RECIPE: Seafood pie is a traditional English dish, easy to prepare comfort food for four to eight people.
FOOD AND TRAVEL DIARY: Nigel explores England’s south coast and the Isle of Wight.
One thing Diane and I always laugh about when we’re travelling in England is the divide between “The North” and “The South.” At least I laugh like a Londoner and she grits her teeth in true Yorkshire style. To reinforce the divide, there’s a monster great sign on the M1 Motorway leaving London that has always read “Watford and The North.” Londoners, at least when there were real ones and not the nouveau-wealthy immigrant hordes who have claimed the town, always joked that The North started at Watford, really just a northern dormitory of the city, and everything after that was beyond the pale. Northerners justly felt slighted. Now they have balance. There’s a monster great sign on the M1 just after the Yorkshire border which reads “Northampton and The South.” That’ll put us southerners in our place.
This time we’re on our way south to the Isle of Wight, where I haven’t visited since childhood. We’ve booked car ferry tickets from Southampton online and have printed out a barcode to put on the dashboard. The 45 minute ferry ride is ferociously expensive, but this is the only way to get to the island and the ferry has a monopoly. We arrive in East Cowes without fuss, but find that the chain link local ferry across the river to West Cowes is broken and we have to travel to Newport in the middle of the island to find a bridge. The advantage of this is that we find a charming pub to have lunch and a wonderful old-fashioned men’s shop where I buy a splendid striped summer blazer.
First, we stop at Osbourne House, private summer home of Queen Victoria from 1845 until her death there in 1901. Now it is under the care of English Heritage, a quasi-government department, who do a less good job with their sites than their rivals National Trust, in my biased view. At Osbourne, I’m not allowed to take photographs. I’ve never been stopped at any site run by the latter organization.
When we arrive the grounds are in full bloom with masses of rhododendrons banked along the walkway to the house and vast beds filled with a riot of tulips. Our timing is excellent. Black thunderclouds mass above us as we enter the house and it rains solidly while we are inside. As we exit, expecting to get soaked, for we have of course left the brolly in the car, the rain stops and the sun comes out.
The tour of the house is well organized with a visit to the below-stairs world of the kitchens and the above-stairs reception rooms and bedrooms. There’s simply masses of spectacular sculptures and paintings and once again after an hour or so we start to get art overload.
The spookiest parts are the room where the Queen lay in her coffin, the bedroom where she died and an actual painting of her corpse on her deathbed. No wonder they don’t want me taking snaps.
Outside in the freshly washed air, we can see down to The Solent, where soggy yachts are sailing. We decide not to hike down to the beach and the other attractions as rain still threatens. The Italian Renaissance palazzo facade of the house is magnificent and was apparently designed by Prince Albert himself, and build by the same man who constructed the enlarged facade of Buckingham Palace, two handsome commissions.
We try for a night at the famous Union Inn in West Cowes, but they only have six rooms and all have been taken by sailors in town for yacht racing. We have a friendly dinner in the bar and chat with the yachtsmen who drift in at intervals, mostly soaking wet with their foul weather gear dripping on the floor. By the time they are three deep at the bar, the place is steaming, and it is time for us to move on to our accommodation. If the Best Western New Holmwood Hotel is the best Cowes has to offer, I’d hate to see the worst. Well, at least the staff are friendly and it’s only a 10 minute walk along the seafront from town. Highlight of the walk is a stroll past the very posh looking Royal Yacht Squadron clubhouse, with its rank of ceremonial cannon on the seafront and gentlemen arriving for dinner in full naval dress black tie, their ladies in sparkling evening gowns. The sun has set by the end of our walk and all along the pebble beach night fishermen are setting up, their several rods on tripods, their lines stretching out into the water and the lights on their hats bobbing along the strand like fireflies.
We head off the island to Lymington by another exorbitant ferry at Yarmouth, stopping for a quick look at the colourful stratified sand cliffs at Alum Bay and a peek at The Needles. The English Channel is pounding fiercely on the beach and it’s too rough for the tour boat, so we move on.
