As children, we spent many a school holiday in the tiny hamlet of West Portholland in south west Cornwall. My parents had taken a long-term rent on a two bedroom cottage which stood above the bay, backed against a damp cliff covered in ivy and protected from most of the wild winds which would strike the coast during the Christmas and Easter holidays. On one such wild night in December 1961, when the wind whipped up and slapped branches against the bedroom windows, a tanker, the Allegrity, ran ashore just up the coast from us on Porhluney Cove. My brother was allowed to go and comb the beach for anything to salvage, but I can’t remember him returning with any pickings, others had got there before him.
It is a matter of amazement to me now, that as children we were allowed to roam freely around this beautiful coastline, following cliff paths, scrambling down steep cliffs and collecting cowrie shells from the beaches. Our only constraint was to be back for tea at 4pm, otherwise we were left to our own devices.
Our knowledge of the sea and its ways were greatly enhanced by our neighbour, Leonard R. Brightwell, who, as I discovered later, was a natural history illustrator and great forager of beaches. This tall elderly man with a stooped back and unruly white hair reminded me of the eccentric, elderly professor the four children are sent to live with in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Like the professor, I don’t think Mr Brightwell could be bothered much with children, but he spent a great deal of time talking to my mother when she came down from London.
Under his instructions, at low tide, she took us out on foraging expeditions on the vast expanse of sands between the two Portholland bays. We became expert in digging up razor clams, netting tiny shrimps in the rock pools, or most exciting of all, creeping up on limpets sunning themselves on the rocks, rushing at them with our spades in an attempt to pry them off with one slice before they had a chance to stick on as securely as the barnacles on the bottom of fishing boats. My brother and mother were much more adept at this, and I was sent off with my bucket to collect the easier to detach winkles for supper. The limpets had to go through a tenderisation process before being slow cooked in red wine, but the winkles were prepared and eaten for tea. They had to be rinsed thoroughly, boiled and drained, and then we would sit in front of the fire, with a pin in hand to wriggle the little creature out of their shells. Then the proceedings varied, you could either dip the winkle into melted butter and eat it straight away, or collect them on your plate in a heaped pile to be eaten with slow relish. I was a collector, my brother was not, I will say no more. Tea was a protracted feast on winkle days.
I have never seen winkles or limpets on the menu in the UK, only in Brittany. There, platters of fruits de mer are often served, strewn with the tiny, shiny winkles – bigorneau, and fat whelks – bulots or bourgets, and sometimes limpets – berniques. Do British suppliers think we are too frightened to try these things, or do fishing villages keep the best of the sea food to themselves? I will have to ask Fish for Thought, my supplier of all things fishy and Cornish. I buy all my fresh fish from them, which they Fedex up to London on a bed of ice wrapped in discarded sheep’s wool for insulation. The latter gets chucked onto the garden compost and breaks down well if kept wet. My taste of sea and summer holidays is then packaged into Ziploc bags and stored in the freezer. This week, when storm Ophelia struck, I was glad to have enough cod and hake to turn into one of my favourite comfort foods – fish pie topped with celeriac mash and served with stir fried courgette studded with chilli and the last of the summers tomatoes.
Cornish Fish Pie with a light touch
Preparation time 45 mins, this will serve 6
400ml whole milk
1 small onion, thickly sliced
100 grams lardons
2 bay leaves
500 grams thick white fish fillets, cod, haddock or pollock (remove skin when cooked)
40 grams butter
40 grams flour
200 grams large peeled cooked prawns
1 tsp mace
1 tsp cayenne pepper
freshly ground Cornish sea salt and white pepper
For the topping
1 large celeriac, peel removed and sliced into medium sized pieces
100 grams unsalted butter
200 grams/20cls whole milk
To make the filling, pour the milk into a large lidded frying pan and add the sliced onion and bay leaves. Sprinkle over mace, cayenne and salt. Place the fish fillets in the pan and bring to a gentle simmer, then cover and cook for two minutes only. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to stand and infuse for 20 minutes. Drain the fish through a colander into a bowl, then pour the milk into a jug.
While you are waiting for the fish sauce to cool, make the celeriac mash for the topping. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the celeriac. Toss to cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring regularly. It should take on a light brown colour. Add the milk and cook for about 15 minutes until the celeriac feels soft enough to be mashed by hand. I’m deviating from Heston here as I want a slightly lumpier mash than a fine puree, which would taste too gloopy (technical term).
Strain off all the liquid into a small dish/jug. Then mash roughly by hand or with a hand blender. Season with salt and white pepper (My grandmother always used ready ground white pepper in potatoes and white sauces as she didn’t want little black specks in her dishes. I keep white pepper corns to grind).
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
To finish the filling, melt the butter in a medium saucepan and stir in the flour. Cook for a few seconds, then gradually add the infused milk, from which you have removed the onions and bay leaves. Stir constantly, and simmer over a medium heat for 3–4 minutes until the sauce is smooth and thick. Taste to see if it needs additional seasoning.
Spread one third of the sauce into the base of a 1.5 litre/2¾ pint ovenproof dish. Scatter half the fish fillets over the sauce, breaking them into chunky pieces. Spread half of the prawns over the fish pour over another third of the sauce. Repeat these layers, finishing with the final third of sauce.
Spoon the celeriac mash over the fish mixture, spreading the mash to the edges with a palette knife. Fork the surface if you require it to look neat. Place the dish on a baking tray and bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes when the filling should be bubbling.
I like spiralised courgette, because it allows a rather bland vegetable to be stir fried very quickly, no more than two minutes and coated with a spice such as chilli flakes, salt and a splash of lemon juice. I like the colour contrast of tiny cherry tomatoes, so pop some of those in as well, for a burst of flavour.