Community.
St Edmundsbury Borough Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Cllr Sarah Stamp said:
“The teardrop memorial is a very poignant symbol. Although this is an area that forces us to think about the worst acts carried out by mankind, the trust has also raised the funds and created a cultural space that they should feel proud of.”
Back then Hatter Street was recognised as the Jewish quarter of the town and referred to as Heathenmans Street. It was claimed that Moyses Hall could have been their synagogue but this has now been disputed, largely because it would have been next to what was then the medieval pig market. It is more likely that the higher ground along Hatter Street between numbers 25-26 served as the synagogues location, a case strengthened by the evidence of a well beneath the basement, necessary for ritual bathing and washing. Other claims for Moyses Hall is that its name is a derivative of ‘Moses’ and that it was built by wealthy Jewish merchants of the town. However, ‘Moses’ and ‘Moyses’ are both common Suffolk names.
By the 1190’s, the Jewish population in England numbered approximately some 2,500 people and until this time they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, the right to own real estate and access to education when compared to the Jewish people who lived in mainland Europe. However all was not rosy, In 1189, they were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance the Third Crusade. Jews might have comprised less that 0.25% of the English population but they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. This financial contribution did not render them beloved of the people though and the pro Christian ideology of the Crusades engendered an anti Semitic rhetoric.
In 1181, a dispute broke out between William the Sacristan (Sexton) of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds and his associate Samson. Alongside the local townspeople, the Jews sided with William but unfortunately, it was Samson who came to power the next year as Abbot. In 1190, after the Coronation riots, Samson demanded that the Jewish people in the town should be placed under his authority rather than the Kings and when they refused, they were expelled under guard.
This was set among a nationwide background of disempowerment for Jews. In the same year, King Henry II enacted the “Assize of Arms”, ordering that all weapons owned by Jews should be confiscated on the grounds that their protection came from the King and therefore they would not have any reason for owning arms. The weapons were turned over to the King’s forces, leaving them with little defence and protection when riots broke out less then ten years later.
The 1189 coronation of Richard the Lionheart saw further state sanctification of their persecution when Baldwin who was the Archibishop of Canterbury, persuaded Richard to not accept gifts from Jewish dignitaries, and further, to banish them from the palace which was interpreted by the watching crowds to mean the King favoured persecution. That same day, a pogrom against the Jews in London occurred and again, the next day. Reluctant to get involved in protecting them at the start of his reign, Richard did not enact a severe punishment of the rioters which saw the civil unrest spread to Norwich, Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds alongside other towns.
The church and locals seized on every opportunity to justify their prejudices. When Saint Robert of Bury, a young choirboy from the abbey was found murdered (crucified), allegedly on Good Friday, his death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and in his Chronicle, Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk in the Abbey during Samsons rule, even attributed miracles to him. Rumours based on the belief that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders began to percolate through the town and their community became the focus of much anti semitic feelings. Regionally, the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, then killing and burying him and despite the entreaties of Pope Innocent IVs to ignore such ridiculousness, the image of Jews being dangerous to Christians became the dominant one.
After nine more years, anti semitic feelings had increased and it has been suggested that the catalyst to the massacre may have been a ‘vanquish the infidels’ type sermon, preached in the abbey church at a time when anti Jewish sentiments were even more heightened, it being Lent. The abbey was no longer a reliable place of sanctuary for them but Samson is recorded as claiming the Abbey was not the Kings property and therefore these ‘Jews were not Saint Edmunds men.’
On Palm Sunday, the 19th March, a group of Christian Crusaders rampaged through Bury St Edmunds and killed 57 Jews followed by the obtaining of a writ by Abbot Samson, leader of the monastery, to have the survivors expelled. Previously the monastery had sheltered Jews when there was a threat of a pogrom but recently the monastery had gone into debt to Jews and therefore took advantage of the opportunity to escape having to repay those debts. Much building work had taken place in the Abbey and some major debts had accrued under Abbot Hugh, despite the churches moral teachings against usury. The offer of consecrated vestments and other articles as security against the debt gives clues about their extent and the pressure upon the monastery to do everything it could to expunge them.