We’re staying for a couple of nights with Diane’s cousin along the coast in the seaside town of Mudeford. Our first night there we have what she calls a simple kitchen supper. We all sit around for a tasty dish I haven’t had for years. A simple English treat, much enjoyed in my childhood and barely touched since. It’s fish pie. Delicious. I used to be able to get it in Toronto at The Oxley, but at $25 it seemed a little rich for what is after all, just peasant food. We’d hoped the cousin’s daughter Lucy would come over, but she was deep into writing her third novel and there’s no sense in disturbing an author in full flood. I must say I was a little concerned, having tucked in and had a good size second helping, to discover the dish was made with shrimps, which I have lately discovered don’t agreed with me. But the cousin seems to have blessed the pie or perhaps I just didn’t get any shrimp, because I survive the meal unscathed.
The tide was lapping at the dock at the end of the garden when we left the next morning to go touring around the countryside, or in this case, the sea side. On the way we dropped off a good portion of fish pie at Lucy’s, where her husband received the offering at the door. “Lucy’s writing,” he says, “But she’s left you an autographed copy of her second book in return for the fish pie.” Since I’d had no hand in the making of the pie, and have come away with a virgin copy of the new book, it seems like a very good deal.
Lucy Clarke’s first book was called The Sisters in the UK and re-titled Swimming at Night for North American distribution. It even has a new cover. Now why do they do that? Not my business, I’m sure. Just wondering. We’ve read the first book and really enjoyed it. As you’d expect from the revised title, it has a by-the-water theme. So does the second book, A Single Breath which is set on the coast of Tasmania. Published last March, it is getting good reviews: the Sunday Mirror says: ‘A perfectly paced combination of romance and mystery’; the Sun on Sunday calls it: ‘Tense but beautiful, you’ll be addicted.’
Diane dives into the book as we continue our south coast journey, eastwards this time, and she finishes it at the Pelham House hotel in East Sussex, where I once took her soft boiled eggs and soldiers in bed. She puts it down with a sigh. I take it to mean the book has a good ending. It’s certainly kept her enthralled during our progress. She refuses to discuss the story with me. I save it for the plane ride home.
On the flight, half way across the Atlantic, and about half way through the book, one character arrives with dinner for the other character. It’s fish pie. I suspect the cousin’s excellent fish pie has worked its way into the fabric of the story unconsciously. Or perhaps it really is the author’s tribute to her mum’s succulent pie.
by Nigel Napier-Andrews
This recipe makes one pie to feed eight – or four for dinner tonight and another to freeze and eat in the next 30 days. I’m making this with fake crab or lobster (actually processed Pollock, a white fish) instead of shrimp, for those who are allergic to shellfish.
- 700ml full-cream milk
- 2 bay leaves
- 600g piece of salmon, skinned
- 600g piece of cod, skinned
- 500g large, raw, fresh peeled shrimp (or 650g frozen and thawed) or 454g package of frozen King Crab flavoured pollock
- 75g butter (1/4 cup)
- 60g plain flour
- 25g pack fresh dill, fronds picked and chopped
- 4 tbsp Dijon mustard
- Finely grated zest of 2 small lemons
For the mashed potatoes
- 1.5kg floury potatoes, cut into even chunks
- 75g butter
- 200ml full-cream milk
- Make the mashed potatoes. Cook the potatoes in a saucepan of lightly salted boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until tender. Drain well, return to the pan and mash with the butter and milk until smooth. Season well and set aside.
- Meanwhile, make the filling. Put the milk and bay leaves in a wide, deep frying pan over a medium heat. Bring just to simmering point, then add the salmon and cod (halve to fit in the pan, if necessary). Poach for 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, flake the salmon into chunks, discarding the skin and any bones. Cut the cod into bite-size pieces. Divide between 2 x 2-litre oven- and freezer-proof dishes, along with the shrimp or fake crab. Strain the infused milk into a large jug, discarding the bay leaves.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually stir in the infused milk and bring just to the boil, stirring constantly. Simmer for a few minutes until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the dill, mustard and lemon zest. Season well, divide between the dishes and gently mix.
- Divide the mash between the pies, peaking with a fork. Set 1 pie aside to cool ready for freezing (see freezing tip). Place the other pie on a baking sheet and cook in the oven for about 35 minutes or until turning golden and bubbling hot throughout. Serve with broccoli or peas and carrots.
To freeze and reheat: You can freeze 1 pie, covered, for up to 1 month. Thaw in the fridge for 24 hours or until it is completely defrosted, then bring up to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 200°C/ 390°F and cook for 50 minutes until piping hot throughout.
This is a relatively rich pie so go for a strong white. Californian Chardonnay would be a good bet.
This article was original posted on May 25, 2014. All photos by Nigel Napier-Andrews.
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