Saturday, 10 April 2010

Mussels and Scones: a Cornish spring I got distracted.  Sometime I might tell you about him.  I have actually been writing a blog post, but it's very long, currently imageless, and about my confusion over Ireland and Irish history.  I'll finish it at some point and post it for everyone to skip.  In the mean time, spring leapt up and came crashing into consciousness.  Easter. Sunshine. BOOM.  Amazing.  I went to Cornwall for a week to walk the dogs and eat yellow food (Simnel cake and ice cream lemon meringue pie) and watch Jeeves and Wooster and get drenched to the skin without freezing and paddle in the sea to the perturbation of the canines and commune with the llamas and get adored and attacked by turns by the cats and have all my family around for approximately four hours and eat too much chocolate and generally get excited about the turning of the English seasons.  It was great.

Something I've been meaning to do for ages has been to pick mussels off the beach and cook them myself.  The Cornish coast is ideal for this - it's a rocky shore, but there are are some quite deep beaches which means that there are rocks exposed only for half an hour or so at low tide and also the water is relatively warm.  I think it's those two things which lead to the wild mussels down there being nearly as big as the farmed ones which are under water all the time.  I didn't pick anything that was much smaller than my thumb, and that was easy to do.

There are a couple of beaches I've had my eyes on for a year or two actually, to pick mussels from, but circumstances like the tide, the weather and not having a bag with me have hindered me a bit.  This time, however, I finally got around to it on Holywell beach.  The dogs were bemused as to why we were spending 20 minutes standing around by some rocks when there were a whole load of interesting bits of seaweed on the tideline, not to mention bunnies in the dunes.  Rocky noticed me pulling things off the rocks.  I think he thought that they must be like blackberries, which he loves and picks for himself whenever he can.  He tried to pull off a few for himself but decided that they were better to roll in than to eat.  Kiri used to eat barnacles off rocks, it's true, but never managed mussels...

Mussels are easy to cook.  There are schools of thought about whether you need to soak them in salted water with flour or oatmeal overnight before you eat them or not.  I did soak them, more because I didn't want to eat them until the next day than anything else, and they were pretty grit free so I have nothing much to add to the lore on that.  I ended up with a mixing bowl full of molluscs - I guess something in the region of 6 or 7 pints or two ish kilos, but that's just a guess.  Enough to make a good sized starter for five, anyway.  The only time consuming part of the whole process is cleaning them.  You have to go through the bowl and pull of the 'beards' or 'byssus' by which they attach themselves to the rock and scrape off the barnacles (which introduce grit,), and throw away any that don't close when tapped.  I guess that took me 40 minutes or so.

I then chopped about 8 shallots and a couple of cloves of garlic and softened them in olive oil.  I added a wine glass full of white wine, a bay leaf, some black pepper and the clean mussels.  I clapped the lid on and left it for five minutes, by which point all the shells had opened.  I transferred the mussels into hot bowls and stirred some double cream (optional) and a large handful of chopped parsley into the juices.  After heating through, I poured this over each portion of shellfish and served the lot with hot french bread.  It's possibly my favourite dish to eat ever.

My next ambition with mussels is to cook them actually ON the beach - picking them and then barbecuing them until they open, and then dipping the meat into garlic and parsley butter.  Heaven.  My next wild caught shellfish plan revolves around trying to catch some crayfish in the old mill stream that runs across my parents' garden...

I had an American in Cornwall.  I needed to illustrate what a cream tea is, which meant I made scones to serve with strawberry jam and clotted cream.

I firmly believe that there is little point in scones beyond vast quantities of strawberry jam and clotted cream.  If you can't get good versions of both, don't bother.  Handily, the West Country is brilliant at both.  The scone recipe I used came out of the 'The Dairy Cookbook', which is older than I am and only still has covers because the bookcase holds all the parts of it together.

It has recipes for all the old fashioned things (provided they contain dairy) that one actually needs now and again and which new books rarely contain.  I think you can probably read the recipe in the (rather dark, sorry) photograph, but I edit it very slightly:

350g self-raising flour (or plain flour with 2.5 tsp of baking powder)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
75g butter
175 ml milk, plus extra as needed and for brushing

Jam and (clotted) cream to serve

Preheat the oven to 230°C, with two or three large baking sheet inside.  Sift together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder several times to ensure they are well combined.  Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, and then add the milk a little at a time until a smooth dough is achieved.  Knead lightly (scones are in theory better the less you handle the dough) until smooth, adding more milk if required.

Roll out the dough to around 1.5 cm thick and cut rounds about 5 centimetres across.  Brush each with a little milk and sprinkle lightly with sugar to give a crunchy sweet top to each scone.  Transfer them to the hot baking sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes until well browned.  Cool on racks and eat while still warm, with jam and cream.