Six months after the massacre of the Jews, Jocelin recorded in his Chronicle that Samson’s expelling of the remaining Jews showed that he was a ‘man of great virtue’, an expulsion that was granted after he appealed to the King for permission to do so in October 1190. On July 1290, King Edward the First ordered their expulsion from the whole country, making England the first country to do so. There is some disagreement as to how many were forced to leave- either 4000 or 16,000 which is some difference- and their return was not officially sanctioned until the 17th century, some 350 years later.
This event is relatively unknown in the town and wider annals of regional history and the translation of Jocelyns Chronicle that is stored in our Records Office itself omits the event. The opening of the Peace Garden, coming at a time when Jewish people all over the world face renewed persecution alongside other faiths and creeds, could not be more timely and significant. When the Holocaust happened, we did it to our own people-NOT a group of people living separately as ‘others.’ Europe placed them in a ghetto, they did not ghettoise themselves. The Holocaust destroyed a living and vibrant part of our European culture- music, art, economics, politics, the sciences and left a gaping hole, a rent or whatever ugly image you wish to use which has yet to fill in. And when it does, the scar will still be there and we should continue to remember. There is no such thing as the ‘past. ‘
Clustered on the very edge of North Norfolk, the little fishing town of Cromer is famous for the eponymous crabs caught off its beaches, the lighthouse that stands guard over them and a pier that spikes off into the distance. It is in full possession of all the iconography a traditional British seaside town should own. As lovely as Southwold and Holt but without the twee self consciousness, Cromer’s wind blasted cliffs stand guard against time, tide and Londoners in search of second homes although their influx is inevitable as Holt, Burnham and the Brancasters price themselves out of all but the spendiest of pockets.
Like a lot of coastal towns it is more than the sum of its parts and we have had a good look around, talked to locals and come up with a handy guide to ten of the best things about the place. This list is by no means exhaustive (the idea that there is only ten, TEN lovely things is plain daft), but this guide is a start and we’d love to hear of anywhere we’ve left out and you believe should be in here. We are happy to add and amend and places do open up and they certainly (and very sadly) close down. So here it is, Ten Reasons to Visit Cromer.…
(1) All things lifeboat and lifesaving-
The lifeboat service has been described as ‘lifeblood of the town’ and this applies to any place with a strong maritime history and dependency upon the fruits of the sea – Cromer is no exception. The Henry Blogg Museum commemorates Coxwain Henry, saviour of over 170 lives from the North Sea and the RNLI’s most decorated lifeboat man, serving over 53 years. Holder of the George Cross for bravery, the exhibits tell the story of Henry Blogg’s most famous rescues and has as its centrepiece, the HFBailey, his trusty boat. The museums design has won architectural awards and is regarded as very child friendly, admission is free and there is a lively programme of year round events.
Cromers lifeboat station is actually spread over three locations including the museum and carries ‘Explore’ status meaning it offers a higher level of visitor experience. Free access means you can go inside, look around and chat to the crew when they are around. Tours can be pre-booked and there is an RNLI gift shop. Please do make a donation too, no matter how small: every bit counts for a service that scandalously relies on these to keep it going and all beach goers should be prepared to contribute to a service that, god forbid, you will hopefully never require. And should you be on the pier and hear a loud’ bang’, get down to the pier end as fast as you can to where the station is and you may, if you are fortunate, see the lifeboat being launched along its slipway, straight into the spumey grey green waters of the North Sea.
Living near the sea affords locals with a healthy respect for what it gives and takes away and many people recommended nnslsc.org.uk a voluntary organisation set up to train lifeguards and offer water and beach safety awareness courses for children aged 7+. Summer sessions are held on the beach, from out of the club house on the promenade and then move to the indoor pool during the colder months. Membership is very inexpensive and lasts for a year.
(2) The beaches
Being essentially Edwardian – Victorian in its character and town development, Cromer is all about those healthy sea breezes, much recommended by Victorian fresh air fiends who placed a lesser priority on feeling warm and sheltered as they ‘took the sea air.’. However this doesn’t mean that visitors hoping for a sunbathing, bucket and spade holiday will spend their time shivering, wrapped up in blankets, grimacing as the wind blows a shed load of sand into their eyes. I have toasted myself on the beach here and there are plenty of natural windbreaks along the coastline, where families can spread out and enjoy the warmth.
The town front beach is a lovely combination of utiliarian and leisure- a lack of a harbour means visitors enjoy a ringside view of the fishing boats being hauled up by winches over thick ridges of shingle by rust speckled tractors. For a great view, park up on the cliff top and watch the boats come in from afar but don’t forget the binoculars.
