Last week I went to stay in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, which our friend Robin, with whom I was staying, describes as a Radio 4 gated community. With its bleak beach, quirky medieval town hall, Martello tower, Benjamin Britten obsession, and award-winning fish and chips, it embodies a certain kind of utopia, although the presence of Sizewell A and B (and soon C) up the road is a reminder of the real world. I was particularly delighted to be able to potter down to the shore where from several rather beautiful black wooden sheds it is possible to buy locally caught fish. I walked in on a discussion about how long to keep skate before they are ready to eat. Fish too fresh to eat! Whoa!
I was working on a piece, The World Encompassed, that I wrote a few years ago for the viol consort Fretwork. The regular members of this brilliant group are two redoubtable English men called Richard and two equally redoubtable Japanese women, not called Richard. The piece is about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. He sets out from Plymouth late in 1577 with a crew of 164 men, including four viol players, on five tiny ships. The intention is not in fact to circumnavigate the world but to wreak as much havoc as possible on the Spanish Main. This is partly a political move and partly a personal revenge for a setback at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios a few years before. He is fuelled by a fierce Protestant piety, obsessed with cleansing South America of the ‘poisonous infection of Popery’. It is said of him that ‘he steals by day and prays at night’. His attitude to the local people he encounters is much more benevolent, if patronising. ‘Neither is any thing more lamentable than that so goodly a people, and so lively creatures of God, should be ignorant of the true and living God’. The expedition returns almost three years after it sets out, with just 58 men and one ship, the Golden Hind, but with enough Spanish loot and East India spices to pay off Queen Elizabeth’s debts and have enough left over to start the Levant company, which becomes the East India Company. This is surely the start of the British Empire, with its familiar mixture of muscular Christianity, thuggery, benevolence, and entrepreneurship.
However much one might disapprove of the piracy, one has to admit that the bravery and stoicism are astonishing. Emerging from the Straights of Magellan into the Pacific, they are caught in a 52-day storm in which two of the ships are wrecked, and another disappears. Almost immediately they are chasing after, and being chased by, the Spaniards; and then they get horribly lost and find themselves stranded half way up the coast of North America. And it’s a constant battle to find food, and, more importantly, fresh water. A crucial stop-off in the Cape Verde Islands, where they find an abundance of figs, grapes, coconuts and plantains, allows them to make the 60-day journey across the Atlantic to Brazil. There are, of course, fish, including ‘one, as strange as any; to wit, the flying fish, a fish of the bigness and proportion of a reasonable or middle sort of pilchard. By the help of his fins, when he is chased by the bonito or great mackerel, he lifteth up himself above the water, and flieth a pretty height, sometimes lighting into our boat as we sail along’. In the Straights of Magellan, they moor up on an island where ‘we found great store of strange birds which could not fly at all, nor yet run so fast, as that they could escape us with their lives. Such was the infinite resort of these birds to these islands, that in the space of one day we killed no less than three thousand’. That’s a lot of penguin meat.
Having walked in on the skate seminar, I inevitably bought some, and the next day we cooked it au beurre noir. Lovely, if rather predictable. How else to cook it?
The Koreans eat fermented skate. I can see this could be useful on a circumnavigation of the world, but I’m too cowardly to try it. Alternatively, try this Japanese-inspired dish:
For two people, grate a knob of ginger, and slice a small red chilli finely. Put into a wok with 1/2 litre fish stock or dashi, and bring to the boil. Put in two skate wings (or, better, two halves of one large wing) and poach for about six minutes, depending on the thickness of the wings. After a couple of minutes, add some sugar snaps. When the fish is ready, drain off the stock. Mix a ladleful of stock with a dessertspoonful of white miso paste and add it back into the wok. Sprinkle over some chopped coriander leaves and the juice of half a lime.
PS. The Japanese use flying fish for making sushi.
Next week: 10 best penguin recipes.