Thursday, 20 February 2014

F is for 'Far from the Madding Crowd'. And Fish

Dear Nigel,
From the moment we moved here nearly two years ago now I knew we'd done the right thing. Growing up in tiny villages myself, and also with my older children, I wanted Sophie and Molly to know a country childhood in all its simplicity and groundedness. In every way it has been 'Far from the Madding Crowd' and I love its closeness and quirkiness as much as anything. My friend Lucy Sheeran, who lives locally, does these wonderful minimal style prints (

Another friend looks at it and says, 'But..' And I know what she's going to say, because she doesn't get it at all. She's going to say 'but you don't own it, it doesn't belong to you.' And it's true, we rent. But then, I don't own the cottage next door either, or the stream behind which cuts into the landscape, or the church spire in the distance. And yet, for all that, there is somehow more permanence here in this captured moment in the snow than in any for sale sign going up or down. We seek to grasp on to things and pin them down but what is really ours to keep? Things change constantly - children grow up, spouses leave, people die - things happen beyond our control and all we ever really have are the memories of those moments. Things we hold dear, even homes, can crumble into dust in a moment's carelessness.

I am looking for a good fish recipe to make that will use some of the wonderful smoked fish that I buy at Robson's smoke house in Craster, Northumberland, just down the road from my mum's, where we come for a few days holiday. I can buy it back home but this has the kind of provenance and depth of flavour that feeds my soul. I find your recipe for 'Smoked Haddock and Leek Cakes' (page 203). It is simple enough and yet the leeks give it that added dimension. The recipe is for lumpy, rough-textured fish cakes which I guess will be more like patties. I think this might be more my kind of fish cake anyway, though I wonder what the troops will make of it. In your cookery thoughts you mention that a more classic result could be obtained by mashing the potato to a cream, but I think not today. I am in want of a bit of novelty, and for my guest to know that I didn't just open a packet from the freezer department of the supermarket.

The fishcakes are quick and easy to make. The potatoes don't need peeling, the leeks soften and the haddock poaches whilst the potatoes boil. Then a quick mix and into the frying pan in rough patties, shaped with the help of a serving spoon and a spatula as the mixture is quite loose. The only quibble I have regards checking for the opaqueness of the cooked fish. The oak-smoked haddock I bought was a rich copper colour whose opaqueness was simply not to be fathomed. I kept my eye on the clock and guessed that the ten minutes you suggested would be adequate. It was.

All in all, another lovely recipe; quick and easy to make. There seemed an awful lot of leeks at first but they soon cooked right down and their addition to the fish cakes is just right. Sometimes smoked haddock can be a bit much and apt to repeat itself over and over again; so this recipe is good because it tempers the flavour. I thought the potato would be more chunky and maybe it was just the variety I used but it was only mildly lumpy, along with the leeks and haddock. 'Comfort food,' my mum said, substantial food for an older person, I thought, or anyone getting over an illness. But tasty, very very tasty all the same.

We watched the fishing boats coming in to the little harbour at Seahouses this afternoon. They were unloading crates of crabs, and lobsters with their pincers tied together; not much fish. Most of the boats were up out of the water having their bottoms scraped and a bit of paint and repair. The lifeboat passed on a routine practise run and the flat bottomed boats which take divers out to the wrecks were moored up to the harbour wall. Billy Shields, though, was still running trips to see the seals on the Farne Islands and all along the coastline the sand dunes were falling away onto the beaches as the storms of late have carved away at them from beneath making them unsafe to play in.


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