Cromer boasts two sandy blue flag beaches which span as far as the eye can see when the tide is out, whilst kids can paddle some distance before the seabed falls away. West beach to the left of the pier is a nubbly mix of sand and stone and usually quieter the further you proceed towards East Runton; this is where you’ll find some good rock pools.
East Beach is the most picturesque, channeling that traditional seaside vibe as it clusters below the town and its higgledy piggledy warren of streets and alleyways. It is also overlooked by Hotel de Paris, now sadly faded and standing over the town in the manner of a Diva a few years past her glory days. Designed by the architect George Skipper, he was sometimes referred to as the ‘Gaudi of Norfolk.’
The undersides of the pier offer some shelter, especially for surfing and swimming, and again, when the tide is out, is the location of some good rock pools for kids to explore. There is a rip tide though and boards on the beach advise as to how best avoid it. Those lovely cliffs do mean a bit of a stiff plod uphill though so they aren’t ideal for the infirm or very young of leg. Disabled parking is provided on the promenade to make walking life a little easier. Cromer is one of the many seaside resorts known for its gaudy beach huts but many of the huts along the promenade are privately owned although the local authority does rent out brick built ones by the day- contact them via their website where you will also find information about dog friendly beaches coast wide. In Cromer, dogs are banned from the beaches between 1st May to 30th September.
Reaching nearby beaches is easy too; from the Esplanade you can walk east towards Overstrand, or west to the wide and comparatively deserted beaches of the Runtons, Don’t forget to tell the children that this is where beachcombers uncovered elephant bone fossils a few years back. East and West Runton remains a popular fossil hunting destination and significant amber finds have been reported too, around the pier and along the coastline to Overstrand and East Runton.
(3) The pier and promenade
Cromers north facing coast means the pier is the only one where you can watch the sun rise and set over the sea, something that is free of charge at any time of the year. The pier offers amusements, a restaurant where they serve great hot chocolate (another brilliant winters day thing to do) and the Pavilion Theatre which has a famous end of the pier summer show and also hosts Christmas entertainment. In polite Victorian and Edwardian Society, these piers became the place to promenade and socialise, the working classes arriving en masse via the newly built railway lines, usually in waves as their entire factory took its holiday at once. Entrance to the pier was restricted by cost and a dress code. Nowadays no such conventions exist but the promenade remains the place to saunter, especially as the sun goes down. And if you are nearby on Boxing Day you are perfectly placed to observe one of the more eccentric habits of the British, the famous North Norfolk Beach Runners Boxing Day Dip in aid of charity.
The promenade has gardens, a putting green and small boating lake and has had considerable money spent on it over the last few years. A charming and knowing touch is the paving which includes some quirky features such as quotations by famous people about Cromer including Oscar Wilde who had this to say about the town: “I find Cromer excellent for writing, Golf better still..”
(4) Those crabs, food & drink
Famous for quality and taste- the locals say this is down to the cretaceous chalk ridge that offers crabs shelter deep under the waves alongside a smorgasboard of other sea creatures to feed upon, the nationwide decline in the fishing industry has not stopped the daily launch and return of the crabbing boats from the beach although their numbers are greatly reduced. Local fishermen will sometimes take tourists out on their boats too- hang around the beach and ask them.
Plenty of local cafes sell Cromer crab both in the traditional dressed manner and as a filling in sandwiches and ingredients in main meals. For a more traditional Cromer crab sandwich try the Rocket House cafe next to the Henry Blogg Museum or the Lifeboat cafe, both with sea views or buy from Bob Davies crabshop in the Gangway which locals cite as a must visit for tourists. You can watch the crab boats setting out from and returning to the beach at the foot of the gangway too, popular with children.
Alternatively go crabbing off the pier after buying the crabbing line, bucket and bait (bits of bacon or other smellier alternatives such as squid) sold from the many stores that line the beach front. In the summer, there are competitions to catch the most and the biggest crabs, fiercely fought by locals and tourists. And don’t forget the Cromer & Sheringham Crab & Lobster Festival, held every summer and hugely popular. Look out too for the local Stiffkey Cockles, harvested a few miles along the coast and also known as Stewkey Blues because of their colour which ranges from lavender to dark grey-blue. The colour is a result of their muddy sandy habitat that requires them to be harvested with short-handled, broad rakes and nets and they are traditionally steamed, boiled and eaten with vinegar and pepper although more chefs are coming up with innovative ways of cooking with them.
