In the introduction to the book Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls this work a “thorough and splendid answer to the question ‘What is British Food?”‘, and authors Laura Mason and Catherine Brown are certainly in a position to know. Mason, food historian and British co-ordinator of the Slow Food movement, grew up on a Yorkshire farm; Brown was a chef before becoming a food writer and critic with 3 Glenfiddich Food Writing awards to her name. In seeking out the roots of British food tradition, the authors traverse culinary terrain from the familiar, like Cornish clotted cream, to the obscure, quaint or marvelous. The book is an exhaustive survey of all of the British foods that have been produced in one region or town for three or more generations. Here you will find the Cumnock Tart, with rhubarb and apples, made at a rate of only 800 a week at a single bakery in Glasgow. You will also find Good Friday breads hanging in the corners of kitchens for good luck, as well as Melton Mowbray pies, poised to join 37 other local British products with protected geographic identification status, which ensures that they are always produced in the same place with the same recipe.
Here’s an example of an entry:
THE LEGAL MINIMUM SIZE WAS REGULATED IN 1959 TO 20MM ACROSS. THEY ARE SOLD RAW IN THEIR SHELLS OR COOKED AND SHELLED, BY WEIGHT OR VOLUME MEASURE. COLOUR: THE SHELLS VARY FROM YELLOW (FROM THE LOW TIDE MARK), THROUGH GREY, TO ORANGE AND GREY WITH BLACK PATCHES (FROM THE HIGH TIDE MARK). FLAVOUR: CONSIDERED TO BE AMONGST THE BEST FLAVOURED COCKLES FISHED AROUND THE BRITISH COAST; WHEN FRESH, THEY ARE VERY SWEET AND SUCCULENT.
Cockles (Cardium edule) were important in the Welsh diet. The gathering of shellﬁsh developed into a commercial enterprise as the population of South Wales increased during the industrial revolution (Jenkins, 1977). The Victorians appreciated fully the value of the cockle ﬁsheries in South Wales, including Penclawdd, a village on the Burry estuary on the north side of the Gower Peninsula. The freshly-dredged cockles were boiled in the open air, placed over the ﬁre in large pans with a little water. The liquor was reserved and used for washing the batches, after riddling to remove the shells from the ﬂesh. Finally they were washed in fresh spring water and placed in baskets or wooden tubs. Women took the cockles to market in Swansea on the train, carrying the containers on their heads. Jenkins cites living memories of them waiting at the station, dressed in Welsh costume, their baskets covered with white cloths. Until the 1920s, donkeys were used for transport on the beach, the sacks of cockles hung like panniers. Horse-drawn carts with a higher carrying capacity replaced them about the time of the World War II. Horse transport ceased in 1987; replaced by tractors and Landrovers.
In the post-war years, the ﬁshery has been strictly regulated as a conservation measure. The number of people involved has declined from over 200 in 1900–10 to less than 50 in the 1970–77. Several reasons are postulated, including pollution, natural variations in the course of rivers, over-ﬁshing and changes in foreshore vegetation. Cocklers also believe that oyster-catchers eat many of the shellﬁsh, and that cockles migrate. A cockle fair takes place in Swansea Market every September.
Today cockles are eaten freshly cooked and seasoned with white pepper and vinegar, made into pies with bacon, dipped in batter and deep-fried, or used in soup. The form in which most landlocked British consumers encounter them is pickled in vinegar.
Penclawdd is on a river estuary known as Burry inlet. It is the best known of several villages whose inhabitants collect shellﬁsh from wide sands on either side of the estuary; the relative importance of these beaches varies according to changes in the course of the river. The cocklers observe and test the beds carefully for years before deciding which ones to work. They work with the ebbing tide, using a small knife with a curved blade to scrape the sand and expose the cockles, which are drawn together with a rake, and then riddled to separate those which are too small. After washing in pools on the beach, the shellﬁsh are loaded into sacks. The best cockles are considered to come from sandy stretches of beach. They may be sold uncooked in their shells, or boiled and shelled. The method of cooking is to steam the shellﬁsh in perforated baskets for 6–7 minutes, sieve them, and wash the meats in fresh water. Hygiene regulations now being introduced demand that the cockles be cooked for a speciﬁed time at a temperature no lower than 98°C; the process is recorded on a continuous read-out. Two methods are being experimented with to achieve this: the use of a steam-jacketed cooking pan; and the use of a continuous belt which carries the washed, shell-on cockles through hot water for 4 minutes, before shaking the cooked meats free into a salt bath (which allows for separation of grit), after which they are washed in cold water.
REGION OF PRODUCTION:
Cockle (Stiffkey Blues) of East Anglia (p. 119)