Local cheesemakers Mrs Temples Cheese, located in the village of Wighton, not too far away from Cromer, are made from the milk of Holstein Friesians and Swiss Cows and sold throughout the county. Look out for Walsingham and Hard Matured Cheese, the mountain style Wells Alpine, the semi soft Warham and Binham Blue, a soft blue veined cheese. Lastly, Copys Cloud has a fluffy white rind and melting centre whilst Wighton is a fresh curd cheese. Just three miles out of Cromer is Grovelands Farm Shop, a cornucopia of food, including butchery, a wine cellar, garden centre, restaurant and coffee shop, all housed in a traditional Norfolk flint barn. Selling local products including Norfolk honey and spelt from a few miles down the road, poultry from woodland and grass reared birds and local drinks, this is the place to stock up at if you are self catering or want to take some gifts home with you. Finally, they sell many of the regions beers, no mean feat when you realise how many there are. Norfolks high ground and sea frets make it a brewers paradise due to the moisture they offer the grain of the malting barley and it is the reason why the county has more brewers than any other. With over sixty brewers, finding a good local pint in Cromer will not be difficult.
The town itself is a charming place divided into little streets and alleyways with interesting shops and quality restaurants making it a pleasant stroll. The Buttercups Tea Room serves excellent cakes and the Sticky Earth Cafe offers paint your own pottery and T shirts alongside meals, snacks and drinks. It is also truly child friendly as opposed to gritted teeth kid friendly. The Rock Shop Bistro is also described by people on twitter as dog and child friendly with ‘great cake’, including gluten free varieties and an amazing bread pudding, free papers and hot chocolate to die for, whilst fish and chips from Mary Janes should be part of any default Cromer visit according to many. The beach front with its elevated views over the shingle is one of the best seaside places to sit with a hot paper wrapped parcel of fish and chips- eating them will keep your hands and lap warm and bolster you against those North Sea breezes.
No1 Cromer is the latest restaurant from renowned chef, Galton Blackiston serving chips made from potatoes from his own farm and a Times newspaper rating as the 6th best place to eat by the sea. According to tweep Lisa Vincent, “there is nothing better after a bracing seafront walk.” Upstairs is their modern British restaurant with endless views of that Cromer sunset and pier. Should you feel like Italian food, try “La Griglia‘ on Brook Street and whilst Kews Pie Shop on Garden Street might look a bit down at heel from the outside, don’t be fooled. It boasts a loyal clientele and has great ratings with mains for £6:50 including some of the most buttery mash we’ve ever eaten.
Pub wise, we’ve heard good things about the Cromer Social Club: “good for a cheap pint” and the Red Lion with a solid Edwardian exterior and stellar location. It offers well priced accommodation, food and drink and overlooks the pier with those views. Eating local is their priority too – Norfolk Sausages, Venison, Cromer Crab, Morston Mussels all feature on the menu.
(5) A glamorous stay
The Grove provides super luxe accommodation alongside a lovely restaurant for dining at lunch and evenings. Their own fruit and vegetable gardens and access to the counties best local food producers means your plate will always contain the best of what is available and a choice of the oak-panelled study or the original Georgian dining room offers formal dining or something more intimate. Should you choose to stay, there are rooms in the original Georgian building or contemporary Orchard Rooms overlooking the landscaped gardens and six self-catering cottages in the adjacent barn conversions. A private path to the beach and heated pool with treehouse and trampoline rounds off the general loveliness mentioned by many people on twitter.
Rather different is the Beach House, a property available to rent in Cromer, located on the beach front with spacious first floor open-plan living area and glass exterior plus a multi level, enclosed decked garden. Felbrigg Lodge Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel midway between Cromer, Holt and Sheringham, ideal for short breaks or longer stays. It comes highly recommended. Finally, if you like staying in something traditional, then the Cliftonville Hotel, a family-run listed Edwardian building, with stained-glass windows, wooden bar, minstrels gallery and grand staircase will suit you. All 30 en-suite bedrooms benefit from stunning views of the sea and town and an all day coffee shop and bar as well as Boltons Bistro and a la carte dining will keep you all fed.
(6) Museums and the church tower
The Cromer town museum gives an excellent account of life in a Victorian fishermen’s village in the 1800s and has an exquisitely restored fishermans cottage that children (and adults) tend to be enchanted by. A collection of seaside and fishing history artefacts complement the cottage whilst the Geology gallery has the oldest and most complete elephant fossil from the ice age found in West Runton on the nearby beach and inspires visitors to go fossil hunting along the cliff base. You will also discover the creatures that swam in the surrounding seas some 80 million years ago and a stunning series of sepia photographs of the town by North Norfolk photographer Olive Edis. Experts from the museum can be booked to take you on a guided walk which are suitable for older children.
The parish church at Cromer dominates the town centre with an impressive 160 foot tower which naturally offers fine views and is open in the summer for visitors to climb all 172 steps. The tallest tower in the county, the church was once used as a navigation point by ships out in the North sea who could see the distinctive tower for many miles and replaced an earlier church that was lost in the 1330’s to the sea, along with the village of Shipden. On Sunday mornings, the peel of bells can be heard for miles around and the tower is open between 30th March and 2nd April 10.30-12.30 and on 4th April (Easter Saturday) and from 6th April (Easter Monday) until the end of October half-term (Friday 30th October.
(7) Stately homes
Felbrigg Hall is a mere couple of miles from the town with its lovely gardens, under the auspices of the National Trust and landscaped with with miles of wooded trails and walled gardens. Buggy friendly surfaces make access easier and childrens play boxes dotted around the great house help kids understand its history. The interiors are mind blowing in their opulence and stories behind the acquisitions- the Chinese nodding mandarins in the bedroom; majestic stained glass windows in the great hall; a royal teapot belonging to Queen Mary and the more prosaic, although nonetheless covetable, copper pans in the kitchen.
Another local estate run by the National Trust is Blickling with over a thousand years of history contained within its red brick walls, extensive gardens and park, situated in the Bure meadows a few miles from Cromer. Like Felbrigg, it puts on a year round programme of special events, often linked to festivals and historical moments alongside its every day opening. Bike hire allows the more active to explore the grounds and there are trees to climb and an unusually shaped mausoleum to discover. Those of you interested in oral history can hear the voices of those who have lived and worked here over the years, recorded to bring the past to life as you explore the interior. Home to the RAF Oulton Museum, the exhibits remember the Bomber Command squads who were stationed there. The largest collection of second hand books in the NT is available to browse and buy from so why not do that then retire to the tea shop for a piece of cake and cup of coffee?
(8) Carnivals and festivals
Cromer has a strong community feel and organises an incredibly popular carnival each summer which kicked off in 2014 with a five metre high reconstruction of the animal that lived in the Cromer area 600,000 years ago. Clowning, aerial displays, some traditional competitions; ‘Bonny Baby,’ and Fancy Dress, plus wacky races ensure that all ages can take part. Delicious food with a strong emphasis on those famous crabs, a treasure hunt, fireworks at night and what looks like the whole town participating means that although parking is a bit of a nightmare, it is worth braving the queues to visit at carnival time. The sandcastle competition is really popular and great to watch.
The Cromer & Sheringham Crab & Lobster Festival is a must do according to many of the people we asked, organised by volunteers over two days and raising money for local charities. Kicking off with a variety show in the grand tradition, there follows cooking demonstrations featuring the eponymous creatures, market stalls, live music, special events across the museums in both towns and enough seafood to feed an army. Keep an eye on the website for 2015 dates.
The pier hosts Folk on the Pier each year and is scheduled between 8-10th May in 2015. Described by Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg as “the Best Gig on the North Sea,” Folk on the Pier is a highly regarded showcase for the finest folk and folk-rock acts from all over and the opportunity to listen to music backlit by the multi hued rays of the setting sun is unforgettable. And for book and art lovers, COAST, the Cromer & Sheringham Arts Festival, is one to watch. Including painting and sculpture, pottery, music and photography plus dance, theatre, literature and film, the festivals remit is broad and inclusive. Slated to start on 23rd October, keep an eye on their website for a list of events.
Cromer is one of the few seaside resorts keeping the tradition of end of the pier variety shows alive via the Pavilion theatre. Touring drama, music and musical theatre companies all make a pitstop here for the chance to perform in a location that is anything but run of the mill. Expect a varied programme, from a talk by Michael Portillo, classical ballet from the Vienna Ballet to the Johnny Cash Roadshow. Alongside the Pavilion, the nearby town of Sheringham has its Little Theatre, home to one of the countries last surviving repertory companies. A popular winter pantomime and a year-round programme of events, includes film, art exhibitions, dance, drama, music and comedy is put on alongside weekly classes in stage skills, drama and dance for young people aged from four to 25. Cinema lovers are catered to also with the Merlin Cinema which shows first rank films across four screens and is the oldest cinema in Norfolk.
(10) Travelling around is as pleasurable as arriving
The town and surrounding countryside offers a wealth of interconnected walks and trails and there are good public transport links for people who don’t want to walk the whole route. Annoyingly, getting to Norfolk from the rest of the country is not the easiest thing to do though; there is a much maligned rail link to Norwich (45 minutes or so, every hour) and by road, Norwich is 40 minutes away and the A1 or M11 up to 90 minutes away. High season will see traffic snarl ups, especially along the most obvious routes.
An excellent bus service serves the coast east and west: the Coasthopper bus runs along the North Norfolk coastline and is, in itself, a lovely thing to do providing gorgeous scenery out of big picture windows and a warm place to gaze upon it during the colder months. Living up to its name, it is easy to alight at any of the stops and walk to the next one, catching later buses back. Walks from the Cromer clifftops can be extended to the north via the Cliff tops to Sheringham (about six miles, return by train) or to the south along the cliff top past the golf course and through ‘Poppyland’ to Overstrand (about four miles).
The ‘Poppy Line‘ run by North Norfolk Railway operates both steam and diesel trains and sells Rover tickets, providing a whole days travel. The route is a 10.5 mile round trip by steam or vintage diesel through Norfolk areas of outstanding natural beauty. To the south are wooded hills, glacial rises and falls and the Norfolk beauty spots of Kelling Heath and Sheringham Park whilst northwards lies the sea. Beaches and resort facilities are all within easy walking distance from the various stations.
The Bittern Line takes you via rail from Norwich and follows the course of the River Yare before turning left towards Salhouse and nearby Salhouse Broad, changing at Wroxham to join the Bure Valley Line. Travelling on through Worsted (named after the type of cloth woven in the village in the middle ages), you will pass through North Walsham and Gunton then continue onto Felbrigg before arriving at Cromer where the train reverses to access the last short stretch of the former Midland and Great Northern Railway from Cromer to Sheringham. If you Decide to continue onto West Runton via rail, your children might enjoy a visit to the Hillside Animal and Shire Horse Sanctuary. On arrival, at Sheringham you will then have the option of transferring onto the Poppy Line to proceed on to Georgian Holt. The railway lines take bicycles so you can hop on and off as you like.
The Cromer Treasure Trail is a downloadable trail approximately 1¾ miles long and requiring around 2 hours to complete. Starting at Meadow Road, it takes in the beaches and is a great way to introduce yourselves to the area if you are on holiday. The North Norfolk Coastal Partnership provides information about local bicycle hire from companies offering electric bikes to child seats and trikes. The roads make wonderful cycling but don’t kid yourselves that they are flat- glaciation many centuries ago has left some very unusual contours along the North Norfolk coast!
The Sustrans National Cycle Network is designed to take advantage of safer places to cycle such as old railway path and forest tracks, passing through off road areas wherever possible and it covers the county. Some well known bike trails include the Peddars Way which starts near Thetford in the sandy gorse and heather covered heaths of the Brecks to the most northerly point of the counties coastline, following an ancient Roman pathway. With gentle gradients, the 59 miles of the Norfolk Coastal Cycleway from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth, passes through Cromer. Trekking through inland country lanes, it is relatively safe for children to ride. The Cromer Loop is a downloadable pdf of a 24 mile route which takes you past some of the counties most amazing and historic churches. It also passes by the lovely stately home estates of Mannington and Wolterton.
The Quiet Lanes Explorer offers you 36 miles of a Quiet Lanes network around the National Cycleway route. Marked by distinctive signs it encourages car users to be more considerate on these back roads and offers cyclists and walkers a route around Cromer and Sheringham that darts between the coastal area and the hedgerow edged lanes. If you are planning to visit Felbrigg Hall, we’ve found this route for you so you can cycle should you so wish. More challenging than others, it takes you past the steep hills of the Cromer Ridge up to Beacon Hill for a rest and contemplation of the views for miles around, the highest point in Norfolk. As you progress inland, you will pass the leafy lanes, flint built villages and farms surrounding Felbrigg Park and the Roman camps that once dotted the region. Twenty per cent of this route (about 12 miles) is classed as off road, taking you along loose surfaced farm tracks where you can leave clouds of dust in your wake as you rattle along soft sand, flint and loose stone pathways. Go up Beacon Hill and you’ll add two extra miles to the journey.
‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox‘ goes the latest Sport England campaign designed to encourage women to take more physical exercise and feel better for doing it. Did I say feel better? What I, or rather the ad appears to suggest is that even during sport and physical exercise, we women apparently never escape the confines of our sexuality and the (presumably) male gaze – even when we are sweaty and really really busy doing something else. Women may feel free in the gym but really we are still in chains.
Some of the words and images used suggest that a womans sense of self must incorporate an awareness of our sexual attractiveness as we participate in sport. This surely runs counter to an important goal of physical exercise- transcending the limitations of body and psyche caused by our conscious and subconscious thoughts. I cannot see any other explanation for the use of the curious term ‘fox.’ Surely sports should allow us to walk away from the travail of worrying about how we appear to others and we should only be judged, if any judgement is required at all, on our sporting prowesss and achievements and nothing else?
This Girl Can, a campaign launched by Sport England aims to encourage more women to take up sport and physical exercise and is backed by celebrities including Clare Balding, Dame Kelly Holmes and Sally Gunnell. It kicks off with a TV commercial peopled by women of all shapes, sizes and ages participating in a raft of sports and physical activities. Created by the ad agency FCB Inferno, the 90 second ad only uses ‘normal’ women set to Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On and is backed up by a nationwide poster campaign with said same women from all walks of life with banner slogans such as the aforementioned pig/fox and ‘I jiggle therefore I am.’
Back in the late eighties, even misogynistic anti semite Mel Gibson, or rather the character he played in ‘What Women Want’, working on a sporting ad campaign with costar Helen Hunt, came to the conclusion that sport should allow a woman the time to shrug off her self consciousness and psychological chains. We appear to have moved on very little from this (albeit imaginary) scenario.
Nobody is under any illusion that female athletes are judged solely on their sporting ability and we have only to look at the bile directed at Rebecca Addlington regarding her looks to see that. And the way they are spoken about in the press is still very much predicated upon their looks and sex appeal as are some of the endorsements and contracts they attract. Any pride in their physicality, hard work and the success it brings is marred by constant reminders that it is female physicality and therefore it must be appraised sexually and aesthetically.
This Girl Can continues our obsession with female flesh, encouraging us to disregard the fact that we wobble and jiggle, have cellulite and uncontrolled flesh spilling out of our clothing. The fact that we are depicted as casting off our shackles- our Spanx, control tights and body taming underpinnings, to let ourselves take up a bigger unfettered space in the universe is undermined by the drawing of attention to those perceived flaws, whether or not it is us that sees them as so, or a sexist society.
Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England talked about some of the barriers to the participation of women in sport: “One of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. Worries about being judged for for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and time again. We want to address that.” Yet the video, despite being beautifully shot, still worships at the cult of the body, objectifies the bodies of those filmed and makes those gazing upon them passively complicit with this. Whatever the intent was to redefine what kind of female body is acceptable, the campaign is still concerning itself with parameters and makes no attempts to defy convention.
If female flesh mattered not one jot in the gender scheme of things it would go unmentioned as it does in sports campaigns aimed at men which tend to highlight the skills, prowesss, work and effort required. A mans appearance is related very closely to utilty and functionality, ideas rarely associated in advertising about or aimed at women. They don’t use male flesh to tell men they want them to not focus on their flesh and they do not invoke an unwelcome gaze. Even more importantly, campaigns aimed at men do not tell them they need to disregard their physical flaws, either imagined or actual. By saying ‘disregard’ you are stating that there is something TO disregard and the psychology of self consciousness, of shyness and body unconfidence will hone in on that like a javelin.
Equally important is the worthiness and higher moral purpose that must come attached to many female activities, including what we’d imagine as something relatively uncomplicated- sport. Where is the argument for exercise for the sake of exercise? Exercise that is enjoyed purely for the simple pleasure in physicality it generates? Instead of a pure and uncomplicated relationship with their corporeal selves, women are encouraged to take part in order to strengthen friendships, manage and reduce the stress caused by work, parenthood and caring whilst improving our emotional and physical strength. There is no strong case made for pure unfettered, unintellectual and unanalytical pleasure, no case made for total abandonment to the testing of ones body against standards that have nothing to do with how it looks to others. There is no permission for women to exist solely for themselves nor are we permitted to exist in the moment purely for that moment, free from intrusion.
This campaign has good intentions but at the end of the day, it is still reminding us that we women have a mountain to climb when it comes to equality in sports and it is not handing us the best equipment with which to climb it.
I confess that the inspiration for this soup comes not from my own imagination but from Thomasina Miers, whose column in Saturdays Guardian featured a recipe for parsnip soup with the very same fried apple. Scanning down the spices on the ingredients list, I was struck by their similarity to the contents of my packet of achiote with its notes of pepper spice and an earthiness that reminds me of the clay goblets we drank out of in Mexico where I grew up. I would nibble away at their glaze that stopped just short of the rim, slowly wearing it away to the bare fired-clay underneath whose aroma and gritty taste I loved-pica in action I guess.
Also known as annatto and used to give a mellow-golden colour to foodstuffs across the Caribbean and Latin America, achiote is obtained from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana plant and was brought to South East Asia by the Spanish in the 16th century. Used to scent and colour yellow rice and blaff, the seeds have long been ground and mixed with other spices and herbs; salt, peppercorns, cumin, cloves, oregano and coriander-seed to make achiote powder or paste which can be mixed into fresh juice to make a great marinade for meat and fish.
Miers’s soup is spiced with peppercorn, cloves, coriander seeds and nutmeg so it’s not a great leap from the achiote although it lacks that deep annatto melon-gold shade. In my version, the onions have been replaced by a 50:50 mix of shallot and onion to balance the earth of the achiote but do be generous with the spice mix- the soup seems to absorb a lot of flavouring and retains a gentleness of flavour with the sweet grassinesss of the root vegetable shining through. For the apples, I chose Egremont Russets although any Russet will do should the Egremonts (which we grow on our allotment) not be available. The sweet nuttiness of this variety works especially well here, not disintegrating into apple snow after frying. However, I don’t want you to discount making this because the only apples sitting disconsolately in your fruit bowl are standard eaters. They’ll do.
This produces a thick soup that serves 3-4 in medium sized portions although it can be slackened with some more stock should you want a soup with a lighter texture and one which will go a bit further. I would serve it with some rounds of toasted sourdough for an even more filling winter meal.
50g unsalted butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
About 400g parsnips
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
3 tsp achiote powder
grind of nutmeg
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp thick Greek yoghurt or thick double cream plus extra to garnish
For the apples-
1 large or a couple of smaller eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm thick wedges
25 g or so of unsalted butter
1 tsp sugar
grind of nutmeg to finish
Peel the parsnips and chop up into bite size pieces then melt the butter in a heavy based pan. Add the onion, shallot and a decent pinch of salt and cook down slowly and gently over a low heat for 4-5 mins then add in the chopped garlic. Sweat this all down further until it is translucent, soft and smells buttery and rich.
Whilst this is cooking, grate the nutmeg and add it to the achiote powder, ensuring they are blended together then add this to the onion mix, stirring them both together. Continue to cook this, stirring it all the time for 2 more minutes. Now add the chopped parsnips to the spiced onions and turn them over in the spice and onion/shallot mix, coating them well. Once you have done this pour in the stock, bring to a boil then simmer until the parsnips are completely soft and cooked- between 20-30 mins.
Take off the heat, let cool for a few minutes and add the yoghurt or cream. Whizz until smooth with a stick blender or a food processor and season to taste. I prefer it totally smooth but nobody is going to judge you if you leave in a few lumps of parsnip.
To make the apples, you’ll need to melt the butter in a heavy pan over a medium heat and ensure that the whole base is coated in it. When it starts to get hot and sizzle, add the apples in one layer, sprinkle with a little salt, the sugar and fry them, turning them over so both sides colour up to a golden brown but don’t let them burn or the butter burn. When done, drain on kitchen paper whilst you gently reheat the soup to warm- don’t let it get scolding as you won’t get the flavour of it, soup is best served at room temperature.
Plate up the soup, place some apple slices on top, add a grind of nutmeg if you like it and an extra dollop of yoghurt or cream if you like your soup creamier.